Alternative Transportation modes – New Technology High Speed Transport Systems

In the USA, the only fast way to get across the country fast is by air, which can be trying and tedious at times, especially when bad weather exists in some major part of the country.  Weather can quickly disrupt air service all across the country because of many planes having multiple legs on any flight.  (i.e. weather might be fine where you are but the weather where it is coming from is adverse.)  While aircraft can fly through bad weather, taking off and landing requires reasonable conditions.  This form of transportation is also one of the most polluting options and has adverse consequences for the quality and behavior of our atmosphere as well.  Trains have been covered already at some length in this blog but what is the state of the art for this form of transport.  High speed rail would work well for at least two express (220 mph) West-East corridors across the States and several North-South routes.   This is similar in Europe with its already well-established high-speed routes that are updating all the time.  

At this time, there are only four high speed routes in the USA.  The New York to Washington line yet with only 83 mph average speed, the Los Angeles to San Francisco still under construction and unlikely to be finished soon, the soon to be started Houston to Northern Texas line, and the newly proposed Charlotte to Atlanta line. This highly anticipated Texas line would allow people to avoid the deadly I-45 corridor.  The Texas train would resemble the Japanese Shinkansen system.  Notably, the Shinkansen has never had an any passenger injuries because of the train, not during the monstrous Earthquake of 2011 and even with two minor derailment incidents during its long service history.  It is expected that the Texas line will be running by 2026.  

One of the greatest problems with new technology is simply that – it is new and means changing how we look at the way we transport ourselves and our goods around.  The change to new technologies is like the change from horse and cart to the train and subsequently to the automobile and on to air travel.   Technology can be exciting and at the same time make many of us fear the unknown changes.       

    Hyperloop System

The Maglev, also discussed earlier, is poised to become a reality.  Elon Musk proposed an experimental Hyperloop Transport Technology (HTT) in 2012 but hasn’t gone beyond experimentation yet.  What makes the HTT different is the that the Maglev run within a low-vacuum sealed tube to all but eliminate air resistance.  The work done by Richard Branson’s Virgin company (Hyperloop 1) is showing more promise and is already for scaling up from the half kilometer track to longer track for final testing.  Over 10 places in high population density areas (10 chosen out of 2600 requests, 4 in the USA, one on Canada, one in Mexico, two in the UK and two in India) have been selected to work alongside Virgin technologies as the optimum places to build the prototypes of this transport technology.  Hyperloop one will travel at speeds of 760 mph with May 2021 scheduled for its first real run.  The advantages of Hyperloop one is that it can run from downtown city areas, with the sealed tube (above ground or even underground) completely unaffected by weather.  Of course, the tube would have escape areas if for some reason it stopped within the tube.  The tube could also be sealed to prevent vacuum loss in case of an unlikely breach of the vacuum system where the worst that could happen would be friction slowing down of the train.  The option for commuting on this HTT would allow people to live distally from where they work for the same commute time that they currently experience in city traffic.  One other advantage of ground based high-speed transport systems is that they are mainly unaffected by things like volcanic eruptions as occurred over Europe in 2010 when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull disrupted air traffic across the Atlantic and Europe for over a month.  Now imagine an advanced ultra-efficient vacuum hyperloop that can travel more than 4000 mph.  While technologically possible now, the devil is in the details.  Yet, the possibility in travelling through underground tube systems at such speeds around the world is no longer science fiction but something that may be realized in the not too distant future.     

               Hovercraft (Air Cushion Vehicle)

One well known and used technology that is little discussed as a form of rapid and especially freight transportation is that using Hover technology.  In 1955 Christopher Cockerell ran the first hovercraft using a vacuum cleaner engine to create the lift.  This technology remained essentially unchanged for 50 year and because of the noisy engines were the singular reason for their lack of mainstream use.  The British successfully used them as car ferries for nearly 50 years.  New technology engines, especially with electric engines, are now allowing them to come back as an option again.  Hovercraft that are still used travel 4-6 times faster than boat ferries and 2-3 times faster than catamarans or hydrofoils.   

               The greatest advantage for hovercraft is that they can cover almost any terrain without surface preparation (e.g. mud flats, estuaries, rivers, oceans, snow and ice surfaces) and indeed this is their greatest use at this time, especially with rescue craft and military craft needing to move from aquatic to terrestrial surfaces and vice versa).  Like trains, however, they are grade restricted – can’t be too steep for the engines to push uphill or slow downhill.  Hovercraft are almost unaffected by weather conditions although heavy storms on the ocean would still need to be ridden out or avoided like any modern ocean shipping.  The reduced freight handling needs would also make hovercraft more cost effective and efficient.  Imagine loading up a mega-hovercraft in Denver bound for China.  It could take off towards California along hover paths (marked throughways that prevent these crafts going off across country) until they reach the coast.  Then after customs inspections, the craft could simply slide down the ramp into the ocean and then run full speed (up to 150 mph) across the pacific arriving a mere 43 hours later in Shanghai gliding up on the land with the same cargo on board.  No road, bridge, or rail building or any related maintenance, and only hover throughways to negotiate while on land.   

Alternative Transportation modes – The Light Rail and Urban Commuter Rail Systems.

The Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD – affectionately known as The Ride), currently runs 124 local, 16 express, 16 regional, 16 limited, 8 SkyRide, and several special services bus lines, but also 8 light rail lines and an additional 3 commuter rail lines with 71 stations and 88 miles of track.  It first opened October 7, 1994.  There are 3 commuter rail lines reaching out from Union Station to DIA, Westminster, and Wheat Ridge (AB & D lines), with 8 Light rail lines (CDEFHLR & W lines) radiating from central Denver out to the suburbs.  If you visit most large U.S. cities you will probably find a similar situation – Light/commuter rail running through the Greater city.  Often the new light rail is merely establishing along the old tram systems that once were the norm in the late 1800s through the early 1900s.  (Recall from an earlier post that Ford and Rockefeller were pivotal in removing the mass transit systems in the U.S. to make way for cars and trucks.)   

One of the problems for the Front Range is that while Denver mass transit is growing, the rest of the towns from Cheyenne to Trinidad have sparse transit options – bus or train.  Future projections of the RTD commuter rail show it eventually running from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, but the projections are more like decades in the future not mere years.  Many towns in the Front Range daily see the Heavy Train with industrial rail cars running north and south from beyond Cheyenne to beyond Raton in New Mexico.  What should be remembered is that this rail-line also used to be part of the passenger rail system as well.  When you drive I-70 from Cheyenne to Fort Collins you will notice that the heavy rail runs close to the freeway much of the way.  Now the controllers of the heavy rail system do not particularly like having to use freight trains through all of the small towns between Fort Collins and Pueblo, but that is the rail line they have – on Mason Street in Fort Collins the rail lines are literally in the middle of the street.  It takes a lot of energy to move a heavy rail train and it is inefficient and a nuisance to have to slow down or stop such a heavy vehicle. They would love to have a rail that runs east of the city, say following I-470 where many easements are already established.  But that line would need to be built.  The key here is cost. As an example, to build the light rail line up to Fort Collins would be $10-20 mile with much eminent domain (compulsory purchase) acquisition of private land to create the light rail route.  To build a heavy rail line as just described above would be more like $1-5 million per mile.  If this were the new Heavy rail line, then the current heavy rail line would be freed up at no extra cost and the commuter rail could begin immediately once the heavy rail line switched tracks it was using.  All that would be needed would be passenger parking and Stations – think of the old Loveland Depot on Railroad Avenue and 4th Street to understand where and how the commuter rail would run.  And with only 5 passenger cars instead of the 120 freight ones, the wait at rail crossing would be minimized.

Pros and Cons of mass transit commuter and light rail

Pros – Trains are more energy efficient than road vehicles, produce much less air pollution that cars, require less land than roads and parking areas required for automotive traffic and substantially reduce traffic congestion, especially at peak rush times.  Trains are a relatively safe form of transportation, causing almost no injuries and deaths compared to auto traffic.  The cost of running trains is about 90% of that to run a bus system.  Studies have also found that Transit systems, such as light rail, induce investment and development in an area in which they run, because industry sectors have a greater incentive to locate near transit corridors.  Property values have also been found to increase near transit corridors.  For example, the knowledge and computer based industries in Silicon valley located there in part because of the proximity of mass transit systems. 

Cons – Rail systems can be expensive to build and are only really cost effective along high population corridors – the front range fits this requirement, although parts of other cities need to be assessed whether rail or bus is the most viable option.  Most transit systems need city, state, or federal subsidies of some kind and ridership can vary depending on the price of gasoline.  Light rail is more prone to this problem than commuter rail.  Riders are committed to transportation schedules even if the cost is cheaper.  Although not a major problem, rail lines can cause noise and vibration for people living along rail corridors.  Areas where light/commuter rail systems are being constructed for some reason suffer endemic delays and cost overruns.  If there is a problem on a rail line the track is blocked because you cannot reroute a train like you can a bus.           

Whenever I travel east down I-70 from the mountains I am always amazed at the massive amounts of traffic and how much of it is front range traffic returning from playing in the mountains.  The adding of a very expensive ($70 million) 12 miles of express flow lane has helped a little, but anyone who still travels that route at any time of year still experiences the log-jam of traffic that are still a part of the I-70 mountain rush period experience.  For many years the idea of a Monorail from Denver to Summit County has been debated.  The monorail could travel at more than 100 mph, making stops at several stations between Denver and Eagle, with buses scheduled for the remaining short trips up side valleys to A-Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge and Minturn, and Mountain Stations at all the towns along the route between Denver and Eagle. (There would be the option of continuing it all the way to Glenwood Springs as well.)  No Traffic, fast access to the mountains, no parking problems, and the ability to relax and socialize while the trail does all the work of getting you to your destinations.  Designers say it could carry as many as 10,000 passengers an hour in each direction and cost about $25-30 million per mile to build (half the cost of two more I-70 lanes), meaning it would move nearly 8 times as many people as those extra lanes would do.  The biggest problem apparently is that it would only serve the needs of 90% of the people, something that some influential Colorado business and political leaders feel particularly strong about.    

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.