Game changer

Upgrade freight rail: Save 12 percent of oil, 4 percent of emissions, and jumpstart renewable grid

On the theory that many people who encounter Alan Drake's own words on greening freight end up overwhelmed by the details, I have presented a very simplified version of Drake's proposal with my own opinions. This is a deliberate attempt to focus on the most important points, and then steer people to read the whole thing. [Update: The Washington Monthly has a long article on this as well.] Obviously the disagreement with Drake, as well as the political analysis at the end, is my own judgment. In addition Drake does not know me, though we've corresponded briefly, and he has no responsibility for anything I wrote. Grist has discussed Alan Drake's proposal for greening freight before, but somehow it's always mentioned in passing and without real recognition that it's such a game changer. By switching 85 percent of long-haul trucking to rail, we could reduce U.S. oil use by about 12 percent and total U.S. emissions by about 4 percent. In addition, it would add long-distance power transmission across the lines of regional grids, creating a true U.S. national grid to share power from coast to coast and from north to south, and it would add-high speed passenger travel. Since it would depend almost entirely on existing rail rights-of-way, the environmental impact is small compared to transmission projects and transit projects that use new rights-of-way. Drake starts with the fact that long-distance freight trucking consumes about half as much oil as passenger transport, and that unlike passenger transport, we have an existing heavy rail system that can move goods with about eight times the energy efficiency of trucking. That system already reaches most destinations where we want to move goods. If we switched to rail, we would still need to use trucks to move goods to and from freight yards, but containerization makes that simple. That is the good news. The bad news is that our existing rail system won't let us make this switch on a large scale. Today's freight rail operates near capacity now, and existing rail freight is slow and unreliable as compared to trucking. Drake proposes that we upgrade our system, add various new controls and infrastructure, build second tracks besides existing rail runs, and electrify the most heavily trafficked routes, which allows trains to run at higher speeds, giving a capacity boost over and above that provided by additional tracks. These modifications provide vastly improved capacity, speed, and reliability, and they reduce energy requirements per freight-ton. Moreover, this transformation requires only standard technology in use today throughout the world.

Urban doubt-fitter

What Obama's picks signal for urban policy

Who are President Obama's key urban policy advisers? What do his pickes for Housing and Urban Development and Transportation say about an Obama urban policy?

Phoenix will rise from the ashes

Phoenix: What happens when a city built on growth begins to shrink?

During a session called "Sustainability and Growth: How Can a City Develop Sustainably When its Identity is Built on Growth?" at the American Meteorological Society convention, a development expert named Grady Grammage colorfully dispelled some myths and revealed some little-known truths about Phoenix. One myth: Phoenix is unsustainable because it imports water. Virtually all cities import water, Grammage pointed out, even New York, not to mention countless other necessities for urban life, such as food, fuel, and steel. Phoenix arguably has a more stable supply of water than numerous other cities, such as San Diego, because Phoenix imports its water from numerous sources, albeit at great distances. In Grammage's view, a bigger question is "habitability," and he brought up the Urban Heat Island Effect, which he thinks, based on surveys, will drive more Phoenicians out of the state by 2020 than those who move in from other states. Grammage reports that when he expressed this view, various public officials and "water buffaloes" -- water experts -- in Phoenix scoffed.They think Phoenix could support as many as 10 million people -- more than twice its current population.

Be careful, green building

How to make an industry irrelevant in one easy step

The mayor of Franklin, Tenn., vetoed some of the green elements of the new police headquarters in order to save money. The first thing to go? Bamboo wainscoting.

Cold hands, warm green buildings

New England tops in energy-efficient office buildings

Apparently New England leads the way in energy-efficient office buildings. Now if only there was anyone left to work in them.

Forests, trees, gas taxes, and mileage taxes

Before we debate gas taxes vs. mileage taxes, Oregonians must pay for roads with those taxes

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski (D) has attracted a lot of attention by calling for an expansion of a pilot program that replaces the gas tax with a per-mile tax which charges the same fee to a Hummer driver as a Prius driver. The pros and cons of mileage taxes vs. gas taxes are discussed in a post to the political blog BlueOregon, and the same essay was sent out as a query on a transportation activists' listserv. I started several times to respond ... But I end up stopping, because this whole discussion ignores the elephant -- heck, the blue whale -- in the driveway.

Make the White House into passivhaus?

Cool idea.

The Transit Authority: A study in Charlotte

Funding transit to reshape the Sunbelt

The city of Phoenix celebrated the dawning of the new year by beginning normal, paying service on its shiny new light rail line. The current 20-mile segment runs from north of central Phoenix through the city, past Sky Harbor airport, and into Tempe and Mesa. If current plans are realized, an extension to the line will be completed by 2012, and a full(ish) network will begin to take shape over the following decade. The light rail line is part of a wave of transit construction that's bringing transit systems to a new generation of booming cities. These emergent metropolises often went through crucial development phases at a time when the highway was king. Compared to older cities in the Northeast and Midwest, the amount of space devoted to dense, gridded development in such places is quite small indeed, and it has long been unclear whether transit could work in these cities, built for the car. A dreadful chicken and egg problem seems to exist. Few neighborhoods are currently dense enough to support transit, so opponents argue that systems won't draw riders. And because opponents can make this argument and systems often die on the drawing board, these cities never have the opportunity to catalyze denser, transit-oriented growth.  

Building green

'Plan B' efficiency and conservation measures drop energy demand by 2020

Projections from the International Energy Agency show global energy demand growing by close to 30 percent by 2020, setting the stage for massive growth in the carbon dioxide emissions that are warming our planet. But dramatically ramping up energy efficiency would allow the world to not only avoid growth in energy demand but also actually reduce global demand to below 2006 levels by 2020. We can reduce the amount of energy we use by preventing the waste of heat and electricity in buildings and industrial processes and by switching to efficient lighting and appliances. We can also save an enormous amount of energy by restructuring the transportation sector. Many of the needed energy efficiency measures can be enacted relatively quickly and pay for themselves. Buildings are responsible for a large share of global electricity consumption and raw materials use. In the United States, buildings account for 70 percent of electricity use and close to 40 percent of total CO2 emissions. Retrofitting existing buildings with better insulation and more-efficient appliances can cut energy use by 20 to 50 percent. A U.S.-based group of forward-thinking architects and engineers has set forth the Architecture 2030 Challenge, with the goal of reducing fossil-fuel use in new buildings 80 percent by 2020 on the way to going entirely carbon-neutral by 2030.

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