July 2009

Seattle Light Rail

Today’s New York Times has an article on the white roof movement, pushed thoroughly by Secretary of Energy Chu.  I first read about white roofs on the Infrastructurist (a great blog for all things infrastructure and on my blogroll).  The basic premise was explained on their website thus:

By reflecting back huge quantities of sunlight that is now absorbed by dark surfaces, whitening our roofs and roads could offset 44 billion tons of carbon emission, calculates Arthur Rosenfeld of the California Energy Commission and two colleagues. It may be one of the cheapest and most effective ways humanity can seriously address global warming in the near term.

Whitening our roofs and roads would also cut demand for air conditioning by as much as 15 percent on the hottest days of summer, which would also have the benefit of making our electrical grid more stable.

My question is what would happen if we similarly painted all of our public (and private) transportation vehicles white or other light colors.  The new Seattle light rail system (Sound Transit, see picture above) has the right idea with its fleet of white vehicles.  Given how much space is covered with our vehicles I would have to imagine we would save a ton of energy by having white roofs on our cars, buses, trucks and trains, or other similar light colors.  Perhaps we can just have the roofs of our vehicles white so that we still provide for colorful dynamics on the roads, which should also be whitened.

Some infrastructure greening projects are difficult.  Getting zoning regulations to require white roofs is easy.  Perhaps having public transportation agencies paint their vehicles white or their roofs white could be similarly easy.

Palm tree fire

She just might save your house.  A bus driver in St. Petersburg Florida stopped his bus to put out a fire in a burning tree and potentially save a house in the process.  The PSTA (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority) serves the Tampa area and offers the colorful Suncoast Beach Trolley.

The story should remind each of us to thank our public transportation operators whenever possible.  We would certainly thank our taxi drivers and friends for a ride.  Driving a public transportation vehicle can be more taxing than it first appears.  There are a lot of pressures that go along with operating vehicles that can cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars, filled with dozens of passengers (who can be loud and unruly), all while observing the rules of the road/rail.  A “thank you” can go a long way.  Operators are frequently stressed out and passenger interactions can be difficult, to say the least.  A sign of appreciation and recognition of the driver as another person can help ease stress all around.

After all, you never know, the driver might put out a fire for you!

Bullet train

Courtesy of my roommate David Gasser (who has a great legal blog of his own), I read the NYTimes Economix blog–part 1 of 3–on the value of high speed rail, by Edward Glaeser.  Unlike Professor Glaeser, I do not teach at Harvard and I do not have a Ph.D. in economics from Chicago.  While Glaeser is owed the benefit of the doubt until parts 2 and 3 are revealed, I want to go over some of the value he may not be calculating.

  • Fewer cars on the road
  • Energy efficiency in transportation
  • The cost of having to repair roads less frequently if there is less use
  • The environmental value of using a means of transportation that can rely on cleaner electricity rather than biofuels
  • Potential savings in time for those commuting and the value to business of getting work done while traveling
  • The realization that vehicle transportation is subsidized by the government and always has been, and that must be taken into account when creating comparisons
  • The fact that railroads take up less space than normal roads, especially interstate highways
  • If trains bring populations back closer to the urban core, that is more efficient in many ways

Now, I admit that not all high speed rail lines are created equal, and that some places are likely to have greater economic efficiency than others.  Hopefully those with the purse strings realize that too and build and/or upgrade lines in places where ridership will be highest and construction costs will be relatively low.  California is the clear example of where to build based on potential ridership.

amtrak northeast corridor

I was on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Line on Friday.  While traveling through the Connecticut I decided to call a long time friend of mine on my cell phone.  The call was dropped four times.  I have always known that there is spotty coverage along the line, but frankly this was ridiculous.  While on the call my friend noted that he had driven through rural North Carolina just a few weeks ago and his wife held a telephone conversation uninterupted for an hour.

This is just another example of how our highways have been favored over our railroads.  The lack of cell phone infrastructure is not Amtrak’s fault per se. However, they are not blameless either.  Amtrak should be working with Verizon and AT&T to build cell towers on or near their tracks, especially if they truly want to be known as a business-friendly line.  Amtrak could give easements to the telephone companies on their land in order to build more towers.  This is an agreement that would benefit both the mobile phone corporations and Amtrak.  Train rides are pretty luxurious when compared to a car ride or a plane ride.  It is a shame that one of the contemporary amenities of most highway drives in the Northeast–cell phone coverage–is currently partially missing along the premier passenger train route in the country.


Welcome back to Part 2 of our trip through the highlights of state transportation websites.  Today we’ll go alphabetically from Illinois to Missouri.

Illinois: Ever care to know how bridges are kept free of ice?  Me neither.  But this video of a salt spray truck is wonderfully esoteric.

Indiana: INDOT is full of great information, such as the benefits of rail (e.g. Railroads are a vital component in the nation’s economy. Railroads move over 40 percent of all tonmiles of intercity freight, nearly as much as trucks, barges, and airlines combined)!  However, the coolest part of the site in my opinion is the link to multiple GIS maps of Indiana.

Iowa: I’m a sucker for good maps.  This one of the bike trails of Iowa is full of detail.  I’m tempted to buy a roof rack (and a car) to go riding in Iowa.

Kansas:  The DOT links to the Kansas Transportation Online Community, which has another video, called Behind the Vest, on the lives of highway workers.

Kentucky: A state without much in the way of mass transit — despite two large urban centers — is promoting cleaner air via common sense activities like carpooling and bicycling.

Louisiana: The Department of Transportation and Development has a glossary of terms, including the appropriate alligator cracking.  Other intriguing terms include raveling and California profilograph.

Maine: Ever since I read Travels with Charley Maine has a rustic allure.  However, Maine apparently also has a long railroad history, and it makes you appreciate how old this technology is and what a shame it is that we’ve so underutilized it over the past century.

Maryland:   The region is exploring the possibility of a maglev link between Baltimore and D.C.  Also, the state is giving away free calculators in an effort to get people to calculate the saving in better transportation methods.

Massachusetts: In shocking news, the state reported that public transportation save money, fuel and time for the people and the state.  What do you know?

Michigan: I cannot resist posting these pictures of the famous Mackinac,mackinac dividing the Yoopers from the Trolls.

Minnesota: This will appeal to a small segment of the population, but here is the Duluth public transportation service map.

Mississippi: I am all for anti-litter campaigns, such as the famous “Don’t Mess with Texas.”  However, Myrtle the Turtle?  I’m not so sure about this one.

Missouri: I’m from New Jersey.  Maybe that’s why highway beautification via junkyard concealment seems a tad bit ridiculous.

Alaska Railraod

I just updated the blog’s page linking to all state departments of transportation.  In the process I noticed that almost all of them have something quirky or interesting.  In a four part series the blog will look at the most intriguing links on each state’s page.

Alabama: a video of the hidden treasures of traveling while the stars fall on.

Alaska: stunning pictures of and from the Alaska Railroad.

Arizona: I applaud the Department’s effort to promote the underused and incredibly safe roundabouts.

Arkansas: I’ve never driven through, but now that I know 600 species of wildflowers are protected on the side of the road I want to!

California: A neat story from the California Transportation Journal on the history of the Caltrans Translab, which does work on projects like greener concrete.

Colorado: A great campaign to share the road with cyclists and pedestrians called “Oink“.  This particular ad is hysterical.

Connecticut: Connecticut is attempting build public transportation in its major cities and is offering a free 10 day trial ride to get people hooked, if seats are available.

Delaware: The Department of Transportation has a cultural resources department which conducts archaeological digs.  Here are the periods of history preserved in Delaware.

Florida: I learned that South Florida has commuter rail.  I did not even know it existed.

Georgia: The state is installing HOT lanes on I-85, which goes through Hotlanta Atlanta.

Hawaii: Apparently in Hawaii one celebrates energy efficiency with a big check and a lei.

Idaho: The state is battling a plight of invasive plant species brought in by pesky cars from other states.  You won’t find great pictures of trains but you will find great pictures of herbicide treatment.

Boarding Green Line

The MBTA (disclosure, I currently intern for them) had to curtail its list of projects for which iting desires federal fund.  The Green line extension is incredibly important as it would finally make Tufts and other parts of Somerville and Medford easily accessible to downtown Boston.  By Tufts’ own directions, getting there currently requires a trip on the Red Line, a connecting bus, and a 15 minute walk.  The extension would also prevent more cars from driving downtown.  I am for any project that helps keep cars off the streets, especially during work hours.

In other news, the General Mining Act of 1872 may finally be changed.  While this is not a specifically transit related issue, the Act has acted as a de facto subsidy for certain types of non-renewable energies, especially coal.  It is also an abysmal piece of legislation, and one the Bush administration proudly exploited for all their cronies, in this age of environmental protection.

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