Friday, November 12, 2010

Reducing Congestion & Smog Prior to Catastrophe

As China and several other emerging nations have been experiencing, rapid population and economic growth translates into gridlocked traffic jams and heavy layers of air pollution, not to mention other damaging after effects. The 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing provided an obvious example of this trend, even after the Chinese government had previously spent months downsizing vehicle traffic before the Olympics to clear the air; it didn't help that much - the layers had already grown quite thick.

Reducing vehicle traffic and tailpipe emissions has been in the works for year in the European Union, North America, Japan, and other economic powerhouses, and is being taken on in China, India, and elsewhere. To make this happen, here's what I think needs to be adopted into a substantial, effective method to clear the air and roads:

1. Advanced vehicle technology - this of course speaks to fuel efficiency, clean fuels and technology, and onboard diagnostic technology. In the future, it will also transfer over to traffic control management and communications technology. Perhaps we will all own a "smart car" tied into public transportation organizations that manage traffic flow, road safety, and highway repair, such as Caltrans in the state of California. And tied into onboard technology that can take over driving the car. Perhaps we'll get in the car, voice activate the telematics and choose our location, then sit back and read or watch a movie, and/or make phone calls, as we're driven safely and efficiently. This would reduce traffic and collisions, increase fuel efficiency, reduce idle time, and relieve much of our stress. Unfortunately, we're years away from this goal, but technology advancements are moving forward in leaps and bounds. Every year you buy a car, there's something new and interesting - some of it merely for entertainment, but it is tied into the future of advanced vehicle technology.

2. Mass transit improvements - the US is behind other countries when it comes to mass transit, especially train systems. Some US cities are better than others, and support for this growth is slow and has hurdles to overcome in federal and state funding. As traffic gets worse and public transportation gets better, voters probably will become unwillingly supportive (i.e., sweetly reasonable) about mass transit solutions. In the transitional period, this can also be improved by buses - including public transportation and private transportation companies - integrating natural gas, hydrogen fuel cell, biofuels, and battery power into the fleet.

3. Architectural design and housing development - there are several leaders in the environmental/sustainability sector who believe urban centers need to redesign their landscape in order to survive and thrive as global population grows, buildings are built and expanded, and more vehicles clog roads across the world. A lot of architects believe cities need to be restructured with housing, workplaces, transportation centers, shopping, and services fused together into space-efficient and attractive models. A lot of people want to leave the burbs and live in stylish cities, and want access to good stuff all around them. This means less driving, land development, wastefulness, etc., at least in theory. It's a tough one to implement as the population continues to grow, developers keep building new tract housing, and consumers prefer to live farther away from traffic, mobs of people, scary neighborhoods, their annoying family, etc. Yet there will always be city lovers, or at least those who prefer living in a major metro area rather than miles and miles away - so building new, or remodeling existing, urban centers, is part of the strategic plan for some leaders.

4. Car sharing - is not yet popular in the US, but is growing in Europe. It's likely to expand in America, but does go against our sense of the "constitutional right" to own your own damn car, drive all by yourself, and get stuck in traffic while listening to your own stereo, talking on your own cell phone as loud as you want without getting a ticket, go wherever you want whenever you want, jump on the highway and go to Vegas baby Vegas, etc. That is a common, popular illusion in America, the land of the free. As traffic and smog get worse, people are becoming sort of sweetly reasonable about alternatives - taking your bike to the library, riding the bus to work, walking to the store with your wife, carpooling to work, etc. Car sharing fits into this mindset well - your neighborhood or apartment/condo building can do sort of a time share on a car - costing you much less than that second car you thought you needed to buy, but wouldn't use much anyways and get particularly resentful about when your annual car registration bill comes in the mail followed by your car insurance bill.

5. Green machines - this is an obvious one, or why would Green Machine Digest even exist, right? There will certainly need to be enough green machines to be on the road to make a difference in reducing tailpipe and CO2 emissions, but the projections do point to impressive possibilities and benefits. And there are jobs being created, business/investment opportunities, government taxes and fees, reduction of oil dependency, and positive vibes connected to it. And to repeat myself once again, these green machine benefits are occurring through growth in pure electric vehicles, hybrid electric vehicles, plug in electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, biofuel powered vehicles (such as ethanol and biodiesel), and natural gas and propane powered vehicles.

I suppose substantial solutions to smog and traffic will need to fuse all five factors into a public/private partnership backed enough by voters and consumers. Here's to hoping for the best.

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