Saturday, October 17, 2009

55> Chasing Trucks

I found myself following a beer delivery truck the other day, and when they pulled into a parking lot, my reporter’s instincts kicked in. My suspicions proved well founded. First I asked the driver (who had a helper) about the usual route. It turns out they had been on the road for 8 hours, since 6 AM. It was 2 PM, and they weren’t done yet. They told me that they intended to deliver for another couple of hours, and worked partially on commission. I asked them where they were working from and they indicated that they were about 20 miles from their home base. This was their section of the city. When I told them I was a blogger, writing about efficiency of delivery, the driver informed me that “Burp Brewing Co.” also had smaller trucks, which they used for lesser customers, like small restaurants, especially those with limited parking or maneuvering space for big trucks. (The truck he was driving, he informed me, could hold a thousand cases, somewhat more than he would deliver that day, and had been loaded in about 20 minutes.)

So there you have it. It can be said that his remaining cases had been on the road for at least eight hours to be moved 20 miles. (32km) That’s 2.5 mph. (average delivery speed = 4 mph, or 6.4km/h) Meanwhile two people are driving around in a huge, mostly empty, gas sucking truck. They will finish their day by driving the empty truck back 20 miles, a complete waste of time and machinery, where the truck just takes up space for other 14 hrs. before returning to duty. I would be surprised if the cost of the truck, insurance, space for storage, fuel, men, etc. is under $75 per hour, or $750.00 per day. If one assumes 10 hrs. for 1000 cases, that’s 75 cents on each and every case. “Burp Brewing Company” sells tens of thousands of cases a day.

This strikes me as directly analogous to problems with various forms of mass transit. The vehicles, buses for instance, must travel a large percentage of their routes nearly empty, and the many stops along the way create maddeningly slow commute times. Unfortunately, decision-makers tend to drive cars, so these inefficiencies are easy to overlook. The mother of non-invention is non-need. (Wouldn’t you love to make transit authority people commute everyday on the systems they manage?) Anyway this is not the case with commercial deliveries. Here decision-makers can make huge bonuses from incremental profit increases. A supermarket, for example, with a track running right into the back of the store could enjoy a substantial competitive advantage over stores that were not so connected.

When the Internet was first created, it was a limited network of limited importance. As businesses of all sorts started leveraging the technology, it became increasingly essential to be connected, just to remain competitive. Soon there were new business models that no one had previously imagined. I believe that the marriage of cheap computers, smart motors, and network communications is setting the stage for a transportation revolution that is far bigger than many, including many PRT advocates, presently (buuurrrp…) comprehend.


cmfseattle said...

some food for thought:
The Chicago Tunnel Company Railroad

if one could bring the price down to $10million/mile, how long to payback? what are the true costs of removing delivery jobs?

you ought to talk to the Sims folks about AT. pick their brains a bit.

Dan said...

Dan The Blogger Responds-

Hi cmfseattle, Thanks for posting.
A far as the cost per mile, I would be interested in where your $10 million figure came from. Is it just a round number? I believe the closest analog to the sort of system I am toying with is the Skyweb express or PRT International type design, (but upside down) and I noted that Ed Anderson (PRT International) was recently quoted as estimating the cost including 2 stations, 50 cars, at 12 to 15 million. I would guesstimate my design at 15% less for the track, (no LIM reactor plate or banking) 30 to 90% less for stations (no elevators, could be open air), but 35% more for (more complex) vehicles, (and MUCH more front end-development costs.) Of course the main difference is that he is proposing doing it all as a “one-stop-shop”. I would let vehicle builders, for example, compete for the business by offering better, more cost-effective designs. Hopefully reducing the cost of track and stations would increase demand for vehicles, which would increase competition, innovation and volume synergies and lead to lower eventual prices. The payback time, of course, is completely specific to the route and traffic load. All I can say is that freight delivery would shorten that time, whatever it is. There is also the possibility of private or public/private partnership ownership of track segments. I recently, for example, heard one electric company mention a million dollars per mile as the cost of burying the electric lines, in response to a lousy record of responding to storm damaged lines. One ticking time bomb for them (it would seem to me) is the CCA, Pentachlorophenol, and Creosote in wooden phone poles. Someday there will be a call to remove them and the soil around their bases. Maybe there’s a million off the top right there. Add in “smart” street lighting, Big box stores wanting faster delivery, potential DOT help and voila…maybe, with a reasonable fare, there’s a business model that Wall Street would fall in love with. Developing that business model will be an ongoing effort, as far as this site is concerned.

As far as the “true costs” go, I must confess to a bit of queasiness over displacing yet more blue-collar workers. What kind of society is it that only offers a decent living to its most educated and brightest 15%? Thirty years ago I gave up my dreams of being a simple country cabinet maker, as it became obvious that it would involve a couple of $100,000. CNC machines and a marketing department, just to not get buried.

One real problem with automation of any kind is that it simplifies management to the point that companies can be bought and sold and merged with increasingly little risk. The money that is produced, since it is not being used for salaries, pension plans, etc. goes straight to the top, to investors, bankers, and the top-most management. The “true cost” of any automation is significantly bad at first. Yet cities, states and countries must be efficient to compete. That means doing more with less. More productivity per worker.

There are also studies that have drawn stark correlations between the rise and fall of civilizations and their citizens’ access cheap energy and their harnessing of it. (Including the caloric energy of food for manual labor or beasts of burden, as well as fire, whale oil, waterpower, coal, etc.) Let us not ignore the “true cost” of the inefficiencies we have baked-in right now and the generalized prosperity that efficiency produces.

Oh, about those tunnels… That’s pretty interesting stuff. I would alert the readers who click on the link to scroll down, or they will miss all of the interesting content. Who would have thought Chicago is ridded with abandoned mini-train tunnels? Thanks cmfseattle.

Jon Kyusac said...

That is really interesting stuff on a topic I have never really known.

I see transit (particularly public transit) as an easy election word that is so easily muddled in bureaucratic compromise that it almost always fails to live up to its promise.

Dan said...

Dan The Blogger Responds-

Welcome Jon, I'm glad to see someone from outside of the PRT community find us. Nearly everyone who reads this blog "gets PRT" and nearly everyone else doesn't, (or has never heard of it.)

PRT, or PAT as it is also known, is an extremely logical and practical concept, given the state of technology today. It solves all kinds of problems, from traffic to national competitiveness to habitat loss. And let's not forget that fossil fuel/global warming thing.. Spread the word!

cmfseattle said...

I was surprised by how long it's been around.

the $10m/mile figure is just round. it's the upper end of the range quoted by ULTra, and it's what Richard Gronning came up with on Rob Means' great electric bikes website.
also, i found the section on urban PRT construction costs to be rather illuminating.

cmfseattle said...

++ was just re-reading this entry, and wanted to mention that Vice President Biden and Mayor Bloomberg are among those officials who use transit (although Biden uses the D.C. Metro and Bloomberg, the subway, both systems serving heavily-populated areas). Congressman Oberstar is a big believer in Euro-style H$R. Amtrak Cascades (top speed 89mph) is likely what he, V.P. Biden and President Obama mean by H$R in the U.S.

[shift key like whoa]

it's worth noting that, now that all the low-hanging light-rail fruit has been picked, at least a few transit agencies are looking at Bus Rapid Transit.
also worth noting: the resources involved in making that youtube video. and the fact that, once you've established "transit only" lanes, you've opened the possibility of using ULTra-like vehicles (at low speeds, say 10mph) for automated freight.

cmfseattle said...

well, we know it's safe.

looks like the FTA was working on automated BRT.

so, it's been around for quite a while.

i had an idea last year of using overhead trolley for both power pickup and guidance: basically, an upside-down U shape with 2 conductors inside, and a mini half-Anderson switch (one wheel, rotating ~45deg, which would engage with a fin along the inside top of the U at diverges).

Dan said...

Dan The Blogger (now 11th in Google under "Dan the Blogger" as long as it is in quotes, due to the frequent use of "Dan the Blogger" in these comments) responds...
Interesting stuff, cmfseattle. I really don’t see how buses can be called rapid transit, even if they have their own lane. They would still either have to stop all the time or be an express bus. Either way, a bus is a bus. Local buses stop constantly and express buses pass you by unless you take a local bus to get to the express bus. All boarding and disembarking time for anyone else but yourself is a waste of your time. I couldn’t help but notice how empty the streets are in that clip. I think I would drive my car. Of course in traffic, everyone would curse the bus for hogging the road, even more than most places, because you couldn’t even pass the bus and utilize that empty right lane. The one thing that makes this work is that it takes advantage of what cities are generally good at…widening roads. What might make more sense is to use the lane for any vehicle having a certain efficiency, like hydrogen, electric or high occupancy vehicles. (HOV) Wasting space is not in anyone’s interest. Make it camera enforced, and use the proceeds to build an overhead PRT rail!

The Winnie the Pooh ride is most intriguing… I’m not sure it applies to PRT in that it uses a master computer to manage the whole thing. In PRT, I think, much, if not most of the “intelligence” would reside in the vehicles themselves. Although the system as a whole and track segments would need to have “knowledge” of present and anticipated traffic, I don’t see a central computer making moment-by-moment motor control decisions for every vehicle as that practical in a very large network, although that’s how PRT was originally conceived.

As per your design, it sounds a lot like my track. Upside-down U, fins,… Have you tried SketchUp? It’s really kind of empowering, if you like to think in 3D. It only has 6 drawing tools (2D) and six more to pull those shapes into 3D and trim them up, and then a few more to view, group, select etc. Great video tutorials. And, like this site, Google gives it away for free.
Dan The Blogger, out.

cmfseattle said...

agreeing w/everything you say re: buses and efficient use of lanes. my point was that there is a lot of political will behind big-box transit. if something about those plans could lead toward PRT, i think it wise not to overlook that. there was one guy whose design called for laying railway-style tracks directly onto streets and replacing all automobiles. yeah, i know, right?

i'll fire up my sketchup (version 6, because i'll still be running Win2k until they pry it out of my cold, dead hands (or i buy an ubuntu box, but even then i'll dual boot)), but you gotta get your participants some way to collab on designs.

Dan said...

I hear you cmf...It's already set up but I'm not sure how to manage it. I haven't tried it myself from a remote computer yet. It involves svn software, and I don't even remember if there was anything complicated in setting that up...If you want to fool with some of my SketchUp drawings, they can be downloaded here.

cmfseattle said...

i can't even look at your sketchups without version 7. maybe i'll see if i can trick it into running on win2k.

Dan said...

Is it really the OS, or is it just that god-awful thought of re-installing everything? Talk about dread... I have a new hard drive in the box, but I have chosen instead to just not turn off my computer, just to get a few more days before that big job. I haven't turned it off since New England, a month ago. The updates are piling up that I can't install without a reboot. I'll bet it will take 5 hours just to download Windows updates..