This is the first diary in the “New Environmentalism” series. In this series, we’re going to be looking at ways to change the way we live and work – sometimes significantly – in order to live in harmony with our environment. The source of the series was a diary I wrote last week, laying out a very high-level “vision” for this new environmentalism. Numerous people in the ensuing discussion expressed interest in a more in-depth series of diaries. If you want to get involved in writing for the series, or have a topic you want covered or resource you think is cool, please feel free to e-mail Knoxville Progressive and I. We’d love to have more people involved with this, especially since the ultimate goal is a real grass-roots effort to implement the vision.
Goals of the New Environmentalism: devise a practical, realistic vision for a sustainable future and a plan for moving from our modern society to this sustainable society. In this society, we claim that the proper goal of economic activity is not growth but, rather, human happiness.
In this essay, we examine the problem of transportation: moving people and things around. This problem is fundamental to human society. Not everything can be done in one place, and the things we need to do stuff tend to be inconveniently spread around. Because we have so many different reasons for “moving stuff around”, and the problems and solutions are so complicated, I’m going to split this essay into three different diaries: “short-range transportation”, “long-range transportation”, and “avoiding transportation”.
One recurring theme is going to be the obsession with speed. While reasonable travel times are necessary for human happiness, minimal transit times aren’t. Going everywhere as fast as we can is kind of silly. “As fast as we need to” seems to be a much better attitude.
For the purposes of this diary, I’m going to define “short-range transportation” as transportation within a well-defined community. There are other kinds of short-range transportation, such as those used to move about in rural areas, but they have (to my knowledge) much lower volumes, which makes them less problematic.
Why Cars Suck
As a starting point, how do we get around in our cities now? Well, over very short distances, we can walk. Having to walk more than 10 minutes or so regularly becomes annoying. So we need some form of more rapid transit. The most common answer to this is “cars”. Cars do have some advantages. They are flexible and convenient. They can be used for long-distance travel as well, and go where you want them to, when you want them to. Cars are also a very bad answer in general. Roads and parking eats up a lot of space, most of which cannot be used for anything else and is usually not even used by cars. Cars are noisy and produce a lot of air pollution in a way that’s very hard to control, and are hard to optimize, because they have to carry their fuel with them. To top it off, cars are inefficient, again because of the flexibility. A lot of fuel gets wasted transporting around extra seats and cargo space, which often don’t get used, at high speeds.
Plus, cars tend to promote “sprawl” development, which damages the ecosystem and unnecessarily increases the land footprint of human communities. Rather than concentrated communities, they tend to create isolated dwellings. Suburbanism is seen by many as a direct reaction to the car, a belief that has been given credence by the growth of car use in developing nations.
Another thing to note is that cars seem to promote inherently poor use patterns. The average car commuter wastes a lot of time – and fuel – sitting in traffic. Cars are also very dangerous. Both of these are discussed, along with some other problems with cars, in this article on clean air.
One of the big problems here is culture. The corporate media has linked cars to the notions of freedom, prosperity, and independence. To be free, prosperous, and independent, you have to have a car. They let you get anywhere you want to quickly! This is, upon reflection, a very obvious fallacy. You’re no more independent or free with a car than without one, and are significantly less prosperous due to the significant added costs of car ownership. You’re just anchored to different things.
Alternatives to Cars
Fortunately, we have alternatives to the car for urban transportation. One of the simplest, which can make use of much of the car-type infrastructure without modification (though making proper use of it does require urban planning modification) is the bicycle and related human-powered vehicles. These vehicles typically eliminate all of the problems with cars, though they do have their own problems. Passengers become difficult to carry, you usually need good balance, and bad weather really rains on your parade. As it were.
A common argument against cycling is that you wind up using more oil, because you have to consume more food. This is, simply, bunk. For starters, the equations used compare the oil used by the car to the oil needed to produce the food to give you the energy to cycle. Even leaving aside green agriculture, this conveniently forgets that you still need to eat if you drive.
Buses deserve a mention, but only a cursory one. While more efficient than cars, I’ve yet to encounter a bus system that was convenient to use. They seem to me to be working around the problem rather than addressing it.
Next up in terms of infrastructure required is light rail, so-called because the tracks are less built-up than “heavy” rail. Traditionally, light rail has taken the form of “trams” or “streetcars”. These are widely regarded as a good interim solution for established cities. Light rail tracks can be incorporated into existing roadways without too much difficulty, and can even coexist with cars, if you don’t mind having heavier carriages so that they can withstand car impacts safely. Light rail does away with most of the problems of cars. Wasted space is minimized, noise pollution is reduced, and motive power is drawn from the electrical grid – a good first step at minimizing air pollution, maximizing efficiency, and allowing for sustainable energy generation.
Finally, we arrive at heavy rail, metros, and subways. If my understanding is correct, heavy rail in general is capable of higher speeds than light rail, and has a higher capacity. It’s also more expensive to install, and requires more infrastructure. Other than that, it has pretty much the same benefits and weaknesses as light rail.
Other rail systems can also be included here. The central fact that makes rail work is very simple: rail vehicles don’t need to carry their fuel with them. Because they run along rigid, well-defined lines, they can afford to be dependent on an external source of electricity to power electric motors and other systems. This minimizes noise and air pollution, and allows for the maximum exploitation of economies of scale. Rather than requiring complicated energy storage and distribution mechanisms, they can draw directly on electrical power generated by sustainable means.
But Doesn’t Public Transit Suck?
I expect most readers will have spotted the common trend in the above: public transit. Yet the conventional wisdom of the 20th century is that public transit sucks. Inconvenient, cramped, uncomfortable, expensive. Who’d want to use it, anyway?
Well, me, for one. Yes, I’ve been on some really horrible public transit systems. Halifax has a particularly odious bus system. But it’s still less frustrating than driving. I can sit and think, rather than having to constantly be thinking about moving the car around. Most other public transit systems that I’ve used have been similar, though Toronto’s was especially nice. Public transit systems are also better for community-building and socialization… If they have good schedules and routes. And if memory serves, they’re less accident-prone to boot. (Having just been in a minor car accident – as a passenger – last night, this has been brought to the forefront of my mind.)
The cost of a public transit system is more obvious, I’ll admit that. It seems much more expensive at first glance. Then we remember: cars these days are very heavily subsidized, from highway construction on out. I recall seeing a figure of $3000 per car per year, not including the real cost of oil and the unaccounted-for externalities of air and noise pollution. Care to guess which one’s probably cheaper in terms of ecological impact, material investment, and energy use? There will be, I don’t deny it, probably a high initial cost for any car-free scheme. But the cost of keeping it going is almost certainly substantially lower.
Another common objection is user fees. These are, I will admit, annoying. So the ideal system would get rid of them. Since everyone’s assumed to be using the transit system somehow, incorporating the necessary fees into city taxes seems reasonable. And no less absurd than everyone financing car use and highway construction.
While we in the north-west are used to horror stories about public transportation – everyone seems to know how horrible the London tube and New York subway are, for example – it doesn’t have to be like that. A recent BBC article describes the wonderful metro system in Caracas. The key is that the government didn’t just throw in a Metro and expect it to work. They made it part of a more far-reaching cultural plan. The implications are staggering.
What About Freight?
Ah, and now the tough question. What about freight? Currently, we make heavy use of trucks – especially shipping container trucks – for last-mile delivery. How the heck do we replace this?
We’re already often using trains to move shipping containers from cargo ports to more inland cities. Surely using trains again for another stage of the journey isn’t that much of a stretch of the imagination. They would probably need separate stations from passenger service, but may be able to share a lot of track, minimizing infrastructure investment. This is one thing that light rail probably wouldn’t be able to handle, unfortunately.
We still haven’t quite solved the last mile problem, but we’re closer. We’ve probably eliminated a lot of the need for trucks. So how do we handle the “last metre”, as it were? There’s a number of solutions, and I think the answer’s going to depend on the individual city. I can see anything from muscle-powered push-carts to small battery-operated trucks working for this.
Small freight and mail are another tricky problem. These things often follow much less regular routes than large freight delivery, but are still high-volume. I think the solution here is to, again, use the metro. Move the mail or small freight on the metro as far as possible, and then transfer it to the methods mentioned above for “last metre” delivery. Routes with lots of mail could even, conceivably, have mail cars, while others could just carry postmen or mail sacks. (Though ideally, computer networks would be used to reduce the amount of physical deliveries flying around.)
What About Hydrogen?
What about hydrogen? Yes, I’m well aware that it’s being sold as the fuel of the future, a way to get a green economy without giving up cars. In my opinion, it’s a lot of bunk. Here’s a typical article on the promise of hydrogen vehicles. Some of the points it raises are excellent: revolutions in materials technology can indeed improve efficiency enormously. If we have to keep cars around, powering them with something other than hydrocarbon fuel is a great idea. Others are just silly. Using hydrogen cars as portable electrical generators? Stupid! Remember that you’ve had to use energy (almost certainly electrical) to extract and compress that hydrogen in the first place. Turning around and using that to generate electrical energy again is just wasteful.
Combined with green power efforts, hydrogen has potential as a transition fuel. But nothing more. I think we’d be better off applying the revolutionary developments in the “Hypercar” to public transit systems than attempting to use them to continue the car-centric model of transportation, and using the “Hypercar” to wean our societies off their car dependency.
The Problem with Walking
As IndyLib pointed out in my first diary, walking presents a problem for many people. People with disabilities, old people, women with very young children, people recovering from surgeries or injuries… The list goes on. Yet in any city without door-to-door vehicles, these people are going to be forced to walk, and even stand around waiting. Once they get on the public transit system, things are usually fine. There are bus designs, for example, that are very convenient for disabled people to use.
The problem we’re left with, then, is how to get these people to and from public transit stations. We have to do this without making them dependent on other people. There’s one obvious solution: build dwellings near or in public transit stations, and give priority for these dwellings to disabled people. It seems to make sense, but there are likely to be social and cultural barriers to it. Buying them all electric scooters, muscle-powered wheelchairs, or similar is also problematic, for the same reasons. If society would simply accept the reality of disabled people, this would be much easier. We can’t rely on that in the short term, and so must plan for them.
Perhaps the solution, then, is to eliminate the need to walk? Unfortunately, I don’t see a good way to do this, unless the entire community is built unrealistically close to public transit stations. Once again, we seem to come back to recognizing that temporary or permanent disabilities exist, and that we need to plan for and compensate for them.
This is a big mess, and I have no deal how to handle it without the social change angle.
So How Do We Do It?
This, surprisingly, seems to be one of the easier changes to make. Most of the needed push seems to be at the municipal level. Mandates and funding from higher levels of government would probably be helpful, but I doubt they’re necessary. The best bet would probably be the standard political organization schtick: find some like-minded people, start spreading information and talking to council members. If you think you can manage it, getting elected to your city council might help a lot.
A good implementation plan will depend on your area. Climate, prices, and such all matter a lot, as do local manufacturers. Try to obtain a detailed knowledge of your city’s layout, and assemble as detailed a plan as possible. Consulting with a qualified, sympathetic urban planner or architect would probably help a lot here, if you can find one. Routes and frequencies have to be planned very carefully, so again, a knowledge of the area and city is vital.
One thing to avoid is having one massive switching station where a lot of routes meet. Such things become congested easily, and are frustrating to navigate. A network of smaller stations, arranged to minimize the number of transfers necessary, works much better, although it is slightly harder to implement.
There are likely to be many obstacles to the implementation of a car-free transportation infrastructure. While owners of car dealerships and gas stations are unlikely to be friendly to it, and probably have significant economic power, they can be shouldered aside by a grassroots movement. The key to establishing this, and maintaining the amount of support necessary, is to take things slowly. Your initial goal should not be to immediately eliminate all car use within your city. You should aim to increase the feasibility and uses of public transit, and gradually phase out the need for cars. Focus on making the public transit system as convenient and effective as possible, and on removing the artificial incentive for wasteful automotive travel.
A resource with many ideas for creating an “ideal” car-free city: CarFree Cities.
Next time: Long-range transportation!