Beyond Efficiency

Even if lighter, durable, more efficient cars eventually replace those no ic in use, a long-term solution to overcrowded highways and an auto-centered culture will require imaginative transportation and urban-planning options. Several are already in place, with more to come


MANY engineers agree that the ultralight hybrid vehicles described in “Reinventing the Wheels” are the best available alternative, technologically speaking, to the problems posed by the internal-combustion engine. But even if ultralight hybrids were the only cars on the road, traffic would continue to clog arteries in cities and suburbs. Many vehicle designers, including Paul MacCready, an internationally known inventor and the head of AeroVironment, an engineering firm based in Monrovia. California, which has developed innovative vehicles ranging from electric and solar cars to human-powered aircraft, anticipate the widespread use of low-speed “subcars” for local solo trips to the store, school, a transit station, or work. Usually under five miles in length, such trips account for 19 percent of U.S. automobile mileage and a considerably higher percentage of emissions and energy use, because of the inefficiency of cold engines and stop-and-go driving.

Broadly defined, a “subcar" is any road vehicle that does not meet the U.S. Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for conventional cars, usually owing to its weight, number of wheels, or propulsion and braking systems. Practically, that can mean anything from a standard bicycle or pedal-powered rickshaw, to a motorscooter, motorcycle, or moped, to an electric tricycle or fancy golf cart. Many such vehicles are in operation in Third World countries, where they share the road with everything from animal carts to heavy trucks and contribute to traffic problems as nightmarish as those in Miami, New York, or Los Angeles.

Bicycles and their derivatives—promoted during the energy-conscious 1970s, derided in the 1980s when muscle cars made their comeback, and now perceived as a key to cleaning up the transportation mess—are receiving increasing attention in the United States. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, pronounced “ice tea”) set aside a small but significant percentage of the total federal transportation budget for such “enhancements” as bicycle routes, and required each state to hire a coordinator of bicycling and pedestrian transportation. Polls reveal that as many as a quarter of those surveyed would ride to work if they were assured of safe bike lanes, secure storage, and showers, and if the price of gas rose to two dollars a gallon. Where cities and employers have met at least some of those conditions, they have produced results. Palo Alto, California, has an ordinance mandating that new commercial buildings of more than 10,000 square feet offer a shower and bike lockers. Boulder, Colorado; Davis, California; and Eugene, Oregon, are renowned among college towns for being bicycle-friendly, offering extensive bike paths and parking facilities. Among larger cities, Seattle takes first prize in the alternative-transportation sweepstakes, spending up to $5 million a year on its bicycle lanes. In most communities, however, bicycle parking is inadequate and office buildings lack shower facilities. Most bike lanes fail to meet a recommended standard of fourteen feet in width; they cross busy intersections without safeguards; and they proceed by indirection to no particular destination.

New types of subcars expand the range, power, and utility of bicycles while reducing traffic congestion and pollution. They represent a meeting of high-technology aerospace research and the equally sophisticated toys of the human-powered-vehicle movement—bicycles, boats, and planes built for efficiency and speed, and solar cars. At the AeroVironment plant, in Monrovia, engineers are proceeding with several subcar projects, including electric-assisted bicycles and electric mini-cycles now being tested by employees and community volunteers.

The vehicle designer Andrew Frank, of the University of California at Davis, has teamed up with Richard Bradford, of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to design a three-wheeled, fully enclosed aerodynamic vehicle that could function as a recumbent bicycle or accommodate a small batteryor flywheel-powered motor. The vehicle would have a small trunk and would feature ventilation and a temperature control for the seat, if nothing else. With the rear wheels set close together, it would approximate the maneuverability and handling of a two-wheeled bicycle, but would have better stability.

“These vehicles have to be approached seriously as a possible form of transportation for this country,” Frank says. “This technology may also be useful in Third World countries, because we are looking at a cost of one to two thousand dollars.”The tricycle would be designed so that a person of average size and fitness could easily power it. Its aerodynamic shell would be designed to bounce off another object in a collision, rather than crumple.

But no bike or bike hybrid has a chance in a collision with a truck or a large car, and subcars will catch on only it" the road system is adapted to accommodate them. “Safety is central.”Frank says. “The automobile has evolved to be a very safe form of transportation. The message is clear that we have to have a change in infrastructure to make this happen. We must separate low-speed, lightweight human-pow - ered vehicles from cars.”

Frank envisions an infrastructure for his hybrids that would include elevated lanes and “flyovers" at intersections or freeways. Similarly, he has recommended designing extra signals at traffic circles and intersections which would allow bicycles, hybrids, and pedestrians to move in all directions, independent of other vehicles. The key is to adapt existing roads wherever possible, rather than to engage in expensive construction of parallel systems.

“On busy roads you can have separate lanes for bicycles and pedestrians,”says Michael Replogle, a codirector of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Transportation Project, who has studied transportation around the world. “Elsewhere you can slow cars—‘calm traffic’—so that you can welcome pedestrians and bicycles.”He also recommends extending sidewalks across streets, so that cars have to adjust to pedestrians. rather than the other way around. It a sidewalk crossed the road at its standard elevation and had slightly rounded curbs, cars would have to drive over it as il it were a speed bump.


HE emphasis that many transportation planners place bicycles, subcars, and walking has its roots in a desire to reclaim urban and suburban spaces for the citizenry. Planners, officials, and motorists have come up with a variety of ways to do this. Too often the worst of these have been put into practice while the best have languished for lack of glamour. Municipalities have chosen to put their efforts and funds into subways and light-rail commuter trains that with few exceptions can be classed as follies— grand monuments to the power of the public dollar, and to the nostalgia value of trains. Yet they remain hot items among politicians: some forty cities have proposals for such systems before the Federal Transit Administration, and the budget for fiscal 1995 includes $4.6 billion for mass transit.

Martin Wachs, a professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles, observed at a 1992 symposium on southern-California transportation options that during the 1980s public transit’s share of all trips dropped, falling to two percent in 1990, the lowest level on record. Although the bulk of public-transit trips are made by commuters, half of such trips occur in New York City, with Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston contributing significantly to the remainder. More Americans walk or bike to their jobs or work at home than use public transit, leading reformers to ask whether public funds are not better spent building infrastructure, including a data superhighway, to encourage those activities. In recent years the absolute number of riders has remained steady, while the percentage of trips made on public transportation has fallen. This phenomenon has occurred, Wachs says, “despite federal, state, and local spending on new rapid-transit systems in Washington, Baltimore, Miami, Portland, Sacramento, San Jose, San Diego, and, of course, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and continued expansion of the nation’s bus transit system.” During the same period the percentage of trips out of the home for the purpose of commuting fell steadily, so that today the category accounts for only 25 to 30 percent of the total. As noncommuting trips grew, traffic patterns shifted and congestion became a problem no longer confined to rush hours. Despite these wholesale changes, officials continued to design transit systems and regulations with the principal aim of cutting solo commuting. “This country is wedded to high-tech, high-cost, complicated solutions coupled with punitive programs to get people out of their cars,” Frank says, “rather than to designing systems that provide the mobility they want and need.”

That the premises transit planners have so long used are shaky has been confirmed by Don H. Pickrell, the chief economist at the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Pickrell conducted a major study of the assumptions used to justify new rail and subway systems in eight cities and found that transit use failed to approach the projected level in any of these places. Many of the passengers had previously used buses. He writes in the Spring, 1992, issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association that only in Washington, D.C., with its concentration of government jobs, did ridership exceed half of the initial estimate.

Pickrell concludes that officials were more than willing to accept—may even have wanted—exaggerated projections, because of their belief in the “elusive mystique” of rail, according to which it would automatically lure people from cars; their belief that only a costly transit system would make theirs a “world-class” city; and the availability of federal and state funds for such major public-works projects, which translate into local jobs and profits.

The sleek and clean 4.4-mile Red Line in Los Angeles, which opened in January of 1993, represents the full embodiment of the subway pork-barrel mentality while also revealing its bankruptcy. At a cost of $1.45 billion, the Red Line was constructed as part of a grandiose thirty-year plan to build 22.7 miles of subway and 400 miles of light rail, along with lanes for high-occupancy vehicles, an improved bus network, and an advanced-technology system for tracking and directing traffic. Planners estimated that when the project was completed, a quarter of all Angelenos would live and 29 percent would work within half a mile of a rail line. They also estimated that 19 percent of all trips in Los Angeles County would be on public transit—hardly an inspiring number for the money.

Initially projected to cost $183 billion and to create 1.4 million jobs in L.A. (although, if the past is a guide, few would have gone to those most in need of work), the entire scheme was criticized from the start as being too costly and based on wrong assumptions. Critics pointed out that in addition to their capital costs, the L.A. lines, like those in other cities, would require heavy operating subsidies and high expenditures for police protection—to make them safe for white-collar commuters worried about crime.

But in the two years since the Red Line opened, the continuing economic recession in southern California has combined with a ridership below projections and a major construction scandal—work on a new subway tunnel has caused sections of Hollywood Boulevard to sink—to force officials to scrap the thirty-year plan. The crisis is severe, according to Judith Wilson, the executive officer for planning and programming for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The initial plan assumed that $100 billion would be available in the first twenty years; now the figure is $64 billion. As a result, planners have gone back to the drawing board in an attempt to find creative ways to serve a metropolitan area projected to grow by three million people over the next two decades.

Wilson says that previous transportation planning in Los Angeles has lacked technical rigor, but now everything must be re-evaluated and reviewed, including the commitment to rail. “There are places you will need rail,”she says, “but not universally. We’ll look at buses and all other options. We’re the trustees for the next generation, and we want to be sure we commit resources the best way we can.”To be released early this year, the new L.A. plan may represent an imaginative leap forward in transit planning, a break with the rigid thinking of the past, which has cost the public money with scant return.

Some sixty years ago the automobile surpassed the train as the preferred mode of transportation for Americans, and many transit officials and train buffs will admit off the record that that ranking will probably never change. Even in rail-rich Europe, studies show that in England and France, two countries with extensive urban transit systems, city dwellers prefer to drive or walk, in that order.

The American subways and commuter rails that survive work where concentrations of jobs and people not only anchor the line but also can be found along its route. Even where this is true, retaining ridership is a struggle, and when the system is allowed to deteriorate, as it was in New York during the 1960s and 1970s, lost passengers are difficult to reclaim. Despite ten years of investment in stations and cars, ridership on the city’s subways averaged 2.74 million a day in 1992 (the last year for which figures are available), as compared with 3.45 million in 1970. Ridership on the New’ York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which includes the New York City Transit Authority (buses and subways) and the Long Island, Hudson, Harlem, and New Haven commuter lines, stood at 4.3 million a day in 1992, down from 4.8 million in 1980.

The migration of people and jobs to the suburbs and Sunbelt cities during the past four decades has contributed to the decline of public transit in New York and other older industrial cities and to the difficulty of building new systems. For example, in Chicago 20 percent of the jobs were in the ring suburbs forty years ago; today 60 percent are there, and the number still grows. Many employers have moved from major metropolitan areas to smaller cities in less developed parts of the country, to escape congestion, the high cost of housing and labor, and taxes. “Mass transit was created to resolve crowding in cities in the late nineteenth century,” Andrew Frank says. “In this country we have constructed a low-density society. Planners are wrong to want to re-create a nineteenth-century society.”

Planners and politicians, including many who recognize that mass-transit systems are not cost-effective, argue that commuter rail helps municipalities meet the requirements of the Federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. These mandate that about twenty of the nation’s most polluted metropolitan areas implement “transportation control measures” to force people out of their cars. The measures include increasing tolls and parking charges and establishing automobile-free zones. The act also follows California’s lead in requiring employment sites with more than a hundred workers in the most befouled of the polluted urban areas to reduce the number of cars in their parking lots by fixed amounts.


AGROWING body of evidence suggests that urban transit resources now devoted to rail would be more „ effective if applied to such low-tech alternatives as buses, vans, and car pools, with freeway lanes for all of them, and bicycles and subcars. Martin Wachs believes that a variety of options must be developed, including vans, to provide the sort of safe, timely, and flexible system that would reflect contemporary travel patterns.

Robert Cervero, a professor of planning at the University of California at Berkeley, reported in PT1 Journal in 1990 that Bellevue, Washington, and Post Oak, Texas, the nation’s “two densest suburban workplaces,” had achieved remarkable success in weaning commuters from their cars without relying on rail. In Bellevue 27 percent of workers used a bus, car pool, or van pool to get to work. In Post Oak 22 percent rode in car pools and van pools. Bellevue’s zoning strictly limited the number of parking spaces that a building was allowed. and Post Oak benefited from Houston’s excellent high-occupancy-vehicle network. Various other surveys have shown that commuter vans are the most energy-efficient form of travel, except for human power.

In the past few years in Miami, New York, and other cities, private jitney, or van, services have begun to put a dent in the public-transit business, because they are faster and more responsive than buses. Transit authorities have responded to the competition not with innovative programs but with campaigns to ban the upstarts, on the grounds that they are illegal and unsafe. A better-established enterprise, SuperShuttle, offers rides from airport terminals to private homes, hotels, and offices in southern California, San Francisco, Phoenix, Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia, and Baltimore-Washington, and is expanding rapidly.

Imaginative transportation planners foresee transit systems that would employ vans and buses of variable sizes— from the now-standard forty feet to twenty-five feet or less— with flexible schedules and routes. In the near future such vehicles might run partly on electric power. And they would carry computers linked to central dispatchers who would direct the vehicles to clearly defined off-road stops where passengers who had reserved their seats by phone or computer modem were waiting. Computerized navigational and guidance devices would allow vans to form convoys for highspeed travel along the freeway.

Some of these technologies are currently being tested, and others are being developed, for the Intelligent Vehicle Highway System (IVHS), a several-hundred-billion-dollar program, involving private industry and the federal government, to minimize congestion and maximize the flow of vehicles on the nation’s highways. The program seeks, among other things, to allow vehicles to travel close together at high speed under the guidance of a control system. The highways themselves are to be monitored and wired to convey information about traffic conditions and accidents.

But many supporters of public transit dispute the potential of IVHS. arguing that it is simply an attempt to squeeze more capacity out of existing roads. “The big money is on IVHS,”says Rick Chellman, a New Hampshire transportation consultant developing a new text on street design for the Institute of Transportation Engineers. “But it is essentially a high-tech way of styling hair when the patient is dying of cancer.”

Andrew Frank says that IVHS technology can at best double capacity, whereas it is necessary “to increase use of facilities by an order of magnitude—a factor of ten—to get congestion down.” As a more economical, easier solution to overcrowded highways, Frank has conceived of customized tractor-trailer frames that would carry up to 20,000 cars and subcars per hour per lane on the typical Los Angeles freeway, as compared with the current maximum of 2,000 cars.

Frank’s “car-bus" would operate like a freeway ferry, carrying vehicles, their drivers, and passengers. More-elaborate versions for long hauls—from L.A. to San Francisco, forexample—would be equipped with climate control and other amenities. Drivers would reserve space ahead of time and then proceed to loading stations built beside or within existing interchanges. Fully automated, the stations would funnel cars into a series of bays perpendicular to the oncoming trailer. Once the ferry arrived, an entire line would be shunted onto it in ten seconds.

The “bus" Frank has designed for bikes and motorcycles would be about 100 feet long and would carry eighty passengers and vehicles. It would operate like the one for cars. The buses for cars would have varying capacity. All would be able to travel in existing lanes in close proximity at high speeds. Linking them together in trains would further increase capacity. Frank has described his system in various journals, but it has yet to be built. Perhaps because it bridges the gap between public transit and the private car, because it is at once simple and sophisticated, and because it dares to posit that cars, too, can become a form of mass transit, Frank’s idea has received interested nods—but no action. “L.A. transportation planners thought it was a great idea,” Frank says. “But it wasn’t their idea.”


NEARLY everyone concerned with solving the considerable social, economic, and environmental problems posed by the automobile soon recognizes that advances in technology and public transit are no panacea. Even if all existing cars were to become nonpolluting vehicles overnight, enormous problems would remain in terms of congestion and the dislocation of social and family life. The underlying land-use and zoning policies that are at once products and creators of the car culture must also be altered.

“Transportation and land-use problems are a failure of the market,”says Michael Replogle, who was formerly the transit coordinator for Montgomery County, Maryland. “We have allowed large hidden subsidies to dictate land-use and development patterns. Traffic engineers have destroyed grids and funneled roads into major arteries, which limit walking. Separating land uses into nothing but houses or nothing but shops, so that the vast majority of people have no option but to use a car, hurts small-business formation by not allowing business near neighborhoods.”

The Miami-based architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk have established an international reputation for innovative urban designs—most notably the design of Seaside, in the Florida Panhandle—that create a sense of community with short blocks, mixed land use, and pedestrian paths and sidewalks. “We want to tempt people out of their cars,”Duany explains. But the goal is to make the car accommodate itself to pedestrians, not to ban it completely. “Cars provide for street life,”he says. “Cars provide energy and vitality—that is. cars moving slowly and safely.”

Communities that follow the principles of Duany and Plater-Zyberk and other innovative urban planners are springing up around the country. But it is easier to construct a new community than to redesign an old one. “Retrofitting existing suburbs is made difficult by land-ownership patterns,” Rick Chellman says.

Still, some suburbs at least seem suitable for reform. Robert Cervero, of Berkeley, has suggested that so-called edge cities, or “megacenters,”such as Tyson’s Corner, in the Washington. D.C., suburbs, and Las Colinas, outside Dallas, are “ideal building blocks for designing integrated networks of transit centers in the suburbs,”because of their density and mixed land use. which make them resemble traditional downtowns.

Another approach focuses on reversing sprawl by redeveloping urban cores and even older suburbs, a process called “redensification.” Trying to halt some of the suburbanization that is reaching into forests and farms on Seattle’s outskirts, civic and business leaders in that city have proposed the creation of an urban village, Seattle Commons, on 470 acres that are currently a dilapidated warehouse district. With a large park, a marina, and a mixture of housing, businesses, and schools, the urban village would offer residents the possibility of living car-free.

To succeed, these and other projects must overcome the fear that many Americans have that high-density development equals crime and an assault on their property values and way of life (and never mind if that way of life causes them to complain about traffic congestion, noise, and air pollution). Cervero and other experts argue that local and state governments must employ a variety of tools to encourage change, among them tax and zoning incentives to level the price differential between rural and developed land: variable toll rates and impact fees to control automobile congestion; and an infrastructure for walking, bicycling, or taking responsive, clean vans and buses. The denser settlements must offer amenities that are not found in the sprawling suburbs.

Deborah Gordon, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, asserts in her book. Steering a New Course, that transportation and land-use planning, if it is to succeed, must be conducted regionally with the full participation of local communities. Planners have known that for a quarter of a century, hut efforts first to establish and then to strengthen regional bodies with more than specialized authority have proceeded slowly. Local leaders are reluctant to share their power, and so they end up serving their constituents poorly.

But Cervero cautions that new approaches will have an effect only if motorists have to pay the true cost of car ownership directly. “Until we take on the hard issue of pricing for the automobile,” he says, “we won’t have anything change. The subsidies are so great that nothing can happen.”