Wednesday, October 26, 2011

V515x5 Transportation

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

After going over last week’s videos, clips and chapters on atmospheric change and air quality issues, it’s easy to see that transportation – be it personal, commercial, or public – plays a large role in our emissions quandary.  But our options for change seem fairly sparse, what with a national transportation infrastructure devoted to the automobile, a culture of personal space and privacy, and mighty political hand of the well-financed energy and industry giants…or do they?

As valid as these concerns may be, it is unwise to unduly limit ourselves by the bounds of traditional thinking or the self-oppression of social and political fear.  Innovative technologies, creative solutions, and a willingness to test our assumptions are already available and, by my estimate, growing in popularity and application.

Roseland captures some of these: the time-space shrinkage afforded by advanced information technologies (like the strange experience of giving a “webinar”); the tried, true, and bountiful benefits of the bicycle (easily my favorite activity, as a child); a host of tools for traffic and transportation-demand management; cost-centered incentives for parking deterrence and HOV encouragement; as well as positive marketing for tram, light-rail, and other public transportation systems.

Appreciative Inquiry

As I’m apt to push data and figures that paint less than a rosy picture of our collective fate, how we get around is subject to a repertoire of personal strategies that we can chose among, every day (often multiple times per day).  Sure the same could be said for energy management, recycling,  and water usage, but the time intervals we spend in transit are long in comparison to the miniscule moments it takes to chose the off-switch, the extra distance of the free-throw shot over the trashcan and into the recycling bin, or the pre-cycle quick-rinse. 

This may not seem like a big deal, and the argument could be made that the cumulative time spent, in those aggregated micro-moments, might be longer than our total time in transit.  However, I feel that there is a psychological component to those micro-moments, that plays on our biologically limited attention (Herbert Simon), our restricted ability to picture our future desires (Khanemen & Tversky), and our buggy algorithms for non-sequential addition (someone prolific I can’t remember).  It’s easy to undervalue the instantaneous decisions – either in terms of our real preferences, or in terms of their cumulative effects.  Leaving on the houselights, brushing with the water running, and being fine with the free-throw trashcan instead of the 3-pointer recycle-bin…these all seem inconsequential, in the discrete, disconnected moments in which they occur.

Travelling, on the other hand, you pick a mode and you’re in it for the long-haul…even if that haul is the 10 minute walk to the grocery, down the street.  Sure the average shower lasts longer than that (though, I’d argue, it shouldn’t), but I feel that – beyond the time-dedication necessary in the decision – there are, here too, psychological effects that increase our perceived duration of a travel-event.  With lights, water, and recycling, the choice is limited, if not in time, than in space.  Travelling, on the other hand, not only are you expending time but you’re crossing relatively substantial distance, too…at least in comparison to the average distance one crosses running the faucet, tossing the trash, or flicking the switch.  Since our brains have evolved to separate these otherwise entangled dimension(s), it’s plausible to suppose that we (internally) calculate them separately, such that there may be a subconscious tendency to sense them additively. 

Given our increasing proclivity for multi-tasking and just-in-time everything, it can be easy to consider different transportation modes in terms of marginal productivity – in this instance, time saved…yet as momentary as this decision might be, we end up being stuck with it for a while (and might perceive it as being an even longer while).  So transportation then becomes an event, not just a moment, and its criteria and consequences are, thus, subjected to calculations on continuous moments, making something for strategies, rather than tactics.

Somehow, all this is to say that the seemingly large, structural impediments to our choice of green transportation, might feasibly be counterbalanced by our enhanced appreciation of its consequences.  And this makes me hopeful.  As do the examples below.  Feast on some fun information!

Technology Buff or Retro-fit?

Believe me, I can completely understand why – though awesome in many, many ways – the Segue was doomed to social marginalization.  However, there are a number of other things that I still can’t quite figure out.  Of course, my natural intuition is that its political-economic, but, as with the segue there are cultural considerations as well.

Take, for instance, this article from the BBC News website on “…bicycles and cars in a war for American streets” (  Though a large part of the issue is in the realm industrial design and urban planning, it seems that such schemes could easily –  a long time ago – adapted to pedestrian and bicycle traffic; though I’m obviously not certified in planning, it would seem to me that a little bit of foresight – and certainly some calculations – would’ve revealed that cars in a densely-populated, urban area are a recipe for getting nowhere.  And, honestly – though I know many of you are eco-travelers that dare to hit the streets more often than I – every time I get on my bike the first thing that pops into my mind is a head-injury, which, for anyone, let alone a geeky academic, would be catastrophic [yes, I have a helmet, but it often feels constrictive, and still leaves open a host of other, equally debilitating injuries].  But, truly, if there were more bike lanes, I would surely be bolder. 

What’s more, it has always seemed incredible to me that the sprawling landmass of the US hasn’t been connected through a vast network of rail-lines.  I mean, I know that, to some extent, it is…but the fact that this technology was left for dead – even though we still saddle-up our coal-trains for long-distance resource transport and (limited) human travel – is somewhat disheartening…and worrisome.  Again, the infrastructural additions and retro-fitting needed to accomplish this might pose too high of barriers at the ballot box and bank account; but, I’m confident that the payoffs would be substantial…and much more sustainable.  Thankfully, another BBC News article has found a way to lend me more hope for this:

Constructing Communities

And last, but not least, in my outpouring of optimism, is the potential for designing truly livable cities.  A friend of mine is an architecture student at the University of Miami; and, ever since reading Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, he’s been really enthusiastic about the potential for community design.  What’s more, he got me reading some more clips off his syllabi, much of it being rooted in an architectural design philosophy of “New Urbanism.”

If you recall Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show, you might remember the cheery, bright, incredibly neighborly village of “Seahaven,” where Carrey played out his microcosmic life, for all the world to see.  Though the implications of this were exaggerated for comedic effect, there is something to be said for such a close knit community.  And, in fact – ironically enough – this particular community is real.  Well, I don’t know how realistically it portrayed attributes – like that extremely queso-covered joy-joy – shared by community members, but I do know that the “set” was actually the town of Seaside, Florida.  Though not everyone would really be comfortable with the idea of living in a “master-planned community,” it at least serves as a prototype, displaying the potential for even sub-urban integration.

Of course, this is something that I’m still learning about, but Zach (my buddy) gave me a host of links to free lectures by the architecture faculty, which, unfortunately, I’ll have to post in a little while, because they’re in the bookmarks of my other computer.

BUT, what I can offer you is something similar and just as valuable…free lectures from M.I.T!!! (click “selected lecture notes” and feel free to browse the pdfs):

Urban Transportation Planning:

Urban Transportation, Land Use, and the Evnironment:


  1. Great, uh, segue to next week's topic on urban design! OMG, those slides from MIT are delicious! I especially love the "before and after" comparisons under traffic calming.

    By the way . . . why did Segway fail to transform transportation?

    Well done and a great prize at the end!

  2. Thanks for some much needed optimism in this sometimes overly dismal class!!!! great blog; keep up the wonderful work!

  3. Hey Ryan - I got to your blog a little bit late! I also find the obvious lack of rail transportation in this country to be interesting. The factors behind the establishment of the current system, chiefly the artificially low price of gas in the U.S., are straightforward enough. But what I find less straightforward is the persistence of transportation habits, both in the U.S and elsewhere, given changing economic incentives.

    For example, I went to Spain a couple years ago and took a flight from Barcelona to Madrid for about $30. Then I took a train back to Barcelona for about $150. You would think that there might be a shift towards flying in that country, yet evidently there enough demand for rail that the Spanish government is aiming to double its high-speed network.

    In the U.S., I think speed, combined with longer distances, makes rail a harder sell, even despite the rising economic costs of the alternatives. Turns out, in contrast to the system in Europe, U.S. freight and passenger traffic share the same set of tracks. That makes for a slower ride. Below is an interesting article which gives a further explanation of this problem.