Posts Tagged ‘transportation’

St. Petersburg trolley truck (Source: Wikimedia)

Commercial trucks constitute 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Seattle.  Moving freight without oil is one of the major technological hurdles for carbon neutrality.  Smaller local deliveries may be made in battery electric trucks such as the Newton or the Zaptruck XL.  But battery electric trucks have limitations, all related to the batteries.  The weight of the battery packs displaces cargo capacity, limiting the cargo weight to battery power ratio.  The process of recharging batteries induces electrical losses, and the batteries themselves require disposal and replacement at the end of their useful life.  Battery power is fundamentally never as efficient as a direct electrical connection.  Electrical trolley buses are the starting point for another solution for carbon neutral goods movement.  Seattle, like many other cities around the world, has a network of electrical overhead contact systems (OCS) over city streets, directly powering buses on frequent routes.  Electrical trolley buses are 100% electric and the technology has been in use for over 60 years.  Could the same technology provide power to trucks?

Siemens Mining Truck with Trolley Power

As a matter of fact, it hasMining operations, in the U.S. prior to early Bush-era cheap oil and to today in Southern Africa, utilize trolley trucks for heavy and steep loads.  Electric traction has advantages over diesel in acceleration, hill-climbing and braking.  If heavy mining trucks can be adapted for electric trolley operation, highway trucks can be designed for it as well.  Trolley-powered trucks are used in the Ukraine and Russia for urban local deliveries.  An electric-trolley powered freight hauling system has been proposed for freeway truck traffic to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Trolley trucks could be introduced in Seattle in conjunction with an expansion of the existing electric trolley bus system.  The key enabling technology is a wireless smart meter, mounted on top of the truck at the connection point to the trolley poles, which would bill the truck’s registered owner for power supplied through the trolleys (an open trolley power system).  City policies could favor the purchase of dual powered (electric trolley/battery or diesel) trucks.  For example, all large city vehicles (fire trucks, garbage trucks under contract) could use dual power systems.  When travelling on arterials with trolley infrastructure, the driver would raise the trolley poles (with the touch of a button) to directly use electric power and recharge on-board batteries.  When turning onto a local street without trolleys, the driver would lower the poles and rely on a battery backup.  Sound fanciful?  A city serious about carbon neutrality should develop an open trolley infrastructure.  In the excellent book “Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil,” Gilbert & Perl argue that in the case of oil scarcity, “grid-connected vehicles” will emerge as a solution for mobility. 

Real world scenario of how this could play out: the City has facilitated expansion of the electric trolley bus system to include all routes within city limits, and banned diesel buses.  Every Safeway supermarket in the City is now on a trolley bus route.  Instead of sending diesel-powered big rigs through city neighborhoods to supply the supermarkets, at each store Safeway could add a short section of trolley wire from the street to the loading dock.  If the Safeway distribution center was on a trolley-powered street, the company could use trolley trucks for all deliveries to its Seattle stores.  And the distribution center could be served by electrified freight rail for bulk food deliveries. 

High-speed trolley wire could also be added to certain lanes of freeways, for bus and truck use.  The Port of Seattle could also develop a program to promote trolley-truck usage for freight.  There are many possibilities such as these yet to be explored for carbon neutral movement of freight.


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The City of Seattle has made developing a goal for citywide carbon neutrality by 2030 a priority.  In September 2010 the City held a forum in which workgroups gave presentations on carbon neutrality strategies in various disciplines.  At the time I noted a lot of incrementalism, and very little vision of a city at zero emissions.

For each significant category (>3% of the total emissions) in the City of Seattle 2008 carbon emission inventory, below I list whether reaching zero emissions is primarily a matter of government policy, culture or technology.

Cars (20% of total): Policy and culture.  Walking, biking, electric transit and electric vehicles can entirely eliminate fossil-fueled personal vehicles.

Trucks (18%): Technology.  Battery power is unlikely to be effective for freight trucks due to energy density, weight and cost.  Rails aren’t everywhere that goods need to go.

Air (18%): Technology.  Non-fossil fuel solutions to air transport are yet to be determined.  Reducing air travel is an interim step.

Natural Gas (16%): Policy.  The City can shut down the natural gas distribution system.  Users, given sufficient notice, can migrate to electric appliances and/or retrofit for energy efficiency.

Cement production (11%): Policy and technology.  Policy can force install of the best available emissions reduction processes, or fund low-carbon cement research.  But technology is needed to go to zero.

(Other sources combined are 17% of emissions.)

The City of Seattle has the capability to be carbon neutral  in several categories by 2030 through policy only.  The city is blessed with carbon-neutral hydropower for electric supply.  For neutrality, the city’s electrical demand needs to be kept within the capacity of the hydropower system, supplemented by other renewables such as wind.  The key to achieving this is to be aggressive about electrical efficiency as activities are transitioned from other fuels, such as personal vehicles or natural gas furnaces, to the electric supply. 

Technological progress is needed in three major categories to reach zero: trucks (goods transport), air travel and cement production.  I will write about each of these items in upcoming posts.

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In November we learned that peak conventional oil occurred in 2006, per the IEA, the official arbiter of energy supplies.  Today we learn that peak U.S. gasoline also occurred in 2006, according to the Associated Press.  After falling for the previous four years, energy experts now expect gasoline consumption to continue falling, returning to 1969 levels by 2030.

Washington State Department of Transportation recently reassessed their gas tax revenue projections, which have been overestimating revenue for years, resulting in a long-term funding shortfall.  The State gas tax and highway program are on a collision course with reality.

From the Statewide Fuel Consumption Forecast Models (Washington State, November 2010)

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Parisian Multiway Boulevard (Source: de.wikipedia.org user Luestling)

A tool for building the city, little known in the United States, is the multiway boulevard.  I was not aware of the term until reading “The Boulevard Book” by Allan Jacobs, Elizabeth Macdonald and Yodan Rofe, the authoritative reference on multiway boulevards.  I had seen roads of this type in my international travels, from Guangzhou to Paris, but didn’t realize their significance until reading this book.

Multiway boulevards are multi-functional roadways, consisting of at least a central roadway, optimized for fast automobile traffic, and side roadways, optimized for low-speed local access traffic and parking.  Medians separate the central roadway from the access roadways, and on well-designed boulevards the medians, access roadways and sidewalks create an extended pedestrian realm.  Multiway boulevards typically have at least four rows of formally spaced street trees.  The median trees visually and psychologically separate the traffic realm from the pedestrian realm.  Pedestrians feel comfortable lingering on sidewalks and medians, crossing the access roadways at will.  Vehicles in the access roadways travel slowly by design, due to the narrowness of the lane, frequent bicycles and pedestrians, vehicles entering or exiting parallel parking, and delivery trucks stopped for unloading.  Multiway boulevards are capable of handling heavy volumes of fast traffic, from 4 to 10 lanes, while providing a safe, quiet and relaxing environment for the adjoining buildings and pedestrians along the roadway.

Multiway Boulevard Cross Section (from the "The Boulevard Book")

In contrast, U.S. traffic engineering focuses on only one function for a road: high-speed traffic corridor, from which pedestrians and businesses stay away, and local access streets, with limited traffic volumes and speeds.  Multiway boulevards can accomplish both tasks within one right-of-way.  The best boulevards, however, do require very wide right of ways.  Absolute minimum is 100 feet wide, more typical are 180 to 250 feet wide.

It is well-known that freeways, whether at grade, in a trench or elevated, are detrimental to cities, separating neighborhoods with deafening and ugly “no-go” zones, and overwhelming the local street grid at off-ramps.  Multiway boulevards are an elegant solution to providing rapid mobility in a city without sacrificing quality of life.  Does your city have any of these roads?

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King County now has all the funding needed to replace the South Park Bridge (16th Av. S. in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood).  The 79-year old drawbridge closed June 30th of this year due to poor structural safety, requiring a 2-mile detour across the 1st Av. bridge (Highway 99) to access this neighborhood.

The south half of Seattle has a longstanding east-west transportation deficit.  West Seattle neighborhoods and Southeast Seattle neighborhoods exist in isolation from each other, separated by steep hillsides and the industrial valley, with its Duwamish River, railroads, Interstate 5, and most of all, Boeing Field (King County International Airport).  The general aviation airport’s 10,000 foot long runway prevents any east-west travel for over 2 miles.  This results in a three-mile gap with no exits from I-5.  There were only three crossings of the Duwamish River in Seattle (currently two): The upper and lower Spokane Street crossings, the 1st Av. bridge, and the now closed South Park Bridge.  The result is that West Seattle and Southeast Seattle aren’t socially or economically connected – all connection goes through downtown Seattle or to freeway network.   The south half of Seattle is fragmented and isolated, and not coincidentally, poorer than the north half of Seattle.  The opening of Link light rail , from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac airport via Southeast Seattle, brought home this point to me.  As a West Seattle resident, there are no connecting buses that I can take to the light rail line in Southeast Seattle.  A transit user must travel north to downtown, and then back south on the rail line.  But I don’t blame King County Metro for this predicament.  There are no buses because there are not even roads.   The only roadway paths, south of the Spokane Street Viaduct, are long and circuitous, requiring a great many counter-intuitive turns. 

My proposal: construct the replacement South Park bridge on a S. Cloverdale alignment (east-west) instead of the previous 14th Av S. alignment (north-south).  Then extend the new roadway, South Cloverdale Way, in a tunnel under Boeing Field, a bridge over the mainline rail tracks and I-5, connecting to the existing S. Cloverdale Street, two blocks north of the Rainier Beach Link rail station.  This 1.4 mile roadway would provide a direct seamless travel path from Southeast Seattle (near Rainier Beach) to South Park and White Center at the southern edge of West Seattle.  An interchange could be created at the I-5 overpass, with a freeway bus station.  The alignment and surrounding can be seen on this Google Map application.
View Proposed S. Cloverdale Way in a larger map

South Cloverdale Way would be built as a complete street, with one automobile lane in each direction, a bi-directional cycle track, and concrete curbs and sidewalks. Near intersections and in congested areas, dedicated turn lanes and transit/HOV lanes would be included.  The new route would include all-day 15-minute frequency transit service from White Center to Rainier Beach via South Park.  Metro route 60 would be divided into two, and the White Center-South Park segment would be extended along the new South Cloverdale Way to Rainier Beach, serving the Link rail station and the neighborhood center.  The roadway, transit service, and separated bicycle access would knit together these sections of the city, providing opportunities for exchange and growth, and create the conditions for building great city neighborhoods along the southern edge of Seattle.

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Sound Transit, the agency responsible for regional rail and bus transit in Seattle’s Puget Sound region, has issued a request for comments on the scope of an upcoming Alternatives Analysis for the North Corridor.   The ST2 funding package included an extension of Link light rail through this corridor, from Northgate to the Lynnwood Transit Center.  However, to apply for federal funding, ST must perform an Alternative Analysis.  I submitted the following comment to Sound Transit, and I recommend that you also make your opinions heard.

The Alternatives Analysis should include evaluation of an elevated Light Rail route primarily in the SR 99 alignment. In particular, I recommend an evaluation of an all elevated alignment turning westbound onto Northgate Way NE, curving across the Washelli Cemetery, northbound in the SR 99 alignment to approximately 220th Av SW, and following the Interurban Trail alignment to the Lynnwood TC.

Design of high capacity transit in the Puget Sound region must balance between two conflicting objectives: fast regional service, and providing access to neighborhoods.

In an analysis of urban rail systems in North America (written up here and accessible here) , I found that highest ridership density was correlated with shorter station spacings, even with lower speeds. Providing users with more places to access the system, particularly on foot, resulted in higher ridership. In light of this, a SR 99 alignment will bring light rail stations within walking distance of more people and destinations than an I-5 alignment through this corridor, and thereby provides a more useful and well-used system. Additionally, an I-5 alignment will result in stations in which a large portion of the walkshed is consumed with freeways, reducing ridership potential. The problems with this arrangement are found here: http://www.publicola.net/2010/01/25/rule-1-dont-put-a-light-rail-station-next-to-a-freeway.

However, the north corridor is a segment of an envisioned transit route between Everett and Seattle. The route’s usefulness for longer regional connections depends on its speed. If the corridor is built in an SR 99 alignment, the speed must nearly match the proposed speed of the I-5 alignment. I would consider Lynnwood TC to Westlake travel times of 25 minutes optimal, 30 minutes reasonable.

The Alternatives Analysis should include a thorough evaluation and comparison of this SR 99 alignment with the conceptual I-5 alignment in the ST2 proposal, in regards to station locations, ridership, TOD potential, travel times and environmental impacts.

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The 2010 update to my Urban Rail Matrix (available here) includes ridership data from the APTA’s 2010 quarter 1 report.  This is the first report since the initial Seattle Sound Transit Link light rail segment and the Airport Link extension were both in service.  So how does Link stack up against the established rail systems?

Link had an average weekday ridership of 20,000 people during that quarter.  Ridership has been trending upwards since then, but let’s go with the nationally available data.  On the metric of ridership per mile, Link comes in at 1,282.  Out of the 46 rail systems in North America, 8 of them have lower ridership per mile, which means Link’s ridership density is pretty low at this point.  But we can find established systems with even sparser patronage:  Cleveland’s light and heavy rail lines, Dallas DART and the Staten Island Railway.  The median ridership density of all 46 systems is 2,717 people/mile, which is a reasonable benchmark for Link.  That equates to weekday ridership of 42,000 for our current system, or 51,000 after University Link opens in 2016.  My projection is that Link won’t hit the median ridership until it expands to Northgate or until significant new housing or office development occurs along the existing line. 

For comparison, Portland’s MAX has an average ridership density of 2,262 people/mile, and Vancouver’s SkyTrain has a density of 10,023 riders/mile.  Vancouver’s high ridership 1Q2010 included the Winter Olympic’s spike, but they consistent produce high ridership because the metro area has grown up with the SkyTrain lines as the spine.  A disproportionate amount of the region’s businesses, shops and homes are alongside SkyTrain stops.  Seattle metro needs to follow the same path to have success with rail transit.

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