Peak Travel

Paul Raven @ 05-01-2011

Trends suggest that the demand for transit is flattening out in the industrialized West. Ars Technica:

… prior to recent years, two forms of transit have driven most of the growth in miles travelled, and thus energy use: air and car travel. And, although air travel has continued to increase, car travel has started to decline (a trend that predates the oil price shock of recent years). As a result, since 2003, total miles travelled have flattened out and has started to decline in some countries. This flattening out is even more apparent when graphed against per-capita GDP. Here, most countries show a flattening out once they hit a per-capita GDP of $25,000 (in the US, the figure is $35,000, while Sweden shows a continuing rise).

There are lots of individual features hidden within these general trends. For example, the US drop in the energy intensity of car travel stalled once milage standards languished in the 1990s. In contrast, European countries started raising their gasoline taxes around the same time, and experienced the opposite trend. Longer flights are also less energy intensive, which means that domestic air travel is less energy-intensive in nations like the Australia, Canada, and the US simply as a function of geography.

Nevertheless, the authors argue that the GDP-related trends, which are more consistent across countries, suggest that there might be some common factors underlying the decline in travel, such as urbanization, increased taxes, aging populations, a saturation of automobile ownership, and a basic desire not to spend any more time behind the wheel. Carpooling has also seemed to decline to the point where it probably won’t go down much further.

The folk behind the study are wisely reluctant to project into the future, though they suggest that “continued, steady growth in travel demand cannot be relied upon.”

I fully suspect that the next few weeks will see a rash of pundits suggesting that this flattening of trends means we can stop worrying about carbon emissions and climate change, to be met by a rash of counter-claims at the opposite extreme; between all the shouting, nothing of note will be achieved. Both sides can call me back when they start basing their narratives on the evidence, rather than crowbarring the evidence into their narrative. This Red vs Blue bullshit is starting to bore me.

Stuff the jetpacks, where’s my moving pedway?

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2010

Is the moving sidewalk an sf-nal idea whose time has come? Tom Vanderbilt at Slate asks whether urban transportation networks could be significantly improved by making the walkways of the city move like the ones at the airport [via SlashDot].

It’s actually a much older idea than Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll”:

The moving walkway, of course, is a firmly entrenched and familiar transportation technology, but it has been largely limited to controlled (and typically transportation-related) environments, like airports, train stations, or theme parks. Its history unspools further back than you might imagine. As Paul Collins has written, the first moving sidewalks were unveiled at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition (where they could shuttle 31,680 passengers per hour), again at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, and seemed well on their way to conquering cities like New York. As Collins writes, Max Schmidt, the creator of the Chicago walkway, “proposed a flurry of similar projects around Manhattan—running down Broadway, along Wall Street, over the Williamsburg Bridge and across 23rd and 34th Street. To Schmidt, the advantages of the moving walkway were so compelling that he was convinced they would supplant some subways rather than supplement them. By 1909, he was pushing a massive $70 million scheme that would provide Manhattan with a network of subterranean moving sidewalks.”

Vanderbilt draws no solid conclusions, but much of the material he mentions suggests that there are enough downsides to the idea to make it counterproductive. For my money, urban centres with hugely reduced motor vehicle traffic could simply build wider walkways (and more cycle paths), which would make pedestrian movement not only faster but safer and more enjoyable…

… yeah, yeah, I know, I’m such a utopian.

Serendipitous and contextually relevant bonus material: Shareable has just republished Benjamin Rosenbaum’s story “Falling”, which starts with a man standing on a moving walkway in a future Frankfurt. Short, sweet and a little bit visionary.

Propellantless propulsion

Tom James @ 25-08-2009

Tether-satellite-NASAFollowing on from solar sails we have a discussion of that other science fictional bastion of propellantless propulsion – the space elevator – it turns out that space elevators and space tethers can be used for more than just getting into orbit:

A series of bolo tethers, each tether passing a spacecraft onto the next, could be used to achieve even larger orbit changes than a single system. For example, one tether system could catch a spacecraft from a very low orbit and swing it into a somewhat higher orbit. Another bolo picks it up from there and puts the satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). A third tether catches the load again and imparts sufficient velocity to it so that it reaches escape velocity. A satellite initially orbiting just above the atmosphere could thus be slung all the way into an interplanetary orbit around the Sun, and all this without using any rocket propulsion and propellant

This is in the context of a review by Centauri Dreams of Space Tethers and Space Elevators by Michel van Pelt, which explores tethers and space elevator concepts in some detail.

[from Centauri Dreams][image from Wikimedia and NASA]

Smartdust on the roads, in the cars

Tom James @ 01-07-2009

highway_insomniaThe old chestnut of fully automatic cars trundled a little bit closer with the development of EM2P by the European research group EMMA:

“We sought to hide the underlying complexity of in-car embedded sensors so that developers could quickly design new applications with existing electronics,” explains Antonio Marqués Moreno, coordinator of the EMMA project. “EMMA will foster cost-efficient ambient intelligence systems with optimal performance, high reliability, reduced time-to-market and faster deployment.”

The project hopes that, by hiding the complexity of the underlying infrastructure, its work will open up new prospects in the field of embedded, cooperating wireless objects.

The key of the idea is to make a middleware application between the embedded sensors in cars and designers who want to develop interesting and useful applications.

it could also work between cars – opening the prospect of cooperating cars – and, of course, it can work with traffic infrastructure like lights, warning signs, and other signalling information. All of this via the same middleware platform.

Also a possible route of entry for a hypothetical Internet of Things.

[from ICT results, via Physorg][image from Nrbelex on flickr]

I don’t know how to drive it, but it looks pretty wild

Paul Raven @ 28-05-2009

Concept cars are rather like science fiction – in that they never quite come true, and they say more about the time in which they’re designed that the time in which they would supposedly exist.

But that’s half the fun of designing them, I guess, and it looks like there’s still plenty of folk in the auto industry’s blue sky labs who know how to dream big… or who play a lot of computer games. Pink Tentacle has a bunch of concept vehicle drawings (or rather renderings) from Mazda, Toyota, Nissan and Honda that look like a mash-up of Akira, Wip3out and Stephan Martiniere; if this is what the freeways of 2050 will look like, crossing the street is going to be a crazy experience.

Mazda Motonari RX vehicle concept

That’s the Mazda Motonari RX; to quote Pink Tentacle:

The vehicle drives sort of like a street luge. Acceleration and direction is determined by two armrest mounted control points, and the vehicle’s exoskeletal frame shape-shifts in accordance with the position of the driver’s arms and legs when enveloped in the seat. Four omnidirectional wheels allow 360 degrees of movement, and the tread expands or contracts to suit the driving conditions. A “haptic skin” suit consisting of millions of microscopic actuators enables the driver to experience the road psycho-somatically while receiving electrical muscle stimulation from the onboard AI guidance system (or other remotely located drivers).

No mention of how much a tank of gas will cost… though Toyota’s design apparently sidesteps the issue by being “powered by pollution”.

There’s a certain irony implicit in the automobile industry being one of the last bastions of sleek’n’shiny futurism in these times of bright green thinking; I’d love to see streets full of things like this, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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