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.

Can you imagine an America without cars?

An America that thrives solely on public transportation?  A nation where rails criss-cross the land and the asphalt is ripped up?  Truthfully, I cannot either.  The American landscape is too vast for us to ever believe the population will be solely concentrated in urban centers or could ever depend solely on parallel steel lines.  However, the tide is shifting back toward the cities, but the suburbs close to the urban core will always survive.  Americans love having options for their domestic lifestyle, and many will always choose to have sprawling lawns, lower population density, and the ability to have property that they can care for.  We should not deride people for that decision with LeCorbusierian disdain.  Rather, we must plan our transportation infrastructure to include these people as well, even if the challenge is greater than simply creating subway lines and bike lanes.  What if we could do away with the car without subtracting the freedom of movement the automobile has allowed?

I would like to suggest that we can accomplish this by creating a pod system for our less dense urban and suburban areas.  In order to transport individuals to and from our urban cores we currently expect most people to drive.  Yet many use a largely inefficient system of buses and rail lines with various stations that people walk or drive to.  What if we did away with the transfer of transportation modes at the bus stop?  What if rather than getting out of your car and waiting for the train your car became the train?  I imagine a system designed where pods would be independently operated as well as modules to be linked in a larger train.  In this system individuals would have the ability to traverse the meandering streets outside the urban core and the ability to get toward the center of commerce with one vehicle.

The pods could be much like today’s rail service cars with rubber street tires and a set of rail wheels that can be set down.  Or the system could run much like some of Paris’s subways which all have rubberized wheels to begin with.  The pods would link to each other and be operated along a set of tracks and pulled by an independently operated engine.  Or maybe the modules can link up to an electro-magnetic system or have pantographs to ride along like most city trolleys.  The advantage to this system is of course the energy efficiency provided by mass transit juxtaposed with a vehicle that still provides individuals freedom of movement in areas that are not amenable to larger vehicles.  Individuals or commuter groups could fill in to a pod at the city center and ride it out to their varied stops and disconnect from the greater chain.  At this point the train would condense and proceed to do so until it got to the end of the line.

There would be two modes of pod transit, those who drive the pods, and those who merely want a ride.  There may be individuals who want to ride the pods but feel they do not need the mobility of driving them.  Therefore they may just catch a ride in a pod with an empty seat.  More people or neighbors are likely to subscribe to a pod lease of some sort such that they will have access to one at all times.  However, at no time would a person just keep one pod.  The passengers would drive their pods to the train station, link up, and get off at their destination in the city.  However, it is counter-intuitive to have all these pods buzzing around densely populated urban streets—if anything we should seek to eliminate cars from the urban scene.  Rather those going the other direction would have access to the pods that had been brought in and those that were not needed would wait in a holding dock until rush hour for the commute back out of the center.

Yet I also acknowledge the need for multiple types of pods.  A pod that only has three seats will not suffice for a family of five.  Therefore pods will either have to come in different arrangements of seats or the empty seats in a pod will have to be filled by commuters who walk to the linking stops.  Another solution is for pods to be used like car pools currently are such that they are used most efficiently, for empty seats in pods creates far more energy demand on both the number of pods driving and the number that must be pulled.  However, this system also allows for pods to be kept in driveways while not being used for mass transit purposes.  Therefore the state would need to finance enough pods potentially for each household or proportional to car use in suburban areas.  Pods are not the solution to the car, for to use them effectively they will inherently lack storage space and distance capabilities.  However, the pods could act much like today’s Smart Cars, effective for small trips in cities, easy to park, capable of carrying small goods and a number of people, and energy efficient.

The optimal design for the pods is up to our imagination (perhaps the air car is the pod of the future).  I’ve debated having them round, but I believe they should be designed much like cars, all the seats facing one direction, so that they do not encounter any problems when utilized as cars are today.  However, shape and arrangement of seats, engine, and storage space is definitely up for grabs.  How the pods link and detach at various stops is also to be determined.  Clearly the process should be as efficient as possible.  I imagine local stops having asphalt level rails such that the pods can detach and merely roll away without having to be removed from rails.  Perhaps at the station in the city the pods will have an LCD sign inside or a label on the station platform stating where the pod will detach.  This way even if the pod isn’t full it will detach at the station of destination and be available for use in that town.

The public transportation system for our suburbs is not intractable, it just requires some innovative thinking and large investments.  This would be a great investment for a city that is already used to a car sharing project such as Zipcar given that pods would not be personally owned.  The goal would  be to keep pods in service for long periods of time and make them incredibly efficient, relying on alternative energy sources.  This would be a boon to American industry, construction of new lines, investment in alternative energy, the design and production of pods, and of course new jobs for upkeep and improvements to a new system of transportation.  While the lights in Detroit may be flickering the future of American transportation could be bright!

To any followers of the Transit Pass, welcome back!

For many cities the streets are still lined with wires hanging above the asphalt, a reminder of the trolleys that squeaked and whistled and clunked down the streets taking residents and commuters throughout the city. Fortunately, many cities have decided to use those old wires or even install new ones to utilize trackless trolleys or trolleybuses. The system is especially prevalent across Europe and the former USSR. (more…)