Monday, March 2, 2015

Alternative Uses for Alternative Fuels

Anyone who has found my most popular post knows that I am no fan of alternative-fuel cars. If you keep auto-sprawl and mandatory car ownership, it doesn't matter if the car itself runs on rainbows and unicorn farts-- the infrastructure and built environment that your rainbow-cars would inevitably require would still be a huge environmental catastrophe. Self-driving cars have some more potential for transforming our built environment, mostly by allowing for robo-taxis, but I still think that the Google-car-topia imagined by many is being far oversold. (File under "I need to write that post.)

That doesn't mean, however, that there are no opportunities to be had for our environment in alternative-fuel vehicles. Those opportunities just aren't found in the private car.

I saw a great example earlier this morning, on Market St. in Riverside. (I should really say that I heard it-- whirrrrr.) An electric Red Bull delivery truck rolled by before I could get a photo of it for the blog. Long-haul goods movement is a sector probably best-handled by rail (especially in a post-oil world: no more bomb trains!), but we're a long way removed from the time when every store backed onto a railway spur. And even in a post-oil world, we're going to need to get stuff from warehouse to store and home. Delivery trucks are perfect for electrification, because they make lots of very short trips on a predictable route and schedule, with plenty of downtime for charging. (Delivery bike-trucks are also being used in several places, but I think that that's only going to be practical for the very densest places, where a single cyclist/driver can deliver a truck full of goods on a relatively short route.)

Utility workers, inspectors, salesmen, and other sorts of professionals who travel between several sites for a living are also obvious prospects for electric vehicles. The technician that comes to your house to connect and/or fix your Internet service is likely not going to arrive by bus. It takes a lot of tools and equipment to keep the intertubes from being clogged, and the nature and timing of service calls would make it very difficult to do on a bus. (Once again, cargo-bike service may be an option for the very densest places.)

Driverless vehicles, in particular, are going to be fantastic for transit applications. If you think a driverless car is super-efficient, imagine a driverless bus. In fact, you don't have to imagine-- just look at automated rail transit today. Vancouver has phenomenally frequent rapid transit, all day long-- 75 seconds at the peak, but an astounding 8 minutes until 1:30am. The trains are automated, so the marginal cost of a train is minimal. Apply that to buses, and you have a recipe for rapidly deploying very intense transit service along existing infrastructure, especially in traditionally underserved areas.

Alternative fuels are politically easy, and they sound attractive, but they take up way, way, way too much of the advocacy energy and money sent towards transforming our transportation system. All of these technologies are dead-ends, or stop-gap measures at best, when applied to individual personal mobility. However, these technologies have roles to play in the transportation system of the future, as edge cases-- supported by a network where the bulk of trips are made via transit or active transport.

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