Sunday, April 18, 2010

82> A Sermon for Earth Day




Because Earth Day is coming up I decided to bring up a point that needs to be driven home again and again to a world that just doesn’t get it. I have resurrected (and added to) a drawing from my second post to help make it.

The point is this: The automobile/road system, as a primary transportation means, is so inefficient that scrapping it and replacing it with something better, like PRT, would simply transform the world.

This is a hard sell, because we have hundreds of years of societal conditioning telling us that we are doing the right thing. Paths became roads became highways. Wagons became cars. Everything seems to be advancing. We have become experts in roads designed for heavy freight and fast passenger vehicles designed for those overbuilt roads.

But it’s more than the roads being hugely overbuilt for the 1.2 passengers carried by the average car. It is the whole tradition of terrestrial travel. If we look at the process of moving people into and out of a city as an industrial machine the inefficiencies become abundantly clear. For example, can you imagine designing a factory where two assembly lines cross, so only one can work at a time, and you have to alternate production from one to the other? This is obviously a horrible, ridiculous design, one that would cut productivity in half. Yet we do the same to ourselves every day with stoplights. Don’t even get me started about coming to a complete stop at empty intersections with stop signs! A partial solution was found with the introduction of overpasses and the cloverleaf, an innovation that revolutionized road travel. But traditional roads are too costly to elevate except where absolutely necessary.

In the factory example, the design would be summarily rejected because of the effect it would have on the bottom line. But what about YOUR bottom-line? Somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten that systemic societal efficiency brings prosperity. What is holding us down economically? Every stoplight. Every stop sign. Every traffic jam. Every accident. Every traffic cop, and every ticket. Every tow truck. Every parking lot. Every flat tire. Every oil change. Every insurance payment. Every car note. Every license renewal. Every pot hole, every drop of gasoline, and every minute spent pumping it. You and I are paying for this and much more. And for those of you that do not know, an automobile engine is, at best, 20% efficient in the first place. (when stuck in traffic it is 0% efficient) It’s all money and time thrown down the rabbit hole of an archaic system.

I know we will still need roads, especially for heavy trucks and interfacing with rural communities. But consider the tax revenue that would be gained by even returning 10% of a city’s streets back into commercial use, and how much taxpayer money would be saved by cutting back on the constant road widening. Or, from an Earth Day perspective, consider the “green-space” and bike trails you could get out of the deal, not to mention the 80% reduction in energy use per passenger-mile. 

Each major advancement in transportation technology has historically ushered in a bright new economic cycle lasting decades. We could sure use that right about now…especially if the boom was also a way out of this (climate-change/dwindling reserves) pickle we’re in.

16 comments:

cmfseattle said...

While I agree with just about all of the above, communities aren't factories, and I don't think PRT should be touted as a silver-bullet replacement. Rather, it should be allowed to demonstrate its value against and in concert with competing methods.

http://www.northstar.sierraclub.org/campaigns/transportation/position200404.html

http://bigthink.com/dougmalewicki

Derek said...

Where does the 60 feet come from? Is it arbitrary?

Dan said...

Dan the Blogger returns…
Sorry, for the delay guys, too many projects!

I don’t know Cmf,.. If I were a looking for a silver bullet solution, ubiquitous direct automated transit would come pretty close, but it’s still pretty far behind pint-sized cold fusion! It’s pretty amazing the difference even a few percentage points in productivity per worker or GDP makes. A penny saved goes ‘round and ‘round. I really wish I knew the total cost of road transportation on my budget. There are just so many ways we pay…

I am old enough to remember the 60’s, a time when there was broad-based enthusiasm for a better life through engineering and science – something that is sadly lacking today. I would note the public’s appetite for sound-bytes. Like it or not, that’s what gets traction, and it is traction we need. 90% of readers of this blog don’t return, so occasionally I try to reach out to a few of them with a bit of an over-simplification.

On SkyTran… It’s funny how Skytran is at one end of the spectrum and 2getthere or ULTra are at the other. I’m keeping my eye on that double strength “Inductrack II”. With laminated “coils” out of aluminum, the whole thing is getting cheaper and more powerful by the day. It looks like the track I’m working on could be retrofitted, but only on high-speed sections, of coarse. Tire wear is indeed a factor at the very high speeds, but inductrack would be a pain to try to adapt to sharp turns and slopes. So it’s really limited in routing. Obviously it’s really expensive to put tens of thousands of coils (or even laminations) in a track, so my suggestion would be to get started with the more adaptable motor wheel driven bogies, and then look at the numbers – ridership, possible time savings, tire costs, etc. and then determine if a retrofit is cost effective, section by section.

On the Sierra Club resolution… Man, that’s sad. Isn’t that Anderson or Skyweb Express country? I thought Taxi 2000 showed off a demo at the State fair or something…
It sounds like they are talking about ULTra… (Concrete guideways) - I really worry about that ULTra system… If people think that a 25 mph robo-car on a fenced-off road is PRT’s full potential, we can expect more of the same. If they are thinking concrete guideways, they must also be thinking snowplows…I don’t know. It’s just disturbing. Plus, don’t the vehicles look an awful lot like huge alien eyes on an old “Airstream?” – not too woodsy…
It is a bit troubling, the futurist aspect of PRT vs. the aesthetic sensibilities of environmentalists. They should be our natural allies, but I can’t blame them for not wanting to see thousands of shiny pods in the sky. We need to pay attention to what this document represents.

Derek, Thanks for joining in… I wondered if there would be confusion. I was going to put dimensions in but at the time I was doing both English and metric, and there just wasn’t room on the drawing to make them legible. The fact is that 60 ft. is the length of the track pictured, 20’ per vehicle. (Those boxes around each vehicle) That caption was a bit of an afterthought, and not a perfectly descriptive of the pic.

akauppi said...

Smiled reading your analysis of the ULTra. We have to remember they started when Windows 95 had just come out. Eventually also they will need a "second generation" system. By that time the rest of us have hardly arrived at 1st gen!

Dan said...

Point taken, Akuappi. I do not want to bash ULTra. There are powerful arguments to be made for their design architecture.

afransen said...

But ULTra will never be expandable to be a true transportation system for a city. It is just too ugly and inflexible to make it past NIMBYs.

Bruce said...

I think people make too much of the supposed ugliness of elevated guideways. Even if we agree that the guideways are necessarily ugly (and I don't), the truth is, if infrastructure is useful, it gets built, ugly or not. If you cast your gaze around any city, this fact quickly becomes obvious.

As for ULTra, if the operating speed can be raised to 40 mph or so, the headways reduced to below 2 seconds, and the range increased by adding a pick-up that gets power on the move, it will be capable of serving a city

Dan said...

I agree with Alfransen. The “not in my backyard” people are a force to be reckoned with - block by block. This opposition will plant the seeds of doubt about PRT in general, PRT as opposed to light rail, PRT safety – you name it. Highway, light rail or other government funded mega projects may get pushed through sometimes, even exercising “eminent domain” rights to kick people right out of there houses on occasion, but PRT has none of that clout. Anderson, ask I recall, when he partnered with Raytheon, came about as close to selling a PRT system as has ever happened in the U.S., but it fell through, partly on the ugly track. This led to public opinion surveys that resulted in redesigning the track into the smallest and lightest configuration he could work out.

Ultra has other fundamental problems, one being weather. Automated systems that rely on traction for vehicular control need covered, dry surfaces, and alternate braking methods as well, imho. The other is that if you build a system that needs a roadway anyway, why automate it? Why not use the lanes for little electric cars? Hey! Let’s call it…ah…say… Florida! Seriously, though, that way you don’t have to elevate or fence the track, you don’t need stations, and you can get all of the way to your destination.

If you don’t have guided wheels, you are at the mercy of the weather, unless you go very slow. I see no way around it. Ever see that video of Vectus blasting through the snow? I’d like to see Ultra try that. On the other hand, Ultra could, in theory, leave the track and take you to your parked car, (very slowly with sensors) or convert over to manual control. (Dual Mode). I really can’t see how it will ever be a way to commute though, without a guide rail. The rail would stop slipping sideways on ice and provide something to clamp to for reliable stops. This would translate into much higher speeds and closer spacing. The rail would not need to be continuous; it would just be needed for higher-speed track segments. (You’re welcome ULTra; Let me know if you need any further assistance…:o)

cmfseattle said...

the track in the taxi2000 prototype pictures from 2003 looks the same to me as the track in the 1985 patent.

http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/roserpt.htm

http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/PRT/PRT2000_Concept3.html

Bruce said...

Dan, yes, NIMBYs are a force to be reckoned with, but they don't all have the same ideas everywhere. NIMBY opposition to a PRT propopsal would be strong and almost certainly successful in Venice, Italy (and fair enough, you might say), but quite possibly nonexistent in Gurgaon, India.

Meanwhile, FUD requires ignorance. Once a successful working PRT network exists, it will be hard to use FUD to block further PRT projects.

Regarding ULTra, its operating speed is 25 mph. This is higher than the average trip speed for any mode of transport (public or private) in many cities. So it's fast enough for a wide range of applications. The elevated guideways drain very easily and can't become flooded, and are easily swept free of snow by suitably equipped vehicles. In a moderate climate, it should not have much difficulty in achieving 99% up-time or better. It may not quite match the high-speed and ultra-high-reliability potential of enclosed guideways with guide rails, but it should at least suprass, say, buses on roads, and on the plus side the guideway design is cheap to implement.

afransen said...

I hate to say it, Bruce, but even I would probably oppose elevated roadway guideways for PRT like ULTra. I also do not share your optimism for how well it would handle ice and snow, but then, I live in Canada. Here, we use big heavy trucks with very large plows to clear the roads, and then we dump copious quantities of salt (or more usually sand). Making guideways strong enough to support vehicles capable (in terms of power and weight) of clearing serious ice/snow would be prohibitive.

Not saying that ULTra is useless, just that it is far from ideal. It'd be regrettable to build out tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure without making sure the system is as good as it can be.

Bruce said...

afransen: I agree that the current ULTra design would not cope well in Canada, but in what I called a "moderate climate" (such as in England), where heavy snow is rare, it would be fine. Light snow does not require heavy vehicles to sweep it away down the drainage gaps, either between the driving surface and the kerb, or down the middle of the guideway. In one variant of the guideway design, the entire driving surface is a mesh. The purpose is to cast less shadow, but a further effect is to make it harder for snow to settle.

Regarding aesthetics, I personally would not in general object to PRT guideways. I live in London, and there are elevated railways everywere here, and we're all completely used to them - old Victorian ones built on bulky brick viaducts, and the driverless Docklands railway on concrete viaducts. I've seen the ULTra guideway in Heathrow, and it's tiny -- completely dwarfed by the road viaducts that surround it. A one-way guideway would be even smaller, of course.

If it were being built near me, I would insist that the ugly "temporary" fence that is installed in Heathrow not be used, and that the pillars and guideway be clad or painted in materials that harmonised with the local environment. The result might be very attractive. The Bath Renaissance Study illustrates several ways in which PRT can be made visually appealing:

http://www.ultraprt.com/news/57/96/Bath-Design-Competition-Results/

In my opinion, PRT represents an improvement, aesthetically, compared to all other transport infrastructure. I doubt very much that cities that have welcomed overhead monorails, railways and highways would object to PRT on aesthetic grounds.

Bruce said...

Re this line:

"Not saying that ULTra is useless, just that it is far from ideal. It'd be regrettable to build out tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure without making sure the system is as good as it can be."

I think it would be rather more regrettable if the perfect were allowed to become the enemy of the good. The ULTra design is quite good enough for a wide range of transit applications. Therefore, if it is deployed in several applications, it will be useful, at the same time as informing future improvements.

afransen said...

I'd rather we let Heathrow and Abu Dhabi be the guinea pigs, and the rest of the world can get PRT 2.0 or 3.0, but that's me. ULTra requires too many compromises. Yes, it's 'okay', but I am fine with the 'good' being the enemy of the 'okay'.

cmfseattle said...

i'd like to see PRT built mostly in the medians of arterial streets. http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/kasp6.gif

Major Activity Center Circulator System Design Studies


“No respondent felt that the vehicle appearance was poor, indeed the majority thought the vehicles would look excellent. The visual appearance of the elevated structure was regarded generally as good, with 40.4% rating it excellent. It is especially noteworthy that the response to the elevated track gave a notably positive response, with no definitely negative responses and only 2.6% feeling that it could be difficult.”

Snow and Ice Testing Program

http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/jea%20Q&A.doc

http://www.railwaypreservation.com/vintagetrolley/cincinnati.htm

Dan said...

Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments, folks! You have inspired me to write a new post on these issues, which I am working on now.