Less gas please

Yesterday, the National Academy of Sciences issued a 395-page report entitled “Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels.” Wonkblog wrote the following summary:

if the United States ever plans to deal seriously with climate change, the transportation sector will have to change drastically. And the National Academy of Sciences report concludes that no one single policy or technology will do the trick.

Transportation represents challenges and opportunity. According to the EPA, in 2010:

. . .transportation contributed approximately 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is also the largest end-use source of greenhouse gases (including direct emissions and emissions from electricity use), and accounts for 45 percent of the net increase in total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 1990-2010.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great minds in the realm of energy policy and briefly with people working in the sciences to solve this problem, and I can tell you that a comprehensive strategy is the only answer. Political fights have obscured the conversation and few public officials have done a good job of laying out what our transportation future might look. Politicians aren’t the only ones with a communications problem. Private businesses, researchers, academics and non-profits are so busy chasing their own piece of the pie that they haven’t  put in the time building a coalition to tell Americans the story of how we can travel in the future.

So let me give it a go and see if I can lend everyone a hand.

Our transportation future will rely on a mix of public transportation and renewable fuel vehicles that move large numbers of people but retain the freedom of movement Americans have come to expect.

I see a future in which our cities are served by light-rail and buses (there are other options like streetcars), powered by a mix of electricity, natural gas, and/or hybrids. Light-rail and subway systems would connect these cores to reasonably spaced suburban areas (think Northern Virginia/DC or San Francisco/Oakland/South Bay Area). A tax on vehicles in highly populated regions and restrictions on city traffic would discourage cars and increase the use of public transportation (think London). Major urban areas would then be connected to one another by high-speed rail, stopping at hubs where travelers could easily access local public transportation. Finally, cars would powered by hybrid electric/biofuel engines, the liquid fuel provided in large part by municipal and farm waste from the surrounding areas. We are very close to the day that the municipal solid waste that currently goes to landfills will fuel your car; from your trash can to your fuel tank. 

This plan would take advantage of a great deal of the US’s existing infrastructure. Infrastructure is one reason I’ve always been highly dubious of electric cars. I think they are great, unfortunately they require not only new behavior, but entirely new infrastructure. That is why I’ve always found it odd that an alliance hasn’t been formed by biofuel companies, hybrid car makers and environmentalists.

In the end we all share the desire for the same outcome; reducing the amount of irreplaceable oil we consume and reversing the threat to human life presented by climate change.

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