This is another diary in the continuing “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 and deal with the inevitable post-oil period.
Goals of the New Environmentalism: devise a practical, realistic vision for a sustainable future and a plan for moving from our modern society to a sustainable society. In this society, we claim that the proper goal of economic activity is not growth but, rather, human happiness.
Knoxville Progressive and I encourage you to contact either of us by email if you’d like to be a contributor to this series (post a diary / host a discussion).
Two previous diaries in this series have looked at the problems of short-range and long-range transportation. I focused mainly on mass urban and inter-urban transportation. Most of the solutions I examined existed in a vacuum. Any realistic solution to the problem of transportation in a post-oil society is going to require a multiplicity of solutions operating together, unlike our current “one size fits all” model. In this diary, I’m going to re-examine a couple of things I skimmed over before, look at transportation for rural areas, and look at integration issues for transportation systems.
Bicycles and buses
I’m afraid that I kind of skimmed over bicycles and buses in my first two transportation articles, which, after more reading, I realize was a big mistake. Both definitely have their place in a post-oil society, and are worthy of further examination.
Bicycles and buses have two distinct edges over rail-based solutions: they can use existing infrastructure. Trains require the installation of rails and power feeds. They also often require significant urban re-design, as not only do they usually need built-up stations and infrastructure, but they usually cannot corner as tightly as buses, bicycles, or cars can. This makes installing train routes in old cities, like Boston or Halifax, challenging, as long cross-city above-ground routes are difficult or impossible. Gradual urban redesign can address this problem, and buses and bicycles provide an excellent interim solution, and a solution for cities where train-based solutions simply are not feasible.
The advantage of bicycles is obvious. They produce no direct pollution, they have next to no issues with congestion, and they’re very safe. They’re also very, very cheap, and can be used to haul reasonable quantities of goods (groceries, say) without difficulties. I’ve never seen good figures for how much extra food someone who commutes solely by bicycle needs to consume, but I seriously doubt that it’s significantly more than they would otherwise. They are fairly slow, so they’re not suitable for prompt cross-city travel, but they’re faster than walking.
buses are more viable than I initially thought too. Although not as efficient as trains, they’re very efficient, and are considerably safer and lower-volume than cars. The volume may be low enough that a city can afford to run its buses on food waste biodiesel. Halifax runs its entire (admittedly insufficient) bus fleet on biodiesel now, though it’s a blend of 20% fish oil-based biodiesel and 80% regular diesel. The cost increase was next to insignificant. The problem here is picking good bus routes that both make good use of existing roads and provide enough transportation when it’s needed.
Rural Transportation and Emergency Vehicles
For transportation in rural areas, there really isn’t much choice but to use something like cars. The routes are too long and irregular for public transit to really manage. This is less of a problem, fortunately. With inter-city transportation handled by train routes, and branch train routes for rural-city transportation, the volume should be significantly lower. This opens up a lot more options for fuel sources. Good road design and lower traffic volume also seems like it would eliminate a major source of inefficiency for cars operating in a city: frequent stops, starts, and changes of speed.
Biodiesel, again, becomes a good option. Rural communities have more ready access to potentially useful biological waste matter which, combined with the reduced volume, makes this a potentially promising choice. Depending on the distances involved (see the integration discussion for some thoughts about this) batteries might be feasible. While they still need to be charged off the grid, the reduced volume could make this work. Hydrogen fuel cells are another possibility. Both batteries and hydrogen fuel cells have two potential barriers that biodiesel does not: disposal. While they don’t create air pollution, the power storage units do eventually run down and need to be disposed of. Whether this is a serious issue or not remains, as far as I know, unclear.
Emergency vehicles have similar needs, both inside and outside cities. They have to go where they’re needed – which could be practically anywhere – when they’re needed. This means that they practically have to be outside of a normal public transit infrastructure, and that the city has to be constructed to allow them passage. Again, the reduced volume eliminates the problems associated with our current use of cars (congestion, safety, inefficiency), making car-ish vehicles feasible. While we can’t eliminate cars, we can probably reduce the need for car-type vehicles to sustainable levels.
Transportation Integration Issues
One thing should be clear from previous diaries: I don’t believe we’re going to be able to find a single method of transportation that will cover all the roles that cars do now. This means that we’re going to have to move between methods of transportation more often, and design them to accommodate this. So let’s look at a few edge cases, as people seem to have taken an interest in them in previous diaries.
The most obvious edge case is moving between types of public transit at a common stop. We already see this a lot in modern public transit. It’s fairly common, for example, for large metro stations to also have a bunch of bus terminals. Designing such a station well requires some thought to layout. How do people typically move between lines? Can they get from Point X to Point Y before Bus B departs? If they miss their connection, do they have somewhere sheltered to wait for the next vehicle to come along? I honestly don’t know how most modern public transit systems score on these criteria. I know Halifax is around a C. We have a couple of large bus terminals, and while they’re easy to navigate, there’s next to no shelter, you have long waits between buses if you miss a connection, and the schedules are often set up so that people travelling in one direction arrive just as the bus they want to catch leaves.
One interesting case here that I don’t think gets much consideration in modern public transit systems is bicycle to public transit. I think it’s worth thinking about; after all, bikes are wonderful for really short distances, and public transit is nice for longer trips. Taking your bike into the public transit car with you is the most obvious solution, but as more people do this it quickly becomes overcrowded, and potentially dangerous. Another possibility is dedicated bike racks, either inside the vehicle or on the outside, near the doors. External bike racks seem to have serious issues with security (making sure the person taking it off is the one putting it on) and speed. Internal racks have the same space concern as just bringing the bike on the vehicle with you, but eliminate the safety, speed, and security concerns.
This sort of naturally segues into another topic that’s come up in past diaries: disabled people and mass transit. Here in Halifax, we have bus routes designated as wheelchair-friendly. These routes are serviced by “kneeling buses”, which can lower themselves down to afford easier access. They also have ramps that can be extended for wheelchair users, and two three-person seats can fold up to create space for two wheelchairs to be strapped down. This takes a fair bit of time when loading and unloading wheelchair users, and requires the aid of the bus driver, but works fairly well. The same bus design, with most of the bus occupied by rows of seats facing a wide centre aisle, worse very well for young parents with children.
Integration of cars is another potentially interesting field. Modern railways already have dual-use vehicles that have a primary set of road wheels and a secondary set of railway wheels. This may be useful, especially if the car’s railway wheels can draw power from the grid. An alternative approach, proposed in a previous diary on this topic, would be to have an ordinary train that the cars can be docked with. Again, there’s a lot of possible solutions to investigate here.
What Can You Do?
As usual, try and get involved with the planning and implementation of your local public transit system. Try to develop a system that’s friendly to cyclers and the disabled. Push your public transit authority towards sustainable fuels. Even if the cost is a little higher, they’ll save in the long run. Take public transit, and encourage others to do the same. If people don’t use the public transit network, it won’t get expanded. And spread awareness of the issues!
This is probably going to be the last diary on transportation issues, unless something big shows up in the discussion.
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