The New Transportation System
The O Pine

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© 2003 Brian F. Schreurs
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Why do so many eco-geeks drive environmentally-irresponsible old cars?
One thing the environmental extremists like to talk about is replacing the automobile with some sort of public transportation network that would, presumably, be friendlier to the environment. Unfortunately for them, their efforts are continually stymied by the fact that the United States is a republic with a free-market economy, and not a dictatorship run by a card-carrying member of Greenpeace.

But that's not to say that idea lacks a certain appeal. Wouldn't it be nice to retain mobility while being friendlier to the environment? So it might be an interesting exercise to try to design this new transportation system, within the constraint that the greenies will continue to fail in their efforts toward enviro-dictator reform.

Problem 1: Universal Access

The new transportation system is not going to do much good if it is not accessible to all 300 million citizens. Therefore, the design of the infrastructure and the vehicles that use it must be functional across nearly any terrain in nearly any weather conditions. Designs that fundamentally favor city dwellers, such as bicycles, subways, and Segways, will never replace the automobile.

Problem 2: Building an Infrastructure

The infrastructure for this new transportation system dictates its design. It's all well and good to dream of flying vehicles or high-speed rails or magnetic shuttles or whatever, but the reality is that there's no budget for an all-new nationwide infrastructure, and taxpayers aren't very likely to pony up for one. Perhaps if we weren't spending 15% of the federal budget on interest payments and another 15% on defense, there might be a couple hundred billion dollars to spend each year on the improvement of life on earth. But there's not, so there's no sense wishing for things we can't have. Consequently, the new transportation system has to make do with the infrastructure already in place, namely the road system.

Problem 3: System Flexibility

Accepting that the new transportation system must work on the existing road system, the design of the vehicle must be some sort of self-propelled wheel-driven machine. Buses styled after Australian road trains might work, but that would be about the limit in size. But such a system would be cumbersome and inflexible for a population used to going where they please. While it may be possible to construct a series of bus/train routes that serve the entire country, it will be all but impossible to get people to switch over and accept the myriad transfers from one route to another and delays as the vehicle makes stops for other citizens. Better, then, to use "pods" capable of holding half a dozen or so individuals, that can be custom-directed to specific locations by the occupants. Short of electing the enviro-dictator reformer who outlaws freedom of movement, using small pods is the only realistic alternative.

Problem 4: System Navigation

The best situation would be to have these pods tied into a national traffic monitoring network, capable of self-piloting and plotting its own routes and avoiding congestion. But building such a network again falls into the trap of finding nonexistent taxpayer money to pay for it. Commercial onboard navigation sytems are notoriously unreliable outside of major metropolitan areas, and the vehicle has yet to be built that can take destination coordinates and arrive there with no further human input. It will take substantial leaps in global navigation and artificial intelligence before self-navigating pods can become reality. Shall our national transportation system wait for that day, and hope that there is still environment to protect when it arrives? The only other alternative is to train the citizens in the use of these pods. By keeping the controls simple and intuitive, citizens should be able to get basic pod training at relatively low cost. Perhaps citizens could receive some sort of certification for completing a pod course that gives them the right to navigate a pod.

Problem 5: Fleet Maintenance

Convincing people to take care of government-provided pods may not be realistic. Each person will push the maintenance requirements to the next user. Experiments using public bicycles or scooters in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Rome have all ended the same way: the vehicles are in shambles when they can be found at all. To expect taxpayers to shoulder the burden of providing all of the system's pods is also unrealistic. A better alternative is to require that each household buys or leases its own pod, and remains responsible for the maintenance and care of that pod. Governments can establish minimum levels of mechanical worth and inspect the pods periodically, using a licensing system to track them. Multiple-income households may also find it more economical to maintain two pods rather than expending considerable man-hours trying to share just one.

Problem 6: Citizen Acceptance

Citizens will be more inclined to accept the new pods if they fit the budgetary and functional needs of the household. The pods will also get a much warmer reception if they meet psychological needs of style and preference. Because the government is inefficient at industrial tasks, and the infusion of new industry will bolster the national economy, it may be better for the government to publish a set of baseline pod standards that address safety and energy efficiency. Industrial corporations could then build pods that meet the standards while also satisfying citizens' preferences. This will make it much easier for citizens to accept the new pods, speeding the changeover process.

Conclusion: The New Transportation System

The new transportation system must use the old road system, must consist of small pods, the pods must be simple enough to facilitate human control and navigation, they must be inexpensive enough for private ownership, and they should be built in the private sector using standards mandated by the government. This model, the American Pod Effort, is the only realistic alternative to the current dependence on the automobile. Please, do your part and bring the American Pod Effort to the attention of your elected representatives.