Thursday, April 1, 2010

Not Either/Or but Both/And

I just came across a couple of tweets by a tweeter named anthonyiftf as retweeted by Fast Company writer Greg Lindsay:
  1. future high-speed rail only 3x more CO2 efficient than today's planes. a few % / yr + in plane efficiency would do the trick over 2 decades
  2. so why not focus on making them super-efficient rather than building a whole new infrastructure for rail?
  3. it seems to me that planes are much more of a Transportation 2.0 tech than hi-speed rail: distributed, packet-switched, standards-based
As the title of this post suggests, this doesn't have to be an either/or question (why must we frame everything that way?). Rather, both are necessary as part of an interconnected global hierarchy of transportation, a robust ecology of solutions. 1) Competition between the two ought to be encouraged and, 2) they serve different scales. No one is about to hop a MagLev from New York to San Diego even if one were available.

Rather, you have to think about where plane travel is lacking and where hi-speed makes sense. For example, regional or megalopolitan areas. Currently, to fly from Dallas to Austin one has to drive at least 30 minutes to the airport then you have to wait at least another 30 minutes to board and take off. Once on the plane, you have approximately an hour flight. Deplaning and finding your way to whatever form of transportation takes another half hour. And finally, getting to downtown Austin might take another 30 minutes.

All in all, it takes roughly 3 to 3.5 hours or the same amount as to drive and is on the whole a pretty miserable experience at every segment of the trip whereas in a high-speed train scenario, you would be getting from downtown Dallas to downtown Austin (substitute Houston and the equations stay the same) in an hour to 1.5 hours.

How does this "3x" calculation properly assess the value for time lost?

Furthermore, because adding more cars to a train doesn't add much inefficiency, the cars can be as spacious and comfortable as need be. How does it take into account preference if cost of a ticket for each scenario is equal for comfort or pleasure in a fair competition?

Should we have not built airports in the first place because of their prohibitive costs? Plane travel will still have a place in the future, but only where it prices out appropriately. The short commuter airlines are getting killed and they don't even have competition currently.

Does this CO2 efficiency take into account the full end-to-end trip including the car travel to/from the airport and the idling of planes?

While I understand the point about new infrastructure, it sounds pretty easy to assume that we can make plane flights more efficient, does that also assume we can not make high speed travel more efficient?

Last, what this also doesn't take into account in terms of land use. Airports are at the extreme end of locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) whereas train stations are integral parts of downtowns where land value is the highest.

Lesson: STOP OVERSIMPLIFYING DEBATES.