News & Politics

Welcome to the (No Green New Deal) Future!

In Part One of this series, we looked at what life would be like in the Green New Deal’s imagined world. So, the question is, can we do something to improve transportation — including improving efficiency and convenience for everyone — or are we in the best of all possible worlds?

(I defy anyone who lives in the Los Angeles or San Francisco areas to say we’re living in the best of all possible worlds with a straight face.)

The thing is, we do live in one of the better possible worlds. Our transportation system has evolved into a pretty good match for American geography — and, of course, American urban geography has evolved to match the kinds of transportation we have.

As with a lot of grand concept ideas, most of the schemes primarily fail on the basis of reality — in particular, real geography. I’ve written about this before, both recently and in the past, so I’ll cut to the chase: The United States’s geography doesn’t work for the trains-and-buses idea of mass transit. In 90 percent of the country the distances are too long, and the population density too low, for that model to work. The trains-and-buses model results in long-distance travel times that are 10 times greater and local travel times that are 2-5 times greater — and are actually less energy efficient. As a result, transit systems like Denver’s RTD are suffering disastrous declines in ridership, which causes them to raise their fares, which increases the loss of ridership: a “death spiral.”

On the other hand, our current system of cars and air travel works pretty well. A personal car can take you where you want to go, when you want to go, and will take you home when you’re ready to leave. Drive to an airport and you can be anywhere in the world in less time than it takes a train to get you from Denver to Chicago.

That’s not to say the current system doesn’t have its problems. When you own a car, you own it 24 hours a day; most of those hours it’s sitting unused. If you have eye problems (as I do) or health problems, you may not be able to drive yourself, and once you get to your destination you have to find someplace to park the thing. And then there’s traffic, which is severely limiting in a number of ways, primarily having to do with human reaction time and concentration. (If cars could reliably travel on highways without concerns of human reaction times and the screwy things human drivers are prone to do, they could go faster, with less space between them.)

Longer-distance travel is similarly limited. Conventional trains can’t go dramatically faster than cars. Current airlines are limited by the speed of sound if nothing else, but that still makes them 3 to 5 times faster than trains or cars. A better solution for long-distance travel will need to be faster; less expensive would be good too.

Possible Solutions

So is there a competitive solution that will preserve the flexibility of cars, be at least as fast as air travel, and make travel easier in general?

Keep cars!

A lesson that has been learned, forgotten, and re-learned over and over in the last 30 years is that people actually like having cars. A lot of people actually like driving them. Others like the flexibility of having a car to travel when you want and to go exactly where you want and leave when you’re ready. A lot of places have tried to encourage people not to use their cars — Singapore, for example. The whole country is marginally smaller than New York City, they have a really excellent subway system, and they have a 100 percent excise tax on cars. And Singaporeans keep buying and driving cars anyway.

What’s more, it turns out that mass transportation isn’t even particularly energy-efficient, at least outside of big metro areas like New York City, because to provide good service there have to be a lot of buses running, and empty buses are the definition of inefficiency. Other places, like the Denver-Boulder area, with more area than New York City and a third the population, can’t sustain mass transit. (See this article on the Denver RTD “death spiral”.)

The efficient solution is transportation that runs when you need it, where you need it. Cars.

…but don’t force people to drive them!

Cars do have problems, starting with the point that they can be a pain in the ass — not to mention backs and legs. Driving for hours and hours isn’t a particularly natural thing to do, especially as you get older. Some people (like me since my eye surgery) are no longer very comfortable driving anyway.

In just the last few years, though, there’s been progress toward a solution: autonomous cars. There are still problems, of course, the biggest being that artificial intelligence has real trouble coping with natural stupidity: autonomous cars can do amazing things, but human drivers often do really stupid things.

Maybe AI can be extended to be as safe or safer than human drivers; I’m not an expert on what can be done. (On the other hand, I’m enough of an expert to remember how for many decades strong AI has been on track within a decade.) But there’s a solution: segregate the autonomous cars from human-piloted cars, with something like “high-occupancy” lanes today. (Or Elon Musk’s Boring Company tunnels.)

Getting there quickly

The advantages of air travel are pretty simple: it’s fast and it’s cheap. The Green New Deal fails in large part because its solutions, in general, are slower and more expensive. A better solution had better either be faster or cheaper and preferably both.

There are some options for that as well. Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is one: it’s faster than commercial air travel, at least until commercial supersonic comes back; it can use the existing rights of way for the Interstate Highway system; it’s one of the few use cases where solar-cell power makes economic sense.

And, of course, replacing air travel with supersonic is an option too.

There are other possibilities, somewhat farther out, like space tourism leading to hypersonic or suborbital passenger and cargo, but this is already long enough. Let’s save that for later.

In the meantime, what would life be like for our protagonist in a world with a real solution?

Welcome to the Future

The phone rings with its piercing “I don’t care if you set do-not-disturb” ring. You wake, heart pounding. It’s Mom.

“Mom? What happened? What’s wrong?”

“It’s your grandmother, honey. She’s in the hospital — she fell and broke her hip.”

“Oh my God! What are they doing?”

“They’ve immobilized her for now and given her morphine.” Mom was a nurse, she likes to know the details. No “painkillers” for her. “They think they’re just going to replace the hip, but she was in a lot of pain, and they want to get her stable first, so it might not be until tomorrow.” She paused. “Honey, do you think you could come out? You’ve been so busy, but Gran has been saying she never sees you anymore. It would be really nice if you could be here when she comes out of surgery.”

“Oh, Mom, of course! I’ll be there as fast as I can.

“Thank you, honey. Love you.”

“Love you too. Bye.”

You climb down from the loft in your little house and link your phone with the TV. The fare to Portsmouth is a couple hundred dollars, not bad at all. Why have you been putting this off?

It takes you 15 minutes to pack a carry-on bag, and you’re barely done when the Uberlyft cab toots its horn — at 5 a.m. that’s going to annoy the neighbors, but the driver didn’t think of that. You run outside, locking the door. To your surprise, it’s a four-person cab, sitting with all four doors open, giving you a choice. You’d ordered a single ride, there must have been a lot of traffic overnight.

You slide into the left front seat, and the driver says pleasantly, “Please buckle your seatbelts,” the message replicated in friendly print, accompanied by purely cosmetic flashing lights, on its console. You do, and the driver’s console on the dashboard blinks a green light. “Thank you, we will be at the station in seven minutes.” The car pulls away and out of your driveway, heads for the station on Interstate 80 following the restricted auto-car route.

Inside the station, you use your phone to check in — it displays a message in comforting letters: “working” then “A pod will be available in 15:00 minutes … 14:55 … 14:50…” You duck quickly into the convenience store to buy a breakfast bento and a couple of sandwiches.

You’re waiting on the platform when your phone beeps and notifies you that your pod is arriving. It’s empty — not much of a surprise at 5 a.m. Too early for commuters to Reno or Salt Lake, late enough that punters have decided to sleep it off in Elko rather than go home. The bag goes into the overhead with the sandwiches, but you keep the bento box. You settle into your seat, buckle your belt, and the pod starts to slide forward. It jostles side to side, then starts to climb an incline up to the loop. Through the airlock, it enters the acceleration lane and picks up speed, pressing you into your seat as it matches the 800 mph cruising speed of the tube. Five minutes later it makes another sideways move and the acceleration lets off — you’re on your way.

Three and a half hours later, you’re in Boston, and minutes after that you’re in an auto-cab heading north. Your phone rings, it’s Mom. “Hi, Mom! I’m almost there!”

“Oh good, honey. We just heard from the doctor. Grandma is scheduled for an OR first thing in the morning. Want us to meet you at the house?”

“No, I’ll come straight to the hospital. Columbia Portsmouth, right? I’ll be there in … 32 minutes.”