Thursday, November 10, 2011

Relieving urban traffic congestion and reducing fossil fuel dependence

Every major city and large urban center shares a common problem, traffic congestion, particularly during rush hours. And in virtually every instance a major, if not the dominant, contributor to that congestion is commercial delivery traffic. Primary traffic corridors and the primary concentration of retail and commercial businesses to which deliveries are being made are on the same routes, the same streets.

In an era of dwindling fossil fuel reserves, resulting in punishing increases in fuel costs, and stressed budgets at all levels of government resulting in curtailment of funds for infrastructure development and maintenance, some serious thinking outside the box is needed to deal with this combined problem.

I believe there is a simple, efficient, and cost effective solution available in most large cities.

The other thing large cities share in common is that they have a major investment in a public transit infrastructure. In most large cities this includes subways, streetcars and trolleys. These are all powered by electricity, not fossil fuels, though the electricity they use may, today, be generated using fossil fuels. But that is a situation that will undergo dramatic changes over the next couple of decades as existing power generation plants age and are pulled offline.

That electricity driven public transit system and infrastructure can serve as the foundation for solving both urban fossil fuel dependence and urban traffic congestion. All three system infrastructures (subway, streetcar and trolley) can double as effective and efficient urban freight distribution networks. The chassis on which these three vehicles are built can be used as the chassis for freight vehicles that will run on the same infrastructure as the current passenger vehicles.

Subway cars are ideally suited as urban freight carriers. They have four sets of extra-wide, double entry/loading doors, car to car connection, driver compartment built in, and the ability to be run individually or linked together as a train. Use the same chassis, strip out the seating and hand-holds, eliminate the climate control system, eliminate the windows, build in the necessary racks/shelves and partitions and you have an ideal urban freight carrier. They use an existing track infrastructure that also carries people. They can be run 24-hours a day, in any weather because the infrastructure is underground. With retail and commercial concentrated along the same corridors served by the subways it is the most efficient system for delivery to those businesses or strategically located depots. Freight sidings could be relatively easily added where needed so as not to impede passenger traffic while loading/unloading. And it could be undertaken now to great advantage for the city in easing the traffic congestion of delivery trucks on city streets.

A simple, effective dispatch control system could easily be developed, probably using some form of bar-code system. The whole freight system could be privatized, bringing revenue to the city and eliminating the bureaucracy needed from city payroll and expense.

In the same way, streetcar infrastructure could be used for surface freight cars, freight vehicles built on a streetcar chassis. Sidings could be easily added where needed, running down alleys for example. These could serve secondary commercial concentrations not on the subway lines.

Freight trolleys, likewise, could be built on the same chassis as passenger trolleys, use the same power line infrastructure and routes, have additional sidings built so as not to impede passenger traffic on the same lines. These would service those secondary commercial concentrations similar to but not served by streetcars.

All of this is akin to the way in which freight planes have become so ubiquitous at our airports. Freight has piggybacked on an infrastructure that was already in place for passenger traffic, with the addition of extra terminals at airports to divert freight away from passenger terminals. The air traffic control, runways, route management and tracking systems, and route protocols were all already in place.

The decline in reserves of all fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) is a certainty over the next couple of decades and well beyond. They are not replenishable, at least not in human time-scales. One way or another all facets of our society dependent on these fossil fuels are going to have to find ways to adapt as reserves diminish.

Although electricity has its own problems, such as aging infrastructure and a reliance on massive power generation facilities and long-distance transmission lines, one certainty is that electricity generation has many renewable options such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal, and more. We are not forever tied to fossil fuels for electricity generation. And there is the clear additional benefit that these options can be at a smaller scale and distributed. Any city, for example, has within it's boundaries sufficient rooftop space that, with solar power, most of it's electricity for the transportation and freight infrastructure could be generated within city boundaries. Add wind power to that and possible other options like power generated from burning trash, and much of the power needs can be readily satisfied internally. Local options can reduce, or eliminate, the dependence on long distance power grids. With privatization of the urban freight system, the city could also expect those companies using that infrastructure to share in the cost of building and maintaining the local power generation facilities.

Those corporations that currently supply the passenger vehicles for the public transit system could be commissioned to use their chassis and develop the freight options on that chassis. Similarly, however, third party corporations could be allowed, on a competitive bid basis, to develop the freight vehicles, in the same way that third party companies produce specialized truck bodies for truck freight.

Any city that prides itself on being forward looking cannot afford to ignore the elephant in the room of dwindling fossil fuel supplies over the coming decades. Any city willing to take such an innovative, pro-active approach to pre-avoiding the problems that fossil fuel depletion will inflict on them will have a clear leg up on the fossil fuel downslope.

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