August 2009

Electric car fueling

GreenTech Media has reported that the federal government, via the Department of Energy, has granted $300 million for cities to work with industrial partners to buy alternative-fuel vehicles and set up refueling stations.  The list of city winners, under the Clean Cities Program, includes New Haven, San Bernandino and Chicago.  Some of the highlighted projects include natural gas garbage trucks in New Jersey, using landfill natural gas in Atlanta and Texas incorporating propane-fueled buses.  The DOE estimates that these 25 projects will offset the usage of 39 million gallons of petroleum annually.  That is nothing to laugh at for both environmental and foreign policy concerns.

In an unrelated story, Government Technology reported that city government in Washington, D.C. has adopted ZipCar technology to manage its communal fleet of vehicles.  In the process, the city has been able to better organize its fleet and reduce its size.  Here are some of the notes on the FastFleet program.

The city ultimately eliminated 360 vehicles from its fleet, bringing the total to approximately 1,200 (not including law enforcement vehicles, which aren’t eligible for the program).

At press time, DC Fleet Share used 58 passenger sedans — 56 of which are hybrids and two of which are powered by alternative fuel. Burns said the district’s vehicles are parked at several large office complexes that are home to city government. Between 10 and 25 Fleet Share cars are parked at each site.

Both of these programs are great news.  Think about how many vehicles every city owns, from cars used for everyday puposes to police cars, firetrucks, ambulances, street cleaners, garbage trucks, school buses, delivery vans, postal service vehicles, maintenance vehicles and much more.  Many towns and cities furthermore have their own refueling station for this vehicles.  Transferring a percentage of these cars and trucks to alternative fuels and beginning the process of building the infrastructure to refuel them has enormous benefits to both the environment and the communities.

One of the greatest challenge of alternative fuel vehicles is there are few places to get the right fuel and frequently there is no standardized fueling method.  When government begins the process in tandem with industry standards are easier to set and the foundation is laid for private car-owners to follow.  Such progress is even more reassuring when fewer vehicles need to be owned, as in DC.  Clearly this is a savings for the taxpayer, but is also a savings for congestion and fuel usage as well.  Lower congestion and better fuel usage are two pillars of cleaner, more efficient transportation.  Public transportation represents a large part of the solution, but certain vehicles will never be eliminated.  Making those vehicles better is a step forward.


Whether you have lived in a city for years or are visiting one for the first time you probably prefer to take some sort of train when using public transportation.  I believe this is due to the perceived superior reliability, safety and ease of use for trains.  After all, trains are on tracks that only go in two directions and there are defined stops.  Buses are just enormous cars that could go anywhere, even if they supposedly are supposed to go certain places.  However, I think a lot of it has to do with maps.  We are all tube_mapused to the transit maps like that used in London.  It’s a relatively abstract system of lines and colors showing where the various subway trains travel to and where they intersect with each other.

Have you ever seen a bus map like that?  I have not, but that does not mean they do not exist.  Certainly such maps are easier when there is a guaranteed bus line such as bus rapid transit systems, like those in Las Vegas or Hartford.  Systems that have dedicated lanes or demarcated lanes where buses go are much more analagous to light rail.  This is even more true where bus stops have fare gates, such as certain places on Boston’s Silver Line.

The Transportationist (see blogroll) has discussed improving bus signage to make buses more desirable.  I believe this is critical.  Buses are intimidating to the unitiated, becasue unless you’ve ridden one before or are intensely familiar with a neighborhood, where a bus goes and where it stops seem intensely mysterious.  When you enter a subway station on the other hand you usually are shown at least a system map and many times shown a system map overlaid upon a geographic map.  I cannot remember the last time I saw this at a bus stop.

brt_bogotaI recognize the difficulties of producing bus maps; the malleability of bus routes, fluctuation in stops, the lack of permanence of many stops, the challenge of portraying dozens of bus maps on one map.  I agree that to portray every bus route on one map would be beyond chaotic.  However, I believe urban transit systems could begin with their most heavily travelled lines.  Maps should show where buses go, how frequently they travel, how frequently they stop (because if the bus stops every block or two blocks it is not necessary to portary every stop) and where the bus route intersects with other routes and other transit options.  If buses travel on city routes it would also be potentially helpful if lines were painted on the street to show where buses travel.  There is no doubt where trains go, just follow the tracks or the subway stops.  However, it’s not always so clear for buses, especially, if there is no shed or covering at the stop.  Therefore, better signage is required at stops to alert people where they in fact are.  They should be visible from a distance, not small like no parking signs.

Buses have a long history in this country of being portrayed as an undesirable means of transportation.  In the first third of the 20th century General Motors bought out trolley systems across the country and replaced them with bus systems for the twofold reason that they could produce the buses and fewere people want to ride buses than trolleys and would therefore be more likely to drive.  However insidious it was also insightful.  Trains are more desirable than bus lines, but much can be done to improve bus lines such that they are more rider friendly.  Visitors and residents to cities alike should see the bus system as a matter of access, not a burden less worthy of their patronage than rail.

air pod

My friend and fellow transit lover David Seitz sent me the cartoon on screw-hot-air-balloonsthe right side.  It is too funny not to publish, but too irrelevant to fuel an entire post.  After all, I cannot claim with a straight face that hot air balloons are the future of travel.  We’re not living in the time of Jules Verne!  However, we are living in the time of Guy Negre, the founder and CEO of Motor Development International (MDI), which is marketing an air propelled automobile.

MDI has been mentioned before on this blog.  The company is creating engines that run on compressed air.  The company has also developed dual-energy engines that have some alternative fuel source in addition and have greater range.  The designs are fun (see above) and are incredibly eco-friendly.  Seeing them makes me think of great, efficient urban travel.  Currently, when I see smart cars, they make me smile.  They’re tiny, fuel-efficient, fit into just about any parking space, and still manage to haul the groceries.  The Air Pod could work the same way, except without fossil fuels!  While MDI is at the forefront of the air engine movement, there are a few other companies as well, such as Engine Air in Australia.

I am not claiming that air pods are a total solution, but there is no reason they cannot be part of one.  The Air Pod which runs on compressed air only is expected to travel about 220 km with the following features.

With small size, a tiny price, zero pollution, fun and futuristic design, AIRPod mark a turning point in the range of urban vehicles while renewing the idea of the automobile and transportation. You can drive with a joystick, it only costs one euro per 200 km and leaves no one indifferent in crept in traffic.

The dual power Air Flow has a 900 km range and extremely low emissions.  It has the following features

  • Two minutes refill
  • Mono-energy compressed-air in city, dual-energy on road
  • Zero Pollution with mono-energy, 30g of CO2 with dual-energy
  • 900Km road range with dual-energy, 100Km with mono-energy
  • Car body monoblock made in fiberglass and external chassis for safety

I personally hope MDI succeeds and we end up seeing air cars on the road.  They are a great idea, better than hot air balloons (though perhaps not quite as much fun).  For all those people already thinking about getting around urban areas on mopeds or in Smart Cars or other similar vehicles, this is an even more eco-friendly solution.


Yonah Freemark (of the Transport Politic, see my blogroll) posted a fantastic cumulative response to Edward Glaeser’s lackluster and academically dishonest essays on high speed rail at the Infrastructurist.  Freemark performed the first comprehensive analysis that incorporated real data.  He challenged Glaeser’s basic assumption and his calculations.  Here is the data Freemark used in pdf format.

Here are some of the highlights from Freemark’s insightful and devastating response to Glaeser.

Number of users

Glaeser argues that a Houston-Dallas line would be roughly one-half as popular, relative to population, as the current slow Amtrak service is in the Northeastern Corridor. His reasoning is that both Dallas and Houston are less transit-friendly areas, and therefore less conducive to train travel. So, assuming a 50 percent lower per capita ridership rate, he comes up with 1.5 million annual customers for the line – this is similar to the number of people who currently fly directly between the two cities.

There are a number of major flaws with this approach though. First, while transit-friendly conditions are desirable – and it bears mention that both Dallas and Houston are expanding their transit systems significantly – there is little evidence those networks are vital in attracting customers to high-speed rail.

Carbon Emissions

The reduction in carbon emissions from people choosing not to drive cars or fly airplanes would be quite significant – especially if the rail system is powered by renewable energy. These savings are particularly evident on the very short flights on this corridor, such as from College Station to Houston or from Waco to Dallas, which could be replaced entirely with rail service.

Glaeser argues the power plants that produce the electricity used by high-speed trains would produce significant carbon emissions, reducing the environmental gain from switching away from air or car travel.

Yet he fails to account for the green potential of an electric rail line: it can operate without releasing any carbon at all. California, which is developing a 220 mph line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has pledged to run its trains with electricity obtained only from carbon-neutral sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Texas could make the same commitment and dramatically expand the environmental benefits of the high-speed system. Texas is uniquely positioned to build such facilities, too – its western and northern sections are sunny, windy, and sparsely populated.

Assumptions about where a line is built

Rather than looking at Glaeser’s hypothetical 240-mile rail line directly and exclusively between Dallas and Houston, I’ll base my argument on a line actually under consideration called the Texas T-Bone that would run roughly 300 miles between the cities, with intermediate stops at Waco, Temple, and College Stations. For simplicity’s sake, in this piece I’ll ignore the roughly 140-mile proposed extension of the line south to Austin and San Antonio but factor in connecting slow-speed trains from those locales.


Rhode Island:  Only because the state is so tiny, the state has a public transportation system – RIPTA – that serves the whole state, not just a region.

South Carolina:  We have all driven on highways and seen those signs advertising businesses at the exit such as gas, food and lodging.  Ever wonder how a business gets on that sign.  South Carolina explains their process and fees.  Below are the annual fees:

Standard Interchange Less than 30,000 vehicles per day $900 per direction
Intermediate Interchange 30,000 to 50,000 vehicles per day $1,500 per direction
Premium Interchange More than 50,000 vehicles per day $2,500 per direction

South Dakota:  The DOT offers some key information such as “South Dakota has 83,744 miles of highways, roads and streets. This statewide system carried over 8.5 billion vehicle miles of travel in 2006. The SDDOT is responsible for 7,848 miles of the roadway system. Although only 9.4% of the total mileage, the state highway system carries over 68% of all vehicle miles traveled.”

The state also has a fun kid’s page, which includes recipes for travel snacks!  Click here for instructions on how to make the “gravel pit” or “pot hole pizza.”

Tennessee:  For the meantime you still do not have to pay tolls on roads in Tennessee, but that could end soon as the state has passed legislation allowing for tolling.  Some of the reasons given for the use of tolling include:

  • The trucking and shipping industry loses $20 billion every year due to congestion. That cost is passed on to customers.  It is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to run a truck at 55 mph moving down the highway on a toll lane than having it sitting in traffic.
  • With tolls bearing some of the cost to construct and operate new highways and bridges, funds from traditional revenue sources may be made available to invest in mass transit, the construction of non-toll highways, and the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

Texas:  Continuing my fascination with transportation videos, here is an explanation of lemon law in Texas.  For all of my readers in Texas, please get the free “Don’t Mess with Texas” litter bags!

Utah:  The state DOT has their own YouTube page.  Watch below to see the 4500 South Bridge move down the street, literally.

Vermont:  Vermont is of course home to Amtrak’s Vermonter (which all I know about it is that it is chronically late in New York).  Apparently the Vermonter can be taken between in-state stops for $12.

Virginia:  I love histories of transportation, and Virginia has provided a lengthy chronicle.  Some of the highlights include:

  • 1923: A three-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax is enacted to produce revenue for road construction. Voters defeat a bond issue for road construction, favoring a pay-as-you-go method.
  • 1959: The state’s first interstate segment is opened – the Interstate 95 bypass of Emporia.
  • 1988: Legislators allow private companies to build and operate for-profit toll roads. Plans for the first such facility – an extension of the Dulles Toll Road – are approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) in 1989.

Washington: Working with the Dept. of Ecology, Washington is pushing an effort to shrink carbon footprints, with the Carbon Bigfootabsolutely ridiculous mascot of the Carbon Bigfoot.  The pledge includes transportation steps such as:

  • Using cruise control on the highway
  • Removing the roof rack when not using it
  • Checking and inflating tires monthly
  • Reducing weekly car travel by biking, walking, skateboarding, busing or carpooling.

West Virginia:  226 million tons of freight are carried by rail in West Virginia each year.  The state is home to a variety of rail tours, including the Potomac Eagle.

Wisconsin:  The state DOT runs a forward-thinking program to get people to commute via bicycle by setting up bicycle buddies to travel together, pairing riders of similar skills.

Wyoming:  The picture at the beginning of the post is of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, the state is home to numerous other gorgeous highways (as there is little public transportation, appropriately, in Wisconsin).


My friend Greg Moran alerted me to this article in the Wall Street Journal concerning state grant applications for part of the federal high speed rail funding from the Federal Railroad Administration.  While reading this I couldn’t help but wonder about how much planned high speed rail tickets in various parts of the country may cost.  Will rail be competitive with the cost of airplane tickets?  Will tickets be subsidized?  If so, by how much?  Will high speed rail be cheap enough to be bought by students, blue collar workers or white collar business travelers only?  Will high speed rail connect business communities only or schools, think tanks, families and contractors as well?

Picking a random day, a month from now September 25th, Amtrak tickets on the Northeast Corridor traveling from South Station Boston to Washington DC start at $65 and $149 for the Acela.  This is rather incredible given that you can fly the same route on weekdays for $120 according to  Moreover, the flight is only 80 minutes, compared to 6 hours and 46 minutes on the acela.  Clearly Acela is a faulty example, because it is not really high speed rail, just higher speed rail.  One last comparison, AAA estimates that it will cost $82.60 (plus tolls) to drive that distance.

My point is that as states apply for funding to build high speed rail or improve their rail lines I want to know where future subsidies are coming from to keep the cost of travel on rail down.  In order for high speed rail to be competitive it must not only be fast and comfortable, it must be relatively cheap.  I wish the best of luck to all those who have applied for funding and are in the planning and construction phases.  I sincerely hope that rail is an option for all Americans, not merely those traveling on corporate accounts.

Senatorial Transport Index 09

As per usual, the Transport Politic has provided an innovative insight into the world of transportation.  This week he has developed a Senatorial Transport Index for 2009, measuring how progressive senators are regarding transportation issues.  For further explanation of how these ratings were measured you should click on the link to get the breakdown of what votes were measured.

What is interesting to me is the curious correlation or lack thereof of votes to urban density.  I understand the role of party affiliation and how that affects the votes of various senators, but states with high urban density are most likely to get federal public transit funding, especially regarding high speed rail.  It makes all the sense in the world that the senators from Wyoming do not support such funding, but that the senators from Texas are lukewarm is odd; especially given that the state is home to three of the eight largest cities in the country (Houston, Dallas and San Antonio) and six of the 21 largest.  The truly perplexing state is Arizona, given that 81.4% of it’s population lives in the Phoenix and Tuscon metropolitan areas.  However, Phoenix is built on the American dream of sprawl, roads and now foreclosure.  At the same time, only politics can explain the “good” behavior of the senators from Montana, Vermont and West Virginia.  Although we can all hope that senators truly have the nation’s best interest at heart and realize that what is good for the country may be good for their constituents, even if the money does not flow directly.

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