North America

Trolleytrucks + Autonomous Cargo Handling = Clean, Cheap Transportation

It takes a lot of time to unload a large truck and sort and store its contents. This means that trucks tend to make deliveries during the daytime, when the cost of paying people to unload trucks is relatively low.

If, however, the process of unloading trucks and handling their contents becomes automated, overnight deliveries may become much more common. At night trucks are able to avoid being caught in, and contributing to, traffic jams.

Making more deliveries in the evening or overnight may, in turn, lead to an increased demand for electric trucks. Electric trucks are far quieter than diesel trucks, which is obviously an important trait for nighttime delivery vehicles. They can also be operated relatively cheaply overnight, given the generally much lower price of nighttime power.

If – an enormous if – electric trucks do not need batteries that are heavy, bulky, pollute, and frequently need to be recharged, they can also operate many times more efficiently in general than can diesel trucks.

This is mainly because electric vehicles do not pollute city air, and because electric motors and the power plants that generate their electricty can be several times more energy-efficient (and potentially far more eco-friendly) than internal combustion engines. But it is also because electric vehicles can have regenerative breaking systems that recapture some of the power they expend, and because they have dynamic break systems and motors with very few moving parts, and because they have far stronger torque that helps them climb hills.

Unfortunately, the batteries needed to power trucks are too heavy, bulky, polluting, and range-limited*. This is especially true of batteries for large trucks**, which are the most cost-efficient and eco-friendly types of truck — and which would remain generally the most efficient types of truck even if all trucks were to become self-driving.

[*There may be three main options for dealing with batteries’ limited ranges: slow-charging, fast-charging, or battery-swapping. All three options are problematic. Slow charging is problematic because the nighttime is short, so to spend several hours charging a large truck battery is a waste of precious time. Fast charging is also problematic, because it requires a very large amount of energy at one time, which would then increase peak nighttime energy demand for the grid when lots of trucks are fast-charging their batteries at the same time. If, for example, the wind stops blowing at the same time that many trucks are using wind power to fast-charge their large batteries, power might need to come from fossil fuels, making them much less environmentally friendly. Moreover, if fast-charging stations were used during the daytime too – which presumably they would be, because why spend the money to build fast-charging stations if you are only going to use them at night – it could then lead to increased peak demand in general, which would be both inefficient and environmentally problematic. Battery-swapping stations, then, might be the best option — but building them is easier said than done, given the huge size of truck batteries. Even then, however, they would still not overcome any other issues associated with battery use in trucks.]  

[**To quote The Globe and Mail: “Battery powering of heavy duty vehicles may not be expedient. To match the range provided by the diesel fuel tank of a typical long-distance heavy-duty truck, which when full weighs about a tonne, a heavy-duty battery-powered electric-drive truck would have to carry almost 30 tonnes of battery, which is much more than the average payload of heavy-duty trucks.” ]

Barring a breakthrough in battery technology, this only leaves one other option: electric trolleytrucks. These get their power from overhead power wires, somewhat like streetcars do. They then use small batteries in order to travel short distances away from these overhead wires.

Some cities already have large wire-powered networks. Vancouver, for example, which is a city especially suited for electric vehicles given its hilly terrain and cheap, clean, hydropower-generated power, has close to 300 kilometers of wired roads, which it uses for trolleybus transit.

Luckily, trucks making overnight deliveries can avoid the challenges that have thus far prevented trolleytrucks from being commonly used. The main challenge for trolleytrucks has been city traffic. Because they can only travel a few kilometres away from their power wires, they cannot handle the risk of getting caught in stop-and-go traffic.

Overnight, however, the lack of traffic and much longer green light-red light cycles removes this risk. It also means that should a mistake occur that does leave a trolleytruck stranded away from its power wires and out of battery power, it could simply wait for a support vehicle to come and charge its battery, without causing any road traffic blockage as would occur if it ran out of power during the day.

This effectively much extended range away from the wires at night also helps solve another main challenge: lots of people find trolley wires unaesthetic. The ability of trucks to travel further away from the wires at night means you don’t need as many streets wired. You might even be able to get away with only having some highway corridors — where aesthetics is not a problem – wired. The trucks could run on the wired highways during the daytime, then run mostly off-wire overnight to get a few km in the city to make deliveries further from the wired corridor.

A final, hugely significant challenge, which trolleytrucks must face regardless of whether they run during the day or night, is the cost of intermodal cargo transfers. Even if a trolley wire-building spree were to occur, most roads will remain unwired for the foreseeable future. As such, for trolleytrucks to be competitive with diesel trucks, the cost of transferring cargo between trolleytrucks and other vehicles – notably, diesel trucks and trains – must fall. Trolleytrucks being more efficient than diesel trucks will not be sufficient to make them ubiquitous. This can be seen already by looking at the fact that trucks transport much more freight than do railways, despite railways being more efficient than trucks.

If autonomous loading and unloading of trucks, and autonomous sorting and storing of trucks’ cargo, dramatically reduces the cost of intermodal cargo transfers, as seems likely to occur (or at least, plausible), then we might expect the use of cargo railways and of trolleytrucks to increase relative to the use of less efficient diesel trucks.

Indeed, if the automation of intermodal transfers serves to increase
railways’ share of freight transported relative to trucks, one result may be that a larger share of trucking will take place in hilly or urban areas where railways are less competitive. And, since hilly and urban areas are precisely the areas where electric vehicles are most useful — in hilly areas because of their torque, dynamic breaking, and ability to go through tunnels without spewing exhaust that requires ventilation; in urban areas because of their low air and noise pollution – this might further increase the use of trolleytrucks (and trolleybusses!) relative to diesel.

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North America

Time-Sharing Toronto Transit

Fighting for bike lanes, pedestrian spaces, HOV/bus lanes, and right-of-way streetcar lanes is difficult in Toronto. Much of Toronto’s population is suburban, and much of Toronto’s tax revenues are controlled by an Ontario government that is partially influenced by Ontario’s largest industry, car manufacturing.

Still, most of this fight has focused only on how to share road space. In my opinion, what we should be pursuing instead is a plan to share road-use time, in order to reflect the fact that the needs of Toronto — especially as it relates to bike lanes — are very different in summer than in winter. The political compromise we should be pursuing should be to make Toronto a great city for transit, cycling, and pedestrians during the warmer, brighter half of the year, while allowing cars to continue to be the dominant form of transportation during the colder, darker half of the year.

In the winter, most people do not want to bike, fewer people want to walk to transit stops or wait at outdoor transit stops, and more people want to have street parking so they do not have to walk far to get to and from their parked cars. This will only become true as Baby Boomers get older, as the risk of their slipping and falling on ice becomes more significant. In summer, on the other hand, more people want to bike, people do not mind walking further to and from their parking spot as much, and people do not mind walking to or waiting at a transit stop as much either.

In summer there are also more tourists in the city, who want to use transit (or taxis), and walk or bike. Summer tourism is likely to increase in the future as technology makes it easier for people to travel more, given that many other cities in North America (and the world) are unbearably hot in summer, and given Toronto’s proximity to the lakeside cottages and camping sites of the Canadian Shield.

There are also smog issues during the summer, which could be reduced by using cars less often.

But, you might ask, if we give over most of our road space to transit, cycling, and pedestrians during the good-weather half of the year, what will we do with all of our cars? And woudn’t we have way too few busses and streetcars to facilitate this huge seasonal increase in transit ridership? (And if we buy more busses and streetcars in order to solve this problem, wouldn’t they then be underused during the car-dominated colder half of the year?)

The solution to this problem may, at least in part, be a seasonal form of car-sharing. Torontonians could have the option to make a profit by doing one of the following things:

—not own a car

—renting their car to an Uber driver (or a service like Uber) during the warmer half of the year, so that it could be used as an UberPool vehicle in an HOV lane shared with ttc busses

— renting their car to Car2Go (or a service like Car2Go) during the warmer half of the year, in order to help people travel the first-mile/last mile to and from transit stations

—using their car in cottage country. Or, renting their car to a service like Car2Go in cottage country, so that people could take the train or bus to get to and from cottage country, so that we reduce the economically and environmentally damaging practice of clogging up the highways to Muskoka with cars every weekend

—rent the cars to towns in Northern Canada during the warmer half of the year, since the seasonal changes that Toronto experiences are nothing compared to those Northern Canada does

maybe, partner with US Sunbelt cities. If they do a reverse version of the seasonal system we do (in other words, if they become transit, cycling, and pedestrian friendly in the winter, when they have great weather, but then go back to being car-friendly in the summer when their weather is way too hot) then Torontonians could perhaps save money by sharing a car with a Southerner, with the Torontonian using the car in winter and the Southerner using the car in summer

Of course, most people won’t rent out their car like this for half the year. But as long as some do, it should be sufficient, given how much more utility can be gotten out of a single car when used as an Uber/UberPool/Car2Go type of vehicle, as compared to when used as a conventional car that mainly sits idle all day and night.

So, instead of fighting for transit-only/cycling/pedestrian/carpool lanes, we should advocate for transit/cycling/pedestrian/carpool seasons. 

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North America

Autonomous Cars, Semi-Autonomous Cars, and Toronto’s Railways to Nowhere

The City of Toronto has two “railways to nowhere”: the Sheppard subway and the Richmond Hill GO train.

The Sheppard Subway 

The Sheppard subway is 5.5 km long, has five stations, and connects to only one other rail line, the Yonge line. By comparison, the Yonge-University subway will soon be 38.8 km long (when the Vaughn extension begins operation), will have 38 stations, and will connect to many other rail lines, including the Bloor-Danforth subway, the Sheppard subway, 7 GO train lines (all at Union), and eventually also the Eglinton Crosstown.

The Bloor-Danforth subway is 26.2 km long, has 31 stations, and has connections with other rail lines at stations like Dundas West (the Union-Pearson Express train and the Kitchener GO train), Main Street (the Stoufville GO train and Lakeshore East GO train) and Kennedy (the Scarborough RT*, Stoufville GO train, Eglinton, and, if the City’s current transit plans are realized, the Scarborough subway tunnel).

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The Richmond Hill GO Train

Before the start of this year, the Richmond Hill GO train line was 34 km long and had five stations, three of which were located within the City of Toronto. With an extension to a new station, Gormley Station, having been opened in 2017, the line is now 42 km long, with six stations—but still only three in the City of Toronto. In contrast, the other six GO lines are between 50-103 km long (for an average of 69.6), have between 9-13 stations (for an average of 11.2), and have between 2-6 stations within Toronto (an average of 4).

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Read more: Toronto Crow’s Advantage   (…apologies for some of the pictures being blurry and links being broken, I’ll try to fix them soon)

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On Politics and the Weather…and Bike Lanes, in Toronto

I tend to agree with those who say that the ideal city would have both right-of-way transit lines and separated bike lanes on every major street. But I also recognize that this is not politically viable. Too many suburban voters are against it. Urbanites have enough clout to get bike lanes or transit, but not necessarily both.

For this reason, I think it would be best to advocate for transit only, leaving the issue of bike lanes to the side until the transit fight is won. Bike lanes are great too of course, but not nearly as useful as transit can be.

However, I also recognize that even this is not politically viable. There are too many bike enthusiasts who will not delay their push for better bike lanes. For these bike enthusiasts and transit advocates to present a unified front in their negotiations with suburbanites, they must first reach a compromise among themselves.

The compromise could be this: a hybrid transit/bike lane, which changes functions depending on the weather.

It would work something like as follows. On days when the weather is expected to stay within a range of, say, 0-30 degrees celcius, and not rain too much, cyclists will get to have a separated bike lane that is so wide that it will actually have two bike lanes within it: a passing lane and a slower lane. On these days, Toronto would become ideally the most bike-friendly city in North America.

However on days when the weather is expected to be too cold, hot, or rainy, bicylists will not be allowed to bike on major roads at all. Instead, the bike lanes would be used as a right-of-way bus lane.

Of course, there would be winners and losers in this plan, as in any political solution. The losers would be ultraenthusiastic cyclists, the people who love to brag about how they bike to work even in January.

The winners would be everybody else.

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On Numerology and Public Transit

The number 12 has played a key role in human culture, showing up in places as diverse as the hours of the day, the tribes of Israel, the disciples of Christ, the jury of your peers, the major gods of Olympus, the inches in a foot, the Chinese Zodiac, the Latin Zodiac, or the egg-carton.

One reason for this is that 12 is divisible in three different ways: by 12 and 1, by 6 and 2, and by 4 and 3. Not until 18 (another significant number, in both Hinduism and Judaism) is a number again divisible in three ways. This is also the root of 13’s bad luck: it’s a prime number, divisible only by itself and one. 13 throws off 12’s groove.

Numerology and Public Transit? 

As in the case of the clock, calendar, and egg-carton, 12’s divisibility could perhaps be put to practical use in public transit.

Imagine for a moment that a road were to have three different bus lanes in each direction. In one of the directions, busses on one of the lanes would make stops every 200 metres, on another lane every 400 metres, and on the third lane every 1200 metres.  In the other direction, busses on one lane would make stops every 300 metres, on the second lane every 600 metres, and on the third lane every 2400.

The result of this would be that busses on all six bus lanes would arrive at the same place every 2400 metres. In addition, busses on the 200 metre and 400 metre lanes would arrive at the same place every 400 metres, and busses on the 200,300, and 600 metre lanes would all arrive at the same place every 600 metres. Five of the six lanes — the 200, 300, 400, 600, and 1200 — would all arrive at the same place every 1200 metres. Lots of opportunities for passengers to transfer easily from one lane to another might therefore be created by such a transit system.  Ideally, this would make the system both efficient and useful.

Of course, you’ve probably already spotted the problem with this plan: roads aren’t wide enough for six transit lanes!

In order to have a transit-by-the-dozen plan like this, you would need either narrower vehicles or wider roads.

In the case of wider roads, the solution is obvious: use highways. The challenge then, however, would be how to get the passengers to and from those highways. This may not be viable today — or at least, not politically viable — but it could perhaps become so with the advent of autonomous or semi-autonomous cars.  Autonomous vehicles could take passengers to and from transit stops located in or adjacent to the highways.

The same might be said of narrower vehicles. Narrow, one-seater autonomous or semi-autonomous cars might allow main streets to create six narrow lanes — three in each direction — to be used for a transit system. Not only would the vehicles themselves be narrow, but they may also require less space between lanes.

But, if anywhere, it is probably on highways, not ordinary roads, where such a plan might actually have potential. Highways are so wide that, rather than have six transit lanes in total, it could be possible to have twelve: a 200, 300, 400, 600, 1200, and 2400 in each direction.  You could  even name the lanes after the Zodiac.  You could then give a tourist directions like “take the Taurus for three stops, then swich to the Gemini.”

Alternatively, you could use only one lane in each direction, but still have different busses using the lanes stop 200,300, 400, 600, 1200, or 2400 metres apart. This would make the system possible on normal roads, with normal sized vehicles, rather than only on wide highways or with narrow autonomous cars.

This is all enormously speculative of course. I don’t expect to see it happen, and am not sure it would even be desirable.

I guess we’ll have to consult an astrologer to find out.

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A Bazaar Alternative to The Scarborough Subway

If the transportation of the future is to be autonomous cars — or even just semi-autonomous cars — then it makes sense to build transit bazaars: locations that your car could drop you off at, where you could then find a carpool, minibus, bus, or train to take you on to your final destination. As in any good market, a transit bazaar will work best when it has a lot of “liquidity”. In other words, when it is both very large and easily accessible.

In Toronto, the obvious place to put such a transit bazaar is by the intersection of the 401 and DVP. This intersection, of Toronto’s main north-south and east-west expressways, is enormous, and it is also only one kilometre away from the Sheppard Subway’s Don Mills Station.

DVP-401 Intersection

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Downtown put Uptown

Part of downtown Toronto, cut-and-pasted onto the 401-DVP intersection

With that in mind, here is a 4-step proposal for an alternative to the City of Toronto’s current plan to extend the Bloor-Danforth subway to Scarborough Town Centre:

1. Build a major Transit Bazaar immediately northeast of the intersection (the other areas surrounding the intersection are residential neighbourhoods); extend the Sheppard Subway tunnel 1 km to reach a new subway station under the bazaar.

401 dvp

2. Build vertical (semi-)autonomous parking lots in the “urban archipelago” lands that are located within and immediately surrounding the intersection’s highway cloverleafs. These parking lots will be able to serve far more cars than any traditional vertical parking lot could: with no humans in them, they will be able to fill nearly every cubic metre of their volume with cars.

3. Extend the Sheppard subway 6.3 km to Scarborough Town Centre — but, rather than in a tunnel, extend it as a one-stop surface railway that would travel along two of the middle lanes of the 401 Highway.  This is  in lieu of, not in addition to, the current one-stop, 6.2 km subway extension plan that is set to go from Kennedy Subway Station to Scarborough Town Centre.

4. Build a 12 km cable-car directly above the Highway 401:

Scarborough Cable Car.png

The cable-car’s 7 stops, from west to east, will be: the DVP’s Transit Bazaar (with a new subway station beneath it), Warden (where the north-south Warden hydro corridor and the northwest-southeast Shropshire corridor meet), Kennedy (which will be halfway between the Agincourt GO Station and the current SRT/potential future LRT stations of Ellesmere and Midland), Scarborough Town Centre (the halfway point of the cable-car line), Centennial College, Rouge Valley Hospital, and U of T Scarborough.

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A zoomed-in view of the cable-cars eastern stations

The cable-car will increase the transit capacity of the 401 (a place where it won’t be an eyesore, as it might be if you were to put it above an ordinary street), and will also help connect people to the Transit Bazaar and the Scarborough Town Centre “Surface Subway” station.

Why This Wouldn’t Have Made Sense in the Past, But Might Now 

In the past, this would have made little sense, as a result of the “first-mile/last-mile” problem. People do not want to live or work next to superhighways like they do next to subways, so most people using the train or cable-car would not be within walking distance of it.

In addition, building a decent train station in the middle of a highway is expensive, so it would not be affordable to have many stations—as a result, very few people would be within walking distance of it. (Cable-cars don’t have this second problem, since their stations wouldn’t need to be in the middle of the highway. This is one reason why the combination of the highway surface rail and highway cable-car could work well). As a result, such trains or cable-cars weren’t a good idea.

Toronto does, of course, have a few kilometres of surface rail in the middle of highways, namely on the Allen Expressway. However the Allen is much narrower than the 401 is, and runs in a shallow trench that made building subway stations like Glencairn and Lawrence West not too expensive. But even these stations have not been among the best at fostering urban development in the neighbourhoods around them.

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Lawrence West Station

Going forward, in contrast, while subways are obviously likely to remain worthwhile for a  long time yet — downtown Toronto should definitely build a new subway line, for example — surface rail’s “first-mile/last-mile” challenge is likely to be overcome, or at least greatly reduced, by technologies such as parking apps, transit apps, ride-sharing, car-sharing, semi-autonomous cars, and eventually (and especially) fully autonomous cars. As such, building a train that needs no tunnelling, and a cable-car that needs no road space, could be a great move.

Certainly it would be better than the 6.2 km one-stop tunnel to Scarborough Town Centre that is the city’s current plan (voted for by 27 of Toronto’s 43 city councillors). Almost anything would be better than that.

 

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The Witching Hour: How To Fix Traffic in 3 Easy Steps, Without Resorting To Autonomous Cars

 

1. Allow autonomous cars during “the Witching Hour”: from 4 am-5 am. They can drive slowly in order to be safe and quiet; say, at no more than 10 km per hour when in residential neighbourhoods. Even at these slow speeds, this will allow car-sharing  cars to be delivered to peoples’ homes for use the following morning. (In fact, the cars themselves do not even necessarily need to have an autonomous capability. They could instead just hitch a ride on top of slow-moving road roombas). In the case of electric cars, this will also allow them to drive themselves to and from battery-charing stations at night, when electricity tends to be cheap and road-traffic sparse.

2. On main streets, have both an express LRT lane — with stops very far apart from one another — and a non-express bus lane. On narrower streets, have the non-express busses share a lane with regular car traffic.

3. Next to many of the LRT stops, as well as next to train stations, construct “take a car, leave a car” vertical parking lots. These will be “valet” lots: you drive a car-sharing car to the lot’s entrance, then get out of the car and have it drive itself (or be carried by a road roomba) into the lot to park. This will not only save drivers time in parking, but will also allow the lot to hold far more cars than any traditional vertical parking lot could, since without humans it can have much shorter ceilings, more tightly winding ramps to get cars up or down floors, and many more parking spots per floor. It will allow easy pick-up or drop-off of car-sharing cars. Along with the Witching Hour, this will overcome the “first mile-last mile” problems that otherwise tend to limit public transit’s effectiveness and appeal.

…So, there you have it. Three easy steps! With the Witching Hour, and car-sharing, and vertical parking lots, we can finally help to get rid of our cities’ spooky traffic problems.

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