Repowering America? How about Refueling America?

This post is tagged “blog news” because of the new tag being introduced. To make up for a paucity of posts recently, I’m going to try to get in another post later today, following up on this one.

I teased in my post on alternative sources of energy (which need to become primary sources of energy) that I would introduce a way of getting around that would use next to no resources, take advantage of our new green electric grid, put as little strain on that grid as possible, and save money. And I’ll get to that. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and people power is the most green form of energy there is. (There’s an old ESPN “This Is SportsCenter” commercial depicting the ESPN campus as powered by Lance Armstrong riding a treadmill; I wish that had even any potential basis whatsoever in reality!)

The greenest ways of getting around are also the oldest: walking, followed by bicycling. Walking gets the edge because it uses no resources other than what you’d consume anyway in the form of food. If you can walk to get to wherever you want to, you probably should, to save the energy of short car trips and get some excersize.

Some people are probably saying, “But Mr. Wick, if I could walk to get to wherever I wanted to, I would, wouldn’t I? Anyone who would drive to get just three blocks away would just be stupid, global warming or no global warming!”

And maybe you do walk to get to anyplace within walking distance (which probably means you live in the city), and maybe you do have to drive to get to anyplace you would want to go to (which probably means you live in the middle of nowhere). But a great many – maybe most – Americans live in a place known as suburbia, places that look like this, California’s Newbury Park community (image courtesy Google Maps):

Now, suppose you live somewhere in the area in the red circle. (Apologies if you can’t see it.) And suppose you want to go to the store. Well, based on plugging in “grocery stores” into a Google Maps search, the nearest grocery store is… about a mile away, as the crow flies. That’s to a place about due east of a point near the center of the circle; there’s another place a bit further away and to the southwest. (There’s a 7-Eleven significantly closer and to the south, but I doubt it would do for full-fledged grocery trips. I only mention it because it comes up on my search.) I could have picked a point to the northwest and gotten even longer distances. Imagine having to lug several bags of groceries, by hand, for over a mile. To put it in perspective, the average human walking speed is 2 to 3 miles per hour. Those bags are surely slowing you down, so you’re looking at nearly half an hour (at best) of a grueling return trip, and about two minutes by car. And remember, this is as the crow flies, so it’s probably significantly longer.

Okay, so maybe you get a bicycle – you’re looking at about 10-15 miles an hour, so as the crow flies, you’re looking at a trip of about four to six minutes. You can get a bike meant to handle a load like bags of groceries, so you’re covered there, but the load might slow you down, and even the added load of the “trunk” will slow you down a little. Still, let’s say you can go 8-12 miles an hour each way – arbitrarily chosen, but it does correspond to four-fifths speed on both numbers. You’re looking at five to seven minutes each way at this point, and carrying the bags is less grueling.

In fact, let’s make this easier by moving closer to one of the stores and bringing this closer to reality. One of my uncles actually lives in this area, and I’ve chosen a semi-random point near his house, represented by the green placemark. (Not exactly on his house. I’m not allowing a horde of people to descend on him. Of course, maybe that’s better than people descending on a complete stranger.) The red placemark is near a nearby Albertsons. As the crow flies, it’s about 3301 feet, or about 5/8ths of a mile.

Here’s the walking route Google Maps generates between the two points – about four-fifths of a mile by its calculations. It calculates the walking time as 16 minutes, and I imagine the bicycle time is about four to six minutes.

Looks decent, right? That is, until you get to the details. Take a look at the segment of a piece of the route shown below. The sidewalk is about three and a half feet wide, wide enough for maybe one person to walk on, and about four to seven feet from the curb – maybe a car’s width. Newbury Park may be lucky to have a sidewalk at all. The street is about five car widths wide with parking existing to some extent on both sides of the street, but not a lot of it. Note that the car in the picture is almost flush up against the curb. Now consider that you can’t just cram in cars like mad and you’re looking at two cars at most traveling on this street at a time. (A traffic lane is about ten-to-twelve feet wide.) If there’s even one car on the road, especially if it’s barreling down the center, there’s not much room for a bike to operate, either on the sidewalk or on the road. Did I mention it’s a decently hilly route, which is kind of a problem for a heavy bike?

Still, it’s doable… until you get to an intersection. Do you see something missing in the image below? Aside from an oddly colored strip of concrete, there isn’t really a crosswalk at this intersection. So what, you might say, people cross where there isn’t a crosswalk all the time. But consider that, if you’re walking, you have to step off a three-foot wide sidewalk to cross as much as 50 feet of roadway, given the curve in the curb that’s intended to allow cars to make higher-speed turns – 14-17 times the distance. You might feel like a lost soul adrift at sea. If you look closely on the left side, you see the sidewalk itself actually turns here – trying to dissuade you from making the crossing.

Now, if you’re riding your bicycle on the street itself, you might not think it’s such a big deal, and even if you’re a pedestrian or intending to bike on the sidewalk, you might think it’s okay. But what happens when you get to the arterial? Two things about the below picture should stand out besides the sudden presence of crosswalks. First, when arterials are involved the curb has an even shallower curve. Secondly, if you’re riding your bike on the pavement, where does it go? Every lane is the same width; maybe the outside lane is about one or two feet wider. You probably have to get your bike to fit in with the normal flow of cars. The sidewalks can be as little as a foot wider, if that, than before, and they are dwarfed by the now-mammoth roadway, which could be about 60 feet wide (with only five lanes of traffic). Oh, and if in all of this, the sidewalk is any wider than four feet, it might be because it’s now completely flush up against the curb. On an arterial. Where the traffic lane is no wider than the others. Imagine walking down the street while cars whoosh past at 25-30 miles an hour just a few feet away – almost right next to you. I haven’t even shown what happens when a non-arterial meets a route that’s very arterial.

What happens when you finally get to the store? Theoretically, you should be in better shape because people are supposed to walk on and cross the parking lot anyway to get to the store. Did I mention the parking lot is as big as the store itself – admittedly this store is part of a larger strip mall? And if you’re biking, do you know for sure if there will be a good place to leave your bike? Especially one where you can lock it up and keep people from stealing it, like you lock your car?

Theoretically, it’s possible to walk or bike from my uncle’s house to the store… but you can see why most people would rather drive, especially with a mostly-arterial route that’s not much longer even by distance. But of course, the store isn’t the only place people go to. Suppose we stopped putting our kids on school buses to send them to school. Now imagine them having to traverse about a mile of this kind of route with all its dangers, real or perceived – and with kids the perception is probably magnified several times. You can see why kids are often put on diesel-belching school buses to take them to schools that could be within half a mile of their home. When they get older, it’s safer, but this is what Newbury Park High School looks like:

(UPDATE: Okay, I have been informed that the above picture was originally mis-labeled as Newbury Park High School, and its compact size should have tipped me off. Google results now suggest that it’s a pre-school, which if anything just proves my point, at least about the early levels, even more: when reading the below, keep in mind we’re talking about four-and-five year old kids here. And high schools are not off the hook even though they generally don’t have to deal with access roads as long as I originally intimated, as suburban high schools tend to be cavernous affairs with multiple sports fields and sealike parking lots. Compare Adolfo Camarillo High School in nearby Camarillo with the school I went to in Seattle.)

Yes, that’s a good 150 feet (or almost a full 3% of a mile) of 18-foot-wide access road just to get to the parking lot from the (arterial) main street, with NO separate pedestrian or bike path (that I can tell) whatsoever. It could take only eleven seconds of walking, if you’re fast, but it could also take as long as almost a minute. If you live really close by, like your house is already visible on the screen, maybe you could cut across the grass if there isn’t a fence, but otherwise you pretty much need a car to pass. (Oh, and the nearest other high school is more than two miles away, even with the correct location, so you could travel significantly more than a mile to get to the nearest high school. Not that I’m proposing densification.)

That is how many, many Americans live, positively needing a car to go distances for which walking should suffice, needing a car to do anything and everything. If you can’t drive – if you’re, say, a little kid, or an old man whose senses aren’t what they used to be – you’re SOL unless you can get someone to drive for you. So cutting down carbon emissions from transportation starts with rethinking how everything is organized and making sure we can walk or bike to as many destinations as possible. If we can walk to the store, walk to the pub, walk to the park, walk to school, walk to soccer practice, that’s a good chunk of driving – and thus, resource use – rendered irrelevant. Ideally, we could walk everywhere.

But when we get to the most fundamental aspect of our travel, we run into a problem. Stores, pubs, parks, even schools, are all fundamentally interchangeable. If we move far enough away from one that we become closer to another, we can just transfer to that other thing without any serious impact to our lives. It is not so with workplaces. If we move, we can’t easily change our place of work to correspond to that, and not everyone can live flush up next to downtown. “Office parks” have become popular near suburbs but in terms of getting their workers to live near them, the results have been mixed at best. The mobility of the automobile renders location mostly irrelevant, despite what real estate agents will tell you. Most people don’t think of the cost of driving more, at least until recently – but it means more resource use and more traffic on the main arterials. (This is especially the case in cities that have built “beltway” freeways that ease travel between suburbs.)

Is there a way to travel longer distances than even bikes allow if we need to, without contributing to global warming and indeed using as few resources as possible? Well, consider that a car engine has to carry both itself and the people in it, and all things considered, the people (and the cargo) will generally weigh less than the car. If you cram as many people as possible in the car, it will cause a negligible impact on the car’s resource use – but if all those people would have driven instead, each of those cars would need to carry themselves and used much more in the way of resources.

So perhaps even better than the electric car would be to move more of our people, and ideally as many as possible, using mass transit – buses, trains, and the like. And once we’ve taken that step, the benefits just rack up and rack up, extending so far beyond climate change it becomes worth investing in in its own right. Since buses and trains travel on fixed routes several times each day, we can connect them to electric wires and take full advantage of our green electric grid – without having to plug them in anywhere. People riding on public transit instead of driving cars take up less space in addition to less mass, and each person who takes transit gives up an entire car with next to no replacement on the roads, resulting in a true reduction in traffic congestion (even if you personally don’t use it – this is especially the case if they don’t use the roads at all, i.e., are trains). People aren’t driving so they don’t get road rage, so they can just enjoy the ride, and they can get something productive done instead of wasting time driving.

Perhaps most importantly, build it and they will come: across the nation transit projects have brought with them new development designed to take advantage of the transit and cater to transit users, building whole neighborhoods around transit stations – almost always very dense, tall buildings that work to curb sprawl (which also is tied to global warming through potential deforestation). We might even see many of America’s other seemingly unrelated problems – our continuing distrust of each other, the dissolution of the community – at least be eased by a transition back to neighborhoods instead of cars.

“What!” you claim. “Mass transit? Isn’t that welfare for the poor? That stinks! You’re trying to impose communism and lower our quality of life! You’re trying to limit our choice!” I’m sure you probably have an idea of mass transit as a bunch of grimy, noisy, diesel-spewing buses clogged in traffic with uncomfortable seats where crazy, scary black men lurk everywhere you turn. I’m sure there are some transit systems like that, but they’re probably little more than sops to the idea of having transit at all in communities that otherwise worship at the altar of the automobile. Many modern buses are clean, running on compressed natural gas, biofuels, or hybrid buses; pretty much all urban trains are electric, but it’s possible to run a bus on electric wires as well, if surprisingly underutilized outside here in Seattle. New York City should be our model, where there exists a rail system of the sort typical of just about all urban areas around the world of over about eight million population (except Los Angeles). There, the subway has become every bit a part of the identity of the city as the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building, and here’s an incredible stat: less than half the population of New York even owns a car, let alone drives one. Chicago, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Boston have superlative transit systems as well. The car doesn’t have to be America’s only transportation option.

What reason is there that that success can’t be repeated all over the country? Before the Great Depression, many of America’s cities had marvellous streetcar systems. During World War II, many of them were bought up and dismantled, replaced by the aforementioned terrible buses. Many transit advocates claim the oil and car companies conspired to destroy the streetcars to ensure the dominion of cars. Some experts have looked into the matter and decided the streetcars were unprofitable enough to be bought and dismantled. Robert Bruegmann, in his anti-anti-sprawl book Sprawl: A Compact History (which I will refer to again in later posts), suggests that it was as simple as buses providing flexibility to change routes with changing travel patterns that streetcars did not. But that very flexibility has since proven to be a curse: once a rail line is down, it’s difficult to change, but a bus line could change at any time like that, so buses are wholly ineffective at bringing the sort of transit-oriented development I mentioned earlier, no matter how good they are. Add that to buses’ tendency to get stuck in traffic I mentioned earlier, combined with trains’ ability to be run above or below ground in their own right of way, and you can see that preferably trains are in our green energy future.

(I know I haven’t covered every objection people may have to my mass transit strategy. I’ll get to others in later posts.)

That takes care of the transportation paradigm within cities, but what about beyond it, especially with regards to suburbia? Many areas are instituting commuter rail systems along the same lines as longer-distance freight and passenger rail, to serve the suburbs otherwise underserved by urban rail systems. Their main problem is that they tend to be structured around a park-and-ride model, which begs the question “I’m already in my car, I might as well keep driving.” Still, they’re important to connect the suburbs to the city and urban rail system, especially with bus connections on the suburban end.

As for longer distances, between cities? This, after all, is where one would most need the gas engine of a Volt, and some way to get around the limitations of electric cars in general. Most Americans take a plane to go any distance beyond 250 miles or so, but they by necessity guzzle a lot of gas and spew a lot of greenhouse gases. Airline companies are letting the public know that they are transitioning to biofuels and potentially hydrogen, but an electric plane is probably out of the question. Fortunately, we have America’s long-distance passenger rail system, and the Democratic-controlled Congress has repeatedly shown its loyalty to Amtrak in recent months. Several people have been pushing for development of a high speed rail system that could deliver people across the country at speeds comparable to air travel; these systems have been gaining popularity in Europe and Asia. For intercontinental travel, aircraft is probably still best, unless you want to spend a long time on a boat, and with biofuels and potentially hydrogen (and, dare I say, solar and wind?)-powered aircraft, even that can cut down on its global warming impact.

We can cut America’s greenhouse gas emissions, even as we get around. To work best, it’ll require us to rethink the way we live, but in most ways it’s probably for the best anyway.

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