A ticket to ride

BOOK REVIEW

Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil
by Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl
New Society Publishers, 430 pp, $26.95

I know a textbook when I see one. This feels like a textbook without the homework, unless you include constantly referencing the many footnotes throughout the text. Advertised as a book for the general reader and the transportation planner, it’s an interesting read, but a bit of a slog to power through. I’m afraid that while wonky types in transport might make the effort, many others will be turned off by the ponderous, schooly approach. And these general readers may have been just the people the authors most needed to reach.

Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl review transportation revolutions that have occurred in the past, current transport energy use, and the transportation areas that need to be revolutionized in the future.

The thrust of the book is that we have transportation options. Those options are what need to be evaluated as the world lurches toward liquid fuel shortages for conventional internal combustion engines.

Society will find that it has benefited from not being completely reliant on internal combustion engines powering all our transportation needs. Some sectors of transportation currently rely on electric traction motors for motive power. Future transportation needs can be built on currently available electric transportation technology but would require significant investments in electric grid capability, electric infrastructure and vehicles.

From there to here

The authors discuss historical transport revolutions from the British railway revolution of 1830-1850 to the Japanese high speed rail development in the 1960s.

The British revolution depended on the steam locomotive to provide competition to canals.

The Japanese development of the high speed rail hinged on significant government support for rail technology research.  The Japanese breakthroughs in rail vehicles, infrastructure and electric propulsion systems were achieved after World War II, when they turned away from aerospace and military production. Their model shows what can be accomplished when national priorities are redirected.

The authors discuss how the major investments in current infrastructure can “lock in” a particular combination of technology and organization and provide significant resistance to further change. This is especially apparent in the US, with its lack of development in intercity high speed rail systems. Instead the US has focused on roads and highways. As air travel becomes increasingly expensive, the US will regret not having already made significant investment into rail systems.

The body electric

The authors describe that for local transport the objective is to, “create an environment in which it is as advantageous to live without a car as with a car and change what determines the choice of travel.”

“Travel behavior is appropriate to the contexts in which it occurs” – a prosaic way of saying that transport behavior will not change until the circumstances surrounding transport options are no longer viable either because of costs or lack of availability. We saw this validated when Americans traveled less due to fuel price spikes in 2008. At that time, you couldn’t give away gas-guzzling SUVs.

The authors propose that electric transport will substantially replace cars (and other internal combustion engines) during the next few decades. Electricity is widely available. Any number of fuel sources can be used to create it, it’s renewable and can be expanded.

The challenge for electric vehicles is getting the electricity to the vehicle. This can be done in three basic ways: battery-electric vehicles, hybrid electric vehicles and grid-connected vehicles.

A grid-connected vehicle system does have infrastructure requirements. It takes stringing wires above existing roads and providing the means to power them. But similar challenges existed at the beginning of the auto age, as fueling stations were being developed.

A widely implemented system for electric cars running on batteries could increase the requirement for electrical energy by about 15%. Yet the requirement for additional generating capacity could be much lower, but this neglects the need for a certain amount of additional spare electric generating capacity. An issue that the authors do not address is the possible resource constraints of rare earth elements used in the manufacture of high efficiency electric motors, and the vast raw materials required for electric vehicle batteries.

Emissions omissions

The transport sector is growing worldwide, especially in developing countries like China and India. It’s a given that greenhouse gas emissions have increased. The authors note that almost all the countries that signed the Kyoto Treaty will not meet their greenhouse gas emission targets from the transport sector.

The US Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards started in 1978 for light duty vehicles (a subject the reviewer worked on while at the Department of Transportation).

The CAFE program would have been more successful in reducing fuel consumption had vehicle power and weight stayed the same in the 1980s. It would also have reduced US fleet fuel use by 20-25%.  However, in the 1990s and early 2000s, increases in vehicle size, weight and power, plus the shift to SUVs (which were given tax breaks and lower fuel economy requirements), negated any CAFE gains.

Only after gas prices reached $4.00 a gallon did personal use of vehicles go down, resulting in an overall fuel reduction.

CAFE requirements to this point haven’t been successful. The current administration has proposed improvements to CAFE by 2020. But the requirements have been hobbled by political interference in the past. They may face resistance again depending on the political climate.

The transport revolution between now and 2025, the authors propose, is based on a redesign that deals with oil depletion.

Downhill to the future

The run-up in oil prices in 2008 provided a momentary glimpse at the future that’s coming. The reviewer notes that if the high fuel prices in ’08 had been accompanied by limitations in supply availability, then the challenge would have been in maintaining civil order.

The authors suggest that one of the elements necessary to kick-start the next transport revolution in the US would be to tax oil and gas vehicle fuels. While the first edition of this book came out prior to the current economic crisis, with anti-tax Republicans now controlling the House of Representatives, increasing taxes on transport fuels is a non-starter. I imagine it will not be a viable option through the next election cycle in 2012 and beyond if Republicans take the presidency.

My overall impression is that it’s not a light read, but very informative. Note, however that I’m an engineer.

– Hank Edwards, Transition Voice

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