Alternative Transportation modes – The Pros and Cons of Buses as a Real Mass Transit Option

If you go anywhere outside the USA you will finds that mass transit via bus is commonplace.  And these bus services will go to most places that people need to go.  Here in the USA, most towns in populated and in nearly all cities, buses are a norm.  Outside largely populated areas, buses are a rarity.  Even travel between rural towns can be achieved with the long-distance services (like Greyhound) can help you reach across America but the schedules are quite limited (usually once a day arrival in most small communities).   I had a friend catch a Greyhound bus in Chicago and travel for two weeks across the Western States, visiting the main national parks, using Greyhound and local buses.  He slept many nights on the bus but it worked for him.  When I tried to use Greyhound to travel from Trinidad, Colorado, to Loveland, Colorado, it would pick me up in downtown Trinidad in the evening and drop me off 8 hours later in downtown Loveland, with a 4 mile walk to still reach my house in the very early morning hours.  Needless to say, travelling by bus in the U.S. is more of a planning adventure than a convenient option at this time.  Within towns and cities during the main parts of the day, buses are much better at moving people around. 

The main reasons people express for not riding the bus are inconvenient schedules, having to sit on a bus with strangers, perceptions of hygiene conditions, illusions about safety issues, and also perceptions of cost effectiveness versus convenience.      

Pros and Cons of Buses

Pros: Since diesel buses are not confined to rails, or overhead electric lines, they have lots of flexibility to change routes and also avoid blockages (such as accident occurrences) as needed.  They are cheaper to maintain than trains, and since they have multiple riders reducing the numbers of cars on the road at the same time – this reduces pollution and traffic congestion.   If the buses have set express lanes set up for them specifically, they can avoid the problem of rush-hour traffic hold-ups.     

Cons: In order to be costs effective they need people to ride the bus on a more predictable schedule, so prices may vary during the day as ridership varies considerably.  A way to get past this is to use appropriately smaller buses during the low ridership periods with larger buses reserved for peak times of ridership.  Riders are committed to transportation schedules.  Buses can be noisier than travelling by other modes of mass transit.  Many riders offset this minor problem by using earbuds to listen to programs on their phones.    

In Loveland, the Colt and Flex runs within the center part of the town on a half-hour schedule, but there is no bus service beyond that, meaning a good walk or a bike (buses can carry bikes on racks mounted in front of the bus).  The same seems true of most of the front range towns, while in Denver a good bus service serves the main city, which is typical of most cities in the U.S.  Inside and outside the U.S. there are many exemplary cities where buses cater to most of the population.  And they are not all running on Diesel.  In fact they use many different fuels from Methane, to Hydrogen and Electricity. 

As a case study of what can happen when buses are used effectively to reduce pollution and traffic congestion we can look at the Brazilian city of Curitiba.  In 1943, the city was designed for cars with wide streets radiating out from the center and roads that circled the center at various distances our from the city.  At that time urban growth and traffic was clearly anticipated and designed for, but by the late 1960s, traffic congestion and gridlock were as common in Curitiba as every other city on the world.  Automotive traffic had just overwhelmed the system.  Curitiba didn’t have much funding, especially to build an elevated or subway tube rail system, so they had to revamp the existing traffic corridor system to be a ground level tube system but using the existing buses instead of rail.  Today, Curitiba is the model of what can happen for effective mass transit.  Not only has it almost eliminated the problems of travelling around the city, especially at peak times, but it works so well, it is estimated that 90% of people that would have originally driven now use the bus system.           

The bus system works in Curitiba because it is a hierarchical Trinary Road System with Bus routes at the top of the system.  The core of the system is the five main arterial avenues that lead from the outer to the center of the city using Bi-Articulated Buses and act as the high-passenger volume express routes.  Then there are layers of speed with minibuses routed through residential neighborhoods that feed passengers to conventional bus routes on circle routes around the central city and on inter-district routes.  What allows the buses to maintain tight efficient scheduling are dedicated bus lanes.  The bus stops themselves are cylindrical, clear-walled, raised platform tube stations with turnstiles, steps, and wheelchair lifts.  This allows for smooth transitioning of passengers who pay a single fee (around 40 cents for anywhere in the city with unlimited transfers) as they enter the stations and are kept within the closed system until they exit at their destination.  Since passengers and bus drivers do not have to think about fares once within the system, typical bus dwell time at any station is less than 20 seconds.  The main terminal stations are full of shops and conveniences, such as rest rooms, post offices, newspaper stands, and small retail facilities so that passengers do not have to exit the stations until needed.  What is also unique is that the whole system, while organized by the city, is run by 10 private bus companies.  The bus companies are paid by the city for each mile/kilometer travelled, which permits a balanced distribution of bus routes so each company makes a fair operating profit as well as allow safe and regular bus maintenance.  The city also pays the companies bus depreciation costs of one percent per month.   This means that buses have a ten year life span within the system.  After that the city uses the older buses for random school and community travel needs, and much needed mobile schools, especially for more rural areas.   All these cost benefits alleviate the main reasons that people use for not travelling on the bus – the buses have very convenient schedules, cost sharing means they are kept clean, monitored transfer stations enforce safety issues, meaning they are also cost effectiveness and convenience.  If you travel on them regularly, it also alleviates the problem of sitting on a bus with strangers since the commuters create their own bus communities.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. the lessons of Curitiba are being implemented within the larger cities, but areas outside the cities there is still the ongoing problem of traffic congestion.  Much planning and transformation of mindsets are still needed.  One of the on-going options to be explored next is that of light rail, which is fast growing, especially for cities in which the creation of dedicated bus lanes on all major streets is not yet a realistic option.  However, with alternate fuels to reduce or even eliminate pollution and more social marketing about the benefits (and comforts) of bus travel, they could yet be a reality here in the U.S. as they already are in most parts of the world. 

Alternative Transportation modes – Pros and cons of various modes of transport, part 3 – Scooters & Motor Bikes

While here in the U.S. you may not see motor scooters regularly, in the rest of the world they are a primary form of transport for most people as a personal mode of transportation.  The are small, light, and able to negotiate traffic more readily than expensive cars.  Since they are relatively inexpensive to buy, this accounts for their popularity with most of the world’s population.  Bicycles are by far the most popular option after foot traffic but scooters allow you go to much further, faster, and be able to carry more than you can on a bicycle, e.g. more luggage or a passenger comfortably.  Not seen that much in the U.S. they are starting to catch on as more people recognize their more economic benefits.  Whether scooters are environmentally better depends on the type of scooter you are talking about. 

In Britain and western Europe, you will see contraptions called Mopeds.  This is a small gasoline powered engine (generally less than 50 cc) on a very light motor-bike frame that can be boosted when needed by pedaling, especially on up-grades and when needing to take off faster from a stop.   In most cases the Mopeds run about 25-30 mph and are too heavy to pedal without the engine running.    

The next powered step up are the Motor Scooters.  They are usually gasoline powered engines (up to 250 cc) although newer models now have rechargeable electric motors.  They are less powerful than Motor Bikes, which can have engines as high as 1250 cc (engines the size of small cars).   In many Asian countries, scooters are a primary form of transport, especially in the cities.  The gasoline models tend to be less polluting then a gasoline car but they tend to be noisy – like a high-powered lawn mower. The sheer numbers of scooters can cause as much if not more pollution overall with only one rider per scooter rather than car-pooling or larger public transportation options.  Obviously, electric powers scooters are quite and produce almost no pollution.   Motor bikes are a common option in states where sunshine is more prevalent.  In California recently, I was surprised at the numbers of motor bikes running fast along the roads.  In heavy traffic these high-powered bikes are allowed to travel between the congested lanes (along the lane lines) which makes them a potential danger since they can appear suddenly in the rear-view mirrors as a car is attempting to make a lane change.    

Pros and Cons of Scooters and Motor Bikes

Scooters are highly affordable (less than $1000 in many cases) while higher powered general motor bikes range between $5000-$10,000.  Specialized bikes like motor cross and Icons like Harley Davidson can be between $20,000 to $45,000.  Motor bikes therefore fall into the category of enthusiastic ownership while scooters fall in the category of cheap transport.  Other advantages are in general, gasoline models produce less pollution than cars, but as mentioned several thousands of them on the same rush hour road can be a pollution problem in themselves.  They require little parking space and are less damaging to roads – therefore less need for multilevel parking garages and road maintenance.  They are easy to maneuver in traffic and can go places cars cannot.   In general motor bikes can be twice the miles per gallon (mpg) of a car, and scooters can get up to 100 mpg.  They cost much less to insure, license, and have minimal maintenance compared to cars.  Electric scooters are quiet and better for air quality, especially when recharged from renewable sources.    

While scooters are a great option for travel of distances of less than 100 miles.  Motor Bike enthusiasts will travel cross country on big bikes.  But they can be uncomfortable and even dangerous in wet weather.  My motor bike enthusiast cousin once rode all the way back from Albania to Britain in heavy rain the whole way.  He sold his motor bike on returning home and have never ridden one since.  In general, these options suffer many of the same disadvantages of bicycles.  These powered options with their higher speeds do not fare well in collisions, especially with automotive traffic.  There are no dedicated lanes for higher powered motorized two-wheel (or three) bikes, enforcing the need for riders to be ultra-visible to other traffic and to be extra diligent in awareness of what is happening all around them – even more so than for bicycles.  As emphasized by my cousin’s story, riding in bad weather sucks, so dedicated bike users need to have plan B for bad weather days unless they have the fortitude and outer-clothing to brave the elements.  In winter conditions of course they are impractical and dangerous to the rider.    

Alternative Transportation modes – Pros and cons of various modes of transport, part 2 – Bicycles

In the U.S. we often get blindsided into thinking of only three major forms of travel: the car, the airplane, and the ….. OK, make that two forms, unless you live in a big city and then there are others of which you are aware and may even use.  Let’s go from the most local forms to the intercontinental options.  This post is the first of a series about specific alternate transportation modes.   

Bicycles

To many people these are the nuisance users of the road that wear spandex and glaringly colorful riding apparel, and get in the way of the automobiles.  The majority of riders in the states tend to be recreational riders and hence the colorful or more relaxed exercise apparel.  Anyone who has had experienced a weekend bike-club pack tends to have a negative view of bike riders.  This makes it dangerous for the individual riders who follow the rules of the road but end up experiencing the irritated driver not giving them the courtesy of space they need to ride safely on a road.  Many bike routes tend to have wider bike lanes on the road, and state law requires drivers to give at least 3 feet distance when passing a bike.  On many rural roads, the white line delineating the edge of the road, often also marks the berm edge, so bikes are forced to ride out into the right side of the lane.  Bike friendly towns and cities make it a point to create wide bike lanes as they repair and widen roads.        

Go to northern Europe and you quickly realize that people use bikes as a primary mode of transport for distances under ten miles and it is a part of the culture of transportation.   Go to a city like Amsterdam (typical of many European cities) and you are more likely to be run down by a bike if you do not recognize the strict lane separations that exist within the city.  On many city streets, there is the road for automobiles, dedicated bike lanes, often with their own regulatory enforcement signs, and then the side-walks for foot traffic.  In most of these cities there are major parking areas for bikes all around the city, while cars use parking structures off the main centers.  Bike riders tend to get preferential options because it is recognized that they reduce auto traffic congestion and reduce pollution.  It is estimated that in a country like Holland there are more bikes than people.  In northern Amsterdam, I saw people ride bikes on safe bike lanes from suburbs outside the city to multi-tiered bike parking barges by the waterways.  People then locked them up for the day as they walked across the road to get on the electric tram system – they were all wearing their office clothes.  Ten thousand bikes on a multi-tiered bike parking structure took up the space of a large barge.  That many cars would take up many multi story parking garages.  I saw as many people of advanced retirement age riding bikes as I did young people.  It is part of the culture.  So, what are the pros and cons of using bikes? 

The advantages are that bikes are incredibly affordable and durable, and very cheap to maintain and store.  They do not require much in the way of natural resources to make and they produce no pollution thereby making them very energy efficient – just your food calories to make them work, also giving you much exercise keeping you fit and healthy.  A pro and con is that they are very quiet, which make a warning bell for pedestrians a mandated extra.  Bikes do not need much parking space, and are very maneuverable in traffic. 

The disadvantages of bikes are that they do not fare well in collisions, especially with automotive traffic, enforcing the need for dedicated bike lanes in busy traffic areas.  Watching video of delivery riders in New York City scares me in how they move along and through city traffic.  In northern Europe, the bikes are mostly kept away from the auto traffic making accidents rarer.  Riding in bad weather sucks, so dedicated bike users need to have plan B for bad weather days unless they have the fortitude to brave the elements.  Bike trips as a primary form of urban/suburban transport are not practical above ten miles, except with an electric powered bike where a 25 mile distance is reasonable – providing electric charging facilities exist at the destination or parking area.  

Electric bikes are now more available than ever with several companies having their own designs.  There are military versions that are more powerful in that they go faster and further then civilian models.  For now, military versions are not easy to buy and less easy to insure for private citizens primarily because of road safety issues – an electric bicycle running at 35 mph on a regular road is like a very skinny low powered motorbike with all the visibility problems that motorbikes face from unaware car drivers with their blind spots around the car.  So, for now, the 20-mph limit for electric bicycles is for safety, but remember the electric power is for assistance with pedaling, not a substitution of pedaling.  That kind of unaided power takes you into another category of transport – see next post.                            

Alternative Transportation modes – Urban Sprawl and the costs of various modes of transport, part 1

Living in America (or anywhere in the developed world) today, it is a given that you need transportation just to get around.  This is because the way we design our modern living environments have taken the car culture as the default status quo.  In cities with less zoning that puts people far way from shopping and other needed facilities, there are more options than in more spread out urbanization or rural areas.   In the next couple of blog posts we would like to overview the costs as well as the pros and cons of the many transport options available.

First, if you live in a city you need to be aware that cities use large inputs of resources and produce just as large outputs of wastes.  While cities and towns only occupy about 2% of land area they can use up to 75% of resources e.g. Chicago needs 58 times its living area for the inputs to keep the city running and that contribute to ‘sprawl.’  These inputs and outputs from sprawl include Transportation: Sprawl forces people to drive cars; Pollution: Increased driving causes increased air and water pollution; Health: Sprawl promotes physical inactivity because driving replaces walking during daily errands; Economics: Sprawl funnels tax dollars into required infrastructure (e.g., roads) for further new development and increased sprawl, and ; Land use: More land is developed and less is left as forests, fields, farmland, or ranchland. 

As we move into an uncertain energy future, we need to be aware of the energetics and economics of the various modes of transportation.  For this post, let’s look at the various energy needs and the cost for each person using the main transportation options.  We will then look at the many other options of transportation and how they stack up against mass transit.

If you want to get to work in the morning, and work over 10 miles away from home, there are 6 general ways of getting to work and back in a time effective manner (obviously commuter congestion increases the energy needed – not factored in at this time).  We can use Kilojoules as the measure of energy needed to move something – in this case the number of Kilojoules to move one person per mile with the various modes. 

  • You can drive yourself and you will use 2800 kJ per mile.  Obviously, this is an average based on a 200 lb person driving a mid-sized sedan doing 29 mpg.  The main advantage is individual convenience – you decide your schedule.   Add traffic congestion and this energy cost can easily double. 
  • If you car pool with 3 other people then the energy cost per person is about 1000 kJ – it is not just a quarter each of the single traveler since the extra weight from the other 3 people adds more fuel used, but it is greatly reduced from one person by themselves (4000 Kj total rather than 11,200 kJ).  The main disadvantage is that you have to coordinate the schedules of 4 people, and traffic congestion can easily double the energy needed.   
  • A van pool of 7 people is about 640 kJ per person per mile – the van is heavier and the extra weight of seven people needs to be taken into account.  Like a car pool, the scheduling of 7 people can be awkward but having a specific time-table of departure helps all the passengers reach a compromise.  Again, congestion will raise the energy needed.
  • Now a bus is even heavier, but can take between 40-80 people maximum.  If we assume a 60 passenger bus with average occupancy throughout its route, the energy cost is about 720 kJ per passenger mile.  The advantage of a bus is the greatly reduced numbers of cars on the road, thereby reducing congestion.  If the bus has a dedicated traffic lane thereby eliminating most of any congestion for itself, the minor disadvantage of a fixed travel schedule and the slightly higher kJ from a car pool, using the bus becomes a positive factor.
  • Riding the rail takes about 640 kJ per passenger mile, assuming about 90 passengers per commuter rail car.  A minor disadvantage is the fixed travel schedule, but congestion should be non-existent, and fuel use is electricity, which if from a renewable source makes it an ideal energetic mass transit option. 
  • Now some people actually use Airline travel as part of their jobs.  In a typical city to city flight, airline travel is not only the most energetic mode of travel but also the most polluting of any other option.  (a Boeing 737-800 carries 162 people while an Airbus 320 can carry 180 passengers).  The average energetics for airline travel are 6080 kJ per passenger mile.  If you read the previous posts about use of rail, it is useful to note that rail uses only 10% of the energy cpm of air travel. 

When you look at the cost per passenger mile for operating costs (Vehicle Operation (VO), Road/Rail Maintenance (RM), and Parking Costs (PC)) with the main forms of commuter travel then a similar picture is also seen.  Numbers are costs per passenger mile (cpm) broken up in to the various operating costs:

  • Bus – $1.05 cpm ($0.75 VO, $0.30 RM, $0 PC)
  • Commuter Rail – $0.48 cpm ($0.47 VO, $0.01 RM, $0 PC)
  • Light inner city Rail – $0.67 cpm ($0.66 VO, $0.01 RM, $0 PC)
  • Automobile large town – $0.81 cpm ($0.51 VO, $0.16 RM, $0.14 PC)
  • Automobile small city – $1.17 cpm ($0.61 VO, $0.17 RM, $0.39 PC)
  • Automobile large city – $1.67 cpm ($0.71 VO, $0.21 RM, $0.69 PC)  

The big differences seen in the automobile costs are the extra fuel used in congestion and wear and tear of operating the vehicle, the numbers of vehicles impacting the road surfaces (even more so in areas with heavy winter damage and high truck traffic), and of course parking fees.  Park in Denver versus Fort Collins and you will understand how expensive parking can be between the different urban centers.  A systems analysis of moving around shows that automobiles tend to be an expensive if not often unnecessary luxury to own.  In many cities such as New York, people forgo the automobile for mass transit and rent a car when they want to travel out of town.  In areas not served by good mass transit, there are still many options that can be used to get around cheaply, efficiently, and conveniently.  We’ll look at those in the next blog post.         

Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 4 – High Speed Rail Costs

Once upon a time the need for mass transit was non-existent.  Most people did not go anywhere and stayed close to where they were born, lived and worked.  And those that travelled accepted that the journeys would be long, uncomfortable, and most likely exciting in many ways – just getting to your destination was an accomplishment in itself.   Since the early 1800s taking a long trip on land meant using the rail system.  Roads were OK at best, and prone to extreme erosion, meaning that unless they were well maintained (rare except on tollways) became bumpy and uncomfortable challenges.  The kinds of roads we take for granted today are not even a hundred years old.  Before WWII roads were most likely only asphalted on tollways and only within the cities.  Everywhere else was most likely a dirt track of varying quality.   In 1919, as a young army office. Ike Eisenhower was part of a trek from Washington D.C. to San Francisco along one of the first cross-country highways (The Lincoln highway).  The convoy of 80 trucks and motorcycles took 62 days to make the journey (an average of 6 miles an hour).  “They crossed plains, mountains and deserts on roads that, up until Nebraska, were surprisingly well made. But once the convoy hit the West, the trucks started getting stuck in ditches, sand and mud, for hours at a time. By Utah, the conditions of the roads were so bad, it almost stopped the convoy altogether” (History.com).  At that time, a train took 3 days.    

While it may seem that I am espousing the rail system (I am), my main point is that what we consider normal and immutable is a relatively new idea – individual travel vehicles as a source of long-distance freedom – the great American love affair with the automobile.  Any idea can be improved if we are simply willing to sit down and think about it through ‘systems thinking.’  We used to have horses that can go more places than a car, but the car offers two advantages over a horse – speed and distance.  Having said that, it is pertinent to note that the cars we love so much sit unused on average for 95% of the day.  When you think of how much you pay for that speed convenience, the true cost effectiveness of the personal automobile becomes questionable.  The mere century long love affair with cars has been showing signs of failing as traffic woes and road infrastructure adventures become the norm.  In Europe, many people needing to go distances travel on the high-speed rail system and then use local transportation once they get to their destination.

In the last post we covered the costs of building and maintaining roads, the latter, being one of the most costly, yearly infrastructure costs we have.  As we shall see, building railroads is not cheap, but the infrastructure maintenance costs for tracks are less by comparison to roads.  The costs of equipment maintenance (e.g. trains and train and road trucks) using the systems are somewhat comparable. 

France began the European fast rail in 1981 (Japan did it in 1964), quickly followed by the rest of Europe.  The advantages of rail traffic above roads traffic are greatly reduced emissions even when diesel trains are used.  Add electric trains using renewable energy sources and emissions are almost non-existent.   So how much to build the railways?  Out on the open road through farmland and countryside, not too expensive:  about $1-2 million per mile of track.  Once you get into urban and city areas, the cost goes up because of needing to pick a line that doesn’t disrupt already existing systems.  Both road freeways and rail have the same problem, no one wants to give up their property for the common good and lots of eminent domain purchasing is necessary.  Of course, the roads and rail can be elevated, but the cost of raised concrete overhead systems raises the price considerably and means more long-term maintenance costs have to be factored in to the building costs.  So, the cost climbs to about $15-100 million per mile of track laid down.  Before you say that using aircraft is cheaper because the only need is for airports, note that a single Boeing 767 costs about $200 million per plane (seats 181-367 passengers) or $650,000 per month to lease.  The Boeing 777 (seats passengers) is about $440 million to buy.  Most High-Speed rail trains are about 16 carriages long for a total of 1300 passengers at an initial cost of about $5 million (this cost was hard to find) for the electric locomotive and carriages.   The main Chinese bullet-train line from Beijing to Shanghai takes just over 4 hours and netted over $1 billion in profit in 2016. 

While Europe and Asia are expanding their high-speed rail, the U.S. seems to be lagging behind.  Cost is obviously a factor.  China’s high speed rail with a maximum speed of 350 km/h has a typical infrastructure unit cost of about $27-33 million per mile, with a high ratio of viaducts and tunnels, as compared with $40-62 m per mile in Europe. In the U.S. there are only a few high-speed train routes.  The Acela line from Boston to Washington D.C. (about 457 miles) takes about 6 hours averaging only 70 mph because many sections of the rail are still of the slow-rail system.  California is building the Los Angeles to San Francisco line in the central valley but estimates are the final costs will be about $90 million per mile.  The $77+ billion dollar project has been prone to political problems, especially with the 2018 cancellation of nearly a $1 billion of federal funding. 

The take-away of all of this is that the high-speed rail systems around the world have been quite effective because of private investment coupled with governmental investment and support.  The benefit of trains over airplanes is clear for short to moderate length travel of 12 hours or less.  After that it comes down to convenience.  From an environmental perspective, trains are the best option since air travel is the most polluting forms of travel and road traffic still using fossil fuels is still a major pollution issue.  Economically, trains are still the best option for moving freight and people, and the options for renewable energy are easier with trains than most other options.  Personal transport costs are also better with trains, but the convenience factor is still a big one for American users.  When we live in a ‘got to get there now’ mentality, regardless of price (while we can still afford anything), then alternate options for transporting ourselves around will always be a debating point.  Travelling to other countries and using their transportation systems when you do not have your own personal car to drive around (I omit car rentals here because it is an price option that gets prohibitive if one means to travel across many countries with exorbitant drop off fees) you get a different perspective of what mass transit can mean.    

Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 3 – Freeway and Interstate Road Costs

One of the top reasons for not developing a high-speed rail system in the U.S. is apparently the cost.  “We can’t do it because it will cost too much” is voiced without any knowledge of what the actually costs really are – it’s a mantra from those who do not want competition or change.  Just imagine what America would have been like if the initial investors in the rail system of the 1800s had been faced with that and we had to stay with horse and wagons during the western expansion.  Yes, wagon trains were an integral part of that early slower expansion prior to the American Civil, War, but afterwards it was the rail that allowed Euro-centric people to rapidly expand across the country to create the USA we know today.  So, was rail simply outmoded by automotive transportation, or was it something else that caused the decline of the great American rail roads? 

After the Civil War the U.S. train networks ran across the country.  The cattle drives, so popularly portrayed in western movies, were only a few years of the West’s history until the late 1860s: After that the rail lines spread south to the grasslands so cattle could be transported quickly and efficiently to the stockyards and slaughterhouses of the Great Lakes, and then to the cities of the growing Eastern areas of the continent – Prairie grasslands and farmlands to dinner table in less than 5 days with new grazing and watering cattle cars plus refrigerated freight cars keeping everything fresh.   It was the hay-day for the rail system until new businesses were born that competed for the railroads effectiveness.  First, decentralization of the cattle industry occurred with feed-lots taking over from full-time range grazing.  Next, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller had other ideas for which industries would dominate the American transportation scene.  Rail survived because of the need for Heavy freight (e.g. Coal), and passenger rail in the pre-airline era for most regular people traveling long distances – only the well-off could fly anywhere.  Ford lobbied extensively for roads with his new trailer trucks to carry freight and automobiles to take Americans everywhere, and Rockefeller was happy to lobby to provide gasoline to take them there.  While the rest of the world invests in building new high-speed rail systems, the U.S. sits quietly with some minor projects (by comparison), the excuse being that rail is too expensive.   So what kinds of expenses are we talking about?   First let’s look at the freeway-interstate system of roads.

Dwight D Eisenhower returned from Europe impressed by the German Autobahn system, started in 1913 as a public works project with over 1300 miles completed by 1939, that allowed Hitler to truck his troops quickly around Europe.  When Eisenhower became President of the USA he promoted the Interstate road system as a defense initiative.  It begun in 1957 with $25 billion of appropriations and was officially completed in 1992, although new section are still being added as traffic needs are realized for over 48,000 miles of interstate.  The estimated final cost was about $500 Billion (about $5-10 million per mile).  The amount of modern traffic and weather impacts makes repairing the Interstates during ‘Orange Barrel Season” an ongoing and highly lucrative business, and also a source of great frustration for traffic trying to move around the country.  The Federal interstate system was funded 90% by the federal government and 10% by the States through a highway gasoline tax.  One problem with this is that this redistributed gas tax revenue from states with lots of drivers to those with very few drivers.  The result being that funds were often taken from states that need more transportation infrastructure than they have to states that have more transportation infrastructure than they need.  Prior to the interstate system, major road projects within a state were paid from through toll systems (turnpikes) – user pays fees. 

One of the biggest costs of placing freeways through a city is the disruption to neighborhoods.  This involved a lot of eminent domain and rerouting of existing urban roads plus interstate exists to allow local traffic to still flow while allowing through traffic unhindered motion.  The problems occur (especially at peak traffic times) when freeway ‘incidents’ happen to slow the traffic flow.  Incidents as bad as accidents to people simply driving badly are enough to create the daily traffic jam woes we take as normal no matter how many lanes get added.  The term ‘Induced demand’ explains how expanding freeway traffic lanes merely allows more drivers use the freeway. 

Traffic jams can be temporarily ameliorated by new traffic systems and addition of more lanes (after the inevitable construction delays), but with over 850 cars per 1000 people in the USA the same traffic jams reoccur within 18 months.  We seriously need to rethink roads as the only solution to moving people and freight around.  And this problem is everywhere in the world.   In the previous post I talked about an 8-hour trip using high-speed rail from Munich to Amsterdam.  To drive would have also taken 8 hours under ideal road conditions but would not have been as relaxing (car rental and gasoline costs would have been more than my train ticket).  A few years ago, instead of taking the 4-hour train journey, I drove from Calais to Amsterdam in what should have taken less than 4 hours.  I spent 4 hours of that final 8-hour trip sitting in multi-lane traffic trying to get around Antwerp.  In Britain a year ago, I spent 5 hours doing what should have been a 2-hour drive because of motorway construction.  Freeways can be great, but only in ideal conditions, which are fast becoming rare.  Supporting alternate transportation systems is much more than trying to support renewal energy systems, it is about sustainable ways of getting people where they want to go in the most convenient, safest, and cost-effective systems possible.  Over a century ago, our ancestors could get to near where they wanted to go by taking the train and then using a horse system to get to the place they wanted to be.  Automotive transportation is certainly convenient (when it moves) but maybe there is a way we can use high speed renewable transportation and local systems when we get there.  Obviously, cost is a major factor to consider.  While interstates are not cheap, what is the cost of a high-speed rail system by comparison?  To be continued…..      

Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 2

Why use trains?  In the last post I emphasized how the USA developed through train technology.  Obviously, the advance of automotive transport and oil use over the past century spurred the car and truck culture, and now the airline industry, we now take for granted.  It’s hard for most Americans to visualize a different way of moving around the country.  If you travel outside North America you get a different perspective of travel. 

The drive plus ferry from London to Paris used to take 7 hours or more depending on road and weather conditions, especially across the English Channel.  The intercity rail from London’s Paddington rail Station to Paris’s Gare Du Nord rail station (city center to city center) for as little as $40 takes just 2 hours and 15 minutes.  From there you have access to all the major cities in Europe without the hassle of traffic congestion and holdups that are as prevalent in Europe as they are in America.  On a trip back from Paris to London on the ‘Chunnel’ train I was able to walk up and down the train and visit the refreshments car at ease.  I talked with a French woman going from Toulouse to London on Business and why she was taking the train and not flying from Toulouse to London.  The story was much like I mentioned in the last post about flying to Chicago.  When all the wait times and airport to city connections were factored in, the journey for this woman was not only about the same amount of time but the cost using the trains was about the same.  The woman said the trains were also more convenient and comfortable.   

On a recent trip I flew to Munich and rented a car to travel around Bavaria and northern Austria.  I must say that legally doing over a 100 mph on the Autobahn back to Munich was exhilarating but strange as I had to keep moving over to the slow lane to allow the really fast cars to pass me.  Germany is renowned for it speeds on the autobahns.  I made it from the Austrian border to the outskirts of Munich in less than 2 hours.  The 16 Km (10 miles) journey at 4pm from the outskirts to city center where the hotel was located, however, took another 2 hours, and then I had the nightmare of negotiating traffic in a city I did not know all the while avoiding road construction and then trying to find parking for the car while I checked into the hotel (most European city center hotels do not have parking).  The next day I travelled the high-speed electric Intercity Express rail from Munich to Amsterdam.  It took about 8 hours and cost about $80 in a first class car (I splurged).  Flying would have been a little quicker but I would have missed all the great scenery along the way, which was wonderful, even at 300 Kph (186 Mph) top speed – all information was listed and updated continually on the ‘smart’ information board in each car.  It was also most comfortable and quiet and typical of German efficiency, on time at all the station stops (usually 3-4 minutes only per stop for nine stops) along the way.  From the main station I was able to take a local train to within a mile of my friends who lived about 20 miles from Amsterdam without hassle at Rush hour.  Light rail will be covered in another post to come soon.       

There has been much discussion over the past decade about the viability of an intercity high-speed rail system in the USA similar to Europe or eastern Asia. I’ll leave the financial realities of building this rail system and the expansion and maintenance of existing U.S. roadways for the next post.  For now, let’s focus on whether a rail system would be a viable option for the U.S.  One of the most polluting forms of travel in the world is jet travel.  Jet fuel with its emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapor, particulates, contrails and cirrus cloud formation accounts for as much as 5 percent of fossil fuel pollution.  Trains are electric, but of course, the source of the electricity is crucial.  Using a fossil fuel power plant is only slightly better than using aviation fuel.  However, using renewable electrical sources is ideal.  A recent report noted that Holland now uses 100% renewable energy (primarily wind energy but with some solar from Solar tunnels above the rail lines!  

The French have been experimenting with high speed rail and a few years ago tried out a 450 Kph (280 Mph) successfully.  It is still on the drawing board but remains a future option.  Japan has been working on boosting their famous Shinkansen train to get speeds of 360 Kph (225 Mph).  Now just imagine going express from center Denver to center Chicago in 4 hours or even New York to Los Angeles in 13 hours by rail!  Of course, you would have to factor in time to get to the rail station.   (Note our previous rough calculation of air travel times – NY to LA is 6 hours flying, plus 2 hours gate time before departure and then roughly 1-2 hours between home, parking, etc. for a total of 9-10 hours air travel time.)   Germany has also experimented with a high-speed ‘Maglev’ system that also shows promise.  While still theoretical we already have the technology to make them work, are vacuum ultra-speed Maglev systems.  These could work at speeds literally as high as 3000 Mph because of no need for wheels (magnetic forces are used to separate the train from the rail with no friction – the train is the only moving part).  While many countries are working on the technology, it is still just on the drawing board with just test sections of Maglev in places like Germany.     

For visitors to Japan, China, or Europe, the high-speed train systems for long journeys are a definite plus.  In Spain, the Madrid to Barcelona high-speed train (19 trains a day) takes about 2 ½  hours and costs #35 one way.  (It takes 6 hours to drive and 1 ½ hour actual flying time.)  It works so well, air flight between the cities is rarely used.  If high-speed rail works so well why is it still almost non-existent in North America?  Most reasons given are financial in that the cost is prohibitive.  Why was it not so for other countries?  The other problem has been public support.  Most Americans have never experienced the high-speed system and propaganda against high-speed rail is prevalent from special interests who will be somewhat displaced by such a system.  In talks where I have laid out the argument for high-speed rail and then taken a simple hands up survey of who would use it if it were in place gives a telling response – over 90% of people like the idea.  So, what are the financial realities of high-speed national rail versus the existing freeway road network across the U.S.?  Next post….     

Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 1

In the first post on this blog we talked about technology and its impact not just with the industrial revolution but also the insidious production of pollution.  In the 1700s the development of the steam engine allowed the rapid development of multiple forms of engine that could work far more effectively than had simple muscle power for most of human civilization.  One of the most obvious of these engines was the locomotive steam engine and the vast network of rails that carried them across immense distances in relatively short periods of time.

While started in Great Britain for use in mining, the onset of passenger and freight rail began in earnest by 1804.  Between 1830 and the 1880s, rail networks sprang up across all of Europe and the North American Continent, all driven by the stream engine fueled by wood and then coal.   It was said that in the USA, you could get to within 10 miles of anywhere you wanted to go in the country by rail since the rail network was so expansive.  In 1869 the last spike was driven in the ground at Provo in Utah creating the first rail line from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  Freight and passengers could now go from San Francisco to New York in less than a week compared to ships that took as much as 3 months and had to navigate the treacherous Cape Horn route at the tip of Patagonia.  If you look at a night sky picture of North America it is interesting to note how the cities and towns west of the Mississippi river to the Rocky Mountains all seem to follow moderately straight lines.  These towns grew up along the rails being laid down and where towns were established at rail fueling stops.  Indeed, one of the many myths used to bring settlers west was that the smoke from the steam train stacks created clouds that produced rain for the westward expansion of farmers.  These emigrants were eager to claim land under the many land laws used to settle the public domain.  The period between WWI and WWII was characterized by a decline in Rail use because of lobbying efforts by Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller to establish road transportation as the dominant mode of movement in the USA.  One minor side note is the just before WWII the diesel-electric train engine began to appear making the smoky exhaust stacks of coal fired steam engines a thing of the past.  Now the pollution was less obvious, yet still as pervasive in reducing air quality.

In the 1971, Amtrak was created to consolidate the remaining 20 passenger rail companies still left in the USA.  At the time it was the state of the Art in Locomotive passenger travel with some trains running as fast as 125 mph in open long sections of track.  And there it stayed with no further innovation, being more of a tourist transportation system than a passenger movement system.  Freight rail is still popular because of its ability to move multiple cars of heavy freight at the same time.  Air travel took over as the main form of mass people transportation with the less popular Bus lines (e.g. greyhound) taking up some of the slack, and more people using their own cars to get around.  The creation of the Interstate freeway system meant further decline for passenger travel using mass transit.  The American love affair with the automobile and the urge to get places fast are today the main stumbling blocks for innovation in further railroad development.  But are we actually moving faster around the USA?  Airport and freeway backups coupled with automobile gridlock in the cities makes innovative rethinking of how we move around more essential than it has been since the mid-1800s.

Meanwhile in Europe and Asia, rail innovation has taken off and even supplanted air travel for quick efficient travel across the continents.  The famous Shinkansen bullet train in Japan was built in 1964 and a high-speed rail system has become the norm for most industrialized countries.  Think about a plane flight from Denver to Chicago.  Having driven it many times from Loveland I can attest that it is about 18 hours or more of driving.  To fly is obviously quicker, but let’s add up the time it actually takes.  The drive to DIA from Loveland is about an hour with no holdups.  By the time you park your car and get to the airport could add at least another 30 mins on an average by parking shuttle (assume you are not just being dropped off).  You arrive 2 hours early as required to play it safe to get through TSA and to the concourse train and to your gate.  The flight takes around two hours but the airports around Chicago (O’Hare and Midway, or Mitchell in Milwaukee) are not near the city center.  To get from the gates to the outside curb can take 30 minutes.  If you want to get downtown you need to take the airport train or a taxi, which adds another 45 minutes.  Time to get from Loveland to actual downtown Chicago about 6-7 hours by air travel.  And unless you upgrade your basic ticket you are crammed into a tight seat for the actual travel or sitting around in a less than exciting airport.  Now imagine less of the hassles and getting to Chicago in the same amount of time and where you can relax in comfortable seats and walk around without restriction while actually traveling and you are looking at rail travel in the rest of the world.  And the cost of train travel (also electric trains, not diesel) is actually cheaper than air flight, and goes from city center to city center.

To be continued …..

Fossil Fuel Use and Health Issues 3 – Visualizing the Pollution and how it affects our health – Part 2

In the previous post we outlined some of the health problems associated with fossil fuel pollution.  In this post we delve deeper into the actual problems, not to scare you, but to make you aware that this is not something that happens somewhere else.  This is everyone’s problem and is happening where you live, here and now! 

Ground-level Ozone forms when volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mainly from gasoline and diesel combustion, react with the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  It reaches its worst levels in the afternoon and early evening after the sun has been out for several hours.  As such is most noticeable during the summer months but is still prevalent even on a cold winter’s day.  It is a strong irritant to air passages in the throat and lungs causing them to constrict causing difficulty in breathing.   More notable health problems include: aggravated respiratory disease such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma; wheezing, chest pain, dry throat, headache or nausea; persistent sore throat and coughs that indicate lung damage; compromised immune system; and feeling weak and fatigued with little motivation to get up and go.  The only solutions, besides not creating ground level ozone in the first place, is to stay indoors with a whole house filtration system, move to a remote area well away from major transportation areas, or to walk around outside with a specific ozone filtering respiration mask.     

Particulate Matter (PM) and Wildfire Smoke is a complex mixture of soot and smoke from fires and power stations, metal particles, nitrates, sulfates (from all fossil fuel combustion), and tire rubber particulates, some of which react with sunlight (i.e. oxides of nitrogen – NOx).  What makes the particulates dangerous is the specific size of the particles.  The smaller the particles, the more dangerous they tend to be.  Larger particles can be irritants but are less likely to have long lasting health effects, while fine particulate particles can cause life long and even fatal problems, especially to the lungs and heart.  We hear a lot about ‘fracking’ and the many chemicals (over 650 proprietary chemicals) used during the fracking process, but almost unknown is the grave danger that an come from being downwind of a ‘blowout’ where the exceptionally fine sand (less than 10 micron) used in bulk in fracking, if inhaled, used can cause fatal silicosis.  

Long-term exposure to particulate pollution can result in significant health problems including: respiratory problems from irritation of the airways that causes persistent coughing, difficulty in breathing, and decreased lung function; development of asthma or further aggravation of existing asthma with further development of chronic  respiratory disease in children and adults with already impaired respiration; increases in chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive lung disease; onset of heart problems such as irregular heartbeat and nonfatal heart attacks leading to increased levels of death in people with heart or lung disease, including death from lung cancer. 

Just like Ozone, the only solutions, besides not creating these PMs  in the first place, is to stay indoors with a whole house filtration system, move to a remote area well away from major transportation areas, or to walk around outside with a specific respiration mask for fine particulates.  Wild fires are on the increase, so being aware of what is happening in your area and knowledge of the wind patterns affecting your area will help to minimize being outdoors when these conditions are severe.  Letting your neighbors know if you have problems and having a medical emergency plan should symptoms become severe is a given.  Most at risk for chronic problems are young children and seniors, although acute symptoms can occur for anyone (e.g. fracking blowout).   Keep an adequate supply of your medications (five days or more) on hand should you suffer from any respiratory ailment.  Listen to local news, weather forecasts and air quality alerts provided by the local air district specialists.  While we gave specifics above for susceptible people, be aware that even healthy and especially active outdoors people can expect to experience temporary symptoms, such as: irritation of the eyes, nose and throat (dry raspy throat); Coughing as if trying to clear the throat; tightness in the chest; and shortness of breath especially during the latter parts of the day.

PMs, Ozone, and VOCs are always present because of the burning of fossil fuels.  Here in the front range they are readily visible when one comes back down from the mountains back to the front range towns.  The brown smog can be seen as a layer that hangs over the towns and cities.  Many athletes comment that they can exercise and run easier uphill at 10,000 ft than they can at 5000 ft in the front range.  The difference is merely the air quality.  Coal fired power plants, fracking, and millions of vehicles burning diesel and gasoline make for poor air quality on the front range.  This can worsen when easterly wind patterns push the polluted air up against the mountains thereby concentrating the pollution and exacerbating health issues.  Clean air is a basic right that we ALL share.  While we make many excuses for burning fossil fuels as an inevitable consequence for our modern way of living, that mindset is completely flawed!  There are alternatives that we all can support that give us the convenience of heat, light and transportation options, that give us clean air to live healthily.  Next blog posts will be about these alternatives we can all support.  After all, what is good about pollution?            

Fossil Fuel Use and Health Issues 2 – Visualizing the Pollution and how it affects our health – Part 1

In the last blog we looked at the great horse poop debates of the late 1890s and how technology helped solve that problem (the growth of the internal combustion engine, but that inadvertently increased carbon emissions and pollution).  The pollution is for most instances relatively invisible (except for the grey and brown smogs that occur as they build up) at the points of emission, and as such is easier to dismiss than the vast amounts of horse poop that once layered the streets deep in excrement.  Now, imagine for a moment, that today, instead of hardly visible emissions, that for each gallon of fuel used, two-pounds of horse poop dropped out of your exhaust pipe – just like it used to do from the rear end of millions of horses.  Now imagine a rush-hour drive with all that poop from all those cars, and then imagine the surface of the road being driven on.  Fortunately, fossil fuel emissions do not look like horse poop – might be more effort to curb them if they did though!   The health problems with fossil fuel pollution are much more severe than those of horse poop.  Yes, the smell of horse poop and urine were quite overwhelming, but the health effects were minor by comparison to Pollution from Fossil fuels.     

When we used to see the black smog’s from burning coal we could appreciate the health problems.  On a bad day when we get modern brown smog’s (photochemical smog) where we cannot see the mountains from anywhere on the front range, we can appreciate the problem, but usually, we are unaware of the pollution.  Without the constant reminder of the pollution (as in horse poop or daily lung choking smog’s) we do not recognize the harm that fossil fuel pollution is doing to our lungs and bodies.  

When we hear the narratives about fossil fuel pollution the one single factor that is talked about is Carbon Dioxide.  It’s all we hear and how it is connected to Global Climate Disruption, which is the focus of all our debates.  Yet, the everyday discussion about the rest of the pollution, of which there are numerous factors, seems almost absent.   The horse poop debate had only horse poop to think about, as distasteful as that was, but what other primary pollutants are there from the burning of Fossil fuels?  The primary pollutants are carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide (yes, there it is), sulfur dioxide, nitrogen monoxide and a variety of nitrogen oxides (NOx’s), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and a variety of particulates.  When you throw all of that chemical mixture into the atmosphere and then expose it to water vapor, UV radiation, and electrical discharges you get another batch of secondary pollution (Brown photochemical smog – .  These increase the toxic loading of the atmosphere with Troposheric (ground level) and near-earth Ozone (unlike the good Stratosphere Ozone between at 17-50 Km in stopping UVA and UVB), Nitrates, weak nitric and sulfuric acids (primary cause of acid precipitation), Peroxides, and Peroxyacyl nitrates.  Wow, that is quite a list.  And the bad news is that most of these are good lung and eye toxic irritants.  Not enough to kill you immediately (acute pollution) like a bad Hollywood movie (although many chemically-sensitive people do die regularly when these pollutants are above basic levels), but slowly and insidiously (chronic) to impair everyone’s health over many years.   That brown photochemical smog when you see isn’t just spoiling your view of the mountains, but also attacks the lining of your lungs, eyes, and throat, as well as absorbing into your body. 

From the California Health Authorities:

Even healthy people can experience health impacts from polluted air including respiratory irritation or breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities. Your actual risk of adverse effects depends on your current health status, the pollutant type and concentration, and the length of your exposure to the polluted air.  High air pollution levels can cause immediate health problems including:

  • Aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory illness
  • Added stress to heart and lungs, which must work harder to supply the body with oxygen
  • Damaged cells in the respiratory system

Long-term exposure to polluted air can have permanent health effects such as:

  • Accelerated aging of the lungs
  • Loss of lung capacity and decreased lung function
  • Development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly cancer
  • Shortened life span

Those most susceptible to severe health problems from air pollution are:

  • Individuals with heart disease, coronary artery disease or congestive heart failure
  • Individuals with lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Pregnant women
  • Outdoor workers
  • Older adults and the elderly
  • Children under age 14
  • Athletes who exercise vigorously outdoors

People in these groups may experience health impacts at lower air pollution exposure levels, or their health effects may be of greater intensity.