Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Is green U.S. mass transit a big myth?

Is the question raised by Brad Templeton in an article using data from the US Departments of Energy and Transportation. The answer- depending on where you are, of course- is sometimes yes!

He is not arguing against using existing mass transit systems, but for considering the numbers for future construction. In many instances, it may be better to encourage responsible personal transportation. I have long thought this, and my recent trips to Europe confirmed it- the problem is not whether one drives, but what and how.
CC's SmartCar would be at least a mid-size car in many European cities. In Italy I saw many, many vehicles I would call a "crossover" type; not a cross between a car and an SUV, as we would use the word here, but rather a cross between a faired scooter and a single seat car- like this one Some of them even had cute little pickup beds for delivery duties. Most all of them got northwards of 50 MPG, often quite a ways north; 60-80 MPG for some. None of them would be legal here.

Why? Because it's claimed they aren't safe- and yet, the accident injury and death rates are no higher there than here. Why? Because these are town cars; they are driven where geography and traffic conditions are such that you aren't going fast enough to have a high-impact accident. They don't have to be able to survive a 60 MPH accident with a Cadillac because the average accident would be 20 MPH with a pedestrian or another scooter- and even those accidents are less likely because such lightweight vehicles stop faster and maneuver better.

We have special licenses for Ultralight and Sports airplanes, as long as they don't try to mix it up at the big boy airports. We have special licenses for scooters and mopeds, as long as you don't try to take them on the highways. But we have no such provisions to allow micro-cars. Here in Indiana one town passed an ordinance permitting people to take their electric golf carts on city streets to the corner store, and the State Police swooped in and busted everybody, saying that only the State and Feds could make laws about cars. An appeal is pending, but there is little chance of them prevailing. In today's environment, this makes no sense.

We need a national law to provide for micro-sized town cars. For millions of Americans, a four-wheeled scooter would do us for getting to work and the store- 90% of our travel. This would also make electric vehicles practical overnight; without carrying those 5MPH bumpers, airbags, steel I beams, etc., they would be light enough for existing technologies to be competitive- as in the golf carts mentioned above. Downtown parking? I saw Italians comfortably parking three of them sideways in a single standard parking place, or one "regular" small car and one micro-car . For that odd long distance trip, you can rent a larger car- you'll still come out way ahead in the long run. Would Americans buy such cars? Notice that during the muscle-car years before the gas crisis, the Volkswagen Beetle was a best seller.


ogre said...

Not quite on the market yet, but very soon (and google invested $2.75 million recently...) is Aptera's two seater (plus car seat and luggage space) that is up to US collision standards...

Two versions, all electric, 120 mile range (certainly up to the in-city standard as well as most commuting), and the hybrid. They're citing over 200mpg (230, 250-300 are the numbers I've seen spoken of).

They start rolling out in November this year.

For the near-term future, that's probably as responsible a form of transportation as most Americans could find. I know that they're incorporating some recycled materials, and have taken some other related steps. And the A/C that runs while parked out in the sun (powered by the PV cells in the roof!) is a great idea, as anyone who's ever gotten into a car that's been sitting there for hours can attest.

Legally, it's a motorcycle (three wheels), but you don't need a motorcycle license or a helmet.

Matt said...

I have seen several SmartCars in Boston. They are great for city driving and parking!

I would get one but my current 11 year old sedan is doing (knock on wood) just fine. Besides more people taking public transit we will see drivers trying to extend the life on their older cars rather then buying new hybridis or smart cars.

Of course it would be great to have the Peel P50 You dont get much smaller then this car.