Saturday, March 21, 2009

Urban Transportation and Peak Oil: A Modest Proposal

Public Transportation is based on a good idea: Vehicle Efficiency * Total Number of People in the Vehicle = Overall Efficiency. If we can just increase the number of people in each vehicle, a transportation system can become far more efficient. There is an obvious implication here: if we can increase overall efficiency, we can decrease petroleum consumption and avoid some of the more unpleasant effects of Peak Oil.

But Public Transportation DOESN'T WORK IN THE UNITED STATES. Even though the federal government spends billions of dollars subsidizing transit, ridership is stagnant and is still far below the levels it saw in its glory days. The average bus uses 3,200 BTUs to take a passenger one mile; the average passenger car (including all the Lexus/Buick/Ferraris etc. on the road) uses 3,500 BTUs. Transit just isn't that efficient, and almost no one uses it. Bus ridership makes up .8% of the total travel used by car. So, we have two goals: to make transit more efficient and to get people to use transit (after all, empty solar-powered buses don't save the environment, do they?).

So, what should we do? Some people argue the solution is simple: expand public transit by increasing service to European levels. We should be able to see some problems here: traditional public transit has a hard time getting people to take it. We have several structural disadvantages (low density and lots of $$$$ to buy cars) that many European countries don't have. The secret is that transit's market share is even declining in Europe, as people move into the suburbs and earn enough money to buy a car.

So, we need to reimagine transit into something that will appeal to people more. Here is a three part proposal for when we hit $5+ Per Gallon Gasoline:

1. Greatly expand Flexcar/Zipcar by merging them with City Car Share and giving them 5% of the city's metered parking spaces (1,200 spaces). In order to deal with Peak Oil, the entire collection of cars should be transitioned to high-efficiency automobiles. You would basically have a choice between Prius, Honda Civic, Mini Cooper Diesel, small econocars, motorcycles, and scooters and Plug-In Electric Vehicles when they come out.
2. But how would you commute? You would use your Zipcar/Flexcar/whatever account to join a website called You would enter in your residence, your place of work, and when you needed to get there. It would then plan the route that would be quickest for you and your carpool companions and tell you where to wait, etc.
3. And getting around when you didn't want to drive? You would use a Dial-A-Ride system. Simply call a 800-number and tell them where you are and where you need to be picked up. The system would then enter your information into the computer so that you could be routed with other passengers to your destination. This is basically a cross between a taxi cab and a bus ride. This method would primarily be used for those who cannot drive for one reason or another (paratransit).

A Comparison of Three Trips:

Conventional Driving:
1. Drive to Work.
2. Drive to Lunch.
3. Drive back to Work.
4. Drive to Grocery Store.
5. Drive Home.

Public Transit:
1. Walk to Bus Stop.
2. Wait for Bus.
3. Get On Bus.
4. Wait for Stop.
5. Get off Bus.
6. Walk to Work.
7. Walk to Lunch.
8. Walk to Work.
9. Go to Bus Stop.
10. Wait for Bus.
11. Get On Bus.
12. Wait for Stop.
13. Get off Bus.
14. Wait for 2nd Bus.
15. Get on Bus.
16. Wait for Stop.
17. Get off Bus.
18. Go to Grocery Store.
19. Walk to Bus Stop (with Full Grocery Bags).
20. Wait for Bus.
21. Get On Bus.
You get the idea.

Public Transit IN THE FUTURE:
1. Go outside your house at 7:45.
2. At 7:50, your carpool arrives. You get in, swiping your card (this charges your account to pay for gas, etc.)
3. You are dropped off at (or relatively near) your workplace at the time you need to be there.
4. You decide to meet a college friend for lunch. You go to the CityZipFlexShare station (a mere block from your office complex) and pick out a Vespa scooter to rent for 1.5 hours. You go to lunch and then comes back.
5. You decide to go to a nightclub after work. Using a computer, pay phone, cell phone, or a kiosk in the city, you swipe your card and tell the computer system where you want to go. It then swings around (carrying other passengers) and takes you to the nightclub. You do the same to get back home.

I need to work out more details, but I keep coming back to this idea. What do you think?

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