Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Crazy Quilt Future

Sitting in the United States in 2008 its compelling to imagine an automotive future much like the automotive present only with a different fuel. ( Well actually there are those who think the present fuel is just fine if we could only pump more of it but we will leave them at the curb for the moment.)The future is a world full of personal cars powered by hydrogen or switchgrass ethanol or hemp seed diesel or windmill electricity available at the home outlet. All of these are worthy successors to fossil fuel but no single one is likely to take the mantle of king of fuels. In fact I think in the long run a major overhaul in our concept of transportation and the design of our living spaces is going to sneak up and render the personal car rather quaint.

In the short run we face a sort of patchwork quilt of solutions that move us toward a sustainable future. After all, if the perfect car went on sale tomorrow; you know the one with a negative carbon footprint that was powered by the sun; just changing over the automotive fleet would take years. What is more likely to happen is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A true plug-in hybrid that was affordable would be a huge step but right now its a bit of an oxymoron. Also with the current electrical generation realities it would really be running on coal. Hydrogen currently implies much the same scenario. Thanks to big agriculture biofuels seem likely to displace food crops and require lots of oil driven fertilizers and intensive motorized farming. That's not a winning formula.

The stark facts indicate the car as we know it is likely to be the transport of choice for some time to come. Current engine technology is extremely clean. Fuel economy can be improved dramatically by downsizing, down powering, saving weight and using diesel. Simple known technology. The problem for the most part is we are addicted to driving alone and the current design of most habitable regions requires the use of an automobile to perform the functions necessary to sustain life. I'm talking about going to the grocery store, any store actually, the bank, the doctor, the daycare center. Did I mention going to work? Unless you live in New York City you probably aren't going to abandon your car for taxis and public transportation. It's just too inconvenient and time consuming.

If I could implement one technology to reduce car use or eliminate it all together in most urban areas it would be something like this. You call a number. You tell them where you are and where you want to go. If you don't like cell phones you do this on your computer or at a dedicated kiosk. Within five minutes a nice diesel powered van arrives. One that has plenty of space for your groceries. It takes you where you need to go picking up other passengers using dynamic routing that allows it to pick up nearby travelers going to local destinations along the way. No long waits. No long walks to the bus stop. Just a charge of perhaps a dollar a mile and an opportunity to meet the community or listen to your iPod. As you wish.

All of this is easily possible using existing technologies. It's just that we are inside the public transportation prison of the past. This is a simple, affordable, economically feasible and desirable solution. Of course taxi franchises and public transport will resist mightily. It just requires thinking outside of the current parameters. For those interested in an elaboration of this idea that describes a current pilot system in operation visit and start talking it up.


Rose said...

I'm grateful to live somewhere where I can walk to work, the bank, restaurants, and a decent movie theatre, and where I can take the PRT (the university's "personal rapid transit" system) to my doctors. Even so, though, you're right: to get to any grocery store, or any drugstore, Target, or anything else requires a car.

It's crazy that in a town with such huge traffic problems there are so few public-transportation options. And as you said, I don't foresee that changing anytime soon, since people seem more invested in the privacy of their own vehicles (even if it means it takes them 40 minutes to get across town) than in sharing a ride with someone else. What's that about, do you think?

pilypas said...

I think that it's mostly about the instantaneous availability of your personal car. Get in and turn the key and you are on your way. The convenience trumps reality. When I was in Seattle it was clear alternatives worked because parking was impossible, or impossibly expensive. In Boulder or Morgantown there is still the illusion of door to door personal transportation so alternatives are likely to be a long time taking root.