Taking the Car out of Carbon

A sustainable future for the world has to reduce car usage, increase walking, biking and transit ridership. Correctly pricing carbon will be key to making this happen.

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Taking the Car out of Carbon in Pittsburgh!
My presentation at Sustainability EXPOsed in Pittsburgh. It was a day full of wonderful conversation, culminating in Paul Hawken’s thoughtful-as-always presentation. I hope Pittsburgh goes back to its public-transportation roots in a big way!

Transportation in the 2014 Oscars

Getting from A to B, in various forms, is a strong theme that runs through the Best Picture Oscar contenders this year. Nebraska is the story of an old man who decides to walk hundreds of miles over hundreds of hours, in the hope of finding a fortune that has eluded him his entire life. Gravity features woman who spins hundreds of miles in a few minutes, untethered from a space-shuttle. In Captain Phillips the entire narrative unfolds over hundreds of miles of open water, on a merchant marine vessel, as the journey becomes the destination. 12 Years a Slave tells the story of the darkest side of the word transport, where points A and B and the distance between them, is also the distance between freedom and slavery. Yet, it is the movie Her – winner of the Best Original Screenplay, that truly makes a public transportation enthusiast salivate.

Behind the scenes photograph of Her being filmed on location in Shanghai, from here.

The movie is set in the foreseeable future of Los Angeles. There may or may not be a little irony in the fact that Spike Jonze, the director, chooses present day Shanghai to portray LA of the future. But boy, does that future have public-transportation! There is not a scene in the movie where an automobile figures in more than a backdrop kind of way. No scenes of the main character driving, no traffic-jams (very hard to do when you are shooting on-location in Shanghai) and certainly no car chases. When the main character – a likeable and goofy but also somewhat introverted young letter-writer named Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix – is in panic mode and needs to get from work to home, he does not rush out into the parking lot and get into his car. No, he runs to the subway station, to take the train home. Even the few times automobiles show up, they are public buses running on the Bus Rapid Transport lanes, below the famous upper level pedestrian traffic islands that are so ubiquitous in the newer parts of Asian cities like Shanghai and Singapore. Did I mention that the movie is set in a futuristic Los Angeles? LA and no cars? Pretty radical, huh? To paraphrase the name of my personal blog, Her Takes the Car out of Oscar.

The transportation action in Her is not restricted to subways either. When the two main characters, Theodore and his Operating System Samantha go on their first major vacation together, the travel happens on the brand-new High Speed Rail system of China. In a somewhat incredulous scene the HSR drops Theo off at a station and pulls out of the screen, aerodynamic nose section and all, and Theo walks straight into a field of rural New England looking snow, but then that is what dramatic licenses are all about. If you can fall out of John Malkovich’s head onto the New Jersey Turnpike, then stepping off of the Chinese HSR onto north-American Tundra is tame in comparison. 

LA Metro Map of the Future from here.

Many critical scenes of the movie happen in and around public-transportation. Theo takes Samantha to see the beach on a train, she sends (or is it goes with?) him on vacation on a train, they have most of their profound conversations either when he is in bed or taking the subway. Even the one time the LA Metro map appears on film, it depicts a system that is more extensive than today. It includes the famous Subway to the Sea, a corridor that magically appears in the reel, but in real life has had more than its share of political and financial challenges.

I am a film-buff, but not a film-critic. So, this post is not meant to be a review of the movie Her. It is based on an interesting premise but to build a two hour long movie on one interesting premise is hard and needs a lot of detailing; emotional detailing, character detailing and detailing of the physical spaces and landscape in which the story is set. My excitement is not about movie per se, but about that physical landscape of its setting. It is a landscape that I can make common cause with, for it is one where people walk and run past each other, it is one where they trip and others come to rescue, it is even one where they furtively look at potentially pornographic material – all because there are other people at close quarters; others who are joined together as a community through the everyday act of riding public transportation and inhabiting the common space it creates. 

Projjal Dutta - The Dark Side of Tech Buses for Cities Arrives | Future Cities

Protesters confronting a Google bus.

Tech buses deployed by companies like Google and Yahoo, are a symptom of something great - urban living’s increasing popularity, but they detract from community building and community space. They take the public out of public transportation. 

Electric Buses and the American Landscape

A blog post on electric buses, highlighting the synergy between the denser urban settlement patterns of Asia and Europe and electric bus technology. American bus routes, that tend to be longer and go through sparser communities could well prove hard proving ground for electric vehicles in general and buses in particular. 

Projjal Dutta - Subcompact Crash Test Is Misleading | Future Cities

A crash involving two SUVx

My blog post on why the Institute of Highway Safety should reconsider its crash testing standards. Standards that help drive the overall fleet composition toward heavier and heavier vehicles, thereby ensuring that in a crash the heaviest vehicle wins, but in doing so, makes the overall fleet less safe. European fleets, with much lower fraction of SUVs than the American fleet, are much safer. Both in absolute numbers as well as normalized to per 100k vehicles and 1 billion miles. 

The Boss says it Better

Bruce Springsteen saying it so much better than I did in the last post. Chris Christie asks NJ to get its ass in line.

Projjal Dutta - For Gov. Chris Christie, Transportation Is Political | Future Cities

The news media is suddenly, and very intently, focused on lane-closures on the George Washington Bridge, that was carried out at the behest of Christie administration as political retribution against a mayor and, by extension, the town that elected the mayor. 

(Source: Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Whether or not Christie ordered this punitive action himself, or even knew about it, it is not the first time that transportation has become inter-twined with his politics. Arguably, much greater damage than the GWB lane closure was done by his decision to cancel the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) project. There too, the decision was a political one.

More about how, cynically, Christie identified transit riders as Democrats and highway drivers as Republicans, in this blog post.

Amazing footage, its been viral for a while but I just stumbled upon it, of a woman falling onto the subway track in Boston. She stumbles and falls, seems to roll onto the third rail and lose consciousness; be almost run over by the train - which stops thanks to all the passengers waving to the motorman - and then walk away unharmed. Did I say amazing?!

Projjal Dutta - Why Trains Need Onboard Energy Storage | Future Cities

Imagining a plausible future whereby trains will be able to function, at least partially, without any power from a live power source.

Bentley launches Flying Spur at Rs. 3.10 cr

My favorite “in-other-news” for the day…transportation related to boot. Thats about $495k at today’s conversion rate. Or ~400 times the annual per capita income in India.