Automobile Sustainability

Who’s Afraid of the Electric Car?

» Does the $25,000 fully electric Nissan Leaf muddle environmental arguments in favor of transit?

Nissan’s new Leaf, expected to reach American shores this December, represents nothing less than a revolution in thinking about automobile propulsion: it is the first modern, reasonably priced, four-door car powered completely by electricity. It is the opening slide in what is likely to be an avalanche of such vehicles coming to market over the next decade — Chevrolet’s electric-for-40-miles Volt is arriving later this fall as well at a higher price point. The significance of their collective potential environmental benefits cannot be dismissed.

The immediate consequences of the replacement of at least a segment of the American vehicle fleet with electric cars will be positive: an immediate elimination of local point-source pollution, lessened street noise in the urban environment, and of course a reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels, at least by individual consumers. These are advances that must be applauded.

The widespread availability of electric cars will make one argument made by transit proponents harder to advance: that riding trains and buses is better for the environment. In cities where the electric grid is powered by renewable or nuclear energy, these vehicles will produce zero carbon — also true of electric trains, but not of diesel or even hybrid buses, which will continue spewing pollutants into the atmosphere.

But transit must continue to compete from an environmental perspective, or it will lose some of its appeal; the arrival of the electric car is a direct challenge to the claim that public transportation is greener. But it’s not too late to make that argument — there are significant ecological advantages of mass transit even if they share their propulsion technologies with some automobiles. The contention that transit is the more sustainable answer to questions of mobility has not suddenly expired.

The clearest flaw in the argument for electric cars is that the majority of electricity produced in the United States — almost 75% — comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels. This means that “clean” cars like the Nissan Leaf are simply shuffling pollution production elsewhere, not actually getting rid of it. This would not be true if American power were produced like it is in France, where about 90% of power is carbon-free, and where a switch to electric cars would mean a vast reduction in air pollution overall. At least for now, though, the widespread adoption of electric cars in the U.S. will require a large ramping-up of power generating capacity and therefore increase pollution from power plants, not necessarily generating a net benefit, even as there is a significant decrease in air pollution in congested urban areas.

If all transit vehicles switched to electric propulsion and public transportation absorbed a much larger percentage of the commute market, on the other hand, they would require less overall electricity because they’re more energy efficient per passenger. So even if everything were electrically powered, transit would still have some advantages.

Second, electric cars may be environmentally responsible in operation, but their manufacturing and disposal require a significant energy expenditure: between 10 and 20% of overall lifetime energy use. Transit vehicles last longer and are used more intensely than automobiles, meaning that their per-rider-mile manufacturing and disposal costs are significantly lower than those of cars.

But all of the discussion about the relative ecological advantages of cars and public transportation vehicles ignores their greater effects on the human environment, and that is the basis of the primary argument transit proponents must use to defend the environmental credibility of buses and trains. Transit nurtures the creation of dense urban environments in which the majority of trips are made by carbon-free walking and in which people live and work in energy-efficient multi-story buildings. A society dependent on automobiles cannot establish such sustainable communities and will ultimately always depend on energy-heavy single-family homes and private vehicles. There’s no getting around that fact, Nissan Leaf or not.

Electric vehicles could play an auxiliary role as the basis for new car-sharing efforts, but the implementation of electric chargers on the street for private users seems far off. Nissan and other auto companies are expecting most of their customers to refill their vehicles in their private garages overnight, not exactly an urban-friendly scheme.

Nevertheless, transit agencies still have an obligation to increase the efficiencies of their vehicle fleets — primarily by increasing ridership and maximizing the number of riders per bus or train. There’s nothing wrong with finding as many ways as possible to reduce energy consumption.

Image above: Nissan Leaf, from Nissan

Denver High-Speed Rail

Colorado Promotes Two-Line, $21 Billion High-Speed Connections Across State

» No clear source of funds doesn’t seem to concern plan makers. But it’s time for some national decision-making about which lines to prioritize.

If you want clear proof for why we need a national agency to coordinate decision-making about rail route choices in the United States, take Colorado’s $21 billion scheme as evidence.

The Rocky Mountain Rail Authority has conducted a study of potential high-speed rail corridors in Colorado, considering areas as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming, as far south as Trinidad, and as far west as Grand Junction and concluded that the most reasonable, cost-effective option would be to build two new routes: 160 miles north-south along the I-25 corridor between Fort Collins and Pueblo and 150 miles east-west along the I-70 corridor between Denver International Airport and Eagle.

The suggestion is effectively a shortening of a proposal made last year by several states to connect Denver to El Paso along a 720-mile super-link.

The 18-month long study concluded with a projection of 35 million passengers by 2035, generating about $750 million in annual fare revenues, enough to make up operating costs. No way, of course, will it ever pay back its construction costs. That is, if you ignore the cost-benefit analysis of the project, which the Rail Authority claims proves will produce a 150% return on investment in increased economic activity along the affected corridors.

With proposed average speeds of 90-100 mph between Fort Collins and Pueblo and 60-70 mph between Denver and Eagle, the rail line as planned would be no slow-poke; nor, however, would it provide the kind of very fast travel speeds that make switching from private cars into trains an obvious proposition. The Rail Authority would construct its project in a series of stages: from the airport to Colorado Springs, via downtown Denver, in a $3.3 billion first phase, and from Denver to Summit County (location of many ski resorts) in a $9 billion second phase.

It’s a grand plan — but in no way should it be a national priority. With dozens of potential rail routes competing for federal investment around the country but only $12.5 billion allocated to intercity rail projects thus far, someone’s going to have to decide which programs move forward and which ones don’t. Compared to equivalent projects along the West and East Coasts, the Midwest, and Texas, Colorado’s plan would provide service to far fewer people at a more expensive price. Ridership estimates seem massively out of line with reality: other than Denver, there are no metropolitan areas in the affected areas with populations of more than one million people.

But some in Denver still hope to see a “massive influx” of dollars from Washington for their preferred project.

Unfortunately, because of a federal system that prioritizes state planning over U.S. decisions and because of a Congress whose members have a tendency to promote local interests rather than long-term nationwide goals, Colorado seems likely to continue to receive planning funds for the project, whether or not there’s any hope of the system actually being built. And because high-speed rail is in mode today, more realistic alternatives, such as a $3 billion upgrading of the existing lines for improved standard intercity rail between the affected cities, will likely be ignored.

Whether the money would be better used to keep Denver’s local rail expansion program afloat (the project faces a number of financial difficulties) seems to have been dismissed as an unrelated issue. It’s not. Whether they deny it or not, the proposed Colorado system would compete directly with Denver’s planned East Corridor commuter rail line between downtown and the airport. There simply is not enough traffic to justify both projects.

Today’s U.S. Department of Transportation has demonstrated itself to be a qualified and level-headed sponsor of the national rail program and therefore unlikely to find itself sponsoring a project whose advantages are questionable. But what would happen if Colorado’s senators expect funding for their preferred investment in exchange for their support of something else? What if the President chooses to use high-speed rail as a political tool to win support from voters in this swing state?

In no way do I mean to suggest that there’s something wrong with Colorado looking to increase infrastructure investment within its borders. The Rail Authority’s contention that Colorado taxpayers will have to sponsor 50% of the costs of the line is a refreshing acceptance of the fact that it makes little since to ask the national government for a full rebate. But until the U.S. commits to a full-scale “Interstate Railroad” program that guarantees a source of funding for projects across the country, there will be limited federal dollars for rail — and the government has a responsibility to ensure that the best projects are funded.

We have yet to see a true national high-speed rail plan from the federal government, which has a tendency to resort to generalities like environmental improvement or commute time reductions when discussing how it will prioritize grant distribution. Never has Washington clearly stated that it wants to fund one line over another. And it won’t: it’s a political impossibility when Congress holds such a strong grip on the way executive department decisions are made. This means that impossible projects like Colorado’s will continue to receive planning funding for years to come.

Image above: Rio Grande Zephyr at Denver Union Station, from Flickr user Sideshow Bruce

Finance Light Rail Toronto

Toronto’s Major Transit Ambitions Set Back by Fiscal Reality

» Ontario Premier directs regional transit agency to cut capital spending significantly over the next five years.

It was supposed to be one of North America’s largest public transportation projects, with eight light rail lines criss-crossing this dense city. Yet Toronto’s Transit City plan, endorsed with billions of dollars in local and provincial aid as recently as last year, may have suffered an insurmountable loss last week.

Reacting to a gloomy economy and a depressing fiscal outlook, Ontario Province Premier Dalton McGuinty informed regional transportation officials at Metrolinx that they would have to find $4 billion in planned construction savings over the next five years to help ensure that the Ontario budget stays in line with anticipated revenues. This announcement puts most of Toronto Mayor David Miller’s hallmark Transit City program in jeopardy and opens the city’s transportation future to further reexamination.

The lines currently under construction, including the Sheppard Avenue light rail line and the Spadina Subway Extension, are expected to be spared but plans for the other lines may fade away.

The Premier’s decision puts an unexpected wrench in a vision that in recent years has come to define popular thinking about Toronto’s transit future, and it follows years of something close to unity on thinking about transportation between the Liberal Premier and the NDP Mayor. Indeed, after proposing the $6 billion, 120 km Transit City system to general skepticism in 2007, Mr. Miller eventually received clear financial support from Mr. McGuinty, who pledged billions in 2009 as part of his own broader $17.5 billion Move Ontario project.

Previous plans for transit in the greater Toronto region, some of which reached the construction stages in the early 1990s, had been shut down by conservative administrations at the Provincial level, leaving for completion only the 3.4-mile Sheppard “stubway” line, which opened in 2002. Most of the Transit City projects have long been on the planning books (though previously as subways). Improving transit in the metropolitan area is largely seen as a priority program for the center-left Liberals and the left-wing NDP.

The provincial administration’s direction to Metrolinx (which is managing implementation) to find projects to put on the cutting board likely means no construction in the next five years for the Finch, Eglinton, and Scarborough light rail schemes, all previously supported by Mr. McGuinty. The Scarborough RT, which would be replaced and lengthened by a new light rail line, is said to be at the end of its useful working life and at capacity.

Other proposed lines, including light rail along Jane Street, Don Mills Road, the Western Waterfront, and the Scarborough-Malvern corridor, are likely to be put off indefinitely. Funds originally intended for the expansion of VIVA bus rapid transit in the York region north of Toronto are on the cutting block.

The entire network of lines was originally designated for opening by 2020, with concurrent construction. Now each corridor will be built consecutively, if at all.

While Mayor Miller has decried the sudden cuts to his proposal, several of the candidates hoping to succeed him at city hall have argued that the delay in line construction will ensure a more successful completion of the projects. One notable exception is candidate Joe Pantalone, a counselor who has been an ally of Mr. Miller in the municipal administration and who has been a major supporter of Transit City throughout its development.

This is of particular concern because of the negative reputation the city’s TTC transit agency has recently developed for itself and because of the repeated failures of the organization in its work in upgrading the St. Clair streetcar line. That delayed, over-budget corridor has promoted the impression that street-running light rail is too intrusive and that the lines should be constructed as (very expensive) subways.

But the lack of unambiguous support for the transit program from most of the candidates suggests a more pernicious perspective. In January, candidate Rocco Rossi argued for a delay in the construction of most of the proposed light rail lines, claiming that they’re not fiscally responsible; he repeated that contention after learning of Mr. McGuinty’s budget. But Mr. Rossi has demonstrated himself to be against all forms of alternative transportation, an advocate of what could be described as the suburban interest.

Indeed, it’s common to hear claims of financial “imprudence” from opponents of transit investment — economic fears they never seem to express when it comes to expensive road projects. So it’s worth being skeptical whenever anyone applauds decreasing the availability of money for new lines.

Nevertheless, like most places, Ontario has experienced a decrease in tax revenue substantial enough to make reasonable the cutting of capital construction costs promised by the government in more prosperous times. Premier McGuity’s back-and-forth on the province’s commitment isn’t all that surprising.

But what’s difficult to understand is how a city like Toronto can go from hailing the construction of a 120 km network to building one new light rail line by 2020. Is Mayor Miller the only politician who’s truly committed to improving the region’s transit systems? Or are others simply too scared to make the necessary decisions — whether that means the prioritization of specific lines or targeted tax increases — to make expansion possible?

Mr. McGuinty’s instructions to Metrolinx to choose how to spend more limited funds is a punting away of those difficult decisions, an unwillingness to accept the political consequences of doing what is necessary to build a better transit system. The willingness of many mayoral candidates to play along is less than helpful. Toronto’s citizens don’t want to forever be stuck with the same limited transit system they have today, do they?

Light Rail Los Angeles

Los Angeles’ Gold Line Foothill Extension Approved for Funding, Will Begin Construction Later this Year

» The first rail project funded by Measure R will eventually ensure much larger future investment in Los Angeles proper.

Politicians from the San Gabriel Valley have for years made very clear where they want transit investment funds to be spent in their section of the Los Angeles region, on an extension of the light rail Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa and eventually Ontario Airport. Yesterday, they got what they wanted: a commitment of $690 million from the board of L.A. County’s Metro transportation authority, with the goal of opening the first phase for service by 2014, three years earlier than originally planned.

The 11.3-mile Foothills Extension project will be the first rail line funded by L.A.’s Measure R, a multi-billion dollar plan for transit improvements that voters approved in November 2008. Construction will begin this June.

The board’s unanimous decision to move this project to the front of the line is a political compromise reached to guarantee future support for the much more expensive subways and light rail lines planned in the western parts of the region, principally in the City of Los Angeles itself. It will settle feelings of resentment from politicians whose constituents live in places east of the city. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the northeast section of the county, suggested that the vote in favor of the Gold Line extension is a good step in broadening transit investments. “Los Angeles has cannibalized the funds,” the Los Angeles Times quotes him as saying. “This is the first time we have been able to bring ‘regional’ to the front of the plate instead of the back of the bus.”

Politicians in the San Gabriel Valley have shown strong support for the project and it has encountered very little local controversy, unlike, say, the Expo Line currently under construction, which has been met with protests.

By agreeing to move forward with the Foothills program — at the periphery of the metropolitan area — the City of Los Angeles has assembled support for its priorities, including the $4 billion Westside Subway, which is the primary goal of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Mr. Villaraigosa is currently campaigning for a federal loan to advance the projects funded by Measure R within ten years, versus the thirty years originally protected. Failing to support a project in the east side of the county could have spelled major future difficulties for the city’s hopes to spend billions of county dollars on its own lines.

With six new stations reaching the towns of Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Irwindale, and Azusa, the Gold Line extension will lengthen the existing line by about 50% and provide access to a section of the region currently far from either light rail or commuter rail service. A second phase, whose $600 to $700 million cost, would link Azusa to Montclair, with a possible later extension to Ontario Airport.

Despite the apparent excitement of the San Gabriel Valley to see more transit service, the project is likely to be the least cost-effective of all of L.A.’s planned rail transit lines. The original 13.7-mile section of the Gold Line, which connected Pasadena and Union Station in 2003, has suffered from relatively low ridership, hitting about 22,000 daily before the Gold Line Eastside Extension opened with service to areas along the other side of downtown.

Original projections for ridership along the Pasadena corridor assumed 64,000 daily users, then were downgraded to 38,000 a few years later, and finally to 26,000 in final studies. Compared to L.A.’s other rail corridors, the Gold Line is the least used.

There are a few explanations for these difficulties: the line does not directly connect to the core of the downtown business district; much of the route includes stations in the median of the I-210 Freeway, making walking to and from stops less than pleasant; and the route between Pasadena and Union Station takes almost half an hour to complete. Most importantly, perhaps, the areas served just aren’t all that dense.

Downtown connections will improve once the downtown Regional Connector opens (in either 2017 or 2019, depending on financing), which will allow through-running from Long Beach to the Foothills. This is likely to expand the number of riders simply by making it easier for them to get to their jobs without having to transfer lines.

Most of the Foothill Extension will also be constructed outside of the highway right-of-way, increasing the potential for redevelopment around station stops and making the riding experience more comfortable. Nonetheless, the alignment chosen is not ideal: it’s on the wrong side of the freeway from downtown Duarte, and it travels through areas that lack residential or commercial concentration. There are plans for transit-oriented development in many of the affected cities, but whether those projects will pan out is not yet clear.

The commute times from the end of the line will be a serious problem: once the second phase is built to Montclair, downtown will be a full 75 minutes away, making daily commutes difficult to envision for many people. Even in traffic, that trip takes a total of 70 minutes by car.

Nevertheless, getting people from the San Gabriel Valley into downtown may not be the major goal of the project. Metrolink Commuter Rail can cover the distance between Montclair and Los Angeles in an hour along the San Bernardino Line, though that link is near carrying capacity. The Gold Line’s longer route may be most useful in providing for increased connections between the major cities of the Foothills, a pretty good idea considering that many of these towns already have walkable downtowns acclimatized to transit. But relatively few people are making those commutes, so it’s unlikely the Foothills line will be renowned for its ridership.

Whether Los Angeles should be pushing this project ahead, then, is openly up for question. It may have, however, simply been a matter of political necessity.

Image above: Gold Line Foothills Extension, from The Source

Infrastructure Light Rail Seattle

Light Rail Along Road Rights-of-Way: a Cheap Solution to an Expensive Proposition

» Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn proposes to build a new transit line to West Seattle and Ballard along the street.

The dividing line between what Americans reference as a streetcar and what they call light rail is not nearly as defined as one might assume considering the frequent use of the two terminologies in opposition. According to popular understanding, streetcars share their rights-of-way with automobiles and light rail has its own, reserved right-of-way.

But the truth is that the two modes use very similar vehicles and their corridors frequently fall somewhere between the respective stereotypes of each technology. Even the prototypical U.S. light rail project — the Portland MAX — includes significant track segments downtown in which its corridor is hardly separated from that of the automobiles nearby. And that city’s similarly pioneering streetcar includes several segments completely separated from the street.

In that context, it’s worth considering Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s recent argument for a scaled-down transit project that would extend from his city’s downtown to West Seattle and Ballard, a proposal he hopes to get before voters within two years. Unlike Seattle’s Central Link rail line, which opened in 2009, this new rail program would operate in street rights-of-way adjacent to moving automobiles; it would not include the expensive tunnels and viaducts that make Central Link a “mini-metro.”

As a result, some have labeled this plan little more than a streetcar, whose slow pace and minimal capacity make it more useful as a development tool than a transportation one. Others are convinced that the project will morph into a multi-billion dollar mini-metro like Link, a high-cost concept into whose face city budget experts are afraid to look.

But Mayor McGinn’s proposal is neither of those things — it’s an effort to build a cost-effective rail transit line on the model used by cities across Europe, known typically as tramways.

What makes Mr. McGinn’s plan — which, by the way, remains in the very early development stages — so different from those proposed by most cities is that it attempts directly to reduce significant road capacity for automobiles and replace it with space reserved for transit. Most light rail programs avoid that prospect by using existing rail rights-of-way for new lines, or by sending trains underground or above it. That’s because it’s considered treacherous to threaten to remove space now used by automobiles.

Indeed, if he goes forward with the proposal, the Mayor would be doing something that flies in the face of political expediency, since transit-friendly or not, most Seattleites continue to commute by private car. Yet Mr. McGinn claims he’s unworried about the implications of doing so; considering he won last year’s election partially by stridently opposing the construction of a $4 billion road tunnel under downtown, he probably should be taken at face value.

Mr. McGinn’s proposal is a reasonable one: by simply removing vehicle lanes and reserving space on the road for trains, you can build relatively fast light rail systems at the cost of streetcar lines. Other than over major physical barriers (the roughly 15-mile route suggested would require crossing two waterways), there’s little need to move earth or build new structures, saving tremendous amounts of money.

Unlike Central Link, which achieves very high average speeds compared to most urban rail systems, this project would feature only moderate speed improvements over existing bus services. But it would see a very large ramp-up in capacity and time savings over automobiles if intersections are properly designed. And it would encourage more people to ride transit because of clear station stops, frequent services, and comfortable trains.

All this at a much more reasonable price than would be possible if you wanted the type of full-scale, independent right-of-way featured by Link. Unlike equally cheap streetcars, these tram lines wouldn’t held up by surrounding traffic or required to have short trainsets because of limited street dimensions.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been relatively easy to implement such street-running rail in a number of European cities, and where it’s been done, it has often improved the quality of the surrounding streetscape, producing exactly the type of livable environment planners love to see around major new transit investments.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t places where transit corridors requiring full separation of rights-of-way are advisable; building New York’s Second Avenue Subway as a street-running light rail line would be a disaster, simply because it wouldn’t be able to handle anywhere near the capacity required. But in Seattle, land of moderate densities and medium-height commercial corridors, what Mayor McGinn is suggesting is exactly the right investment to make — at the right price.

Image above: Tram in Amsterdam, from Flickr user martin_vmorris (cc)