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Your Questions For Neil, “Round 5”, Part 4 – Potpourri

And now, the final segment of our video interview with TriMet’s Neil McFarlane. This episode, “Potpourri”, featuring a variety of your questions.

Topics include:

  • Bikes on MAX cars – are there ways to add capacity?
  • Bike parking and bikeshare at MAX stations
  • TriMet’s take on carbon emissions – what will it take to get to net zero emissions?
  • Hybrid buses, past present and future, and electric buses
  • Weight of buses, number of wheels, and damage to roads
  • The new e-fare system (announced officially just before we recorded the interview)
  • Equity in the fare payment system, especially for cash-only users

Thanks once again to the Portland Opera for tolerating the mayhem of our intrepid video crew in their conference room.

Segment Navigation:

The Explosion of Vehicle Sharing Options

I’m now a member of three car-sharing systems.

Not that I use any of them very often. We’re a one-car household, but generally I can arrange most of my must-use-an auto trips so that I can borrow my partner’s hybrid (and she is very clear it’s HERS).

But maybe a dozen times a year, I need a vehicle when hers is not available, and Zipcar (and before the merger, Flexcar) has been my go-to. In fact, I’ll use one today to schlep my stuff to demo our Transit Appliances at the Transportation Safety Summit this evening.

I’ve just joined two new systems, neither of which I have actually used yet:

  • Getaround – which offers the prospect of renting cars from your neighbors when they’re not using them (no cars very close to me yet, but we’ll see) and
  • Car2Go, which is unique in Portland in offering one way rentals. Just park the car in any legal on-street parking space within the service zone (downtown and East Portland out to about I-205) and you’re done. It’s reservationless, you hope you’ll find a car near where you are when you want one – the cars will be here later this month.

And PBOT is promising our bike-sharing system in 2013 (dependent on finding a private operator).

But there are more options on the horizon:

  1. Scoot Networks is piloting an electric scooter sharing system in San Francisco.
  2. And that’s not the only thing being tried in San Francisco, reportedly a car sharing company there is offering e-bikes as part of the rental fleet.

I really like that last idea – offer a wide range of vehicle types from bikes up to pickups and vans, from one common reservation system.

Where will it stop – what other vehicles might be shared? What other sharing models could work?

Electric Motorways?

University of Washington researcher Jerry Schneider points to a Swedish company (Elways) researching the concept of “electric motorways”–highways equipped with electric lines which can be used to energize and power vehicles traveling thereon. Elways proposed architecture consists of buried third-rail power, accessed by lowering a pickup shoe into a channel embedded in the road surface; to increase safety, the system also energizes those portions of the rail that are presently serving vehicles. It is anticipated that vehicles using such roads will be capable of disconnected travel, either from a battery or an internal combustion engine (certain maneuvers such as lane-changes will require disconnecting from one lane’s power rail and connecting in another lane).

Using current technology, the speed limit for overhead powered road vehicles appears to be about 70kM/h (40MPH). Unlike electric trains that have fixed guideways and only one overhead connection needed (the rails provide the ground return path); trolleypole systems need to accomodate horizontal maneuvering of the vehicle (both within-lane and lane changes) and the bouncier suspensions needed to accomodate potholes and other defects/obstructions in the road surface; and the non-conductivity of rubber tires means a second wire is needed for the return path. Ground-level third rail, commonly found in grade-separated metro systems, is generally considered unacceptable for public roads due to the obvious safety hazard the third rail poses to pedestrians.

Right now, the major application of overhead-powered electric road vehicles is the trolleybus. The speed limit isn’t a problem for many urban transit applications, the greater maneuverability of a trolleybus over a mixed-traffic streetcar is generally considered an asset, the lack of diesel pollution is also considered a major advantage, and electric trolleybusses have noted advantages on routes with steep grades (it’s no accident that two of the North American cities which extensively use them are Seattle and San Francisco). However, trolleybusses are noted to have reliability issues, many object to the wiring, and as such, most transit companies in the US have abandoned them. (See this article for a discussion of the merits of the electric trolleybus in Portland).

Use of overhead caternary to power trucking (particularly long-haul trucking) though, seems to not be an attractive solution.

That said–rather than try to retrofit existing mixed-traffic highways with electrical sources, perhaps an alternate solution is in order? Places such as Adelaide, Australia and Cambridgeshire, UK have built guided busways–essentially dedicated BRT lines where the bus is physically guided down the busway, permitting it to achieve faster speeds and a somewhat more comfortable ride in a narrower footprint. This gives some of the technical advantages of rail, coupled with the greater flexibility of a bus–the busses can leave the guideway and maneuver in mixed traffic as appropriate. (Note that neither of these systems are powered–diesel vehicles, operating under their own power at all times, are used).

What if such a solution were build to handle trucks? A guided truckway, which kept vehicles traveling in fixed channel, could make the electrical interface needed to use well-known solutions like overhead caternary much more tractable and capable of higher speed, particularly if the guideway could also be used for return current. The truckway road surface could be optimized for heavy vehicles, reducing the amount of damage incurred by road surfaces elsewhere (heavy vehicles such as trucks and busses cause the vast majority of road wear). A guided truckway could permit either electric-powered or diesel-powered operation (i.e. diesel-powered trucks could use the mechanical coupling only), and driverless operation while in the guideway would be a more tractable problem with a fixed guideway. Unlike rail or water freight, which requires cargo to be maneuvered from truck to train/ship (a process made easier by containerization, though still expensive), guided trucks could use the local streets to pick up a load and drive to the truckway, use the truckway for the long-haul part of a journey, and then return to the local streets for the last mile on the other end–in this way, they would fill a niche between unguided trucking and rail.

Long haul bus service could also use guided truckways, especially in shorter corridors where HSR is not cost-effective.

This falls short of Elways’ vision of a motorway where all the vehicles, including personal automobiles, are running on roadway-supplied electric power. But many of the problems involved are more tractable when limited to larger vehicles operated by professional drivers (or automated control systems).

The Electric Trolleybus: a Sustainable Choice for Portland

One thing I noticed my years living in Seattle was how much that city loves to copy Portland’s innovations. Government officials were constantly taking tours of Portland and bringing back ideas, many of which have borne fruit. Seattle now has a streetcar line, for example, and has just recently decided to start working on Neighborhood Greenways. I always wondered if there was anything Portland could learn from Seattle, and now I think I have found one. I refer to the electric trolleybus, which is not an innovation but rather an old idea that deserves new life.

The venerable electric trolleybus, once ubiquitous before the era of cheap oil, is now rare in North America. Cities across the continent traded overhead wires for diesel fumes during the decades after World War II. A few notable cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC, chose instead to keep a core network of these vehicles, recognizing the benefits of quiet operation, zero tailpipe emissions, and the ability to easily climb hills. Anyone who has ridden a trolleybus knows they are far more pleasant to ride than diesel bus, and a modern trolleybus can approach streetcar levels of comfort.

In addition to these advantages, the electric trolleybus is inherently more environmentally sustainable than the diesel bus. Most electricity generation is only partly generated from fossil fuels, and in many cities like Seattle it is made up entirely of renewable energy like hydroelectric and wind power. The electric grid is also a much more efficient way to deliver energy than an internal combustion engine, so less energy is being wasted overall. A transit system that uses more electric vehicles can reduce its carbon footprint significantly. King County Metro in Seattle recently did an evaluation comparing the impacts of trolleybuses and diesel buses, and found that on virtually all measures the trolleybuses performed better.

What does this all mean for public transit in Portland? TriMet touts the sustainability of its light rail lines, but its bus fleet is almost entirely made up of aging diesel buses. Given that buses will always be an essential component of our transit network, it is essential that they be targeted for improvement. I would argue that the best way to make the bus system better and more sustainable would be to start building out a trolleybus network, starting with the Frequent Service Network.

Installing the wire costs about $3 million per mile, and the buses cost somewhat more than diesel buses, but given the many advantages it seems worth it. In addition, here’s an important and little-known fact: the federally-funded New Starts grants can be used for electric trolleybuses, not just streetcars and light rail. Rather than immediately build yet another light rail line after the Milwaukie project, TriMet could use federal funds to instead embark on a transformative modernization of its bus system that would have a positive effect all over the region.

It is worth noting that $3 million per mile is also a small fraction of the cost of building a streetcar line. I like streetcars as much as the next transit nut, but I think they should be specifically targeted towards focusing development in “urban renewal” areas, not built along areas where zoning is unlikely to change much in the future. The development impact is really the only thing streetcars seem to do better than a good bus, and even then the results are mixed. I’ve seen many fine developments tout their location on a major bus line.

It might make sense extend the streetcar to Hollywood, since it’s a designated growth center and could use the help, but perhaps we should build out some other corridors with a high-quality, modern, electric trolleybus network as seen in many European cities and a few American ones. Then we just need to wean Oregon off coal and TriMet could eventually reach carbon neutrality. This would make our transit system more sustainable, more comfortable, and cheaper to operate in the long run as oil prices rise.