Getting around ... we can do better

Posted Wednesday, October 31, 2012 in Sustainable Maine

Getting around ... we can do better

Train in Budapest, Hungary

by Paul Kando

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- As I board the commuter train, a school boy courteously yields his seat. Onboard children do homework, grownups read books or engage in quiet conversation. We speed past a multi-lane road crawling with a jam of cars. Buses enjoy their own traffic lane. I decide to calculate the energy I save by riding this train.

A van or SUV consumes 1.32 kWh of energy per passenger mile, a passenger car about 1.05 kWh – the average is 1.19 kWh. A transit bus uses 1.08, a passenger train 0.63, a bicycle 0.045 and a hiker 0.09 kWh/passenger mile. On this electric light rail vehicle I consume 0.34 kWh/mile, just over 4 kWh for the 12 mile trip to the city.Contrast this with more than 14 kWh consumed by each car crawling next to us. My trip will take exactly 28 minutes -- not bad considering the number of stops we make along the way., Those drivers, on the other hand, will be on the road longer than an hour. Then they must park, paying for parking, while I hop on a streetcar and walk to my destination from the nearest stop. No wonder my teacher son gave up the family car in favor of biking and riding this train to school. He either rides his bike all the way to school, using a dedicated bikeway or bikes to the train and takes the bike along.

So far I have mostly focused on how reduce energy consumption for home heating by more than 90%, without compromising comfort or lifestyle. But heating is only about 40% of a family’s energy budgets so it is now time to tackle another 50%, Maine’s 100% oil dependent transportation. The good news is that, using current technology, transportation energy use and its cost can be reduced significantly as well.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual cost of owning a reasonably late model car – purchase cost, financing, insurance, maintenance, repair, license fees, registration –  totals  $ 5,051 per year or $ 421 per month, not including parking tolls, or the cost of fuel. Mainers annually spend $ 5.7 billion just owning and maintaining a car. Add to this the cost of a tank of gas per week – $ 6 billion and rising, plus about a quarter billion for damage repair due to our deteriorated roads and one must ask if this is the best way to spend $ 12 billion?

Americans consume about 400 million gallons of motor fuel per day, eight times as much as China and as much as the next 20 gas-guzzling nations combined. Every gallon represents 20 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. For all that, in a typical car 62.4% of the fuel goes for engine losses, 17.2% for idling, 5.6% for driveline losses, and 2.2% to power the car’s accessories. That leaves just 12% for moving the car, and only 0.6% to move the driver. In other words, of $3.90 spent on a gallon of gasoline $2.43 goes for engine losses, 68¢ for idling, 22¢ for drive-line losses, 9¢ for accessories, 47¢ for moving the car and only 2¢ moving you. Some efficiency!

Any one of the alternate modes of transportation listed above is more efficient than that of the average of automobiles on Maine’s roads. Electric light rail and bikeways – the combination increasingly employed by other developed nations -- could reduce our transportation energy use by 72 to 99%. Biking or walking to a transit stop could also reduce obesity and thus health care costs.

“Can’t be done, Maine is a rural state” – comes the predictable knee-jerk response (not to mention the occasional S-word). Yet such objections hold no water. In 1927 , when the state was even more rural, Maine’s 433 towns and villages were served by 330 railway stations, not counting hundreds of interurban electric and streetcar stops across the state. Virtually every inland Mainer had access to a train, and coastal villages were served by steamers. Our transportation system back then was on par with any in the world. Then, while others kept up with similarly excellent systems, we gave up ours to neglect, caving to spin by oil and auto interests.

Most of Maine’s railroad tracks, or their rights of way, are still in place and publicly owned. Many places, including the Midcoast, have tracks are in good condition. Why not reactivate these as a state of the art regional light rail network for both passengers and freight? We could then abandon most of our gas-guzzlers in favor of low cost electric vehicles used for short hauls and to commute to the nearest rail stop. Improving, maintaining, operating, and eventually expanding this heritage infrastructure, we could also create good jobs and reduce the exorbitant transportation costs the average Maine family must bear today.

We could augment rail-net by running our school bus fleet (an investment of $90,000+ per bus sitting idle 20 hours per day!) as a public transit system. This would reduce school budgets. Children walking to bus stops would get needed exercise. They would learn social skills riding with adults, become integrated into the larger community, without the disciplinary problems school bus drivers often have to face.

Mainers could get around using monthly, quarterly or annual transit passes good for unlimited travel. In the area around Budapest adults pay $49/month or $146/quarter; students $57/quarter. And seniors ride free. In Munich, $66 to $89 per month buys a zone pass based on distance, with discounts for students and seniors. In Berlin, distance-based passes cost $101-246/ month or $949-1,975 prepaid per year. Would $120-300/month be reasonable for a zone pass in the Portland-Midcoast-Augusta-Waterville region – $1,440 to $3,600 annually? Like everywhere, single trip tickets should cost on the order of $2 - 20 per trip, depending on the distance, making tourists and occasional visitors help share the burden.

Oregon already has such a growing 21st century city-county transportation system. Why not Maine?

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