Bikes Finance General Vehicles

Integrating the Transportation Network Through Energy Credits

» Commuters on bikes could aid in filling up the electricity grid, and get free transport tickets in exchange.

As bike sharing becomes more and more popular in cities around the world, innovations in technology may make the systems a vital element of the urban landscape. Indeed, rather than simply a mobility tool, biking could become a power source — at least according to industrial designer Chi-Yu Chen, working at the Royal College of Art.

Mr. Chen’s bike design is innovative even as it uses standard technologies. By adding batteries to bikes and incorporating a dynamo in the wheel, the vehicles become mobile power stations, with electricity being created as commuters turn the wheels and apply power to the brakes. When cyclists return bikes to a station as part of a public rental scheme, the batteries would empty out their charge, moving the power into the general grid. That electricity, in turn, could be used to power sustainable transportation systems like electric hybrid buses and third rail-powered subways. Bikers would get a transit ticket price reduction immediately added to their fare smart cards based on how much electricity they contribute.

The end result? Human power for clean-running public transportation.

There are two reasons why such a system is unlikely to be implemented in the next few years: batteries are valuable, and would likely be stolen from bikes; and the amount of power generated would make a tiny dent in the power used by heavy-duty transit, making fare reductions tiny.

Yet with a well-designed system, created to be vandal-proof, such electricity-creating bikes could well serve a purpose. MIT researchers have created a “Copenhagen Wheel” that adds a motor powered by braking to bikes; with such a system, bikes become semi-electric and therefore more simple to use for people who aren’t able-bodied enough to use a normal bike at all times.

Just as important, the idea that everyday activities can aid in producing electricity doesn’t seem that far off. Already, plenty of trams and metros push electricity back into the grid when they brake through regenerative systems. Up-and-down escalators and elevators could be weighed against one another to power one another and save electricity. Short-distance transit links could use cable-car technologies to circulate energy flow in a closed-loop system, such as is already planned for the Oakland Airport Connector. These technologies would reinforce the concept that the energy system is an interconnected web, reducing electricity usage and cleaning the planet through sustainable transport.

Image above: Hybrid Squared, from Yanko Design

Sustainability Vehicles

Improving Environmental Efficiencies in Transit

» Transit’s environmental credibility depends on a switch away from carbon-based fuels — And a renewed sense that well-designed public transportation produces density.

Straight to the point: There are a panoply of choices to be made when investing in public transportation, but there is never an excuse for minimizing the negative environmental effects of a transit vehicle.

Some American public transportation agencies run bus fleets that consume on average a gasoline-equivalent 25 miles per gallon. This means — and this must be interpreted literally — that there are plenty of cars that, when driven from one point to another, are less carbon-intensive even with only one passenger than buses running the same route.

This fact is a disappointing one for transit advocates who would promote the idea that transit is, on face value, always more ecologically conscious than private transportation. It is a letdown to discover that the simple formula — more people in one vehicle = more fuel efficiency, thus public transportation > automobiles — doesn’t work out when those transit vehicles average fewer than 10 passengers at a time.

To the anti-transit zealots of the world like Wendell Cox, this fact is evidence that governments would be more likely to encourage decreases in carbon production by ridding cities of transit and instead pushing people into hybrids and other mildly polluting cars. That argument, however, completely ignores the fact that transit promotes communities that are denser, more walkable, and in general less energy consumptive — even if trains and buses sometimes feature lower fuel efficiencies than the newest Toyotas and Hondas.

To transit promoters like Jarrett Walker, this same information is indicative of the fact that transit planners must take to heart a variety of rationales when considering how to choose routes; the most ridership-heavy routes (those that would feature the highest average fuel efficiency) are not necessarily the most politically or regionally prioritized investments — which means that vehicles can often be found running with few passengers on board. Transit that runs all the time and to many places — and which therefore is frequently empty — is absolutely necessary to advance the kind of transit-dependent population that consumes less energy overall.

Nevertheless, the limited fuel efficiency of the fleets of many transit agencies is troubling because even if public transportation is effective in promoting better land uses, if buses and trains continue to spew pollutants, we’re not doing enough to address the underlying environmental consequences of transportation use. Indeed, while the adoption of hybrid-electric buses by many transit agencies is a step forward, the vehicles continue to emit carbon into the air — a problem that shouldn’t be side-stepped.

Full-scale electrification of bus routes and installation of catenary along train lines should be encouraged to further the environmental credentials of public transportation — as long as power providers increase the supply of renewables in the electricity mix. For cities, this clears the air as power is produced elsewhere (rather than in the vehicles, on the street). Overall, efficiencies are increased since centralized power production is more efficient than burning fuels vehicle-by-vehicle.

As automobiles become more and more efficient, buses and trains must be able to keep up — and the best way to do that is to go electric. To suggest that the poor fuel efficiencies of transit are merely a consequence of the realities of decision-making in the field is an attempt to make the issue go away, when in fact we should be addressing it straight-on.

Infrastructure United Kingdom Vehicles

United Kingdom Commits to Further Rail Electrification

UK Rail Electrification

» Network will be 67% electrified by 2017.

Andrew Adonis, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Transport, announced yesterday that the government would invest £200 million in the increased electrification of the railway system, adding to a commitment made last summer and furthering the country’s investment in carbon-friendly transportation systems.

According to Mr. Adonis, new funds would be allocated by 2016 to three projects in Northwest England: a connection between Blackpool and the West Coast Main Line; a link between Manchester and Euxton Junction; and a corridor between Huyton and Wigan. This comes in addition to the £1.1 billion worth of announcements made in July, which included the electrification of the corridor between Liverpool and Manchester and the installation of overhead catenary along the Great Western Main Line between London and Reading, Bristol, Cardiff, and Oxford. The line between Bedford and Sheffield may also be electrified by 2020 as part of a larger interest in electrifying the country’s network.

The net effect: an increase in total rail passenger miles traveled on electric trains from 60% today to 67% in 2017, with new service to 22 towns and cities formerly only welcoming diesel trains. Customers will benefit from faster travel between Scotland and Northwest England and from London to Wales. Pollutants from diesel locomotives will be reduced, with a corresponding uptick in electricity usage.

Rolling stock on the newly electric lines will come from the already electric London-area commuter railroads being replaced by the Crossrail regional rail scheme, which in turn will be receiving new trains once its new train tunnel opens under London city center. In addition, the government is planning an investment in 1,300 more cars for the system as a whole.

The recent focus on rail by the U.K.’s Labour government comes at the conclusion of twelve years in power, with elections next year likely to result in a Conservative win. Much of the first decade under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair meant limited investment in the new mode outside of an upgrade of the West Coast Main Line as the government simply attempted to correct the mess that resulted from the privatization of British Rail in the early 1990s; that effort is yet to be completed, as the recent failure of several operating contracts attests.

With pressure from the rival Conservatives to develop a plan for high-speed rail, Labourites have pushed their own improvement programs focusing on electrification and the High-Speed 2 program, which would connect London and Scotland in just over two hours. A decision on the alignment of that line will be announced in the spring, just prior to elections. Labour is clearly attempting to use a renewed focus on rail improvements as an electoral point-booster. Whether the citizenry will be convinced is another matter, since Labour suffers from deep unpopularity as a result of its long stay in government, limited ability to improve public services, and involvement in the Iraq War.

No matter, each of these electrification projects is good news for the country’s transportation system, since they will ultimately result in faster, more reliable trains. Electric vehicles provide the benefit of eliminating point-source pollutants, but their implementation may or may not produce overall lower carbon emissions since that depends on the source of electric power. If Britain’s electricity continues to be sourced primarily from coal, gas, and oil, improvements will be minor; a more serious switch to nuclear and renewable sources in compliance with objectives that may be established this week in Copenhagen would make electric trains far more environmentally sustainable.

High-Speed Rail Vehicles Vietnam

Vietnam Looks to Fund $56 Billion High-Speed System Between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City

Project requires help from international organizations such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank before it can get off the ground.

Vietnam Railways Corp announced today that it will use Japanese Shinkansen technology for its planned high-speed rail line between the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The 1,000-mi railway will replace a train line originally built during French colonial control, covering most of the country’s north-south length. Though the mammoth project has yet to be funded, Japanese train manufacturers took heart in the news as they begin their push into international markets such as the United States.

Hanoi and Ho Chi Mihn City are Vietnam’s two largest cities, and their metropolitan areas represent about 10% of the country’s population alone. The new railway would also provide fast access to major cities such as Vinh and Nha Trang, each on the country’s coast. The first phase of the project would run between Hue and Da Nang, located sixty miles apart and about halfway between the line’s two planned termini. This section is seen as the most profitable of the whole corridor since its short travel time would allow daily commuting. A full-distance trip between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City would take about 5 hours in ideal conditions — trains running between the two today need a full three days to do as much.

The relatively poor Vietnamese government will not be able to finance the project itself and is looking to Japan, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank for funds. If enough cash is identified, the system would be up and operating by 2020, though that timeline seems optimistic and Japan itself has argued that Vietnam wait until the mid-2030s or later to begin services.

One wonders whether Vietnam’s choice of Japanese train technology is more a reflection of the country’s desire for Japanese aid than an actual reflection of the advantages of Shinkansen. Nonetheless, this is big news for companies such as Kawasaki and Nippon Sharyo, whose operations have been confined to the domestic market until the recent opening of Taiwan’s high-speed rail. Some Chinese high-speed operations use Shinkansen technology as well.

European rivals have been quick to capitalize on investment in fast trains in Russia, China, Spain, Saudi Arabia, and Argentina, among other countries, leaving the Japanese companies behind on the international scene. Scoring the Vietnamese contract proves that they will be prepared for future competition worldwide and specifically in the potentially largest market, the United States, where Alstom, Siemens, Bombardier, and even Korean companies are already pushing their wares.

Infrastructure Vehicles

Readying an Electrified Transportation System

Investments in public transportation aren’t worth as much if we can’t rely on environmentally friendly power sources.

Earlier this year, Eurostar, which operates trains between London and the European continent, announced that it had met its goal of a 25% reduction in carbon emissions just two years after setting the target for itself. Eurostar, like most high-speed lines, is powered by electric catenary, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the majority of its carbon savings came from buying energy from more environmentally friendly power plants. All the company had to do was buy more of its power from France, rather than England, because the former country relies far more on nuclear plants than the latter, whose electricity is largely produced by dirty coal.

Eurostar’s example is a case in point: transportation systems relying on electricity can be dirty or clean, all depending on where the power is coming from. This point is unfortunately lost on most alternative transportation activists, who cite efficiency to support the claimed ecological advantages of using transit instead of automobiles. Yet efficiency means little when the electricity used is being produced by carbon-generating plants.

This problem is especially relevant today in United States, since public transportation in the form of electrified light rail and streetcars is more popular than ever. Freight and long-distance passenger routes, both of which have relied on diesel locomotion for decades, are being considered for conversion to electric operation because of its environmental, efficiency, and capacity advantages. Meanwhile, plans to encourage the use of plug-in hybrids and eventually fully electric automobiles are advancing rapidly. But how will all this electricity be produced?

Today, the majority of U.S. electricity production comes from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal. Though the latter has the most serious environmental consequences, specifically because of the strip mining required to unearth underground reserves, the use of all three fuels has negative environmental consequences that cause climate change. Light rail running on electricity may seem clean, because the local point emissions — in the city — are nonexistent, especially as compared to diesel-spewing buses. But if the necessary power is being generated at coal-based plants, the global effect is negative, making some transit systems less environmentally sensitive in terms of per passenger emissions than many automobiles.

One feasible solution is to build more nuclear plants in the United States. GOP leadership in Congress is currently pushing against a carbon cap-and-trade bill in favor of the construction of 100 new nuclear facilities. The U.S. currently has 104 operating plants. The Obama Administration is planning to devote $18.5 billion in stimulus funds for the construction of new plants, but Republicans want a lot more pointed towards an industry that hasn’t produced a new facility stateside since the early 1980s. Though the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy, only 20% of total electricity — also the most produced in the world — comes from the source.

The Republican argument against cap-and-trade doesn’t make much since, as the nuclear industry would benefit from its passage, and there’s no reason that the government couldn’t invest in both nuclear power and reduce our dependence on coal and oil. But the party’s advocacy in favor of nuclear power — yet to be replicated by the Democrats — has its merits. France, which relies on nuclear power for 80% of its electricity production, has less than a third of the per capita carbon emissions of the United States. Compared to GDP, France is three times as efficient as the United States; the two nations, which have very similar per capita wealth, produce incredibly divergent amounts of CO2. The use of French TGVs, metros, and tramways releases very little carbon into the atmosphere compared to U.S. systems.

Yet nuclear is no perfect answer to our energy production problems. It takes decades to build new plants, they’re incredibly expensive, and opposition to their construction — mostly based on unfounded fears about public safety — is rampant. Second, the heat nuclear plants release during electricity production is a cause of climate change, too, even though the plants themselves release no carbon. As a result, investment in renewable energy, such as wind and solar, may be the most reliable option, though those options are limited in their capacity and quite subject to changing environmental conditions, which makes their use in non-windy, non-sunny locations less than optimal. To make matters worse, the U.S. electricity grid isn’t good enough to handle shifting huge amounts of power produced by wind in the Plains states or by solar in the Southwest to the more heavily populated coasts. So more environmentally friendly power will have to come from a mix of both nuclear and renewable sources.

The point, then, is that to suggest that transit is ecologically sensitive is more accurate when the source of that transportation’s electricity is carbon-free or at least carbon-reduced. Proponents of transportation alternatives must also be strong advocates of the remaking of our electricity production system.