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 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…..      

Introduction to Renewable Energy – A Reality Check

Systems thinking is “a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems”– definition).

In the last post I talked about Nuclear Power and that once one factors in the full process for using that source it turns out to be a highly polluting and dangerous source for many reasons – mining pollution, fuel processing pollution, toxic products, waste hazards, potential for catastrophic outcomes, already refined nuclear fuel source potential, and excessive cost to build and maintain.  As an option to Fossil Fuels (FFs), its only benefit is that the generation of electricity is relatively clean of carbon emission and immediate pollution, although the whole process in itself is as bad if not worse, depending on how you measure hazard.  FFs have severe pollution problems from beginning to end, although they are a transportable dense source of energy.  Oil and Gas however have explosive flammability problems during transportation and storage.

Renewable energy is touted as carbon and pollution free, and indeed it is if you only take the generation of electricity into account.  Once you look at the whole process it is still problematic, but the question is to what extent compared to traditional FF and nuclear power.  It is with this understanding that we can look at the options with a clearer perspective.

One of the limiting factors for technology throughout human history is the problem of having enough energy (power) to do anything.  Mainly muscle power with some wind (think sailing ships and Dutch windmills) and some water (water wheels) as the primary option for power – interestingly, all were completely renewable sources, simple as they were once the technology was built.  The main resources were wood frames with some iron strengthening supports and canvas (Hemp) cloth.   The discovery and use of FFs is what allowed the growth of the industrial and then the technological revolutions.

The problem with FFs of course is the extensive mining and extraction, and the even more harmful pollution resulting from using them.  Another problem with FFs is that they are not evenly distributed over the Earth’s surface.  I have always been somewhat amused by bumper stickers that say “Why is our oil under their sand.”  Another unspoken and crucial problem with FFs is the economic stranglehold and control that the businesses that mine and extract the traditional energy have on the world’s economy and how these companies dictate the world’s geo-political policies.    By far the biggest advantage of renewable energy resources is that they are local and non-transferable – you can transport the energy generated but the resources are not something you have to fight to control.

I never tire of hearing antagonists to renewable energy try to impress me with their insights, like how solar panels don’t work at night and wind turbines don’t work when the wind isn’t blowing, yet remain oblivious to the almost insane logistics of providing energy from FFs and dealing with the pollution of the whole system.  From a system’s thinking perspective, renewable energy is a far better source for generating electricity, not perfect, but the many options have multiple advantages over FFs.  I will cover each renewable option in more detail in upcoming blog posts, but for now a simple overview.  The technology we now have has allowed us to tap into the natural resources in ways not possible before the industrial revolution.

We can now manufacture machines that use natural resources such as wind, sunlight, temperature differentials in the ground and in the ocean, ocean tides, etc.  The big kicker here is that the renewable energy capture system must use the FF energy system to get it running at full steam, so to speak.  If we keep waiting and using FFs until they run out, then not only do we have exponentially more pollution to deal with, but the problem of having enough energy to manufacture the required amount of renewable systems will be gone.   After that it would be a remarkably slow process to manufacture enough energy to meet needs even knowing the technology we need to build.

The other big change we will need to think about is how best to tap into renewable sources based on the locality of where it is being generated.  Solar panels in Barrow, Alaska, night be feasible for 3-4 months of the year during the continuous summer sun months, but not much of an option beyond that.  We need to think about multiple sources being used in any locality based on the best management practices of what is available.  And don’t forget, those resources are local – they cannot be disrupted by any body, and the jobs to build and maintain the technology using these resources are always local and cannot be outsourced.  Manufacturing these renewable energy capture systems is the only drawback – they will still require a large amount of mining to get the needed minerals and the manufacturing will still require smelting of the minerals from the ore and energy to build the systems. But once the systems are in place and adequate for the populations needs, then there is no further pollution and no disposal pollution problems.   The truly clean energy can then be used in further manufacturing, with recycling of components being a simple further conservation measure to reduce mining.

More about the specifics of each of the renewables in upcoming posts.