High speed electric rail
A modern, efficient railway system, powered by electricity from clean
energy sources, would be a giant step towards fixing the climate
crisis and freeing us from dependence on oil.
                Image by Sese Ingolstadt via Wikimedia

Upgrade Our Transportation System using clean energy and modern information technology

"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until the oil and coal run out before we tackle that."
-Henry Ford

What do you get when you combine clean energy supplies with modern information technology? You get the makings of a revolution in transport.

By radically boosting the efficiency of our transportation system using modern information technology, we can quickly and cheaply slash our use of petroleum. Then, as we build our supply of clean energy, we can replace the remaining petroleum with clean, non-polluting energy. These are the tools that will enable us to create a post-carbon transportation system at the lightning-fast speed we need to solve the climate crisis.

As a bonus, by creating an oil-free transportation system, we'll completely protect ourselves from the dangers of peak oil, so we don't need to worry about the skyrocketing price of gas. Also, we'll make our streets safer, we'll have less pollution, less traffic jams, more community, and for many of us, healthier, slimmer, sexier bodies. What's not to like?

Electric Cars And Buses

Electric car charging station
Electric vehicles: Most cars are parked 23 hours a day, so they can
recharge from the clean energy electric grid while we're going about
our business. The cost can be less than we now pay for gasoline.
                Image by Mariordo via Wikimedia

Electricity is ideally suited to powering transportation. Electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines, providing fast acceleration and regenerative braking (where the vehicle's momentum gets converted back into electricity, instead of heat on the brake pads). An electric vehicle has zero exhaust.

Cars, buses, trains, streetcars, scooters, even bicycles -- all of them run great on electricity. That fact is perfect for building a post-carbon transportation system, because electricity is the most efficient way to harvest energy from sources like solar and wind. You can harvest much more solar energy from a given piece of land by harvesting that energy in the form of electricity using photovoltaics or solar thermal electricity, than if you grow crops to produce liquid biofuels like ethanol or biodiesel (plus, you can use land unsuited to crops, like deserts or rooftops).

Park and plug in: Electric cars run on batteries. The way to "fill up" an electric car is no different than any other electronic device: either you plug it in to charge it, or you swap out a depleted battery for a fully charged one. It takes a few hours for a depleted battery to charge, but most cars are parked twenty-three hours a day. By putting charging stations in our homes, work places, and retail parking lots, we can plug in, swipe our card to pay for the electricity, and go about our business, returning later to a fully charged car.

Electric vehicle battery swap-out station
When you need to "fill up" an electric car and don't have time to wait for charging,
a battery station can swap out your depleted battery for a fully charged one in less
time than it takes to fill a gas tank.         Photo by Better Place, Inc.

Battery swap-out stations: The other way to fill up an electric vehicle is to swap out the battery. You drive into a "gas station", which looks like a car wash. A mechanical arm reaches up, removes your depleted battery, replaces it with a fully charged one, and you're ready to drive away, in less time than it takes to fill the gas tank of a conventional car.

Could be half the cost of running a gasoline car: One company, Better Place, has developed a business model to support all aspects of electric vehicle sales and service, supplying electricity from clean energy sources. Customers buy their vehicles without having to pay for a battery, and vehicles would cost about $5,000 less than a conventional car. The company leases the batteries to the customer, and the customer pays a monthly bill, calculated per-mile-driven, which pays for the battery cost, charging, and battery swap-outs. Better Place company figures it can provide this service at a profit, while charging eight cents a mile (a rate which is set to decline in future years). For comparison, the per-mile fuel cost of a typical gasoline car is sixteen cents a mile (at 23 miles per gallon and $3.75 gasoline), so the electric vehicle per-mile cost would be half that of a typical gasoline car. Also, electric cars tend to have MUCH lower maintenance costs.

Liquid Biofuel Backup: Battery costs have been steadily dropping, and performance steadily rising. As it is now, though, the range for a battery pack before it needs charging is about 60-100 miles, compared to 300-400 miles for a tank of gas. That shouldn't be a problem for most people, because a typical driving distance is 20-30 miles per day. For people in situations where they need to drive long continuous distances in areas where battery swap-out stations are not available, an electric car can have a backup: an internal combustion engine and a fuel tank of liquid biofuel, like cellulosic ethanol or biodiesel. The battery pack powers the first 60-100 miles of a trip, and after that the fuel tank and engine kick in to give another few hundred miles of range.

Get paid to plug in: An additional benefit to electrifying vehicles is that there would be a lot of batteries around, which could be used to smooth out supply/demand imbalances on the clean energy grid. You could have an arrangement with the power company, that during certain hours of the day when your car is plugged in, the grid can borrow up to, say twenty percent of your battery's capacity, and they have to return that before your normal commuting times. This would cost you nothing, but it could be such a valuable service to the grid that they would pay you for it. One estimate of the value for this service to the grid would be $4,000 a year per vehicle.

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Electric Rail For Moving People And Freight

High speed electric train
High speed electric trains powered by the clean energy grid can replace
much of our domestic air and long distance road travel. The Velaro train
can reach speeds up to 250 mph, with a per-passenger energy efficiency
equivalent to 720 miles per gallon of gasoline. How's your car compare
to that?               Photo credit: Siemens Industry, Inc.

We can make a huge step towards an efficient, functional post-carbon transportation system by electrifying all existing rail lines, and building many more. The most efficient way to move people and freight is by rail. Friction of metal wheels on metal rails is minimal, it's very easy to add more cars or fewer cars, depending on the size load being carried. Plus, trains are ideally suited to electricity: the power flows through lines along the tracks and transmits directly to the trains, so there's no need to carry fuel or batteries.

For moving freight, we can replace long-distance trucking with electric trains , and do local freight delivery using trucks powered by battery electricity, liquid biofuels, or both. Many rail right-of-ways still exist, overgrown with weeds, waiting for us to revitalize them as part of the lifeblood of our transporation system. In other places, rail lines that used to have two or three tracks had all but one pulled up in the mid twentieth century. By rebuilding these, we can vastly increase our rail capacity.

Converting highway median and lanes to rail
We've already got the land: we can use the median strip, or convert lanes
of our highways as a ready-made right-of-way for new rail lines.

Highway median conversion: Another opportunity is to convert the median strip or lanes of our interstate highways to rail. By switching some of our personal transportation from private vehicles to trains, and switching freight from trucks to rail, we won't need all those lanes anymore anyway. This relieves the burden of having to acquire land for new rights of way, and has the additional benefit that much of our economic infrastructure is already geared around the highways.

Rail-side transmission lines: One synergy would be to use the rail rights of way where we need to build new transmission lines for the clean energy electric grid. This relieves the rail companies of having to build all the distribution infrastructure for transmitting electricity along their lines, they could just buy the electricity from the power company right at trackside. It relieves the need to take land by eminent domain for much of the new transmission lines to connect clean energy sources to our population centers. Additionally, the electric utility would have a customer right under their lines.

Electric streetcar
Electric streetcars used to be the main form of transportation in and around our cities.
We can revive this efficient system and power it with clean, nonpolluting energy.
                Image by SimonP via Wikimedia

Return of the streetcar: Electric streetcars used to be the main form of transportation in and around many of our cities, and they can be once more. Electric streetcars are a form of light rail, used for local passenger transportation. We need a massive build-out of streetcar systems to make this a prime way to get around in populated areas. There is historical precedent for this task: between 1897 and 1916, the United States built electrified streetcar lines and subways in over 500 cities and towns, at a time when the population was a third what it is now, and GDP was 3% to 4% of today (in inflation adjusted dollars). So don't listen to anyone who says it's too big a of a job, or too expensive. We did it before; we can do it again.

(Note: there was nothing natural or efficient about the replacement of America's streetcar system by an automobile-centered system. If you don't know the story, click here.)

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Turn Public Transportation into the First-Choice, luxury convenient way of getting around

Electric buses
Electric buses: Public transportation has always been a more energy efficient
way to move people than private vehicles. Now, with real-time cell phone
updates and free wifi onboard, it can be convenient and luxurious, too.
                Image via Wikimedia

The most efficient way to move people by vehicle is to move a bunch of people on the same vehicle. Moving vast numbers of people, each in their own personal automobile, is an expensive way to run a transportation system, requiring lots of energy, and lots of material for all those vehicles and the wide roads to accommodate them. Switching large numbers of people to public transport will not only drastically reduce the energy and materials needed, making it easier to switch to clean energy, it will also save us huge sums of money, both individually and collectively. Modern information technology gives us the tools to make public transportation a convenient, even luxurious way to get around.

How do we get people out of their cars, and onto the bus or train or streetcar? What might at first seem like an issue of individual choice is actually a matter of public policy and public infrastructure. A thoughtful redesign of public transport, utilizing the latest developments in information technology, can revolutionize this means of transport, making it so convenient and luxurious that many people will not want to bother with the hassle and expense of owning and maintaining a personal vehicle.

Bus update on cell phone
No need to wait around at a bus stop. Real-
time cell phone updates show how long till the
next bus arrives, so you can linger over your
coffee up to the very last minute.
            Image by Where's My MBTA Bus

Real-time cell phone updates: It's now possible to get real time information on exactly where the next bus is, and how many minutes till it comes to your stop. Many bus systems are now implementing a technology that puts a GPS unit on each bus. Users of the system can keep track on their cell phone to get instant updates on the bus's location and schedule. No more waiting around at the bus stop. You'll be able to linger over your morning coffee until the last moment, and walk out to the bus stop just as the bus pulls up.

Two-way communication: The communication doesn't have to be just one-way. It's easy enough to set up the system so riders can electronically request a pick-up or drop-off for a particular time and place. That way, the bus system could use real-time information on ridership needs to judge what buses to send where. Real-time communication between the transport system and its users opens the door to all kinds of innovations that allow a flexible, adaptable response to meeting user needs with a minimum of energy.

A bus system no longer needs to be a fleet of giant vehicles running on fixed routes on a fixed schedule, whether anyone's riding on those buses or not. Having multiple sized vehicles in the fleet would eliminate, for example, the need for sending a full-sized, 50-person bus, on the times and routes when an eight-seat mini-bus will be adequate.

Using those same cell phones to electronically debit the riders' accounts makes loading the bus much faster: no waiting for a line of people to fumble with money or tickets.

Throw in clean, comfortable seats, and free wifi on the bus, and suddenly public transportation starts looking like a luxury means of getting around. The ubiquitous smart phones and netbooks and Ipads make it possible to use that time for work, education, or entertainment, rather than just driving -- commuting becomes time gained rather than time lost.

Moving people by bus means less traffic, and speedier travel times, because twenty or thirty people on one bus requires vastly less street space than twenty or thirty individual cars on the road.

With the help of modern information technology, we can stop treating public transit as the poor stepchild of our transportation system and bring to the forefront of how we get where we're going.

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Make Ride-Sharing Convenient, Safe, and Profitable

Ride-sharing system
Ride-sharing: Both parties get a read-out of their potential rider/driver,
and can see anonymous ratings others have given that person.
           Image courtesy Avego

Modern information technology provides a safe, convenient way to make use of a vast untapped resource: all the empty seats in cars going down the road. A smartphone-mediated system of ride-sharing creates a safe, convenient way for people to get a ride where they're going, and for drivers to get someone else to share the expense of their vehicle. Private cars become an auxiliary to the public transport system.

Here's how it works.

Say you're heading out in your car and you want to offer a ride. You put out the ride offer on the system (you've already registered your usual destinations). Anyone looking for a ride to a particular place similarly puts out a request. The system matches the requests, both parties get a notification of the other, and they can choose to accept or decline potential ride matches. Each cell phone has a GPS, so the rider can follow the approach of the driver. Each party can see a score given to the other party by previous riders/drivers, and when they meet, a picture of each flashes up on the other's phone, so they both can verify that this is indeed who it's supposed to be.

Ride alone = ride with Hitler
In World War Two, there was a lot of pressure
to ride-share to save gas for the war effort. It's
just as important for winning today's struggle: to
prevent runaway climate change.

If everything checks out, the driver gives a ride to the passenger, and the GPS units keep track of the miles traveled, and automatically debits the rider's account and credits the driver's account by a pre-set amount per mile. After the rider is dropped off, both parties get prompted to score the other party.

To register with the system, drivers must have a safe driving record, and their vehicles are inspected for safety to get approved. Both parties must have a record free of violence. you can see the ratings other people have given to potential drivers/riders. Your rating is anonymous. you can block the system from ever assigning you to a ride with a particular person again.

Click here for video demonstrating how the system works.

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Give bicycling the respect it deserves

Bicycling is probably the most efficient means of transportation ever devised. Instead of moving a couple thousand pounds of metal in order to move one human as in a car, on a bike you only need to move a couple dozen pounds of metal, and the energy comes from your own two legs. In situations where distances and weather permit, bicycle commuting neatly matches human needs for transportation with human needs for regular aerobic exercise to stay healthy and trim.

Bike path (bicycle infrastructure)
Key to getting more people biking is infrastructure: an interconnecting network
of safe, car-free bike paths that take people where they want to go.
           Image by Jim Henderson via Wikimedia

To fully utilize this clean, efficient, healthful way of transporting people, we need to make it easy and safe for people to bike. The way to do that is with exclusive bicycle lanes that do not have cars on them. Slightly less ideal is to designate some roads as bicycle thoroughfares, where cars are allowed, but are limited to the average speed of a bicyclist.

Other bicycle-friendly infrastructure is bike-locking facilities, and showers at work places.

For trips a bit more arduous than the abilities of the rider, electric bikes are an attractive option. Depending on the type of electric bike and how the rider chooses to use it, the electric bike can be the sole power source, or it can just give an electric assist to the person pedaling – especially handy when going up a hill. It can also extend the range of person's pedaling.

As with most of the changes we need to make, what might at first seem like an issue of individual choice is actually a matter of public policy and public infrastructure. In the United States and many other developed countries, there's a very good reason why few people commute by bicycle: biking on roads designed exclusively for cars can by inconvenient and extremely dangerous. Our transportation system is designed to make the automobile driver feel like king of the road, and when you walk or ride a bike it's painfully obvious that the system is not designed for you. Even where bike lanes are thrown in as an after-thought on the automobile-centered system, they frequently are little more than "white lines in traffic."

Where government has promoted biking with real bicycle infrastructure, people bike. In Copenhagen, Denmark, the city government has built a network of bicycle paths, bicycle parking, and free public bikes. As a result, the citizens make a 37% of all commuting trips by bicycle; the government's goal is to raise that to 50% of all commuting trips to be made by bicycle by 2015.

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Retrofit Our Streets and Communities to Make them Friendly for People as well as Cars

Urban density
Dense, walkable communities reduce the need for transportation,
improve our health by getting us walking, and build community.
Photo courtesy James Charlier

One of the most powerful techniques for reducing the energy for transportation is to reduce the need for transportation, by increasing the density of our developments, and making our communities pedestrian and bike friendly. The "side effects" of this will be to improve our health and quality of life, and strengthen our communities. This is how towns and cities were traditionally built for hundreds of years, before the mid-twentieth century invention of automobile sprawl.

Most of our urban and suburban landscapes today are the consequence of decades of planning and public investment that focused almost exclusively on the needs of cars, building ever more roads to to move more cars faster, treating pedestrians and bicyclists as an afterthought, or even as an inconvenience to the flow of automobiles. Zoning laws limit the number of buildings per acre, and mandate physical separation of the places where people live, work, shop and play.

The result is a low-density settlement pattern where the only way to get anywhere is by driving many miles in a car. Building and maintaining this landscape of suburban sprawl is very expensive not only in terms of energy (until now in the form of cheap oil), it requires huge amounts of materials: asphalt, cement, steel, and heavy equipment. And it keeps us isolated from each other.

Density is inherently more efficient than sprawl. All the infrastructure of society, both public and private, can serve more people if those people are closer together. More people share the streets, stores, public transportation, water and electric lines, lights. There are more places to go and things to do close to you, so it takes less energy to live your life.

Not only is density key to efficient infrastructure, it's key to vibrant communities. Humans are social beings. With more people in greater proximity, we can revitalize the traditional public realm of our streets, sidewalks, neighborhood centers and downtowns, creating numerous places where people can see each other and meet. And with destinations that are within walking or biking distances, and pleasant routes for getting to those places, we'll be much more likely to use our own two legs for transportation, getting exercise simply in the course of living our daily lives.

Obviously, we can't change the layout of our streets and buildings overnight, but we can make sure that new development is built intelligently. And there's a great deal that can be done to retrofit existing automobile sprawl.

We can increase density by ending perverse incentives that encourage sprawl, and instead encourage urban infill, changing zoning laws to drastically increase density in urban areas. We can encourage construction of affordable housing: new apartments, small lots mixed in with large lots, apartments over garages, and separate "granny flats". Location-efficient mortgages take transportation costs into account, making it easier to qualify for a loan on properties where you don't need to spend as much of your income on vehicle and fuel expenses.

We can redesign the streets in our towns and cities so they serve more than the movement and parking of private motor vehicles. We can widen sidewalks, and convert road lanes to bus lanes, street car rails, or bike trails. "Complete streets" accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders, as well as private automobiles. We can disincentivize parking and auto-oriented development in favor of density and transit-oriented development. We can encourage street vendors, and city markets for fruit, meat, vegetables, and wares.

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Travel by Air and Sea Using Liquid Biofuels

The primary transportation fuel of the clean energy economy will be electricity, but in some cases liquid biofuels like ethanol or biodiesel are better suited as fuel, as for the backup fuel tank on electric vehicles described above. What's probably the most climate-friendly way to produce liquid biofuels is from perennial plants like willow or miscanthus grass, in carbon-sequestering agro-ecosystems. Because of the amount of land required to grow biofuels, liquid fuels will be restricted to applications that are unsuited to electricity.

Airplanes run well on liquid fuels, and at least with present battery technology, are unsuited to electricity. A number of efficiency measures will make it unnecessary to fly as many planes as we do now. Worldwide availability of electronic video conferencing means businesses don't have to be sending people all over the place for meetings. A network of high speed electric rail will provide excellent alternative to short-haul flights. And the widespread adoption of solar greenhouses attached to buildings in cold-winter climates, giving people a luxurious sunny warm enclave, possibly might make them less likely to want to make a tropical getaway during winter.

Skysails wind power for container ships
A new twist on the age-old use of wind to move ships:
Giant kites supplement a container ship's engines,
cutting the need for fuel.         Photo by Skysails

Ships are another vehicle that's probably better suited to liquid fuels than electric batteries. A number of factors will reduce the need for as many ships, including more local production, and a de-incentivizing of the consumer throwaway economy, to be replaced by an economy of permanence. Also, there is potential for using wind and solar for partial or entire fuel of ships. It's easy to forget that up until the mid 1800's, cargoes were shipped all around the world, entirely by wind power. Modern cargo ships can be outfitted with sails, and one promising technology outfits cargo ships with giant kites, augmenting the power of the ship's engines with free energy from the wind.

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We can transform our transportation system to run 100% on clean, pollution-free energy. In the process, we can create stronger communities and healthier bodies. Another benefit is safety: reducing the number of vehicles on the road, reducing the number of miles people need to travel to live their lives, getting people out of their cars and walking and bicycling, moving people in vehicles driven by professional drivers, all these would make us safer. (That's no small achievement, as the number of people killed in car crashes on American roadways is currently equivalent to a 9-11 happening every month of the year.) All this would be well worth doing, even if we weren't facing a climate emergency to make it happen immediately. What are we waiting for?