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Roads

April 3rd, 2011 Comments off

On a recent road-trip to West Virginia, I saw a bumper-sticker that said, Sick of traffic?  Invest in Highways!

(What is it the kids say these days?  I believe the term is FACEPALM!…)

One can’t be blamed for thinking the solution for too much traffic is to provide more pavement for the cars to travel on.  I mean, if the 4-lane highway is too crowded, then wouldn’t 6 lanes, or 8 lanes – or even a shiny new freeway – fix the problem?

Then again, if there weren’t any highways, there wouldn’t be any traffic.

Of course, eliminating all of our roads is about the worst possible solution to solving our traffic problems.  But building a lot more roads isn’t much better.  Roads create traffic. While a highway expansion may eliminate bottlenecks and traffic jams in one location, it increases the number of cars that travel to other locations – typically denser, urban centers or commercial areas into which people commute for their jobs.  Once this “easy access” to the city is built, there’s an influx of people to the suburbs, creating more traffic, requiring more roads, and the downward spiral continues.  The eventual outcome is a sprawling metropolitan area, with a massive network of roads and highways, nearly all of which are constantly clogged with traffic.  (Look at Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC as prime examples.)

No, if you’re sick of traffic, don’t invest in highways.  Invest in public transit. High-speed rail and commuter rail make great alternatives to interstate freeways.  Light rail and buses work well in urban areas.  And in addition to the traffic congestion relief provided by transit systems, we also get the environmental and petroleum reduction benefits.  Additionally, high-speed and light rail offers economic opportunities along their routes.  (Of course, the economic impact isn’t universally agreed upon.  Those opposed argue that no transit system can succeed without massive subsidies.  Then again, what about our highways?  Until every road in the U.S. is a toll-road, that roadway upon which you’re driving is 100% subsidized!)

The Sick of Traffic? Invest in Highways! slogan comes from the American Traffic Safety Services Association, a legitimate trade group representing its members who are involved in traffic control and roadway safety.  Obviously, they’re looking out for their members’ interests, and they certainly can’t be blamed for that.  But the irony isn’t lost on me that the particular bumper sticker I saw was plastered on the back of a Hummer H2, rumbling down I-66 carrying only a single occupant.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we’ve got over four million miles of roads in the U.S.  On the other hand, we’ve got about 21,000 miles of Amtrak, 7,500 miles of commuter rail, and 1500 miles of light rail.  Right now, we don’t need any more roads.

Categories: General, Policy, Public Transit Tags:

Piety

April 7th, 2010 Comments off

On my commute to work this morning, a Toyota Prius passed by me in the HOV lane.  (It wasn’t traveling at a high-rate of speed, so I suspect the throttle was not stuck open.)  The personalized license plate on the Prius read “H8 GAS“.  Although I could only see the back of the driver’s head, I’m quite certain his expression bore a certain degree of smugness.

The gas-hating Prius-driver obviously feels he is doing right by the environment by purchasing one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles available.  (I mean, he did go so far as to plaster the motivation for his good eco-deed on the back of his car!)  The irony here, however, is that this driver sat alone in his Toyota, taking advantage of the policy that’s in place in most major metropolitan areas that allow drivers of hybrid vehicles to travel in the HOV lanes regardless of the number of vehicle occupants.  Meanwhile, I was motoring down the carpool lane while seated on a bus – powered by natural gas – along with several dozen neighbors.  (Once disembarking from the bus, we all boarded a subway – powered by electricity.)

Now, I don’t want to fault the Prius driver too much.  Perhaps he had a good reason for taking up space in the HOV lanes today.  And he did, afterall, make a good vehicle purchasing decision from an environmental standpoint.  I do have to question his taste in license-plate personalization, however. It exudes the same self-righteousness as the stock broker whose plate says MONYMAKR.  Or the Christian’s whose plate says FORGIVEN.  …Or the urologist’s whose says GR8FNGRS

I also have to question the HEVs-in-HOVs policy that so many people exploit.  Much like Cash for Clunkers, the intent is a legitimate one (to accelerate the deployment of fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles), and it has been somewhat successful – many folks buy hybrid vehicles solely for the privilege of traveling solo in the carpool lane.  However, I cringe at the large number of single-occupant, HOV-traveling hybrid Ford Escapes and Toyota Highlanders I see – both reasonably fuel-efficient vehicles, but nowhere near as economical as many smaller conventional vehicles.  (God help me the first time I see a BMW X6 ActiveHybrid exploiting the rule..)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all-in when it comes to promoting the development, manufacture, deployment, and market penetration of hybrid vehicles.  (In fact, that’s what I do everyday.  For my job.  For which I get paid.)  But perhaps it’s time to revisit some of the policies that were put in place to spur the HEV market, and instead focus on policies to promote public transit.  (Some places, like California, are starting to do just that.)  After all, if he hadn’t been able to drive in the HOV lane alone in the Prius, the Gas H8r may have been enticed to keep his conventional vehicle and make a few carpool buddies.

…Or even ride the bus – leaving him time to think of other ways to advertise how proud he is of himself.

High Speed Rail

October 31st, 2009 Comments off

OK, so this is supposed to be a car blog.  But, the tag-line says personal mobility, and as one cog in the wheel of transportation options, high-speed rail certainly falls into that category.

BUT, high-speed rail is currently a very under-represented option for moving people around here in the U.S.  That might soon change, however.  (Well, soon might not be accurate.  Maybe one day, or eventually is more appropriate.)  Earlier this year, the Obama administration proposed significant investment (starting with $8-billion in stimulus money) for developing a high-speed intercity rail transport network, targeting travel distances of approximately 100-600 miles – distances now typically traveled by car or plane.  (Personally, if I can drive somewhere in less than 12 hours, I would much rather drive than fly.  I rank flying as one of the most unpleasurable activities one can undergo – right there with root-canals and vasectomies.)  Speeds will be in excess of 150 mph, making longer distance trips feasible.

So, what’s the point?  Well, to give travelers another transportation option and promote competition for one.  (Choices and competition are good, right?)  Secondly, to stimulate economic activity, through the activities involved with developing and building the high-speed rail system, as well as through the services that high-speed rail will provide once it’s functional.  Another goal is to reduce fossil-based fuel consumption and the effects thereof.  While air travel is now, on average, slightly more efficient per passenger-mile than car travel, high-speed rail is significantly less energy intensive than either.  (Think about it: it takes energy not only to move a giant airliner through the air, but also to keep its immense mass suspended at 30,000 feet.  Trains, on the other hand, travel much closer to the ground.)  A final goal is to support and promote more livable, sustainable communities, by interconnecting them with an affordable, efficient transportation option.

It’s this last goal that’s most intriguing to me (and harkens back to the whole systems thinking theme of my last post).  Viewing high-speed rail not in a vacuum, but as part of a larger transportation ecosystem, we could dramatically change the way we move people and things around.  And if it’s an attractive option for travelers – costing no more than equivalent airfare, while providing at least a modicum of comfort and chance at productivity (unlike air travel) – I see no reason why it shouldn’t succeed.  And the ability to connect high-speed rail with other travel options (such as commuter rail in major metropolitan areas, or car-sharing programs such as the one being piloted by Better Place in Denmark) is just icing on the cake.

Of course, there will be nay-sayers that predict the push for high-speed rail is just another way for government to spend billions of taxpayer money without any result.  But, the same might have been said half a century ago when Dwight Eisenhower pushed for the interstate highway system.  And that certainly had an impact, resulting in the car monoculture that we have today.

High Speed Rail Map

Categories: Policy, Public Transit Tags: