Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mono-Railing for all the Wrong Reasons

Transportation planning is not a field predisposed to radical changes. Planners and engineers routinely propose ideas to solve current and future problems with ideas that have worked in the past. Pragmatism probably plays a big part in this; after all, if you are going to devise a solution that will cost one hundred million dollars or more, you damned well need to make sure it will work. Change, when it does occur is evolutionary in nature.

That said, transportation history is littered with countless radical visions for the future of travel. Some ideas were just ahead of their time. Others were straight out of the world of science fiction. As expected, most were indifferent to the issue of energy.

It is always interesting to watch when “old” visions of transportation are periodically resurrected. It is even more amusing when a science fiction author is the one resurrecting the idea.

Earlier this month Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451 fame
wrote in the LA Times:

SOMETIME IN THE next five years, traffic all across L.A. will freeze.The freeways that were once a fast-moving way to get from one part of the city to another will become part of a slow-moving glacier, edging down the hills to nowhere.


In recent years we've all experienced the beginnings of this. A trip from the Valley into Los Angeles that used to take half an hour — all of a sudden it takes an hour or two or three. Our warning system tells us something must be done before our freeways trap us in the outlying districts, unable to get to our jobs.

As this passage makes clear, Mr. Bradbury is apparently unaware or incapable of understanding that due to Peak Oil, traffic is the least of our concerns.

If anything, the traffic situation five years hence will be better—not worse.

That fact notwithstanding, Mr. Bradbury opines that the solution to LA’s gridlock is a monorail system. Apparently this is not a new idea. Four decades ago he advocated the very same thing.

More than 40 years ago, in 1963, I attended a meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors at which the Alweg Monorail company outlined a plan to construct one or more monorails crossing L.A. north, south, east and west. The company said that if it were allowed to build the system, it would give the monorails to us for free — absolutely gratis. The company would operate the system and collect the fare revenues.

Obviously this never came to pass. In all likelihood, nothing will transpire this time around either. The past year has not been kind to monorail enthusiasts. Seattle’s on-again, off-again love affair with the Monorail is definitely off. In November of last year, voters turned down a proposal to construct what would have been North America’s first (and only) citywide monorail system.

Then to add insult to injury, later that month the only two monorail cars on the city’s existing segment collided with each other on a poorly designed stretch of track wide enough for only one to traverse at a time. The system remains shut to this day for repairs.

Apparently nobody told Ray.

Compared to the heavy elevateds of the past, the monorail is virtually soundless. Anyone who has ridden the Disneyland or Seattle monorails knows how quietly they move.They also have been virtually accident-free. The history of the monorail shows few collisions or fatalities


At this point, I must say that I have no bias towards or against monorails. As it becomes increasingly clear that our petroleum-fueled transportation system is doomed to run out of gas, we most certainly need creativity when devising whatever transportation solution or solutions to turn to next. We cannot keep throwing transportation ideas that may have worked in the past such as bigger roads or new light rail systems, without really considering whether or not it will continue to work in the future.

We also should not resurrect ideas from the past without a proper justification for doing so. Bringing back monorails to reduce traffic created by poor land use decision-making will not solve LA’s perceived future of gridlock. Without fixing the underlying land use patterns and continued demographic growth, any new capacity created by this system will consumed by the growth in population (particularly in those areas not located near the network.)

At the same time, a monorail proposal for LA will do little to insulate or assist the metropolitan area from the coming era of shortages either. Los Angeles’s real problem is that it exists far past the natural carrying capacity of its region. Contrary to what Bradbury may believe, traffic congestion should be the least of the area’s worries. Keeping the lights on, the water flowing and even the population fed is a far greater concern.

This scenario is of course down the line a little bit. Barring a near-term, catastrophic collapse of civilization, changes in how we move ourselves about can and should be made. We honestly do need to overhaul our transportation system. All options must be on the table, whether the idea is considered “mainstream” or not.

What is more important though is that any transportation plan for the future be holistic in nature. Transportation planning is more than technology application; it is also about land use planning and behavior modification as well. Address all three together and you have the makings of a real plan.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe you are making a common error in your peak oil beliefs. You write as if within five years peak oil will strike suddenly and catastrophically like a terrorist attack.

Peak oil will more likely be a long, slow process. While geology will trump economics in the long term, in the short run economics will have an impact just as it did in the 1970's. The difference will be that there may not be a pleasant ending.

If you believe $5 or $6 gas will stop people from driving, take a trip to Europe. (which we should all do as much as possible while we still can afford it.)

People are so tuned into driving, they will make many other sacrifices before the cost just gets too high, but that could take a while. If we peak this year, in the year 2016 we could have as much oil as we did in 1996. Not a good situation, but hardly the end of the world. 2026, now that could be quite ugly, but again, my main point is that peak oil will not be a defining moment like a terroist attack (unless it is brought on with a terrorist attack)

The age of oil has many, many years left. Peak Oil is about the end of cheap oil, not the running out of oil. There is a saying that Wall Street is littered with the graves of people who were correct too soon, this analogy may very well apply to peak oil prophets.

2/16/2006 8:57 PM  
Blogger UNplanner said...

I agree with your reasoning to a point.

While geology does trump economics in determining the amount of oil that could be recovered, it is the political and economic situation that will determine how much will actually be produced at any one given point.

Geological constraints on oil production after the peak are at first glance not too bad. A slow drawn out process of ever-declining production amounts could theoretically be planned for.

The problem is our economic system (based on infinate growth) cannot function in a world of decreasing resources and the political leadership is proving itself incapable of addressing the issue.

The fact of the matter is that we have an economic system that is predicated on growth...more, better, faster, whatever. People's inherent assumption is that tomorrow will be better than today. That is why we borrow money. We have to be better off tomorrow in order to pay that money plus interest back. Now without ever increasing supply of resources (and fossil fuels arent the only depletable resources out there) this growth is impossible.

No growth means no jobs which then in turn threaten the ability for people, companies and governments to service their debts. Once this is apparent, you dont just have a recession or depression; you have a failed economic system. Terminal. Game over. This kind of collapse will be more rapid than what geology alone would have yielded us.

Political responses are even more murky. Sure, we could all get together and sign a cooperative Depletion protocol that distributes the remaining barrels of production equitably. We also could go to war over the remaining scraps, either with the producers or with our competitors. In a post peak world, producers hold all the power (even private oil stakeholders in capitalistic countries could participate) by with holding supplies. THink about it. What ever you dont produce today is more valuable tomorrow. THat's a powerful dis-incentive to produce or hold back. Plus after the peak, demand will almost always equal supply. With that any terrorist attack will have global ramifications. So will festering civil wars, hurricane strikes or even bad luck.

Even just the next five could be dicey. If we are headed for that peak (or hit it already) could we really manage five years of decline with out something bad happening?

Over the next twenty years how good are our chances at avoiding war, terrorism, or bad weather?

I don't fear geology. It's our collective response to it that keeps me up at night. That's why I write with some urgency.

2/16/2006 11:17 PM  
Anonymous BillM said...

"If we peak this year, in the year 2016 we could have as much oil as we did in 1996."
- Anonymous

Let's say that you're right - I'm investing as if you are.

The question we have to ask is, "Who's the 'we' you're referring to?"

Can the US go back to 1996 levels? I'd say, "Yes, without a doubt."

Can Indonesia? Umm... they've just gone from exporting nation to economic and social difficulty as a result.

Can / will China? Or India?

I don't know if you've noticed but China's in trouble *today* providing jobs to the people. Tell them they've got to go back to 1996, back to the farm and see what they say.

I agree that it may not take much of a demand-supply imbalance to shake things up politically and socially both here and around the world.

2/18/2006 1:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From my comment (1) The article we are commenting on argues there may not be traffic jams in LA in five years because of peak oil. My point is there will be traffic jams because peak oil will not change society overnight (and land use patterns/past investments can not change overnight), it will be a long, slow, economically painful process.

Economics will dictate in the short term. People can make many sacrifices to afford higher gas prices by flying less, not buying a new car every three years, turning the thermostat down etc (I never said there would be no sacrifice) Think about how people complain about $3 gas yet drive to work to pay for their $40,000 vehicles (and i don't want to imagine how much for insurance)$40,000 buys alot of gas even at $8/gal

My other main point is that some peak oilers over-react. They foresee the impacts all playing out in a condensed time frame like "The Day After Tomorrow"

If and when oil supply begins to impact our society, rightly or wrongly I see three things happen a) Wealthy countires outbidding poorer countires for oil b) military intervention to delay the inevitable c) gas rationing certificates with farming, industry, transport etc receiving lions share to delay the inevitable. This may not help our generation, but the upper ends of the baby boom will be six feet under when the hatchet falls.

One good comment in comment (2) is society's ability to repay loans with higher unemployment (I know you do not literally mean no jobs, look at the unemployment rate in 1930's, most people still held jobs) Indentured servitude may provide the wealthy with access to their lost energy!!

To comment (3) Peak Oil will hit the poorest and weakest counties first (fairness, yea right, this is America). But it will not erase LA traffic in five years because we will be able to outbid them for at least five years.

2/18/2006 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As one of only the few individuals and organizations to make a formal monorail proposal to Seattle agencies, I've followed the planning process more than most.

In 2000, I submitted the "Circulator Monorail" proposal to a Sound Transit board meeting.
By adding 4 miles of low-impact single-track, 'in loops' to each end of the historic line, cost could be as low as $500 mil, 1/4 the cost of the Greenline. The least number of trains would run at under 5-minute frequency to 10 proposed stations serving important central city destinations: Westlake Mall, Central Library, Harborview Hosp, Swedish Hosp/Univ of Seattle, SCCC, Convention Center Station, Times Square and 4 or 5 stations surrounding Seattle Center including a maintenance facility 'atop' the Mercer Street parking garage. This proposal I saw as a compromise between contentious light rail and monorail factions. The Circulator Monorail would integrate well with Link light rail via a seamless transfer to inner city destinations, especially First Hill.

Over the next 2 years, I regretfully concluded that the Greenline monorail plan lacked any sense of the importance of how land-use and development would follow completion. The public relations message of its proponents never went far beyond, "Build it, and they will come". Newspapers beheld the system as designed to serve "The Commuter", with never an admission that commute systems create more demand for commuting than they can accommodate. Editorial boards protecting income derived from advertizing automobiles to meet that demand?

Although the low-cost, low-impact, highly productive "Circulator Monorail" proposal was quietly blacklisted by every agency, organization and media outlet to which it was submitted, shown the slamming door so to speak, the Greenline Monorail was a piece of shit Seattle can breathe a sigh of relief at its passing.

Metropolitan areas need regional rapid transit systems to structure regional economies. Monorail is a viable technology toward this end where applicable and following sensible guidelines of land-use and development. There are no solutions to Peak Oil by the individual. Survival will be a collective effort that crushes the anti-social blathering of right wing demagogues obeisant to corporate rule.

Art Lewellan - Portland Oregon

Author of The Circulator Monorail, and its expansion, The Seattle Circulator Plan

2/26/2006 11:54 AM  

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