Driving to Destruction: Failure of the Public Transportation Sector to Adapt to Changing Circumstances

Filed under: Policy | |

By Jerry J. Toman, ScM

This, the fourth article in the series The Two-Headed Dragon ~ Energy/Water/Food Scarcity and Climate Change. Top Ten Policies that Feed it, and Two New Technologies that Could Enable us to Slay It and Save the Planet focuses on the issue of our car centric culture; how it has shaped our society and on ways we can shake ourselves free from this unsustainable dependence on spread out cities built around single occupancy vehicles (or SOVs).

During the mid to latter half of the nineteenth century, the steam engine, operating on coal, was the transportation workhorse; with the trains it powered occupying the “high-speed” transportation niche of the era. However, trains were mainly freight carriers even though there was nominal passenger service east of the Mississippi. This steam-engine propulsion system was also able to take advantage of the natural water transportation pathways, primarily the navigable Ohio and Mississippi River systems as well as on the Great Lakes, not only to carry freight, but to power the more luxurious and passenger-oriented, River Boats.

Early in the twentieth century, two modes of transportation became enabled by the refinement of the internal combustion engine (ICE)—the automobile and the airplane. The former will be discussed here, as it has had the most immediate and pervasive impact, and continues to consume four times the amount of fuel energy as do airplanes (as kerosene), and twice the amount consumed as heavier distillate (diesel or heating oil).

The emergence of a compact and efficient ICE, along with the implementation of the “assembly line”—able to produce cars both inexpensively and in great volumes, set the stage for the blossoming of the private automobile as the “preferred” form of transportation, replacing the streetcar in cities and the horse in more rural areas. When combined with technical progress in the petroleum industry, which was able to find and develop many oil fields as well as to provide advances in chemical and catalytic refining methods, the result was a paradigm shift in possibilities for the transportation sector. The die had, in effect, been cast.

The Car Culture Covers the Country

Lurking in the shadows during this metamorphosis, were the growing and ever-opportunistic, mega-capitalistic companies such as Ford, General Motors in addition to the ubiquitous Standard Oil Co. They saw their role as being one to provide the initial investment required to accelerate the process. In addition, they were more than willing to provide an “invisible hand” to make sure there would be no deviation from the “maximum profit” pathway of the private automobile they had decided upon.

The result of this process is history. The streetcars were eventually removed from the cities, horses were replaced with “tin-lizzies”, the interstate highway system was built, and the farming system was mechanized so that fewer farmers were required. Many of them, together with immigrants, eventually moved to cities, which, instead of expanding upward, instead expanded outward, enabled by the willingness of government to build more and more roads, as well as to allow the gobbling up virgin land (aka valuable farmland) in the process.

We are now stuck with a housing pattern and a transportation system to serve it that will continue to be ruinously expensive to operate if the current paradigm of single-occupancy vehicle use is not abandoned. The congestion problem is exacerbated by governments seeming inability to limit the number of vehicles on the road at the same time. Transition to hybrids or EVs alone will not be sufficient to reduce fuel consumption, with its concomitant carbon emissions; “light rail” cannot be the answer due to the constraints of both time and available financing.

Some Immediate Options to Wean Ourselves Off Our Car Habit

Without question, the urban/suburban transportation system needs to be modified to increase efficiency per passenger mile. In the short-term, use of car-pooling and existing (7-9 passenger) van options needs to be maximized to reduce liquid fuel demand; otherwise, the price of gasoline is sure to be driven ever upward, trends toward increased automobile use in the rest of the world kick in. Increasing fees or taxes bring obvious benefits, both to discourage use of private automobiles, especially during peak traffic hours, as well as to increase revenues.

Up to now, the use of passenger vans (aka minibuses) has not gained cache in the USA, due to the perception that, when filled with passengers, they are difficult to board as well as to disembark from. While existing van designs may be serviceable “as-is” in certain home-to-work applications; for continuous urban routes, it would be advantageous to modify current designs to reduce both the boarding difficulty as well as the invasion of “personal space” people feel at this moment, as well as for the duration of the trip.

Advanced Efficient Three Wheeled Mini Buses

My own preference for a “minibus” would be to adopt a 3-wheeled, mid-engine design, involving a streamlining, as well as the lengthening and widening of the body as compared to standard vans. Rather than installing “bench seats”, individual seats should be placed in strategic locations, with swiveling capability to permit not only an easier boarding process, but also a more comfortable ride. A small, rotating “people-mover” with center pole, might also prove to be useful.

Inherent instabilities (forward to side tipping) associated with the three-wheeled design could be met by incorporating a number of features, including the governing of maximum speed, the observing careful loading protocols, extensive driver training, and limiting the driver’s weight.

Further, many electronic features to make the 3-wheeled van a truly “smart car” could be employed to increase safety. These might include “fast-close” radar warning systems to warn the driver to take action before there is danger of tipping and “road hazard” detection radar, to avoid sudden swerving. Computer-controlled mechanical devices, imbedded the roof, might also be installed, which would be activated to provide momentary air drag to counteract tipping tendencies.

One could go even further and install computer-controlled evasion devices. In fact, there is no absolute reason why cameras could not be installed, allowing the “commuter” to be driven remotely, similar to the way some aircraft fly. A remote “driver” could be seated comfortably at some console in a tall building at the center of the route, which would have the benefit of liberating an additional seat, thereby reducing the number of vans on the road by at least 10%

While the inefficiencies of “stop-and-go” driving, inherent in a “public” system could best be met by transitioning to hybrid technology, conventional drives, including those using CNG as fuel, or EVs could be included in the mix, at least initially. If a sufficient number of SOV’s could be removed from the cities, any collective transportation system using multi-passenger vehicles, would obviously work much better than the current model.

Below are three diagrams of what the proposed three wheeled minibus would look like, starting with a front view followed by a side view and finally a top down view.

Three wheeled minibus front view
Three wheeled minibus side view
Three wheeled minibus top view

Other Notes and/or Suggestions

1) A PHEV (Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle) is an EV, beefed-up enough to carry an I-C Engine and the weight of additional batteries (inefficient).

2) Road speeds should be reduced to save both fuel and lives—the time we save for ourselves by speeding, is simply time that is stolen from other people, including from future generations.

3) Lower-conflict traffic patterns are possible; current patterns are inefficient, and need to be overhauled, most effectively by instituting one-way thoroughfares and improved timing strategies.

4) Work-at-home Wednesdays could be adopted as a standard feature of most office employment situations, minimizing traffic on this day. Working at home on Fridays or Mondays would not be as efficient for the company, since the “weekend mentality” would set in. Perhaps on Wednesdays it would be best to schedule “meetings by remote.” Many people might also be willing to simply take a “pay cut” for the privilege of attending to personal matters, such as medical (stress reduction) or child care needs, or agree to work an extra hour on the 4 remaining days of the week.

5) The immediate cessation of the production, exploration and/or drilling for petroleum and natural gas is not feasible. However, the wastage of liquid fuels in some countries (US, Canada, Australia, among others) is extreme and it would be in everyone’s best interest, that the super-consumers cut their consumption of liquid fuels by about one-third by 2015, and by about one-half by 2020. This could be accomplished with a lot less pain than is generally believed, and it would have the collateral benefit of reducing tropical forest clearing for bio-fuel production.

© 2009, Jerry_Toman. All rights reserved. Do not republish.


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Author: Jerry_Toman (6 Articles)

Jerry Toman is a chemical process engineer with Oil and Gas experience interested in developing advanced technologies for the extraction, conversion, recycling and storage of energy (and water) resources to achieve maximum benefit consistent with minimal environmental degradation. He also has experience providing a techno-economic analysis for comparing various heavy oil upgrading technologies, including end refining and transportation. He now applies these techniques to evaluate renewable energy options, such as wind and solar, as well as often overlooked resources such as Ocean (or large lake) Thermal, geothermal and atmospheric thermal (CAPE) potential. Jerry's specialties include Specialties system energy and material balances, thermodynamics, heat and mass transfer, carbon capture, cascaded energy use (waste heat recovery), heavy oil processes, PSV (relief valve) evaluations, hazop & safety, water treating and renewal processes, desalination, environment & energy conservation, optimal energy use for transportation.