EDITORIAL/OPINION
PHOTO CAPTION: Front view of Arcimoto Pulse being developed outside Portland, Oregon.

Sustainable Transport: 'Think Shrink'

Professional planner Larry Weymouth thinks our urban transportation system can be adapted to the realities of the new century.

Published: 26-Aug-2010

By Larry Weymouth

The Regional Transportation Plan recognizes that in 2035 we will have to deal with millions of more cars and trucks on our highways, resulting from a larger commuter population and freight-based economy. Expansion of public transit and tolled highway travel are key ingredients to fight greenhouse gas emissions, foreign oil dependence and traffic congestion. Yet it’s unlikely that urban infill, light rail construction, tolling, carpooling or bicycling can realistically meet our environmental, energy and mobility goals by 2035.

Widespread use of electric vehicles (EVs) will not reduce traffic congestion if they are modeled after the same old horseless carriage. Nissan’s LEAF, unfortunately, is one of those, as described by Tribune reporter Jim Redden in his Nov. 12 Sustainable Life article, “Electric vehicles coming here soon.”

Like most Americans and mainstream carmakers, Redden has not yet made the paradigm shift of envisioning a new type of commuter vehicle. As a negative characterization of many new EVs currently available, Redden wrote “but they only carry one or two people” and come with “range anxiety.”

Approximately 80 percent of urban trips are by commuters in single-occupant vehicles traveling less than 20 miles roundtrip to work. So what’s the problem with an electric car that only carries two people and has a range of 60 miles? Nothing.

If the car were sized for a driver and passenger seated in tandem instead of abreast, it would be possible to double the number of cars occupying a 12-foot-wide travel lane on our highways.

Most American households already own two cars, both sized as a “family” car or utility truck. As a society, we can no longer afford to waste the space in a travel lane devoted to a car that’s driven four-fifths empty to and from work every day, with its consummate carbon emissions.

You can keep your gasoline-powered pickup and family car. Just make your other car — the one you should be driving to work (if not taking public transit or biking) — a narrow-bodied, two-seats-in-tandem EV. They are now being made in Eugene (the Pulse by Arcimoto), Spokane (the Tango by Commuter Cars Corp.) and Los Angeles (the Persu by Persu Mobility Inc.). They can go 100 mph, accelerate zero to 60 mph in six seconds, and have a minimum range of 40 miles at 75 percent discharge. They get the equivalent of at least 80 miles per gallon of gasoline, and are built with race car roll-cage construction, including full harness and/or airbags for crash safety.

No, they don’t look like your typical car. But what’s not to like?

Unfortunately, because they are not yet mass-produced, some of these EVs currently are very expensive — about $100,000 per car. Then again, the proposed $3.5 billion bridge over the Columbia River would carry approximately 35,000 cars during commuter rush hours, or about $100,000 per car.

It seems like a government subsidy to kick-start mass production of these vehicles, instead of funding the likes of GM’s Chevy Volt and new highway lane construction, would be a relatively appropriate expenditure of federal funds. It takes about 10 years to turn over the vehicle fleet in America.

We can do this. Consider the trends of the consumer electronics industry, typified by the changes in cell phones and computers over the last 20 years.

Think Shrink.

The information superhighway — the Internet — has evolved over 20 years into widespread use of DSL and data compaction technology, still using our existing phone lines, along with new fiber optic cables. Similarly, our existing urban freeway system, along with some repairs and localized extra capacity, can be transformed in the next 20 years to carry many more cars more efficiently, at higher speeds and lower cost, with less environmental impact.

Larry Weymouth is a professional planner for a Portland consulting firm. He has had a deposit on a Tango for four years and has been on a waiting list for two years to acquire a Persu. After seeing a Pulse on display recently at Pioneer Courthouse Square, he has also been thinking about putting a deposit on a Pulse.

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