Monday, April 26, 2010

Drive No More: 6 Alternatives to Your Car

by Michael Graham Richard, Ottawa, Canada

rush hour traffic photo
Photo: Flickr, CC
Do You Want to Go Car Free?
We often write about how our society is too car-centric, and while it's important to improve cars so they're orders of magnitude greener (because they aren't going away anytime soon), it's also crucial to have a wide variety of alternatives to the automobile. What are these alternatives? To some of you they might be obvious - you might use some of them every day - but to others who are just starting to try to reduce their dependence on cars, an overview of what's out there will be useful. Here we go!
bus photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

1. Buses

Probably the most obvious choice, the bus can either be a great way to get around or a nightmare, depending on where you live. Sadly, in many places there's been a comparatively small investment in bus transit compared to the money that goes into the infrastructure used by cars.
One way to make the bus more attractive is to create more reserved lanes and bus rapid transit (BRT) systems (check out Curitiba's BRT: 2.3 million passengers/day). If buses have to spend too much time using the same lanes as cars, they just end up swallowed up by the masses of cars during peak traffic times and there's very little benefit to taking the bus. But if they can bypass all that, a lot more people will use them.
light-rail train photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

2. Rail (Light, High-Speed, Underground, etc)

The other big player in public transit, rail tends to be more expensive than bus systems, but it has other benefits, like not sharing the road with cars and trucks and it is easier to electrify (making its operation greener).
Ideally, all cities of a certain size would have light-rail/subways within the city limits, and high-speed rail would link big cities so that people and freight could use it as an alternative to airplanes and trucks.
A national survey of Americans shows broad support for more investments in public transit (which means primarily buses, mentioned above, and various types of rail), and a National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) shows that there's been a 23.5% increase in the share of trips done using transit.
walking shoes photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

3. Walking

Ok, "duh" you say. But with this one, the problem needs to be looked at from a different angle. Here the decision isn't just to walk or not, because we're pretty limited in speed and range and many people can have all the motivation they want, if they live many miles from where they're going and they have to cross many freeways to get there, it's not going to happen.
The decision here is, on the individual level, whether it's possible to change where you live to make walking a more realistic option. Living closer to the office and family & friends is the best way to reduce the amount of time you spend in a car. Most of the time this means a combination of walking, biking, and public transit.
On the societal level, the decision we need to make is to design cities and neighborhood so it's easier to walk. New urbanism has a lot of tools for this, we just need to use them.

bicycles bike photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

4. Bicycles

Bikes! Another obvious choice, but a lot could be done to get more mileage out of it (pun intended). We know that bicycles could play a huge role in many big cities - places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have shown it to us - yet bike culture is only starting to get going in most places, and we're far from the much talked about critical mass. Some cities are investing more in bike infrastructure (things like safe bike parkings, bike boulevards, bike-sharing programs, and physically separated bike lanes), but it's still relatively marginal.
Let's hope that transportation secretary Ray LaHood really means what he said, and that other officials around the world will pay attention...
telecommuting home office photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

5. Telecommuting

Not everybody can do this, and some bosses still resist it, but if it can work for you, it's a great way to cut on your car use.
Telecommuting doesn't only have advantages, and the relative isolation isn't for everybody, but a smaller environmental footprint is certainly one of them.
car sharing zipcar photo
Photo: Flickr, CC

6. Car-Sharing

This one might seem like cheating, but hear me out; car-sharing can actually kind of be an alternative to the car. Owning the car, that is. It's been shown time and time again that car-sharing members tend to drive less often than it they owned a car, and they plan their trips better, leading to less wasted fuel.
Paying for each car trip you make is a powerful incentive to use alternatives, even if the total amount of money it costs you is a lot less than if you actually owned a car.
There's some good news on that front: Car-Sharing Membership Grew by 117% in North-America Between 2007-2009.
More on Alternatives to Cars
Long Beach, California, Wants to be #1 Bike-Friendly City in U.S. (Video)
Bikestation: Awesome Secure Bike Parking at Union Station in Washington DC (Video)
Bicycling Magazine's Top 50 Bike-Friendly Cities in the U.S.
This is What Cyclists as First Class Citizens Look Like (Video)

World's First "Carbon Negative" Car Concept at Expo 2010 in Shanghai

by Christine Lepisto, Berlin

SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car at Expo 2010 image
Image: autohome China
SAIC-GM sponsors the award-winning pavilion at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai with the theme Take a drive to 2030. The concept car Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. plans to show at the Expo (more images in the extended) betrays tremendous pressure to set the highest standard. Combining all of the wildest dreams of electric vehicle buffs into one concept car, SAIC claims to achieve a net vehicle emissions balance of less than zero. The world's first negative emissions vehicle.
But does it matter that the concept probably "breaks the laws of physics", as Wired discloses? No. We'll tell you why.
SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car at Expo 2010 image
Image: autohome China
The Ye Zi, which translates as "leaf", may not be headed for production lines anytime soon. But the Ye Zi "Leaf" does bundle up an alluring package of feasible technologies. The visionary vehicle represents a dream which may become a reality; we need only to grasp the possibilities. It lays down a challenge to a rising generation of designers and engineers: "why not?"
SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car solar wind power image
Image: autohome China
Well, maybe not exactly as envisioned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. engineers. After all, collecting the wind on wheels propelled by the power of that wind represents a bit of a perpetual motion machine. But the possibility to leave a stationary car in a situation where a passing breeze could help charge a battery is certainly within reach. The solar power collectors on the roof are feasible today. Of course, the real estate available on the roof of a vehicle cannot provide for much of its power needs at today's efficiencies. By 2030, paint-on photovoltaics with 50% or better efficiencies could be reality.
SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car MOF CO2 absorber image
Image: autohome China
The Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs) integrated in the car's leaf shaped roof also represent science that is about to spring out of science labs and into the everyday world. These designer molecular lattices preferentially absorb CO2 from the air. The CO2, once concentrated by MOFs, can be converted by microbial fuel cells into methane for fuel, releasing O2 back into the atmosphere. What Wired blithely dismisses as "somehow emits oxygen" is the natural result of microbes using the H from H2O (water) and the C from CO2 to make CH4 (methane), which leaves O2 to be emitted.
SAIC Ye Zi - Leaf - electric concept car at Expo 2010 image
Image: autohome China
Wired queried Spencer Quong, an automotive engineer with 15 years experience in advanced vehicle technologies, who notes that MOFs are heavy and generate a lot of heat when working. And we have often noted in these pages that microbial processes can be too slow to directly power a vehicle (respect to the designer that did not make this one look like a sports car). Maybe that points out that I am too naive to see that the SAIC "Leaf" is just another pretty piece of artwork without engineering value. But then, who would have thought man could walk on the moon? The dream has to start somewhere.