Saturday, February 5, 2011
Well, we’re having a snow day in Houston…Well not really a snow day, actually it is an ice day. The buses are not running. Everyone is being advised to stay home. At the moment, all of the freeways are closed. It seems like a good moment to curl up with a warm laptop, and tap out some thoughts about this epic winter.
Being a mere six hours from Mexico, we are not well prepared for these kinds of weather events. We have no salt trucks or snowplows, but yesterday a truck preemptively applying a deicing solution caused a great traffic jamb, of which I was a part. It did no good.
It boggles the mind to think of the calamity that these weather systems are causing across the US (and Europe?) this year. In the last one, there were even fatalities in New York because ambulances couldn’t make it through. Enough, already! Is this really the best we can do?
The ongoing recession should serve as a “teachable moment” that illustrates the effects of a few percentage points of reduced economic activity. Clearly, these weather events must work against our collective well-being, event though we may not make the association. Such shutdowns further compound the wasted productivity caused by simple traffic, illustrated in the chart below.
Being paralyzed like this should point out the consequences of having all of our transportation “eggs in one basket.” For example, the rise of radical Islam makes me wonder if anyone has really considered what would be the effect of a sustained campaign of sabotage against road-based travel in a modern society. After all, a single disabled vehicle can nearly freeze a whole highway. Imagine the effect of terrorists simply targeting the tires of moving vehicles on a continuing basis… or even traffic lights for that matter. (I’m glad my readership is a very small and constructive group, or I would not share such notions)
There is also the warm weather counterpart to the “snow day,” which is street flooding. PRT systems can be specifically designed with this in mind. As ridiculous as it sounds, many urban areas around the world are built on floodplains. What would have been, for example, the result of a PRT system in New Orleans? If predictions of climate scientists are correct, we are in for lots of major weather events of all types in years ahead.
Anyway, my point is that society has reached a point of unprecedented interdependency, and is very vulnerable to any disruption in travel. These are not the days when everyone had canned leftovers from their large gardens and a cord of firewood on hand. If our transportation stops, our means of survival (and escape) does too.
Astute reader Lars Endre recently referred to raised PRT as exploiting “the virgin third dimension.” I love the phrase. It occurs to me, however, that it is not really virgin at all, at least around here. Here we have lots of spaghetti-like highway interchanges that are many stories tall. The interesting thing is that these forays into that third dimension are the very reason this city has drawn to a halt. Raised roadways and overpasses freeze first. We have many miles of raised HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes, connected to “Park and Ride” parking lots. Our embryonic light rail system continues to work, but nobody can get to the stations.
Too bad we can’t exploit the nice dry undersides that such elevated structures enjoy. Oh wait… We can! Yes, it’s the underside of that virgin third dimension that offers the possibility of completely weatherproof transportation. (You knew I would turn this into a shameless plug for suspended PRT sooner or later, right?)
While we're talking about snow, although this is a bit off-topic, I would like to take this opportunity to mention the troublesome act of repeatedly salting roads. It reminds me of the age-old notion of dumping waste into the ocean or atmosphere because “It’s just so darn big that it can’t be hurt.” We know better now, but we continue to salt the earth on a mega-industrial scale. (10 million tons per year in the US, which works out to 66 lbs. annually per person) It works its way downward, eventually, to the water table, where it migrates “away.” Some readers may have seen these structures along roadways and not known what they are. They are structures for storing all of that road salt. I only wish PRT could solve this dilemma too.
Finally I just thought I would share these pics that I happened upon. As you can see, the need to remove snow from our 2D transportation systems is not confined to just roadways.
Well it’s a day later and the sun is shining and the roads are clear once again. Time for me to wrap this up…
PRT cannot mean an end to roads or the costs of maintaining them. There still will be the need to move heavy loads, that last mile problem, and the whole countryside beyond. But an extensive, all-weather PRT network could, in times of crisis, be a very important backup system to have. We sure could have used it yesterday.