Saturday, November 20, 2010

What do we want from transit?

I have a crazy idea: What if somebody actually figured out what we want from transit, and then gave us that? I know, you're thinking "That's what we do now. It's called [demanding from the market][voting for elected officials][more/better what we have now]". But the more I think about this, the more I wonder if that's really working for us. Instead of citing a bunch of sources for why things aren't working now, I wanted to try something different. I want you to ask your friends, ask your family, ask yourself, and tell me: what do you think transportation should do for us? What do we want of it? Should it be fast, propelling us quickly to our various destinations? Should it be cheap, so that we can put more money in our pockets (and so that more people can afford to get around)? Or perhaps we want it to be efficient, minimizing use of space, energy, and money. Would you like to share transit with others, or would you like to have your own space? Are you willing to exercise to get around, or do you want to be able to do work while you get around? To answer the first round of questions, I've constructed a very brief survey to get a feel for what people my age think about transit. Hopefully it will suggest further topics of exploration! So, please take the survey!

Click here to take survey

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Why the car is simply not enough (Part 2)

Yesterday I did a nice, long, technical analysis of why the automobile is not enough for the future. There are other things I did not discuss (inefficiency of space, traffic deaths, pollution) that deserve technical discussion (and maybe I'll find time to return to those another day), but today I want to focus on the more abstract social foundations of our automobile lifestyles, and how this foundation is insufficient for the future that we want for ourselves, and our children.
When Henry Ford began mass producing the Model T in the 1908, he laid out the goal of bringing the automobile to people; He saw the car as the ultimate in expression of freedom, and the fact that only the wealthy could afford to live out this dream was unacceptable. As the Model T reached a saturation point in the 20's, thanks to its unmatched success, owning an automobile began to represent style, identity, and class. The number of options for automobiles increased as competitors embraced demand to fuel an explosion in design and production. GM saw an opportunity, and by the 1950s was churning out fin-clad Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles in the tens of thousands. For a world that was feeling smaller as war came the footsteps of every home again and again, with information no longer the stalling point but accelerating past our ability to comprehend, the automobile was a way to make the world a place to explore again. Suburbia meant running from the failures and fears of the city, with its nuclear targets, poverty, violent crime, and the accumulated grime of our industrial existence. It meant clean streets, picket fences, happy families, and the space to spread out and start anew. The car was the key to taking advantage of this, and we ate it up (we still do). It's useless to be critical of this; not only is it the past, but it's the result of a long line of events, that in turn created a social consciousness conducive to auto-mania. In addition, who can we blame for taking advantage of the ability to be mobile like we have only ever dreamt of? Consider that in one hundred years, we went from crossing the country in months to crossing the country in days. The commercialization of the airplane only exaggerated this, giving us a hyper-mobile populace that was eager to put the past behind them and embrace a brighter future.
So where does this leave us now? Well, it leaves us with a great deal of sprawl. This sprawl means that we cannot simply realize the foolishness of our auto-obsessed ways, and change. We have jobs to get to, shopping to get done, friends and family to visit, and activities to engage in. 50% of all trips are three miles or less, which is good, right? Well, yes...but it leaves 50% of trips which are longer, and the fact that those three mile trips are not covered pathways perfect for traveling by bike, but busy roadways. So any attempt to fix this problem must do two things: it must reduce the length of our trips (which means living closer to where we work, recreate, or do commerce), and it must provide better ways of covering the distance we are left with. Even the best public transit system will leave us some distance from home, and if that distance is nothing but four lane highways then we have still failed. But we love our cars still, don't we? We might have realized that they're problems, but like smoking, we can't give them up as a society. Just knowing that something is bad is not always enough to get us to stop. We just aren't that rational. However, like smoking, the car is not perfectly suited to our society; we have made ourselves perfectly suited to it (We built roads to drive them on, built superhighways to support our habit. Though amusingly, bicyclists were originally responsible for the roads projects of the early 20th century!).
I'm not suggesting that the automobile is a carcinogen that we must cast aside (I love Ferrari's too much to say that), but I am suggesting that it is not the carriage of our dreams that we have believed it is. Consider the way we act in our cars: we are boxed in, protected from a harsh world but unable to interact with anyone else. Road rage is not an indicator of the way that driving makes us considerate people. If anything, our tank-like conveyances have made us callous and cold to the people around us. People are always cutting us off, but when we jut in front of them we're "just trying to get in!" or "in a way bigger hurry than they are". These are gross generalizations, certainly, but they represent the way that cars have keep us enclosed in our own worlds. It would definitely be hard to argue that cars make us more social with strangers, especially compared to walking, cycling, or being passengers in a bus or train. And consider the ways that automobile-based neighborhoods separate people from interaction, make spaces less safe, and interfere with the other things we want from communities. Roads mean parking lots, instead of parks; pedestrians struck by motorists, and less density of land use. A typical city block is 100,000 square feet, which means around 316 feet to a block length. The width of a lane of roadway averages 12 feet, which means 24 feet for a two lane roadway. Since most city streets are four lanes, or two lanes plus parking, that's 48 feet that might be more intelligently managed (at least on some streets).
In a nutshell, the automobile is great; it's brilliant, and allows a level of freedom that (on paved roads) is unmatched. But it asks too much of us, without giving enough in return. Whatever the vehicle of the future is, we deserve better going into the future. Something equally intelligent, but armed with a 21st century mindset, and a social factor that is just too absent in the driver-only automobile. Is it the bicycle? Lightrail? High-speed rail? No. It may be pieces of all of these, and it might be none of them, but one thing won't be the answer (unless science gives us renewable energy-powered teleportation, which i'll admit might have benefits).

More to come!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Why the car is simply not enough

It's no secret that the United States is addicted to the automobile. In 2009, we consumed over 3 million barrels of finished petrol and diesel fuel (2009 EIA Data); This is a decrease from previous years, but still a tremendous number. Estimates of how much oil remains buried vary dramatically from source to source, but an admittedly optimistic guess by the USGS is somewhere around 2.3 trillion gallons barrels remaining (USGS). BP (which clearly has a stake in higher oil presence) estimates around 2 billion barrels remaining: this places us, with current consumption practices (the world consumes 85 million barrels of total oil every day (which puts the automobile consumption in some perspective)), 64.46 years away from zero oil. Considering that we have been consuming oil for centuries, and estimates of use to date are around 1.2 trillion barrels, we can see that the supposedly 'liberal' doctrine of Peak Oil is actually not far fetched by any account. It should be a sign that Chevron has begun a "Will You Join Us" campaign to realize alternative energy sources...(Note: none of this includes emissions or manufacturing demands either!)
Many people take this information, look at electric/fuel cell vehicles, and raise their hands in praise. Don't get me wrong; I love the thought of plug-in electric Audis, or advanced hybrid Chevys, or hydrogen fuel cell-powered Honda Clarities. For a lot of reasons, they are important half way solutions. They represent the way we can keep driving (as we have been trained to do), until we have found a more permanent solution. But each horsepower is equivalent in electricity to 746 watts. This means that, for an economy car with a 1.4 liter turbo (a highly efficient engine, as turbochargers allow the engine to draw power from the flow of exhaust out of the engine rotating a compressor fan), producing around 140 horsepower (see the 2011 Chevy Cruze, a decidedly average econobox), 101 kilowatts per second of maximum power. Since the Cruze will likely be averaging around 2000 rpm (80 horsepower a rough estimate, since I haven't seen a dyno run for the Cruze) in daily operation, we can assume around 60 kilowatts per second of normal use. At 60 miles per hour (highway speed, where a car is most efficient) for its lifetime, and 150,000 miles per automobile (a sad estimate, since most engines can live much longer with care), that's 2500 hours of drive time (a lot, when I think about it!). That's 9 million seconds, and 540,000 megawatts (total). Since a decent coal power plant produces 3.5 billion kilowatt/hours per year, that's 6,481 automobile lifetimes of power annually. Sounds like a lot? Well, no. There are (according to ODOT), 225.9 million passenger vehicles registered in the U.S. So you can see that powering them will require an enormous supply of energy, especially on top of the energy load already placed on facilities. Consider especially that (as of 1999) 78% of commuting in the U.S. is driver-only automobile trips, and you can see that the automobile is not highly efficient ( U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, American Housing Survey).
What about public transportation? Well, commuter rail is cited as using 2,656 btu/passenger mile in 2008. Since 1 kilowatt hour=3,413 btus, and 216,000 kilowatts/hour for passenger vehicle, that means 737,208,000 btus of energy for 150,000 miles, or 4,914 btu/passenger mile (assuming one passenger). That's 54% as efficient as commuter rail, based on current usage. Imagine if commuter rail had higher passenger rates! Now, carpooling could have a similar effect, so I won't throw that away as a valuable solution. However, carpooling may be less successful as an intermodal entity, since it sacrifices autonomy (and means that taking bikes, boards, or skates along might be more difficult).
This all tackles energy usage, and hopefully I've made a good case at least so far that the automobile is not the best way, energy-wise, of getting around. What about the other arguments? I won't address them all, but I'll cite some points and give links for more information:

1) Traffic congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute's 2005 Urban Mobility Report found that congestion delayed travelers 79 million hours. 79 MILLION HOURS. Think about how much you could do with that time? That's 12 minutes per person in the U.S., which is half the running time of a primetime comedy we could be enjoying at home with the company of loved ones (or doing whatever else you want!). Also, research has shown that high traffic areas reduce positive interaction between people, and reduce neighborhood identification (see below)

Revisiting Donald Appleyard's Livable Streets from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

2) Cost. AAA reported an average annual cost of automobile ownership of $7,834 in 2006 (Boston Globe). The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts that at 17% of total household expenditures, second only to providing shelter. Imagine if someone gave you $7,800 to spend this year; if you gave a quarter back to transportation infrastructure we might be riding the trains of the future! and you'd still have almost $6000 to spend how you wanted. This an amazing figure, truly.

I think that this is enough, for now; more to come!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Blog Primer

This marks my first attempt at a legitimate blog, much less one with such an academic/real world focus. As such, I think it is appropriate to describe my background and intent in creating this blog. Currently a graduate student at Georgia Tech, I'm just recently arriving at this topic, and I won't pretend to some wealth of knowledge that other people lack. When I was a child, like many other children, I loved automobiles. Their bright colors, interesting shapes, and the way they zip around the planet, utterly in control of their own destiny. Then there were trains, unstoppable forces of motion that conveyed the building blocks of existence across continents. Looking to the sky, airplanes suddenly shattered the barriers of distance to make everyone our neighbor, while illuminating our imaginations with notions of communing with the heavens. Recently, it has been bicycles: human-powered, a steel steed not surrounding us with the promise of speed, but letting us seat upon its infinite progress. Conveyed quickly, sure, but also with a fascinating pace that makes the world not something to be spun under us in the name of 'getting somewhere', but something to be appreciated in the name of 'being somewhere'.
Now, with growing concern about global warming, environmental degradation, economic distresses, and a growing dissatisfaction with the way we live our lives, I find myself pondering if improving the way we move around the world might positively affect our existence. So the purpose of this blog is to compile information, from a number of sources on the automotive industry, cycling advocacy, transportation infrastructure, political punditry, and anything else related to a more sustainable future for transportation. I am not an engineer or mechanic, but I am passionate about sharing with other people the potential for a happier life through more efficient, sustainable, and meaningful, transit. Input is always appreciated!