2009 in transit

Treehugger has a slideshow of the best and worst ideas in sustainable transportation from 2009. But, instead of debating the varying merits of this or that electric car, they've left cars out entirely, in favor of planes, trains, bikes and boats. Bikes get the most play here, and there are some innovative ideas—like cargo bikes and bike highways. Treehugger is mostly talking about their use in places like Copenhagen, but I love how Minneapolis' system of limited-access bike trails makes bike travel and commuting faster, easier and more enjoyable. (They're even plowed in winter!)

I do with the slideshow had focused less on the bikes, and more on mass transit and shipping. Mass transportation is a key component in just about every plan for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, but it doesn't get nearly as much attention as every random attempt to revamp the personal car. There is, however, some interesting stuff about high-speed trains and early developments in alternative-fuel aviation.

Treehugger: Best and Worst of 2009: The Year in Bikes, Trains, Planes and Boats


  1. There are a few things to consider when talking about mass transit. Mass transit’s efficiency is often considered with peak usage, however often trains and buses are not filled and their efficiency drops down. A bus with less than 10 people on it is less efficient than 3 cars with those same people in them.

    Another point is that when you build a mass transit system, it is not easy to update it with more efficient technology as it becomes available. Cars have an advantage in that they can have the latest, most efficient technology implemented in them as it develops. My personal opinion is that a system where cars drive themselves and are networked to eachother using algorithms to determine the most efficient use of space and speed would be the most beneficial to all of us. Such a system would allow cars to drive faster, closer together, and at a uniform speed that would maximize efficiency and avoid wasteful stop and go as much as possible. It would also allow a large increase in traffic volume on our current infrastructure. Autonomous driving technology is still in an early stage, but developing rapidly.

    1. That’s a fantasy. Electric trains are here today and they work. You can’t always wait for the next big thing to come along, especially when there’s global environmental concerns involved.

    2. “A bus with less [sic] than 10 people on it is less efficient than 3 cars with those same people in them.”

      This is pretty disingenuous. A bus with fewer than 10 people compared to two cars with 3 people in them and one with 4? So the cars are being filled to capacity during these off peak times? Off peak carpooling? It would be more accurate to compare a bus with n people on it to n cars, each with 1 person in it. So by your numbers, a bus with 3 people or fewer is less efficient that each of these people driving. (I have no idea about the 1 bus = 3 cars, but I’m not disputing that right now.) Also, the huge gains you get from ridership of n>3 much of the time due to a reliable and consistent bus schedule more than makes up for the slight loss when, at any given time, the bus has fewer than 3 people.

  2. Mass transit only works in dense urban environments. Most of which already have mass transit in place. The expense of installing a brand new electric train system is huge. And it is only “green” in an appropriate application. I used to believe that mass transit was the best way to solve all of our pollution and congestion issues, but after reading much material I have seen that it can only apply to dense urban environments. A city that is poorly planned (like Dallas or LA for example) cannot utilize mass transit effectively. The “green” value drops off significantly in those places. It is mainly due to the poor planning of cities, but the damage is done already. I’m just suggesting a solution that could work. An electric train system won’t work in those places. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: http://islandturtle.blogspot.com/2009/03/mass-transit-vs-priusprius-wins.html

  3. I can’t speak for Dallas, but you can’t just dismiss rail transit in L.A. with a handwave like that. You do realize that while 20 years ago there were no transit alternatives to the bus, we now have two subway lines, three light-rail lines (just expanded last month), one dedicated busway, seven commuter rail lines, and improved bus service of various types all over the metro area. And we’re building more, especially thanks to last year’s Prop R, which passed by a 2/3 majority of the voters in the county as a whole (i.e., not just L.A. City).

    Obviously the transit system doesn’t reach as many places as it would like, doesn’t serve as many people as it would like, and most people still use their cars. But if the system does go where you’re headed, it works pretty well and there is a lot of ridership.

    Another line is currently under construction and others are in various states of planning and/or funding. We’ve come a long way but there is a long way to go.

    I take the subway into work every day and it’s always packed.

    My point is that there are plusses and minuses to transit in L.A., but it’s sheer ignorance to toss a “poorly planned” L.A. into the “nope, can’t work here” bin.

  4. You’ll notice, also, that in the post that dolo cites, Los Angeles is one of the cities in which the heavy rail equals and the light rail beats a Prius in CO2 emissions.

    Also note a few more things:
    1. As a city’s utility changes to more green sources of energy, the emissions of the electricity-powered rail systems will go down.

    2. Many passengers who commute by automobile are using light trucks, not cars, and light trucks do in fact compare quite unfavorably to transit in re: emissions.

    3. Improving service or otherwise attracting new riders, especially during off hours, to an existing mass transit system improves the figure the study measures, CO2 emissions per passenger-mile.

    4. Land use and transportation planning go hand-in-hand. Even without considering points #1 to 3 above, the residents of a new 100-dwelling-unit transit-accessible apartment building in Hollywood using the Red Line to commute to downtown L.A. emit far less CO2 than the residents of a new 100-dwelling-unit auto-dependent housing subdivision in an exurb like Lancaster commuting to downtown L.A. even if they use Priuses. Why? Because the high-density urban dwellers are travelling far fewer miles (~ 8 miles vs. ~ 70 miles) than the low-density exurbanites, even if their mode of transportation emits the same amount of CO2 per passenger-mile.

    5. There are multiple reasons to push for transit. The environment is one. Another is increasing mobility for more segments of the population. Many people are too old, young, poor, or disabled to drive or afford to drive, and a good transit system opens up opportunities for more of the population.

  5. Just slowing vehicles down a little will save enormous amounts of energy. Did you know drag goes up by the cube of the speed?

    It’s possible for electric-assist bicycles to be even more energy-efficient than 100% human-powered bikes. Especially if you consider the energy-intensive ways food is produced today.


    Of course, there are health benefits to exercise, assuming you’re sedentary outside of the time you’re commuting. Would you ride your bike more if you had help up the worst hills, and could maintain 20mph (~32kph) throughout your entire commute?

    1. I made an E-bike this summer that goes 25-30 mph.
      I used lead acid batteries, and they usually work fine. The thing works well for my commute, but…
      1)Rain sucks. The bike sucks in rain. It has rained over 30% of the days since I’ve made it.
      2)Cold weather severely limits range. Less so with LI batteries, but it’s still pretty bad.
      3)The extra weight of the batteries and motor is still kinda annoying.
      4)Most electric bike kits are horribly engineered. The soldering is poorly done, the parts are made of poor quality metal, the joints on most bikes are too weak to support extra weight. etc.

      But in decent weather during warm weather after you spend a few hours customizing your bike, they work great.

  6. I’m definitely not trying to be disingenuous, and I’m not against mass transit. Buses are often a better solution than light rail. http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2006/08/08/fill-those-seats

    What I’m saying is that it’s good to keep an open mind, there is no 100% best solution for all situations. Most cities that could make use of a good light rail system already have one in place. The one in LA is great if you live nearby and it takes you where you want to go, but there’s no way it will ever handle the whole city’s needs. The city is too spread out. I’m thinking what are other options to realistically tackle this huge problem?
    My favorite option is telecommuting, something I do as much as possible. Many people who commute do not absolutely need to be physically in their office to work and nothing is more efficient than not commuting at all. I also love to ride my bike, but usually have to go into LA for work and live too far to bike (I’m in Anaheim). I hate driving there, way too much traffic, but could I expect a rail to be built to go near my house? Not likely. A networked highway like I described would be amazing. And the tech is not that far off, it’s doable within 30 years I believe. This is the sort of thing I’m referring to: http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-10895_7-6733591-1.html

  7. “there is no 100% best solution for all situations.”

    Definitely true. I think what’s important is to have a system with enough redundancies in it so that there are backups — maybe you drive primarily, but if your car’s in the shop, there’s some form of mass transit that isn’t too much of a step down. Or conversely, if you’re primarily a transit user but you need to make an unusual trip, using a car shouldn’t be onerous. And bicycling should be viable for average people and not be the sole realm of the poor or young daredevils.

    The system we’ve got, though, is tilted too far towards cars, which excludes a good number of people and is damaging to the environment. I’m not saying that everything needs to be geared toward trains, but that the system we have is a good start but still pretty spare in the train department and could be much improved.

  8. Here’s a twofer: Significant investment in alternative fuel by BP and Dupont to make biobutanol, which can be used in many vehicles without modification, or with a little bit of gas or diesel added for vehicles which can’t use it straight. It has 90% of the energy of gasoline, so there isn’t the big drawback found with E85 of poor mileage.


    But, what’s the twofer? They make the biobutanol from KUDZU ! !! !!!


  9. For lower-density areas surrounding a city, cycle parking outside the rail station is an excellent choice. People can cycle for 5-10 minutes to get to the station, lock up their bike and get on a train. I do this regularly to avoid a 20 minute walk to the station.

  10. I would be a great supporter of Mass transit, but where I live, in the last 20 years, There have been 2 strikes, each lasting over six months, and numerous wildcat strikes, which have left me stranded a number of times. Rolling into work at 11 AM just hasn’t worked for me, so I drive.

  11. My car is a ball and chain to me. The expense of maintaining it is becoming too much. Everytime I hear another noise coming from it, I know the mechanic is going to tell me it’ll cost three hundred bucks or so to fix.
    I look out my window at the “auto mobile” sitting in my driveway, and I feel like I’ve got a tiger by the tail. Why must I be responsible for the care and feeding of it? How did my ownership of the monster in my driveway come to equal “freedom”?

  12. I’m so effing tired of people talking about the “capacity” and “efficiency” of trains. No one ever talks about how inefficient our roads are when they’re not in use–they just focus on people per car, which is not the whole story.

    And while we’re at it, can we please have public mental health share the spotlight with environmental and economic concerns? Sitting on a train is significantly less stressful than sitting in traffic. Humanity, people. Quality of life, daily delights, all of that.

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