Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

DOT Wants To Keep Oil Trains On the Rails

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

There’s a lot of oil coming up out of the ground in the U.S. right now. Especially in North Dakota and Montana where there is a good old fashioned oil boom underway. We’ve noted before that increasingly that oil is making its way to market by rail. Given the unprecedented ramp up in production, it was inevitable that pipelines wouldn’t be able to handle all that extra goo. But shipping all that oil by rail is causing some problems. For one thing, the massive increase in the number of oil cars rolling across the land is tying up other rail traffic. Wheat farmers, for instance, are having trouble getting their crops to export terminals on the Pacific coast, and face skyrocketing freight charges. The tracks they need to move their grain are too crammed with oil trains.

Also, those oil trains have a tendency to go off the rails. Not only that, the oil from those north plains oil fields, known as Bakken crude, tends to be more flammable than your garden variety oil.  The combination of flying rail cars and volatile fuel has had some very unpleasant consequences. The issue just got close to home here at Knowledge Mosaic. Last week a Burlington Northern train carrying Brakken crude derailed underneath the heavily-traveled Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. Fortunately, the tanker cars didn’t explode and nobody was injured. But having those tanks flip over a mere mile and a half from our offices was a disturbing reminder just how vulnerable densely packed urban areas are to these rolling bombs. The first thought that popped into my mind was the thundering disaster in Quebec when an oil train derailed, killing nearly 50 people.

The dangers oil trains pose has drawn the attention of the Department of Transportation which has released details of proposed rules intended to improve the safe transportation of large quantities of flammable liquids. The Department proposes a wide ranging number of changes, from phasing out older tank cars, requiring upgraded braking systems, requiring more comprehensive flammability testing of oil prior to shipping, requiring future cars to have thicker hulls and rollover protection, and imposing reduced speed limits for oil shipments, especially in urban areas where any explosions would be the most destructive.

There will be a sixty day comment period in which the energy sector is sure to argue strenuously against the proposals. The railroad companies themselves are none too comfortable with the risks these shipments pose and are likely to support the regulations. As are the citizens of the countless cities and towns through which the trains run. Including all those people who drive over the Magnolia Bridge every day.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Via WikiMedia Commons

Via WikiMedia Commons

Rumor has it that North America may be energy independent within a few years.

Alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and biomass are contributing ever greater amounts to the nation’s energy bank. And the country’s traditional oil and gas industry is booming as it hasn’t in decades. Where the U.S. had become an energy mendicant, relying on unstable (and occasionally unsavory) sources overseas, the country is set to be a net energy exporter and will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the globe’s top oil producer. Energy independence is a good thing. Weaning ourselves from middle Eastern oil reserves will bring market stability and reduce the temptation to secure our oil and gas supplies by force of arms.

But supplying the bulk of our own energy needs domestically presents challenges of its own.  Wind and solar electricity has to make its way from place where it is generated to consumers who might be thousands of miles away. The national grid is being upgraded but is not yet up to that task. Moving all the new oil and gas that’s flowing out of the various bonanzas around the country presents a whole separate category of problems. Quite aside from the environmental toll presented by hell-for-leather production in, say North Dakota or Alberta, just moving the stuff around the country safely and efficiently is a herculean task.

We generally think of oil and gas as flowing through pipelines. The Keystone Pipeline, which would bring tar sand oil from Alberta is a political flash point. Lots of people are questioning its safety, and for good reason. Exxon’s burst pipeline in Arkansas  and PG&E’s fiery pipeline failure in San Bruno are still fresh in the public mind.

But pipelines are not the only way oil gets around the country. Increasingly, it’s making its way to market by rail. And that’s proving to be a bit of a train wreck in its own right. Last month, the town of Casselton, ND had to be evacuated after a mile-long train carrying crude oil slammed into another train, resulting in thunderous explosions and a searing plume of toxic smoke. ABC tells us that this was the third accident in six months involving trains carrying North Dakota crude oil. In July, a train of 72 carloads of crude oil in Quebec derailed and burst into flames, killing  almost 50 people.

Coal, too, is being increasingly transported by train in the face of growing opposition.

It’s naive to think we don’t need the energy we’re pulling out of the ground with such new-found vigor. It’s also naive to think we could stop it being distributed around the country. But we shouldn’t think that energy independence is an unalloyed good. It presents a whole slew of problems of its own.

My Commute Is Not So Lonely Anymore!


Photo by JoeMabel. Some rights reserved.

A little over a year ago, I noticed something on my bike ride to work: a small electronic podium about the size of a parking meter had popped up just before the pedestrian/cyclist path across Seattle’s Fremont bridge. And on that small electronic podium was an LED screen, and on that LED screen was a number, somewhere in the low four hundreds if I remember correctly. As I approached it, the number on the screen rose by one. Well, I’ve read Sherlock Holmes and I know how deductive reasoning works, so I worked out what was going on – someone (Seattle’s Department of Transportation, it turns out) had installed a bike counter that was using sensors in the sidewalk on both sides of the bridge to count each cyclist as they rode across. I found out later they had installed a second counter on the West Seattle Bridge, all as a part of Seattle’s very official sounding “Bicycle Master Plan“, which is exactly what it sounds like.

I’ve since made it a daily habit to predict what the day’s number will be when I ride across. There are obvious factors that contribute – time and date for instance: if I ride across at 8:15 am on a Monday, the number is likely to be higher than if I rode across at the same time on a Saturday, but likely to be lower than if I rode across at 10:15 am on a weekday. Just as obvious would be weather, and more generally the time of year: if the temperatures are higher (as in Seattle’s delightful May – October summers), more people are likely to bike to work. Yadda yadda, you understand how this works. I didn’t say it was a particularly complex game, just an activity to pass the time. If its a sunny weekday, my guess is likely to be in the 800 – 1000 range, whereas if its rainy and wintertime, my guess is more likely to hover around 500. I’ve never gotten it right on the dot, but I have been within ten, so that’s something.

Now, though, the DOT has made the data publicly available for your perusal, and the news is good! Bike traffic across the bridge is 28% up overall in the last year since the counter first went up. On their site you can create your own graphs by filtering the data by time of day, time of year, weather conditions, and more. This might be especially neat for me because I feel I’ve made a significant contribution to the data, but hey – who doesn’t love colored interactive graphs?

Seattle, the City of Bikes

Photo by Sally M. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Sally M. Some rights reserved.

Earlier this year (May 27th, to be exact), the privately-owned bike rental company CitiBike unveiled their service to the people of New York City. For the first time, following the lead of DIY car rental services like Zipcar and Car2Go, NYC residents had the option to rent a bike for the day (or week, or year) right off the street, to run the kind of stealth commuter errands that a car simply won’t work for. The service has taken off there, and other major American cities scrambled to jump aboard the trend – as of 2014, over 30 major North American cities will have such programs in place. Overall, these easy bike-rental services seem like a great idea for the average city dweller – whether you don’t own a car, don’t want to park, or just want to feel the wind in your hair on a beautiful day, these services allow an easy, cost-effective way to promote urban cycling.

Of course, there are bound to be issues. Complaints regarding CitiBike have trickled in since its launch, pointing out that there are major areas where there are no rental stations, and also that the program is having an adverse effect on local bike shops. In Chicago, where a similar service was recently unveiled, local residents are complaining that the rental stations in residential areas are disrupting the otherwise tranquil atmosphere and potentially leading dangerous people to their sleepy burgs and into their otherwise-secure buildings.

While these complaints seem a bit snoody and out-of-touch, here in Seattle we are struggling with launching our own bike-share program with a different set of obstacles (I’ll give you a hint – $$$) in the way. Yes despite Seattle already being a very bike-friendly city, especially amongst the younger, tech-employed masses, the newly minted Puget Sound Bike Share program is running into funding issues even before getting off the ground. It seems local mega-employers like Amazon, Starbucks, and Microsoft have (thus-far) refused to sponsor the program despite  support from the mayor and city council. The effect this under-funding would have on the program could be dire – the company would have to vastly reduce its number of rental bikes AND rental stations, therefore practically eliminate certain Seattle neighborhoods from their coverage area and drastically lowering the usefulness of the service for many bikeless Seattlites. Local alternative paper The Stranger has the full scoop.

Let’s Talk About Hyperloop

Photo by Daniel Case. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Daniel Case. Some rights reserved.

Since it was announced earlier this week, the Internet has been abuzz with speculations about Elon Musk’s Hyperloop – a super-super-high-speed rail train that, performing as imagined, could carry passengers in 28-person capacity pods across the vast desert wasteland between San Francisco and Los Angeles at almost 800 miles per hour, resulting in a 30 minute trip time if conditions were perfect. Additionally, reports indicate that, theoretically, the g-force of such a trip would be similar to that of a standard airplane flight, and that the high speeds and (again, theoretically) comfortable seats would be like “riding on a cushion of air.” And speculative ticket prices, as indicated by Musk, would start at $20. Sounds good to me, sign me up!

Musk, the entrepreneur/mad scientist behind PayPal and Tesla Motors, unveiled the project in a 57 page plan that includes detailed information on the pods themselves (including mock-ups) and figures on cost, safety, etc. As Musk sees it, it would cost $6 billion to build, a figure many have expressed surprise at, considering the much higher speculative figures associated with other high rail projects currently being batted around, specifically the California high-speed rail project currently in development which many residents and experts have expressed skepticism about.

Musk, though, seems to have very little interest in bringing this project to fruition. He released his plans with no patents and has said to the press that he may build a prototype, but only if it seems like no one else is interested in doing it. It seems that, with running his private technologies company SpaceX along with Tesla Motors, Musk has left himself very little time for building enormous high-speed wondertrains on a shoestring budget. On the other hand, based on his success with Tesla, it certainly seems like Musk knows what he’s doing. So, if you’ve got $6 billion burning a hole in your pocket… However, some experts have expressed skepticism, as they always do, and the cheesy anchors of CNBC raise silly but valid point in this video: if you’re traveling at 800 miles an hour and you can’t get out of your seat, what do you do if you need to go to the bathroom?

Bloomberg has an exclusive interview with Musk, in which he goes into greater detail about the specifics and his hopes for the project.

Infrastructure Issues on the (Hot, Hot) Horizon

Photo by Patrick Feller. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Patrick Feller. Some rights reserved.

Last Friday, while all decent Americans were recovering from another no-doubt jubilant Fourth of July, NPR’s Science Friday was running a story looking at how severe heat increases have drastic effects on American infrastructure (roads, runways, rails, etc.). The story begins by pointing to a YouTube clip which went online last week and, as of writing this, has almost 150,000 views, which shows a shaky cellphone video of an SUV going airborne in Wisconsin after the freeway road began to buckle from abnormally high temperatures. If the comments section for the video are any indication, this clip is more of a fun viral video with a high wow-factor (no one in the car were seriously hurt) than a grim harbinger of things to come. Still NPR, in their story, make a good point that rapid changes in temperature will have drastic and somewhat unpredictable consequences on American travel.

For instance, in the first half of the story, host Ira Flatow points out that the Virginia Railway Express Company claims an 80-degree change in temperature would expand an 1,800-foot rail by a foot, which would obviously create a serious problem for railroads in our countries hotter states, and not necessarily a problem that engineers were considering when the railroads were being built decades ago. Similarly, the Washington D.C. government is spending a billion dollars to bury power lines to avoid power outages from extreme weather events in the future. Across the country, the government is slowly realizing that in order to keep up with the reality of global warming, serious money will need to be sunk into infrastructure changes, and sooner rather than later. In fact, studies from the DOE and the GAO indicate that these changes are being seriously debated and considered.

In closing, here is a clip of University of Minnesota student Daniel Crawford playing a composition he himself wrote by mapping U.S. temperatures from 1880 to present, with each year serving as a single note. As you can imagine, its basically a pentatonic scale moving from the cellos lowest register into its highest, with some variation in between. Still, in terms of an instrument to capture the hauntingly sad reality of global warming, the cello is a pretty ideal choice:


In A World With More Bikes Than People…

Photo by Tariqabjotu. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Tariqabjotu. Some rights reserved.

Since it’s Monday and we’re easing back into the week, this is more of a “food-for-thought” post than an “actual news” post. The New York Times ran a story late last week about a problem that, so far, seems unique to certain parts of Europe (but could become an international issue with a little luck!): In Amsterdam, bikes now outnumber people, and they’re running out of space for them.

Now, Amsterdam is reportedly the most bike-friendly city on the planet, so this report isn’t exactly surprising. The Times presents this as a unique problem, but a Guardian story from 2011 indicates that bikes have become a problem in Copenhagen too. With more and more cities worldwide expanding their bike lanes and encouraging more bikes on the road, we could be dealing with this “unique problem” more and more in the coming decades.

Now of course, this is purely a space issue. Bikes don’t pollute and they don’t run on any other fuel besides human energy, so this debate is far different than those regarding any other types of travel. Still, the scenes of entirely parking lots being completely filled with bikes indicated in the NYT makes me wonder: how do we better prepare for a world in which bikes are more common than people?

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