Transportation innovations

Most standard transportation initiatives revolve around such things as raising the CAFE (mileage) standards, introducing hybrid and electrical vehicles, carpooling, driving less and using public transportation. All good! But not enough.

A Zero Waste booster, David Nock, contributes this idea to improve commuting to and from cities.

“One of my thoughts was  with respect to ‘downtown commuter traffic’ in which the evening  outbound traffic could be organized according to scheduling ‘windows’  of departure, at which time (those registered, prioritized) would be  escorted (by police or other officials) out of the core with  continuous green traffic signals. Say, four ten-minute ‘go’ windows,  with five-minute breaks, for each of the evening rush hours. During  the ‘go’ times, local traffic would be ‘sacrificed’ in the sense of  disallowing left turn across the main avenue. There’d be no ‘stop-and- go’ emissions (a huge contributor), and traveling speeds would be  maintained  (optimized for fuel efficiency). This could also be the impetus necessary to increase car-pooling, as a pre-condition for priority service could be based on number of passengers, as well as ‘impact’ of auto (size, weight, efficiency).

Makes sense, doesn’t it? A true zero-waste approach. Not one new  piece of equipment/machinery/vehicle need be introduced … just  better use of what we’ve already got. The application of information,  in terms of organization.”

Have you noticed that there is a certain assumption made about public transportation that is never questioned at all? I am referring to the assumption that departures will always be scheduled on time and probably that arrivals at each stop will also be pre-timed, much like posted bus or ferry schedules in big cities. Is this necessary?

There is an alternate way to think about departures that is never even considered, even though it is the one that makes environmental sense. That is departure when a vehicle becomes full.

On-time versus on-full departure. Which makes more sense?

The worst part of on-time departures is that the vehicles need not be full. How many times have we seen an empty bus of twenty tons of steel moving down the street with no one inside but maybe one driver and one passenger? What a waste! And all because the clock said to take off, passengers or none. Can anyone doubt the resulting waste?

What if vehicles remained at a stop until they filled up? Obviously this would have the fuel-use benefit of only running efficiently used transportation. The drawback is that no one knows when they will arrive. Or is it?

I figured out how this scheme could work by actually experiencing it when I lived in Turkey for a number of years. They were using the “dolmush” system which was marvelous for these reasons:

  • Cheap fares.
  • Universally used.
  • Full vehicles.
  • Each passenger left mostly whenever he wanted.
  • Privately organized.
  • Lightly regulated by government.
  • Flexible and variable in all respects.
  • Low investment required.
  • Many jobs (more than just a driver).
  • Self organizing.

Like most Zero Waste designs (even though none of the participants ever heard that term) this works as a coherent, interlocking system. No single innovation, plopped down in the middle of a standard bus system, would work. That approach would be a guaranteed failure.

A dolmush was not an expensive, massive, government sponsored mass vehicle like  a fifty passenger bus or a train. Each one was privately placed into service and consisted of a van-like vehicle that carried from eight to twelve passengers, with a luggage rack on top or a package section in the back. Each neighborhood had a central departure area that everyone knew of. People were constantly flocking down to the departure area to get on the next available dolmush. During most of the day, vehicles were usually taking off every two to six minutes.  Because the vehicles were full, the fares could be cheap (this is a normal ZW effect) so everyone used them. Because so many people used dolmushes to get around, they filled up quickly. Thus departure times were usually all but instantaneous. Even better than on-time. There was no waiting for the minute hand to get to the six.

Because there were a small number of passengers, anyone could ask the driver if he could make a detour down a street to his house or a business. The driver would normally poll the passengers and if no one objected, the driver would make the detour. Everyone had an incentive to assent since his turn might come later.

More flexibility: for an extra fee, a passenger could ask the driver’s assistant to climb up to the roof rack and tie down a sheep or a big carton. Each vehicle had an assistant whose job was to help the passengers and to yell out the window for potential passengers along the way. As the driver made his way along his route, he would let off passengers and then look for new ones to fill the empty seat. At the final destination, he would get back on line to fill up his vehicle for the return trip.

Late at night, or in remote villages, it might be more difficult to fill up a vehicle and departure might be delayed for a half hour or so. Being a private sector enterprise, the drivers only made money when they had passengers, so there was usually someone ready to make a special trip. And if the vehicle just did not look like it was going to fill up, they could, and would, take off with a half empty vehicle intending to fill it up with found passengers along the way. More flexibility.

In this country we really have nothing to compare with the dolmush system. True, we have “gypsy cabs” in New York City that operate without official licenses and can swoop in to pick up a fare. Other places have jitneys. But this is not a functioning efficient system as I have described above. The cabs are not officially sanctioned so they are prosecuted or corrupted by the police. They don’t depart when full.  They operate by evading the taxi shield (permit) system. The very idea of having enormously valuable and expensive taxi shields is an egregious sign of the corruption that prevents progress in the US. The permit for a single taxi in New York City cost about 3/4 of a million dollars in 2008. To make up for this kind of investment, cab drivers are driven till they drop.

So which will it be – on-time or on-full?  Are we serious about the waste of fuel, steel, human labor and road infrastructure, or are we just talking about it as a kind of greenwashing, to pretend to be concerned? If we are serious, only one answer is possible.

Do you think the freedom to run private taxi cabs without heavy regulation will become a Tea Party issue any time soon? Lord, they could take up worse issues (and do).

(still under construction)

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