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Farther, faster? Not anymore

Paul Nussbaum, Inquirer
Progress in transportation is stalling as technology lags and suburban sprawl ties things up.
This is progress?

The morning train ride from Chestnut Hill to Center City takes 34 minutes today. Fifty years ago, it took 28 minutes.

Today, a United Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles takes 6 hours, 1 minute. Forty years ago, the trip took 5 hours, 5 minutes.

In 1990, the average travel time to work for a Chester County resident was 23.1 minutes; a decade later, it was 27.5 minutes. In Burlington County, the travel time went from 23.6 minutes to 28.2 minutes.

After centuries of ever-faster travel, the triumph of technology over time seems to have stalled. The expectation that each generation will be not only more upwardly mobile, but also more rapidly mobile, has died, apparently of congestion of the arteries.

Faster transportation used to be a benchmark of progress: from horseback to train to auto to plane to jetliner, all in 130 years. But for the last half-century, the next Big Thing in transport has languished on the drawing board.

…Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the nation had allowed the foundations of its transportation networks to deteriorate, preferring to try to pave its way to happiness.

“There’s no doubt the nation has underinvested in its infrastructure,” Puentes said. “We have done a very good job of building new highways, but when it comes to reinvesting in our infrastructure, we come up woefully short.”

…The United States’ postwar focus on cars and highways left mass-transit development to languish, especially compared with Europe and Japan.

“Investing in highways is always ‘investing,’ while investing in mass transit is a ‘subsidy,’ ” said Rachel Weinberger, an assistant professor in urban and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied commuting patterns.

“I think the area that holds the most promise is high-speed rail,” Weinberger said. “The technology is here today. It’s a matter of political will.”

The car promoted suburban growth, as commuters found it as convenient to drive from a new suburb as they once found it to walk or ride a shorter distance. So as people were willing to move farther from work, land-use issues became transportation issues, too.
(23 April 2007)
Case study for Joseph Tainter (“Tainter argues that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.”)/

Fill ‘er up. But with what?

Keith O’Brien, Boston Globe
In the fevered search for the fuel of tomorrow, a team of mit scientists has a surprising solution that just might be the most realistic one of all.
…Leslie Bromberg began retreating to his basement in Sharon every night to sit at his computer and analyze data, to try to determine if he and two colleagues at MIT had found a way to help save the world. Bromberg, 56, and fellow scientists Dan Cohn and John Heywood believed they had an idea that could revolutionize the way we drive, making cars as much as 25 percent more fuel-efficient than they are now. And they thought this could be done with a relatively simple adjustment to the old-fashioned gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine…

…The men knew what they were doing. Bromberg, Cohn, and Heywood are considered giants in their field. By the summer of 2005, the data proved their theory correct: By injecting ethanol directly into the cylinders of a car, they could not only improve fuel efficiency but also reduce emissions. All they needed, they figured, was a separate, smaller tank for ethanol, which would have to be filled only once every couple of months…The ethanol-boosted engine, as it came to be known, wasn’t like the ethanol-powered cars already getting so much attention. It would run on the fuel Americans already know: gasoline. And it didn’t require new technology, merely a different use of existing technologies…

…The MIT scientists are aware of the obstacles. They know their idea could work perfectly and still fail if automakers aren’t certain consumers will buy it. And they know US drivers are resistant to change, even as evidence mounts that change is needed.

“It’s very difficult because, of course, it tends to run head-on into our culture,” says Heywood, sitting in his office at MIT and talking generally about the mind-set of American drivers. “We like the freedom to do what we want, how we want it. We love our big vehicles. They give us flexibility and a sense of power. We like things that accelerate fast. We’ve gone beyond what’s reasonable, and we’re going to have to climb back, but it’s going to be hard. I’d almost say it doesn’t fit with the American lifestyle, because we’ll have to think less big.”…
(22 April 2007)
Contributor Extra O writes:
The article, fairly long, rings a bit of a boosterism while it explains a relatively simple technofix proposed by a team at MIT to use ethanol to better effect in automobile engines. The claim is more power and better efficiency, e.g. mileage., just the opposite of what current use of ethanol provides.

The researchers never explicitly mention peak oil, but it seems clear from the text that reduced future availability of petroleum/gasoline is the principal motivation for their work. They also seem recognize that their scheme is only a stop-gap in order to buy time for solutions to develop.