Thursday 11 November 2010

Public transportation 2: Hummers and booze

As mentioned last month, public transportation makes cities healthier -- US cities were healthier when they had streetcars, and light rail systems make many European cities more liveable today. America’s streetcars were ripped up decades ago, though, and light rail requires massive investments in infrastructure – money few cities have to throw around. Communities can still organise public transit, though, by using buses.

In my native country, the USA, buses are often associated with the poor, but they shouldn’t be. A recent HNTB Corporation survey found that 90 percent of Americans who live near public transportation use it at least some of the time, and 70 percent thought it a better choice than driving -- indicating that more people would use public transit if there was more of it. (Just assume I’m writing this for the most countries in general but my native USA in particular.)

For that matter, don’t assume that “the poor” are someone else. Forty-five million Americans, for example, lived below the poverty line last year– one in seven – and those are only the individuals making less than $10,800 or families making less than $22,000. Many if not most of us are struggling in some way, with too little savings and too much debt, and even many apparently prosperous families live only a few pay-checks from default.

Everyone needs to travel to the store, work or relatives’ houses, but many of us live in the country or in suburbs – especially Americans again, who can travel 20, 50, even 100 kilometres to work. Such journeys will grow more difficult in a time of less money and more expensive fuel, yet most residential areas have no factories or businesses to furnish jobs. Cars also break down, and in a crunch many will have less money to fix them or buy new ones. Nor can we indefinitely repair modern cars, with their plastic and micro-chips, as Cubans do their 1959 models.

People here in rural Ireland have long depended on taxis, and they can help carry people in an emergency. Taxis might less efficient than most cars on the road, however, for they usually take only one passenger at a time, and spend a lot of their time driving to and from pickup points. They certainly cannot substitute for vehicles that carry multiple passengers on regular routes.

In short, we will need buses of some kind, in small towns and inner cities, along country roads and motorways alike. Lots of them.

Unfortunately, many cities are cutting back their bus lines; a brief Google News search on the day I write this came up with five examples in the last month alone. Local officials could feel compelled to eliminate such services altogether as the tough times continue, in an attempt to cut costs. As someone who spends three hours a day on the bus, I have a particular concern for making sure they continue to exist, and could be made even more comfortable and reliable.

I used to cover city and county governments as a reporter in Missouri and Kansas, and while my articles made life difficult for certain politicians, I also know they are often harried, pressured, and unappreciated. I’ve tried to put myself in the place of officials and residents who want to keep public transit alive in the case of financial or fuel emergencies, and have a few projects that city or town residents might want to consider.
As city governments become increasingly cash-strapped, they will be less able to buy new buses or replacement parts. Many buses are already obviously old and in need of repairs, and officials probably put off paying for new ones until the boom times come again.

At the same time, almost 100 million Americans own SUVs or Hummers for some reason. In some years these suburban assault vehicles actually outsold cars, even though they are only half as efficient in miles-per-hour as 1920 Model Ts. Most people do not use their suburban assault vehicles for fording rapids or scaling Alaskan mountains, as in commercials, but rather for inching in and out of parking spaces. These vehicles typically have enough room for at least six people, plus enough cargo space, as Dave Barry put it, “to pick up something else, such as a herd of bison.”

Between the spike in fuel prices a few years ago and the recession today, many SUV owners are trying to rid themselves of these white elephants; look in any Buy-and-Sell section of any newspaper and you will see an explosion of such vehicles for sale, at plummeting prices.

These two problems could solve each other. the infamous mileage of SUVs and Hummers only results from the empty space in the back; fill it up with passengers and it becomes a very green choice. Local officials could buy them cheaply, or rent them to use to ferry passengers in lieu of bus lines.

If neither the city government nor the populace has money, enterprising officials could make more creative arrangements – say, giving the SUV owner use of a foreclosed property in exchange for the use of the vehicle, rather than forcing the homeless owner to sleep in it. They could agree to speak to the housing association keeping the SUV owner from putting up a chicken coop. They could agree to co-sign a residents’ mortgage in exchange for permission to use the vehicle. Ward council members and mayors might not officially have jurisdiction in these areas, but they might have some influence in their community, and as time goes on the world will become less official.

SUVs have several advantages over regular buses; for one thing, they would be more comfortable. Their ability to handle rough terrain might turn out a blessing after all, as they can continue to drive over roads in disrepair.
More importantly, since they only take eight or nine passengers at a time, they can be economical in small towns and in the country, driving routes that cannot afford 80-seat buses. Bus routes could actually be expanded in places, allowing otherwise marooned residents easy access to jobs, hospitals and food markets.
They can also vary their routes slightly to pick up passengers at home or a short walk away if needed, responding to phone calls for assistance. If a country-dweller needs to get to town and has the SUV driver’s mobile number, for example, they could ask the driver to vary their route slightly rather than walking miles to the nearest pickup point, without unduly inconveniencing other waiting passengers – an important detail for elderly and the handicapped. Pat Murphy of Community Solutions has proposed a plan similar to this, which he calls a “Smart Jitney” system.

Cash-strapped cities could also require drivers to supply their own SUV and fuel, compensating them by letting them keep riders’ fares, and freeing the local government from financial burden. If this sounds suspiciously like a taxi, it is – just a taxi that runs regular routes. Put another way, it could combine the security of bus lines with the flexibility of taxis and the fun of carpooling.

What if fuel becomes expensive even for an SUV bus service? Even then, communities can still keep their far-flung homes connected by going into the moonshine business.
Moonshine, or what the Irish call poitin (pa-CHEEN), is high-grade alcohol – ethanol -- made from grains, potatoes or some other plant. Typically the plants are brewed into beer or wine, and the brew is then heated in a vat to boil off the alcohol without boiling the water. At the top of the vat runs a thin tube, through which the alcohol vapour can escape and cool, dripping into a second container to become, hopefully, near-pure.

Many petroleum vehicles can run on alcohol instead of petrol or diesel, although it may require the engine to be adjusted. Many countries have kept their buses running with alcohol, from India in the 1930s to Brazil today, and with less money and technology than most modern Westerners. Some European nations have also had a good track record with them -- one Swedish study found that buses that switched to alcohol increased their fuel efficiency and reduced their pollution.

Alcohol remains a controversial remedy. Its fans tout its zero-carbon potential, since the emissions put into the air last season can be taken out of the air by growing the bio-fuel crops this season. This cycle of crops to fuel to crops can theoretically be sustained indefinitely, making alcohol seem a permanent solution to the fossil fuel crisis.

The down side, of course, is that making the alcohol fuel --- growing the crops, harvesting them, processing them into mush and distilling the result -- takes almost as much energy as you get from burning the alcohol, if not more. We will never run our current society on alcohol, for the same reasons we will never have a perpetual-motion machine.

If alcohol cannot do everything, however, that does not mean it cannot do anything. Five million urban residents might not find enough farmers around to power five million cars, but they might find enough to power 5,000 buses, each carrying 100 passengers over several trips a day. Crucially, though, alcohol crops can be grown and distilled locally, almost anywhere.

Many towns have unused land nearby -- vacant lots, abandoned fields and foreclosed farms – which can be used to grow fuel crops as well as food. Many areas also have large numbers of unemployed people who need something to do and could benefit from retraining, junk that can be refitted into stills, and educated people who need jobs.

Just as neighbourhoods full of unemployed people could set to work turning unused fields into kitchen gardens, so they could also grow fuel -- and since alcohol can be made from the discarded or inedible parts of plants, the two are not incompatible. Finally, leftover mash from the distilling process can be used to feed pigs or as compost – either way, the methane from decomposition can generate both heat and electricity.

Alcohol is just one example of a bio-fuel; diesel oil can be made from a variety of crops, from jatropha, sunflowers, corn, palm trees and many others – including something where you live. Distilling the alcohol or squeezing out the oil does not require the vast acreage of breweries, like the Guinness plant I work next to in Dublin; stills have been constructed out of discarded junk by prisoners, encamped GIs and mountain bootleggers, and a town or neighbourhood that includes some mechanics and engineers could do as well --- and without needing to make it drinkable.

Of course, few things are simple, and projects like this will require the cooperation of many local people. It will require neighbours to meet each other and work together regardless of their political or religious beliefs. It will require many man-hours of work, experimentation and patience, all things that have atrophied in the online era. It does, however, need to happen, and no one will do it for us.


Unknown said...

One issue with using ethanol as a fuel, as described here, is that straight distillation only gets you to 95% alcohol. This alcohol can be used as a fuel in a vehicle that has been converted for it, but that vehicle cannot be then run efficiently on gasoline. Also, 95% alcohol cannot be blended with gasoline - the water comes out of solution. To get to 100% alcohol requires the addition of benzene and a second distillation.

It takes the caloric equivalent of 20 gallons of gasoline to feed an average American for a year. The average American driver uses 500 gallons of gasoline every year. Even cutting that to 50 means 2.5 times more land that must be cultivated. Especially if it's land close to cities, I'm not sure how practical it would be to run vehicles on ethanol.


Brian Kaller said...


It’s a good point -- I admit I have never performed distilling myself, nor converted a car to run on alcohol, although I understand that many engines on the road could be converted by a mechanic. In writing this, though, I hoped that I could plant the idea among local officials and organizers, who could investigate how feasible such a project would be in their area.

I agree that ethanol could not support our present consumption, but do you believe it would be useless even for public transit? What about fire engines or ambulances? I’m not asking rhetorically -- it's important to determine these things for the future.

sv koho said...

Good post Brian. I as well as others have also made the same blog observations regarding cost effective ways to move folks. I lived in La Paz(Mexico) for a while and they have several transportation options. There are the large regional buses, the smaller older city buses and then vans and old suburbans and even sedans with hand lettered numbers and names in the windshield, none of which I could ever reliably decode. I just would board, give the 5 peso fare and ask my fellow passengers if this vehicle would take me to where I wanted to go. If not they would tell me which van to catch and I would pop out and wait. The vans could be flagged down which was a real advantage and everyone was genial and seemed surprised to see gringos riding. Some times my fellow passengers would recommend a particular bus instead of the vans. It was always a far better deal than taxis or renting cars which most americans opted for.
The ethanol option is pointless as most authors familiar with the concept of EROEI have noted. It is better just to use petroleum which has 30% more energy per gallon and is devoid of water which makes ethanol damaging to older engines and fuel systems. It is better to feed people instead of engines. Putting in rail lines is far far more cost effective than repairing roads which only last less than a decade while rail can go many decades with only minimal attention(look at India) and steel rail bridges cost a fraction of what concrete car and truck bridges cost and they go up very quickly. Allied bombers would take out German rail links and they would be back in operation in days. Try that with your typical US interstate highway model.

Brian Kaller said...

SV Koho,

Thank you -- I've read your blog with interest, and it has a new follower.

I certainly agree it is not feasible to produce enough ethanol to power our current society. I thought it might be feasible, though, to produce the much smaller quantities needed for public transit -- especially in the opening years of a crisis, as a way of easing people into a different arrangement. I could be wrong -- so far, this is theory.

I agree with you that rail lines would be better. Is anyone planning to build them, however? If neighbourhood groups assembled the training and materials to build tracks, would higher-order powers allow them to stay? Again, my questions are not rhetorical, just food for thought.

sv koho said...

Hi Brian. Yes I am working my way backwards thru Restoring Mayberry and getting new perspectives. Having a blogger with a journalist's ability to write is a real plus. I am assembling a home made ethanol still for possible use next summer using a solar collector as the energy source. I stockpile a fair amt of corn for our livestock. It might double as a backup to more conventional alcoholic beverages. The major disadvantage to home ethanol is you can only get to about 95% WITH THE REST H20. i HAVE AN OLD CARBURATED GMC truck which is old enough to have replaceable jets and my tractor is a 1972 John Deere with the same technology. Should be fun. I am not spending any $ and using solar instead of natgas or electric to distill will certainly shift the EROEI and I will try to calculate those numbers. Take care of that cute young'un.