Saturday, December 12, 2009

Skytran - future transit option?

A friend on Facebook pointed out the Skytran to me recently. It's quite a fascinating concept transit system, and the Skytran home page is worth your time to check out since I really don't think I could describe it with words that do it justice.

My initial thoughts on this concept:

First, it's definitely a much better option than traditional rail mass transit. As Randal O'Toole has argued (here, for example) rail mass transit is terribly inefficient(in cost per passenger-mile) and inflexible when compared to buses, for example, and also that it primarily exists because of perverse incentives in federal mass transit funding.

Second, slightly more negative, is that NASA is the primary researcher mentioned. As much as they've come up with cool technology I'm skeptical of their ability to either meet a consumer demand or develop and implement anything as cost-effectively as a private sector R&D organization.

Third, to be a serious alternative to the private auto, the Skytran would have to be flexible in its routing (i.e. each vehicle could go to any boarding station on the metropolitan Skytran network without the rider having to transfer from one vehicle to another).

Fourth, as simple as erecting utility poles is, it's formidable and expensive to replace them all across a metro area. You'd also have to plan on making major upgrades to the local power grid to be able to supply sufficient electricity for the Skytran system. Additionally the cost of sufficient vehicles to meet demand might add a lot, though certainly not as much as the tracks themselves.

Fifth, making the vehicles available when and where they're wanted is a challenge as well. Demand for highways, parking spaces, mass transit seats, taxis, etc. - modes of transport that already exist - is an order of magnitude higher at some times of day and days of the week than others, and is also affected by predictable anomalies like sporting events and concerts. Skytran systems would have to make some tradeoff between purchasing vehicles that sit unused much of the time, or increasing waits during high demand times.

Related to that, and I think this is potentially positive, the Skytran rider could much more easily be charged based on their point of origin and time of day than a highway user or bus rider. Until point 6 takes effect...

Sixth, federal and especially local politicians would love to impose their preferences on such a system. It's not farfetched to imagine generous handouts to transit unions, arbitrary route and fare mandates/restrictions, and various costly add-ons that wouldn't be chosen in a free market.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

California Wildfires: Shelter-in-place vs. evacuation

Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute has an interesting post on the regular wildfires in California. O'Toole writes regularly on the Forest Service, which is probably the leading agent of wildland fire suppression in the U.S. His suggestion on home construction in the fire-prone Southern California hills(emphasis added):

Southern California forests are extremely fire prone — their natural fire regime is to completely burn over every 50 to 100 years. Building homes in such an area might seem foolish, so naturally there have been calls for “fire plain zoning,” similar to flood plain zoning, that would restrict such construction.

In fact, properly designed homes and landscaping can easily withstand such fires. Most homes destroyed by wildfires are ignited either by burning embers landing on flammable roofs or by the radiant heat from trees or grasses burning nearby. Building homes with nonflammable roofs and eves, and landscaping with well-tended lawns and a minimum of flammable trees essentially makes homes fire proof.

Most civilian deaths from wildfire take place during evacuations, not from the fire itself. Homes that are designed to withstand wildfires are known as “shelter-in-place” homes because the residents will be safer in the homes than trying to evacuate.

I'm somewhat in agreement with the argument at this point; I can attest to similar experiences in my own experience with the fire service. More firefighter line-of-duty-deaths occur while traveling to or from incidents than at the incidents themselves, and a resident driving away from a wildfire is operating under similar stress and time constraints as an emergency responder.

O'Toole further comments:

Why doesn’t this happen?

Simple: money. The Forest Service gets a blank check for putting out fires but almost no money for helping people fireproof their properties. So it continues to spend billions on fire suppression, mainly to protect people’s homes, when a lower-cost strategy is readily available.

CBS News video on the success of shelter-in-place in San Diego after a 2007 fire(although the reporter reaches the opposite conclusion on the desirability of such construction):

Watch CBS Videos Online

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Clunkers" available for Vehicle Rescue drills/training?

Recently, at the fire department I run with, we discussed the possibility of using vehicles traded in as part of the "Cash for Clunkers" program to practice our vehicle rescue skills.

If possible, this might be a good exercise since the vehicles would presumably be intact; also, these vehicles could have been manufactured recently enough to be equipped with features such as airbag systems, hardened steel structural members, and various gas struts - all of which are important for the emergency responder to be aware of during vehicle rescue operations.

I'm currently looking at the text of the act which authorized the program(the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act of 2009, which is available here in full as a PDF.) One particular section of interest is this, beginning on page 3 of the link[boldface and bracketed comments are added by me, parentheses are in the original]:

(A) IN GENERAL- For each eligible trade-in vehicle surrendered to a dealer under the Program, the dealer shall certify to the Secretary, in such manner as the Secretary shall prescribe by rule, that the dealer-

(i)has not and will not sell, lease, exchange, or otherwise dispose of the vehicle for use as an automobile in the United States or in any other country; and
(ii)will transfer the vehicle (including the engine block), in such manner as the Secretary prescribes, to an entity that will ensure that the vehicle-
(I)will be crushed or shredded within such period and in such manner as the Secretary prescribes; and
(II)has not been, and will not be, sold, leased, exchanged, or otherwise disposed of for use as an automobile in the United States or in any other country.

SAVINGS PROVISION- Nothing in subparagraph (A) may be construed to preclude a person who is responsible for ensuring that the vehicle is crushed or shredded from-
selling any parts of the disposed vehicle other than the engine block and drive train (unless with respect to the drive train, the transmission, drive shaft, or rear end are sold as separate parts); or
retaining the proceeds from such sale.

This provision doesn't specifically require that the traded-in vehicle go to an auto recycler, but that seems to be the logical way the dealer will maximize his profit, since the vehicle can't be sold to someone who will keep it intact and operational.

More legalese, beginning on page 4 of the link:
Regulations- Notwithstanding the requirements of section 553 of title 5, United States Code, the Secretary[of the NHTSA] shall promulgate final regulations to implement the Program not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act. Such regulations shall-
(1)provide for a means of registering dealers for participation in the Program;
(2)establish procedures for the reimbursement of dealers participating in the Program to be made through electronic transfer of funds for the amount of the vouchers as soon as practicable but no longer than 10 days after the submission of information supporting the eligible transaction, as deemed appropriate by the Secretary;
(3)require the dealer to use the voucher in addition to any other rebate or discount advertised by the dealer or offered by the manufacturer for the new fuel efficient automobile and prohibit the dealer from using the voucher to offset any such other rebate or discount;
(4)require dealers to disclose to the person trading in an eligible trade-in vehicle the best estimate of the scrappage value of such vehicle and to permit the dealer to retain $50 of any amounts paid to the dealer for scrappage of the automobile as payment for any administrative costs to the dealer associated with participation in the Program;
(5)consistent with subsection (c)(2), establish requirements and procedures for the disposal of eligible trade-in vehicles and provide such information as may be necessary to entities engaged in such disposal to ensure that such vehicles are disposed of in accordance with such requirements and procedures, including-
(A)requirements for the removal and appropriate disposition of refrigerants, antifreeze, lead products, mercury switches, and such other toxic or hazardous vehicle components prior to the crushing or shredding of an eligible trade-in vehicle, in accordance with rules established by the Secretary in consultation with the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,
and in accordance with other applicable Federal or State requirements;
(B)a mechanism for dealers to certify to the Secretary that each eligible trade-in vehicle will be transferred to an entity that will ensure that the vehicle is disposed of, in accordance with such requirements and procedures, and to submit the vehicle identification numbers of the vehicles disposed of and the new fuel efficient automobile purchased with each voucher;
(C)a mechanism for obtaining such other certifications as deemed necessary by the Secretary from entities engaged in vehicle disposal; and
(D)a list of entities to which dealers may transfer eligible trade-in vehicles for disposal; and
(6)provide for the enforcement of the penalties described in subsection (e).
Again, nothing in the text of the law here specifically says that it has to be an auto recycler that disposes of the vehicle. I'll be checking to see what the NHTSA Secretary has authorized next.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

DC EMS chief gets promotion despite wrongful death lawsuit

From the Washington Times. I haven't heard of this case but I really wonder if that's appropriate given how relatively recent the death and the complaint in question occurred.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Would the Southern Beltway and Mon-Fayette Expressway get built quicker by private entities?

The Army Corps of Engineers has issued environmental clearance for the last leg of the Southern Beltway, the Post-Gazette reports. But funding is evidently going to be a problem, as it is on the remaining legs of the Mon-Fayette Expressway (between Jefferson and Pittsburgh/Monroeville).

I have to say that the most relevant words in the article to explain why these highways are having funding problems are these:
the Pennsylvania Turnpike developing the beltway and Mon-Fayette Expressway

It's not much of a secret that the Turnpike Commission is full of cronyism and corruption,
(bipartisanly so), and well-organized to lobby against its elimination, in the face of reform proposals.

I don't have hard data on any privately-run toll roads in front of me at the moment, but given the examples of USPS vs. UPS/Fedex currently, airlines and trucking since their deregulation in the late '70s, and Vanderbilt's unsubsidized steamships in the 1850s vs. the subsidized Collins Line, the case for serious government involvement in the operation of the various PTC-controlled roads in PA is severely undercut.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

And we're off

Are you a person who lives somewhere within 100 miles of Pittsburgh, and leave your house regularly?

If that describes you than I'll assume that you often walk on the street, ride in a private automobile, or use mass transit. In each of those 3 cases the information on Streetlights and Sirens may prove useful to you.

I intend to provide daily updates on local transportation issues such as new highway construction, repair work, and alternate modes of transport, as well as an occasional public policy or economic analysis of a given situation.

Additionally, emergency responders may find information related to the incidents encountered specifically on the highways, such as motor vehicle accidents, the relative safety or danger of particular roads and road types, and incidents where an emergency vehicle was itself involved.