Archive for the ‘transportation’ Category

Obscure Externalities – Coal Edition


Coal trains in Wyoming. Photo: KimonBerlin via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The negative externalities of fossil fuels and coal in particular are fairly obvious and range from its effects on individual health to climate change impacts. But here’s one I hadn’t thought of. Via Pedestrian Observations we learn that coal shipping slows down cargo and passenger rail service in three distinct ways.
– First is the non-surprising fact that coals trains are large and slow. In order to be shipped profitably, coal trains tend to be larger than most freight trains and operate at slower speeds. Even though they may be limited to being on the rails to specific times of day, this still reduces the amount of time for faster freight and passenger service and reduces the speed that other trains can move at when the coal is on the track.

– More obscurely, routes that carry coal must be laid out to handle these larger, slower trains. Specifically, turns cannot be banked as steeply. Banked turns allow a vehicle to negotiate a curve at a higher speed without risking the cargo shifting excessively or unnecessarily causing discomfort to passengers. Beyond the fact that freight is slower and needs a lower banking, extra heavy freight is at more risk from shifting loads causing a crash and so banking must be even lower. All of this slows down all trains no matter what their top speed is.

– Finally there is just the damage to the rails that heavy loads cause to the tracks. Much as in the way that road damage goes up exponentially with the weight of the vehicle (so a 4 ton truck causes 4 times as much wear to a road as a 2 ton car), extremely heavy trains cause significantly more wear and tear than standard cargo and especially passenger trains. Poor track conditions force the fastest trains to be even slower again so this costs both time and higher maintenance costs.

Now, most of these issues are just built in to the fact that in most places freight and passenger trains share tracks. A few less coal trains is not going to change that fundamental limitation to passenger rail in the US. But even minor improvements to the speed of standard freight has benefits, increasing its competitive edge over less efficient truck shipping, improving supply chains, etc. Fewer large, slow trains and tracks in better condition will benefit all other rail traffic.

This will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back on coal based power generation. But it is a good reminder of the many large and small ways that transitioning away from coal will benefit us in varied ways.

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Who’s Faster?

The car versus bike race has been done many times. Usually in a dense urban area with the bike squeaking out a win. But here’s a new twist too good not to post:

In honor of Los Angeles’ Carmegaddon (the closure of a section of freeway for one weekend for construction), Jet Blue airlines is offering flights between Burbank and Long Beach (roughly 40 miles). LA’s Wolfpack Hustle challenged them to a race, and to Jet Blue’s credit, they took the challenge. Door to door, bike vs. jet. My money’s on the bike…

(hat tip to LA Streetsblog)

Where’s all that “green” energy going to come from?

Via Grist, here is what I consider an astounding chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (click to expand)

On the left is a breakdown of how energy is produced. On the right (pink boxes) is a breakdown of how energy is used.

On the far right, in grey, is a summary of the final outcome of the process. This is the first, and most, shocking aspect of this chart. “Energy Services” is basically energy that was used for some actual purpose like lighting your home, driving your car, building your widgets. “Rejected Energy” is waste. Energy that was not put to any productive end. More than half of all energy produced is wasted.

Now, there is “waste” and there is “waste”. A lot of this is due to the nature of the way that energy is produced, distributed, and used. When electricity is transported by wires from the power plant to your house, some is lost (roughly 7%), and there isn’t a simple way to change that under our current electrical system. Back at the power plant, only about 1/3 of the energy in fossil fuels is captured as electricity, a figure that hasn’t really changed since the 50’s. Some of this is due to thermodynamics that make it difficult to transform and transport electricity and some is due to old, inefficient technology, sloppy design, and outright waste. But the end result is that only about 30% of energy used to produce electricity is used for any purpose.

Even worse is petroleum used in transportation where less than 25% of inputs end up doing any actual work. Note that in this case, the figure actually hides a huge amount of waste depending on how you define “actual work”. If the purpose of burning gas in a car is to move around 1-2 tons of steel plus you and your stuff, this is your figure. If the purpose is to move you (provide mobility) the loss here is substantially higher.

Many see great promise in the switch to electric cars. The Nissan Leaf is rated to get a gasoline equivalent of 99 mpg, roughly a 300% improvement over an equivalent gas powered vehicle. But consider that even at that level of efficiency, more than 2/3 of the electricity has already been wasted by the time it gets to your car’s battery (and before you account for moving around 3,500 lbs. of steel, glass, etc.) While an impressive improvement compared to currently technology, I think this best serves to illustrate just how inefficient current technology is.

Another big picture question is about the relative efficiency of end use types. Residential, commercial, and industrial users all waste around 20% of their energy inputs. Transportation by contrast wastes about 75%. I suspect there are numerous reasons for this difference. One is that energy transformation by burning tends to be wasteful. With electricity, that transformational loss has already happened upstream. With gasoline, it is typically happening in your car’s engine, which is not well equipped to transform energy efficiently.

In overview, there’s two pretty obvious areas where it might make sense to focus our efforts. The two main areas of loss are at the generation of electricity and at the generation of movement with gasoline. These two areas have a feature in common, there are actually multiple transformations going on; fuel is burned to create heat, heat is used to create movement (kinetic energy), and for electricity the kinetic energy is used to generate watts. Each step loses a large portion of the input’s energy, typically as heat.

A big factor in most power plant designs (of all types) is water supply for cooling. These are factories designed specifically to generate heat, and yet they go to great pains to have a system to cool themselves down. Cogeneration plants are a more advanced design to directly address this waste. Instead of excess heat being a waste product, it is distributed to be used directly as heat in homes and/or businesses. This saves this lost energy and avoids yet another transformation where some fuel would be turned into heat at the final location.  But the limitation is distance. It is hard to move heat over any significant distance and so this only works where power plants can be located in the vicinity of home and businesses.

Now one way to avoid heat based loss completely is to generate electricity in a way that has none, solar and wind. Follow the little yellow line from “Solar” on the left and notice how it goes directly to the end user, skipping the entire Electricity Generation step that loses so much energy. Of course, it’s a bit hard to follow that line because it is so little. For how much you hear about it, it is somewhat shocking to see how little energy Solar and other renewables currently supply. But its important to remember two things. First is that solar is really in its infancy and it is growing fast. The fact that it’s a negligible part of current production doesn’t mean that that can’t change quickly. Second, remember that a kilowatt of solar is not the same as a kilowatt of coal generated electricity. Bypassing the wasteful multistep conversion process means that every unit of electricity generated from the sun replaces roughly three times that much of equivalent energy in inputs. A little bit goes a long way.

Next, the chart reveals why a general movement away from centrally produced energy to distributed production may make sense. As efficient as solar is, it still loses that 7% transmission cost when it has to go over long distances. If that solar cell sits on your roof, you’re instantly 7% more efficient that a centralized power plant using the same solar cell technology. Similarly with cogeneration plants, it may make sense to start putting energy production closer to its end user. In the past, the efficiency of scale of producing power in a central location outweighed this factor. In the future, perhaps the efficiencies of scale will shift to producing small but advanced power generation systems so every home can have the latest technology in solar, fuel cell, or other power generation systems.

A final point that comes up for me from this chart is just how well it illustrates why reducing energy consumption is so important, and perhaps more important than using it more efficiently or generating it more sustainably. In terms of bang for your buck, it makes more sense to insulate your home, change your lightbulbs, and drive your car less than it does to buy a more efficient furnace, put a solar panel on your roof, or buy an electric car. This chart illustrates perfectly why. End use efficiency matters, but you’re still fighting all the loss that’s happened before that energy even gets to you. Every watt or gallon you don’t burn never has to make that journey at all.

Transforming our energy infrastructure to one that is moderately sustainable is a massive undertaking and we don’t have a lot of time. For now, the fastest and most cost effective way to reduce emissions is simply to use less energy. This not only buys us more time to switch over our generation to better forms, but also frees up funds to be invested in more productive uses than sending them them up a smokestack.

Update: Via Grist again, I’ve come across an article about waste heat recovery in Orion Magazine. It explores the slowly growing market for systems that use waste heat from power plants, manufacturing, and other larger scale operations to generate electricity. One manufacturer of this kind of equipment claims that a single installation at a US steel plant in 2004 “generated roughly the same amount of clean energy as was produced by all of the grid-connected solar collectors throughout the world.”

Since waste heat is typically the single biggest energy waster in fuel burning processes, it somewhat begs the question of why more isn’t already being done to tap this. The article blames regulatory issues surrounding electricity generation and general ignorance/inattention to the potential by industry. The government does not currently recognize waste heat recovery as “renewable” energy which would open up the industry to a number of incentives and advantages that could help it grow. The biggest technical hurdle seems to be that most of these heat sources run cooler than is needed for traditional electricity producing turbines. But it appears that progress is being made using lower boiling point materials than water for the turbines and in scaling down the units to suit medium scale operations.

Defining this process as “renewable” energy seems a bit of a logical stretch. On a engineering level, this is about improving the energy transformation efficiency of an industrial process. If I get an extra 10% of energy from burning coal, how is that 10% renewable? It may be that providing some incentives to spur development and growth in this industry is a good idea. But I think the fact that those would be needed simply points again to the fact that energy is in general, under priced. Fully rational pricing of energy that includes internalities and externalities would make this waste heat valuable enough that companies would be lining up to use it without prodding. Regardless, it does help to clarify the point that making fairly simple improvements to our current energy system may be the quickest and most cost effective way to bring down our usage and emissions in the short term.

Fun Facts – Parking II

Knox News (via Market Urbanism) reports that the US has roughly 1 billion parking spots. That’s nearly 3 for every car on the road and adds up to roughly 4,000 square miles of total area (a tad less than the total area of Connecticut).

In the US, the average price for land is $1000 per acre. That equals $640,000 per sq mi. That means we have land worth roughly $2.5 billion assigned to parking. And since parking tends to exist in more valuable areas, that figure is likely massively understated.

No specific point here. But wow.

Put a number on it

I’m usually happy to see numbers enter a calculation instead of bromides like “people here just won’t go for that” or “that’s not how Americans want to live their lives.” When people start talking about how much things really cost, for better or worse, I think that usually means we are starting to have a serious discussion. A few examples:

The Wall Street Journal had a recent article (via Market Urbanism) on how recent cuts to public transit in NYC had affected real estate sales in several neighborhoods. One real estate agent describes trouble selling properties that were served by a long running express bus route which was recently cancelled.

“The buyer who buys in Astoria is looking for a cheaper price and to get into Manhattan quickly,” said Ms. Palmos, adding that she is having the same problem with a condominium building in Upper Ditmars, north of Astoria. Apartments there that she said would have easily sold for $500,000 with the express bus nearby are now languishing on the market at prices about $420,000.

Anecdotes aren’t data of course. But it’s not a stretch to say that you could probably assign a rough number value to proximity to transit in New York. If $80,000 is the market value of that particular transit service for a single unit, imagine how much “value” was destroyed in that neighborhood by the loss of a bus.

Elsewhere, a new site Abogo (via Planetizen) will give you an estimate of the average transportation costs for a given neighborhood. Their goal is to help you “discover how transportation impacts the affordability and sustainability of where you live.” (Interestingly, the average transport costs for my neighborhood are exactly on with my “regional average” while my estimated CO2 emissions are nearly 20% lower than regional averages. I suspect this is due to the impact on their algorithm of a nearby subway stop in my area.)

While numbers like this are so general as to be of questionable accuracy, they do point to a welcome trend. Increasingly it seems that people are making the connection that sustainability and environmental considerations are not just little adjustments you make after you’ve set up your life the way you want it. But that our life choices like where we live have big, direct impacts not just on our environmental impacts but also on how expensive our lives are.

Transportation costs are notoriously difficult for the average person to estimate. The main reason may be that transport costs are an odd mix of small daily incremental costs (gas, car wash), larger annual costs (registration, insurance), and large unpredictable costs (repair, maintenance). This mix tends to lead to people underestimating what they actually spend on transportation which can have a large impact on the choices they make.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Metro’s in-house blog The Source, wades into the debate on how well people estimate their own transportation costs. They don’t reach any conclusions beyond noting the confusion between daily incremental costs and overall costs and point out that transit users estimate their costs lower on average. I noticed though that taking a rough average of their poll respondents’ numbers gives an estimate of less than $200/month in transportation expenses. By contrast the Abogo estimate I got for the region is $719/month, nearly four times more than The Source’s readers self-estimate. Looks like there is still room for improving people’s awareness of their lifestyle’s costs.

Is It Broken?

At a recent talk in Los Angeles, New York City DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn made the following seemingly innocuous statement, “no one can claim the current system isn’t broken.” It was an offhand thought that got general murmurs of agreement. But in some ways, I think this may be the most radical thing she said all night. Ironically, it may also be one of the least accurate things she said.

Sadik-Khan is famous (and infamous) for rapidly and shockingly veering NYC transportation priorities away from the standard “move the most cars as fast as possible” mission statement to one that at least considers pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit priorities and their needs. Without overstating her impact, it does seem that starting from this fundamental belief that the current system does not function has allowed her and her department to embark on a series of experimental approaches. Departments of Transportation are notoriously hidebound and resistant to change. Many planning concepts and priorities are still based on approaches developed in the 1950’s and earlier. Indoctrination into these traditions is passed on as new engineers study under the last generation and then begin to work in the real world.  So rather than nod in agreement, let’s take her statement at face value. Is the current system broken and can anyone claim that it’s not?

I doubt anyone would argue that our current transport system is ideal, at least no one who commutes in any moderately sized city would. But “broken” is a distinction of kind and not degree. Like the apocryphal boiling frog placed in a slowly warming pot of water, people have an amazing capacity to adapt to slow changes over time without noticing, each new level of degrading conditions becomes the new “normal” that is accepted as the way things are. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people per year are killed in traffic accidents in the US. Your chance of getting killed in an auto accident is roughly 1 in 87. The chance of being killed by terrorism…1 in 9.3 million. But which is seen as an existential threat to our country? In 2007, the overall cost of traffic congestion is estimated at $8.7 billion, $750 for every traveler and wasted time added up to 4.2 billion hours, roughly one full work week per traveler. Over the last decade, we have added an average of 32,000 lane-miles per year to the nation’s highway system. Despite the huge social costs and big investments, traffic congestion has gotten worse, nearly continuously. The only event that seems to have decreased it in recent history was the intense economic slowdown of the last two years, and there are signs the economy (and traffic) are on the rebound.

Does all this mean our transportation is “broken”? Hard to say perhaps. People enjoy greater mobility than they ever have in the past, cars are improving rapidly; becoming safer and less polluting. But will incremental improvements fundamentally change anything? Beyond easy statistics, some of the biggest criticisms of auto-centric planning are of the costs in terms of community and quality of life. These criteria are tough to quantify on even the broadest criteria. Perhaps all that can be said is that there is a rapidly spreading belief that the system is broken. It is that belief that there is a better way that is forcing change in cities, large and small, around the country.

To the initial assertion that “no one can claim…” Well, here I will have to take exception with Sadik-Khan as much as I wish I could agree with her. I won’t bother to link to the wide range of voices, from the marginal to the powerful, who would do anything other than admit that our system is broken. Even those who will admit that there are problems will usually assign the cause as being a lack of commitment to an auto-centric policy rather than an over commitment to it.

While I can’t agree with Sadik-Khan in a literal sense, I will stand with her vision without reservation. Change often requires both the belief that change is itself possible and that it is necessary. I think she is demonstrating the power of one’s basic assumptions and why they are so critical.

Gas Tax Follies

In California, the governor has proposed a bewildering solution to help fix the massive budget shortfall for the state. One of the issues that constantly plagues budgeting in California is that much of the state’s spending is fixed by voter approved initiatives, meaning that officials have very little flexibility to shift money between priorities or adjust overall spending. But, as always, there’s tricks. (from: The Sacramento Bee via The Source)

The proposal in question is to eliminate the 6% state sales tax on gasoline and replace it with a 10.8 cent increase in the per gallon excise tax. Past voter initiatives have locked in parts of the sales tax revenue to go to schools, local government, and mass transit. But there are no such restrictions on the excise tax, so it would release that money to be used elsewhere. Line item voter approved spending formulas like the one for the gas tax have a long and contentious history in California and few argue that they are an effective way to handle tax collection and spending. I can forgive the administration for wanting to free themselves from complex rules like this in order to deal with what is truly a huge problem with the state’s budget. But here is where I am really left scratching my head. According to the proposal’s projections, the net result will be a $.06 reduction in gas prices. So part of the Governor’s proposal to close a nearly $20 billion gap in the budget is to cut taxes. Interesting.

Now, there are some valid arguments for this. First is that cutting any taxes tends to stimulate the economy, helping businesses and individuals, creating jobs, etc. Gas tax cuts are also fairly progressive as they tend to benefit lower income people more than higher income people whose gas purchases represent a much smaller part of their income. So there is some potential for benefit here. But let’s be honest. Today’s average regular gas price in California is $3.051. So $.06 is a 2% decrease. “Stop those layoffs, our fuel costs just went down 2%!”

Here’s some more problems with this approach. First, gas prices are increasing and widely expected to increase much more as the economy recovers. The new formula locks in a set dollar amount tax instead of a percentage. This means the state won’t collect more as fuel prices rise missing out on a natural revenue source as the economy grows. Most economists are predicting high inflation in coming years which will also rapidly reduce the value of a set tax price. Furthermore, it means that to raise gas taxes in the future becomes a legislative issue. How many politicians will have the will to propose raising gas taxes as inflation and market changes slowly reduce to the value of the excise tax to zero.

Next, let’s talk about the “progressive” nature of this tax cut. In the short term, lower income people do benefit more than higher income, assuming that everyone drives. What about the large population of people who don’t? The change would mean a roughly $1 billion loss of bus and rail funds. I’m speculating that the resulting service cuts that will result might impact people more than a 2% decrease in gas prices.

Finally, how about long term goals? I won’t even get into the logic of reducing money for education, but California is spending huge amounts of money to expand rail service and add more carpool lanes. The state is leading the drive to improve fuel efficiency standards and reduce the levels of pollution and GHG emissions. So to balance that, apparently we are going to incentivize driving, reduce the service levels of public transit, and increase the budget deficit at a time when the state is looking at record shortfalls.

Let’s be honest, despite their environmental concerns or belief in building strong communities, middle class voters hate high gas prices. The only real logic I see here is bureaucrats, frightened that they will be blamed for draconian service cuts, hoping to balance it with a popular cut in gas prices.  If they think $.06 is going to do it…good luck with that.

Tipping Points

I want to follow up on a tangent from my last point…tipping points in complex systems. This brief discussion is prompted by the following statistic:

In 2008 versus 2007, average vehicle miles travelled on urban highways in the US decreased by about 3%. During the same time period, congestion decreased by an average of 30%. See here and here. How did such a small change in the number of cars cause such a large decrease in congestion?

The answer lies in the way that complex systems handle operating at, near, or beyond their “capacity”. When a road is half empty, adding another car does little to nothing to affect other vehicles’ speed and travel time. But at rush hour, in stop and go traffic, even a single car entering your lane can disrupt or even halt movement for a large number of cars for a significant time. Congestion, speeds, and travel times are subject to a tipping point or “non-linearities” in response to increasing demand. Great. So why is this important?

It is well known that traffic congestion has numerous ill effects. The time wasted has a high economic cost, cars in congestion pollute more and suffer more wear and tear, the added stress and exposure have been shown to have measurable health affects for both the driver and surrounding community, and time spent commuting continuously shows up as a major factor in people’s self reported happiness and life satisfaction. So we know congestion is bad. Isn’t that why we’re doing all these road projects? To reduce congestion?

Where poor road design has resulted in a true bottleneck, it makes sense to invest in improvements to fix the problem. But when the entire system is overwhelmed, does it make sense to expand the complete road system? Even ignoring the other arguments for shifting auto traffic to alternative forms of transport, a simple cost/benefit calculation questions the sense of investing in much of the road “improvements” that occur. Criticisms of most mass transit, bike, and pedestrian projects often center around the idea that money is being spent to serve a ‘tiny minority’ of people who use them. It is true, at least for bicycle projects, that a small percentage of trips occur by bike in even the most bicycling friendly cities in the US. What is ignored, even often by bicycle advocates, is the huge benefit to drivers that even a tiny percentage shift of transport mode can have.

With limited resources, it makes sense to spend your infrastructure dollars where they’ll have the biggest impact. Portland is looking at spending $100 million to build 123 miles of bike lanes. Los Angeles just began a project to spend $1 billion to build 10 miles of car lane. Direct comparisons may not be completely fair. But for the price of 1 mile of freeway construction, Portland will get 123 miles of bike lane. And if those 123 miles shift only 1% of road traffic to bikes (Portland currently has about 7% of commutes going by bike), the entire road system could see a reduction in congestion by a full order of magnitude better.

Bang For Your Buck

In Los Angeles, the DOT will spend approximately $1 billion to add a traffic lane and improve supporting infrastructure along a 10 mile section of the 405 freeway. That $100 million per mile, or for those of you who like to think in smaller increments…nearly $1,600 per inch.

Los Angeles’ 1996 (never implemented) bike plan would have cost roughly $60 million and built 210 miles of Class I & II Bike Paths. That’s about what it will cost to build 0.6 of a mile of the 405 project. Which do you think would have done more to “reduce existing and forecasted traffic congestion” or “improve both existing and future mobility and enhance safety throughout the corridor”, the stated goals of the project?

While you’re at it, which do you think would produce more jobs per $ spent? A capital and material intensive project like freeway construction or a labor intensive, material light project like repainting road lines?

More on the efficient use of capital to follow…

update:
A recent report by the American Public Transportation Association concludes that investing in transit creates 31% more jobs per dollar spent than investment in new roads and bridges. Report here.

update 2:
A new report by the Politcal Economy Research Institute finds that spending on bicycle and pedestrian improvements creates up to twice as many jobs per dollar spent as spending on automobile road improvements. Report here (via Streetsblog).

Fun Facts – Parking

According to the California Highway Patrol, in 2008 there were 5,859,407 cars registered in Los Angeles County. If the average car takes up 119 square feet of space, that means that cars alone – not roads, parking lots, or any other automobile infrastructure, just the cars sitting still – take up 25 square miles of Los Angeles County. For context, consider that the land area of the island of Manhattan in New York City is 22 square miles.

Roughly 1.6 million people live in the space used just to park Los Angeles County’s cars.
When does a Prius cause just as much environmental damage as an SUV? The 95% of the time it’s parked.

(via The Source)