In the last post I suggested that the U.S. learn from Europe in the use of high speed trains as a core component of a national transportation system. Trains are more energy efficient than cars, give off far less greenhouse emissions than airplanes, rarely get cancelled or delayed due to ‘weather’ or ‘flow control’ and depart and arrive near the central city. Given that America is much larger than any country currently utilizing high speed trains, it can only be a part of the transportation mix. What might the composite national transportation profile look like in 2015?
High speed trains could operate in the highly populated corridors mentioned in the last post. These are mostly on a north-south axis. Utilization of these trains would alleviate congestion in the air and at airports. Airlines, using ever more fuel efficient planes, could be the primary transcontinental and east-west transport. Airports in cities served by high speed trains could have direct local trains connect to the central train station.
By 2015 a significant percentage of cars on the road can be plug-in hybrids or pure plug-in vehicles. Both GM, with their Chevrolet Volt, and now Toyota have promised mass production of plug-ins by 2010-2011. Currently Americans keep their cars for an average of 8 years. Hybrids are already being sold. This means that by 2015 50% or more of the cars on the road in the country can be either pure electric or hybrids. The benefits of this are obvious: much lower consumption of oil, perhaps alleviating the need for importing oil altogether, much lower CO2 emissions, lower transportation costs and lowered noise levels (electric cars are quiet).
The gaps between long distance travel and city travel are the regional areas around major cities that have grown up in the last 20 years. Exurbia as it is called was a land use vision based upon cheap oil and cheap energy in general. Exurbia now seems to be at risk of becoming a dinosaur-like anachronism and monument to developer greed and short term planning. The transportation solution here is to connect these distant suburbs to the city via high speed electric trains. (Simultaneous to this of course is increasing the bandwidth of high speed internet access to lessen the need for those living in exurbia to commute into the central city. Simply reducing the number of days that someone needs to commute from five to three will obviously help in the reduction of energy consumption and stress on the transportation system.) Suburbs could be easily connected with electric buses that have exclusive use of lanes to allow for higher speed transport than currently possible.
Amidst all this high tech, electric, intelligent and energy efficient reconfiguration of America’s transportation system must be added a centuries old invention, the bicycle.
The country has come a long way in the last 20 years in creating bicycle paths and bicycle right of ways in cities. However, all one needs to go is go to most central and northern European countries to see how far America can go in integrating bicycles into the transportation mix. As we have vast parking lots for cars at commuter train stations, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have large, covered areas to store one’s bicycle before getting on the electric train to commute to work. Not an ounce of gas is used for the day’s round trip commute. This might also help is lowering our comparatively higher rates of heart disease and diabetes.
All of this can happen. The technology is either in place or, as in the case of battery innovation being developed at a furious pace. What is needed are two things. First, there needs to be true visionary and committed leadership in Washington D.C. and state capitols to mandate and support this vision. Second, the citizenry needs to decide that this vision is motivational enough to over come laziness, bad habits, and self-centered convenience. What could prompt both of these things to occur? $125 barrel oil combined with spot shortages so that gas can only be purchased on designated days. Add on to this a promoted awareness that our country is sending two billion dollars a day to countries that don’t necessarily like us except for the fact that we are addicted to the product they are happily selling us. In addition, the ever increasing inconvenience of air travel, commuting gridlock and the perceived consequences of global warming will move us to wake up.
As a nation we are starting to move in the right direction, but that movement is not nearly committed or fast enough. We might need the perfect storm of negative experiences and perceptions described above to prompt us to react. The certainty of that increases every day we continue down our current path.