The Potential of Electrified Urban Rail and/or Electric Vehicles

This a guest post by Alan Drake.

Liquid transportation fuels are not the only option for transportation. There is a general consensus on The Oil Drum that shifting long and medium distance inter-city freight from heavy trucks to electrified railroads is an essential "silver BB" with an implied expansion of inter-city passenger rail service on these electrified tracks.

This modal transfer trades about 20 BTUs (or joules) of diesel for 1 BTU (joule) of electricity. The massive gain in efficiency makes electrified railroads sustainable if social order can be maintained. The history of railroads in the 1800s shows that oil is not essential for railroad operation and maintenance. Some "doomers" have suggested that "running the railroads" with their essential freight and passenger service may be a key to maintaining social order.

This consensus contrasts with two competing and overlapping memes for urban transportation; electrified urban rail and personal electric vehicles. Thus the "and/or" in the title. Bicycling has been largely overlooked in the discussions so far.

My formal position is at:

Walking and bicycling are the ideal post-Peak Oil urban transportation modes. But they are suitable for only a few urban trips (0.5% commuted by bicycle in 2000) and almost never used for suburban trips. And many Americans simply cannot imagine walking to the grocery store or bicycling to the post office or work due to the post-WW II changes in our urban form and habits.

Thus the most appealing alternative for most (but not all) Americans contemplating post-Peak Oil is a car or SUV that pulls up to an E85 pump or just plugs in at home or work. But I question if this is the best or even a workable solution for our society.

Suburban and exurban living requires a high energy support system for maintaining roads, providing police and postal service, package deliveries, home repair, home health care, garbage pickup, and utilities. Police can bicycle an urban beat but not a suburban one. Postal workers can walk an urban route but not a suburban one. Garbage trucks, plumber vans, UPS, and every other service and support simply travel much further over many more miles of concrete and asphalt roads to service people in suburbia. And the daily use profile for many of these service vehicles will resist electrification in suburbia. An electric garbage truck in Phoenix?

In addition, newer suburban & exurban construction is larger (requiring more energy to heat, cool, and illuminate) and lower quality (major repairs can start in just 20 years). Preserving over half of Americans in suburbia by giving them an EV to plug in at home may be feasible in the early years of post-Peak Oil (with very adverse impacts on Global Warming) but it will create a second crisis in a generation as oil supply shrinks further and perhaps as the US enters the early stages of Peak Coal.

In my opinion, which is still evolving, the magic bullet of an all EV solution to urban transportation is politically popular and leads to a trap. There is also some political support for the list of urban rails appended below but this support lacks the passion of a Suburbanite desperately searching for the easiest possible way to preserve his or her way of life and property values.

The "secret" of Urban Rail is not its direct energy savings (although excellent) but the indirect savings by changing the urban form (with smaller homes) that makes walking and bicycling (the best modes) easier. Ed Tennyson has estimated that US cities with Urban Rail systems (more than one line) use 159 gallons of gasoline less per capita per year than those without. He also noted the declines in Washington DC Metro gasoline consumption relative to the rest of the US as line and line of DC Metro opened. And this observed difference is with the generally minimal Urban Rail systems that US cities have.

I live in an ideal example of a walkable neighborhood supported by a streetcar line, the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. 5 grocery stores within 6 blocks (4 reopened), my tailor and insurance agent both 4 blocks away, bank 3 blocks away and the St. Charles Streetcar Line 2.5 blocks away. We had at least 3, perhaps 4, GEMs ( ) in use in my neighborhood or nearby.

EV supporters point to the growing renewable generation and say "This is where our sustainable energy will be coming from. What is wrong with that?"

Were it not for the new demand from electrified transportation (rail and EV) this new renewable (mainly wind) generation would largely displace natural gas and some minimal coal generation. New demand for electrified transportation in the next decade will run off of the marginal generation sources, which will be coal, natural gas, and conservation (driven by cost) for at least a decade. Of course, more gasoline and diesel would be burned (if available) in a non-electrified transportation future so a no electrified transportation future is the worst of all worlds.

A crash program (war time effort) of HV DC lines, pumped storage and massive wind turbine installation MIGHT have North America running 100% off of renewables and nuclear power plants for 1,000 hours/year (out of 8.760 or 8,784) in a decade. 2025 would be an optimistic date for an urgent commercial effort.

Until then, we will be trading fossil fuel generated electricity for gasoline and diesel via electrification. ~20 to 1 gains in efficiency available from Urban Rail (direct & indirect) should have priority over lower gains from large EVs. Compressed natural gas or propane vehicles would be "almost as good" as EVs at that stage.

When the marginal electrical power source comes from non-Green House Gas sources (nuclear plus wind turbine plus other renewable), those 1,000 hours (11.4% of the time) will largely be late at night when there is minimal Urban Rail demand. EVs could recharge then, for a positive improvement in reducing Green House Gases (GHG) and fossil fuel consumption.

My concept is that Urban Rail, bicycling, walkable neighborhoods, and massive wind turbine installations are the Phase I solution to post-Peak Oil and EVs larger than GEM will lead to a second crisis. In Phase II, once a non-GHG grid is in place and suburbia is largely (but not completely) depopulated or reformed around rail stations, EVs and trolley freight may be critical in displacing the residual liquid transportation fuel use as supplies get ever tighter.

Electrified rail (inter-city and Urban) has a positive feedback with post-Peak Oil. The worse things get, the more people and freight they can carry and the more efficient they become. A crush load on a subway car or streetcar is extraordinarily energy efficient if uncomfortable. A healthy person can bicycle six miles in the rain instead of driving if they absolutely have to. This is far less true of EVs, coal-to-liquids, tar sands and other potential silver BBs. A post-Peak Oil future needs this elasticity of transportation supply which only electrified rail and bicycles can supply.

No one can precisely predict the future quantity and availability of liquid transportation fuels so crisis alternatives will be needed periodically to quickly make up shortfalls in supply. Urban Rail can expand ridership easily, EVs can only carpool sporadically.

An odd position, Phase I - EVs not good. Phase II - EVs good. My policy preference for the next decade is that all public subsidies and incentives go towards electrified freight railroads, Urban Rail, bicycling, high efficiency Transit Orientated Development, solar space & water heat, and building a renewable grid, with EVs and nuclear power left to market forces. Once a renewable + nuclear grid is in place, with a growing electrified rail system in operation, EVs should be encouraged. This delay will also allow EV technology to mature.

My views are still evolving and I have made several conceptual jumps to get to my current nuanced position. There are shades of grey in reality and I want aggressive but realistic approach to dealing with post-Peak Oil transportation and overall energy use.

What say you ?

Best Hopes,

Alan Drake

Electric Transport Project List

The following list was composed by Lyndon Henry and the author from memory and likely overlooks some projects. The degree of engineering on file for each project varies significantly, and much of the information is dated. However, all of the projects noted below could start construction in one to three years if it was an urgent national priority.

A rough guess is that the projects below would cost roughly $125 billion to complete.

Albuquerque - Light Rail and Commuter Rail plans
Atlanta - Beltway Light Rail, Northern suburbs Light Rail extension, downtown streetcar
Austin - Two Light Rail Lines plus Commuter rail and downtown streetcars
Baltimore - East-West Light Rail Line, 4 mile extension to current subway
Birmingham AL - Streetcar lines
Boston - All rail plans promised as environmental offset to "Big Dig"
Buffalo - Planned extensions to current light rail subway
Charlotte - All plans currently scheduled
Chicago - Expansions to Metra, South Shore Line
Cincinnati -Light Rail plans voted down
Columbus OH - Light Rail and streetcar lines
Corpus Christi TX - Streetcar line
Dallas - All plans through 2015 and all 2015-2030 options (roughly 145 mile system)
Dayton OH - Streetcar plans
Denver - 117 miles of Light Rail and Commuter Rail (already locally funded)
Ft. Lauderdale - Light Rail and streetcar plans under active development
Honolulu - Line currently under development
Houston - All plans voted for, 65 new miles light rail 8 miles commuter
Indianapolis - Light Rail Line plans
Kansas City - Light Rail Line proposed
Las Vegas - Light Rail plans
Little Rock - Short extensions of existing streetcar line, Light Rail line
Los Angeles - Red Line "Subway to the Sea", Vermont Avenue subway, XX miles of Light Rail, electric trolley bus plan, electrify commuter rail
Louisville KY - Light Rail line plans
Madison WS - Streetcar and Commuter Rail plans
Memphis - At least two Light Lines in comprehensive plan
Miami - 103 miles of elevated Rapid Rail (subway type) + Miami Beach streetcar (already locally funded) 90% of the population would be within 3 miles of a station and half within 2 miles of a station
Minneapolis-St. Paul - Central Light Rail connector between the cities
Missoula MN - Commuter Rail
Nashville - Commuter Rail in process
New Orleans - Desire Streetcar Line, Riverfront Streetcar Line extensions
New York City - 2nd Avenue Subway, 3rd Tunnel under Hudson, Penn to Grand Central connection, Staten Island Light Rail, New Jersey Light Rail extension, commuter rail improvements
Ogden UT - Streetcar plans
Orange County CA - Center Line Light Rail plan voted down
Orlando - Light Rail plan voted down
Phoenix - 90 miles of Light Rail already approved
Pittsburgh - Two Light Rail Lines north from current, under construction line
Portland - Green Line (both routes, one funded, other "studied" for future build)
Raleigh-Durham NC - Streetcar plans
Sacramento - Additional Light Rail expansion
San Antonio - Light Rail plans voted down
St. Louis - All plans evaluated, perhaps 100 mile system
Salem OR - Streetcar plans
Salt Lake City - 90 miles of Light Rail, streetcar and Commuter Rail (vote soon to accelerate)
San Diego - Light Rail spur to North, another to West
San Francisco - New TransBay tunnel, trolley line, BART extension, eBART
San Jose - BART extension, several Light Rail extensions
Seattle - Proposed north extension
Spokane - Light Rail line planned
Tampa - 1992 and later plans
Toledo OH - Streetcar plans
Tuscon AZ - Streetcar plans
Washington DC - Tyson's Corner-Dulles extension, Purple Line, 40 miles of streetcar lines in DC
Winston-Salem NC - Streetcar plans

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Finally!  A vision of a future thats all electric :P
I'm all in favour of the electric transport system.

This idea isn't entirely new though - the "smart grid" and "vehicle to grid" energy storage concepts have both been around for a while.

Any reason why you don't consider the concept of energy storage (which helps make the case for a greater mix of renewables) and its inter-relationship with plug in electric hybrids ?

A weakness in Vehicle to Grid concepts is that it will probably (battery not yet defined so I cannot say certainly) shorten the life of a very expensive battery.

Checmical battery life is usually a function of the # of cycles.  Using them on the grid could be prohibitively expensive.

Since EV technology is far from mature, nothing can be determined with certainity.

I prefer hydro pumped storage,  The US has about 8 GW installed today.

Best Hopes,


Even if it is decided that V2G is not a good idea, it still seems like a good idea to have G2V with the vehicle being available as an emergency power backup source. This assumes, on my part, that we currently or will have in the future situations where the wind is blowing but there is not sufficient immediate demand to utilize the electricity being generated by the turbines. Or, would it still be better to put that electricity into central storage?
One of the conceptual innovations in this article that we are commenting on addresses that issue.

I somewhat arbitrarily place the transition from Phase I to Phase II when the US/North America can run 100% off renewables + nuke for 1,000 hours/year.#  I assume that this is a point of ever increasing renewables (+ nuke ?) and the next year will have even more hours of 100% renewable + nuke.

Strong March winds might fill up all available pumped storage and leave no option but "spilling" (hydro term) some renewable energy.  The spill at the Phase I/II boundary would be much less than 1% of total energy, but it is a trend not to be continued (IMHO).

Thus I stated "Phase I - EV not good, Phase II - EV good".

Small EVs (also called neighborhood EVs) like GEM are almost like electric bicycles, good at any time.  Their energy consumption is so low, efficiency so high and they are not suitable for high speed, long distance commuting so I support them now, in Phase 0.

OTOH, the Toyota RAV4 EV has higher consumption and can help preserve suburbia.  Let "the market" push that EV w/o gov't subsidies.

Again, I propose no disincentive for large EVs (better than ICEs) but also no incentives.  Focus gov't assistance on the "bigger bang for the buck" Urban Rail UNTIL we cross the Phase I/II boundary. Then subsidize EVs.

I have thought quite a bit about this and am working out my conceptual framework.  This is a work in progress and not a completed plan.

Best Hopes,


# The 1,000 hours/year will be mainly at night during the spring & fall.  Summer wind is at a minimum in many areas and winter is peak output but also has heating demand to absorb much wind generation.

A subtle point.

In early Phase II (excess renewable + nuke generation for 1,xxx hours/year that can be used for pumped storage and/or charging EVs), EVs would recharge off of fossil fuels more than 1/2 of the time.  Basically all summer long the marginal generation source would be fossil fuels.  Also true for much of the winter and occasional periods in the spring & fall.

This assumes that the EVs recharge when told to do so by a central dispatch and not when the owner plugs them in.

However, once we get to a point where EVs can recharge, say, 1/3rd or 1/4th of the time from renewable sources AND that % is growing over time, it may be time to start pushing EVs to replace residual ICE uses.

This is a judgment call.

Best Hopes,


I find V2G unplugged to be a good idea for hybrid wehicles in general as a fairly heavy duty and well maintained emergency generator. Saturating society with low additional cost emergency generators is a good thing.
A weakness in Vehicle to Grid concepts is that it will probably (battery not yet defined so I cannot say certainly) shorten the life of a very expensive battery.

Checmical battery life is usually a function of the # of cycles.  Using them on the grid could be prohibitively expensive.

Since EV technology is far from mature, nothing can be determined with certainity.

All true at the moment.

I'm thinking more of ultracapacitors as the basis for this setup (do a search on "EEstor" for some background) - which may be a way off (or may not materialise at all) - but it does seem to be the most promising line of development, to me at least.

Think Ultracapacitor EV.  Think bad accident with larger vehicle.  Consider breaching of container and "instant" discharge.  Think electrocution of everyone in both vehicles.

Logically, if such a discharge is unlikely to happen except in bad enough accidents where fatalities are likely, it would be an acceptable new risk.

But emotionally, not so OK.


Best Hopes,


A couple of quick observations:

First, you state that all public subsidies and incentives should go towards electrified freight and railroads, etc, and that EV and nuclear power should be left to market forces.  As most of us have realized right now, market forces alone will not be enough to force US policy makers and automakers to embrace nuclear and EVs.

Seeing how these two fields are sort of a keystone to the all electric future, I think this could be a serious mistake.  We need to apply public pressure to our policy makers and to the automakers and force them to embrace such a future.  CAFE standards, while flawed, did work well until we allowed the 'loopholes' to get involved in the process.  A similar EV standard 'minus the loopholes', which mandates that US automakers begin producing a set and growing % of EVs every year seems like the logical place to start.  Demand for thorium fuel cycle nuclear plants will alleviate opposition to 'dirty' traditional nuclear plants, and allow us to maintain that electrical production for decades longer.

Second, the fundamental problem here is peoples resistance to change.  Forcing the general populace to embrace light rail outright is going to be met with serious opposition, as most Americans would rather continue to drive their gas guzzlers into oblivion.  A more gradual approach involving snazzy and economical EV's would be embraced by a much larger portion of the US, and as TSHTF, the opposition group will have no choice but to adopt to light rail in light of an ever decreasing supply of liquid transportation fuels.  Trying to go from point A to Z will likely kill any political motivation before it gets started.  I feel that we should instead try a more gradual transition 'A to G to O to Z'.

Hothgar, thats a well thought out and written comment, thanks!
Thank you for moderating your blog behaviour.

Alan, little ol' Galveston Texas has a remnant of light rail run mainly for tourists from downtown to the seawall. We just completed an extension to the University of Texas Medical Branch and an additional few blocks of seawall. It runs on diesel though, but it goes past two groceries and two pharmacies as well as great medical service. I think extending the line has real merit, and am lobbying my City Council Members, Mayor and local newspaper editor.

Thanks for another great post. I'm convinced   that electric light rail has real promise for saving energy Its two or three silver bb's in our anti-werewolf arsenal!

Seeing how these two fields are sort of a keystone to the all electric future, I think this could be a serious mistake

I see EVs and nukes as ancillary (and less desireable) parts of the solution.  Thorium reactors are two (or more) generations away from widespread use (say 20% of US electrical generation) and nukes suffer from long lead times in any case.  Same for EVs.  Long lead time to mature technology and longer still to build even 20% of the car/SUV fleet.

If we were in President Carter's second term, the argument of waiting for new technologies would be more valid. But we are not.

Instead spend our limited monies on things that will have a significant impact within a decade and let market forces take care of EVs & nukes (expect at least a half dozen nukes to be ordered within 2 years).

Second, the fundamental problem here is peoples resistance to change.  Forcing the general populace to embrace light rail outright is going to be met with serious opposition ...

Sayeth the man who yesterday wanted Americans to sleep in sleeping bags and marginally heat two rooms of their homes.

Unlike near freezing in the winter, there is substantial political support for many of the Urban Rail projects listed.  Even projects rejected when gasoline was $1.09/gallon are seeing revived interest today.  Run gasoline above $4/gallon and support will grow much stronger.

I will let market forces take care of Suburbia.  I AM OPPOSED TO MAJOR TAX BREAKS TO PRESERVE SUBURBIA & EXURBIA

Tax supports for EVs larger than GEMs will do just that.

Best Hopes,


Nukes should not be left to the marketplace alone.  

There is a significant role for government here.  The government can do much to make nuclear more attractive in the marketplace.  Only big government has the resources to research the next generation of technology that will address safety, proliferation, waste, sustainability and cost issues (e.g. GenIV systems research).  

Government involvement, with a new level of political will, would also be necessary to remake the regulatory environment to ensure it is smooth, fast and reliable to lower costs.  If we had standard reactor designs that come with "pre-approvals" and a smooth predictable permit process, then the outrageous 10-year time horizon for a new nuke facility could be slashed since about 1/2 of that time is taken up by approval process bureaucracy!  

If we need a lot of new nukes ASAP (IMHO we do), especially with next generation technology, we'll need good government policy to help drive it in the right direction in the marketplace.  It will still take more time than we likely have re peak oil, so conservation will have to play a big role over the next 10-20 years and renewables will need to do as much as they can as well.  But, over the long term, our future will require a significant nuclear component if we are to maintain our industrial society, with all its attendant benefits and standard of living, without cooking the planet in greenhouse gases.

Leave them to the market place, but without externalities. If the Hummer drivers have to pay for what their smog does to my lungs, then maybe we'll have a market, but while coal and SUVs can kill people by the tens of thousands for free, I'm not sure you can really call this a market.
I feel that we should instead try a more gradual transition 'A to G to O to Z'

It will take a MAJOR crisis (economic & environmental) to get the US to move off of A.  You want to move towards G, (EVs run by coal & NG, preserving >half of Americans in Suburbia/Exurbia) where the US will wait for ANOTHER major crisis (say GW, or Peak Coal) and then go towards O (EVs run by nukes, saving Suburbia) and the US will stay there until ANOTHER major crisis (say Peak U or a nuclear accident) moves us towards a sustainable solution.

My POV is let us start working on as much of the best and sustainable solution as we can politically accept and avoid subsidizing half measures, like EVs.  Let the market develop them.

I worry that we cannot survive a series of MAJOR crisises, and EVs might just lead us there.

Best Hopes,


I appreciate this description of incremental solutions. I consider your electrified rail a vision of the future that gives me hope that we can maintain a civilization (with the asthma and glaucoma medicines and bicycle tires on which I, for example, depend). The Hirsh report, among others, suggests that it takes signficant time and resources to put in place any such solution, and we don't have a lot of chances, or extra resources, to do it over.

The big problem seems to be a population with no awareness of the complementary problems of peak oil and gas, or at least, of the seriousness. Witness the strident insistent by Robert Samuelson that Global Warming cannot be addressed. Of course, the technological capability to address it and peak oil exist. All that's lacking is motivation by the public and its political representatives.

I think theoildrum is contributing a lot to increased awareness, albeit slowly on the scale of the awareness needed for action. Can we hope for Congressional hearings in the new Congress? Do we know which representatives might be most likely to act? Which might benefit from encouragement? Is there a way to get Congress to engage the National Research Council?

I'm a big fan of nuclear power, but Thorium doesn't have a significant advantage. There is no shortage of Uranium if we're willing to use breeders. A thorium reactor is automatically a breeder, so if that's on the table, what's the need? It is not significantly cleaner, though it may be a marginally more proliferation resistant, though that difference would also be insignificant.

If you control the reactor, and you don't care who knows and for how long, you can make some sort of halfway reasonable weapons. If you don't control the reactor, or can't openly flaunt every manner of inspection and scrutiny, you have very little (if any) hope. Thorium doesn't change that.

I'm a big fan of nuclear power, but Thorium doesn't have a significant advantage. There is no shortage of Uranium if we're willing to use breeders.

While there is no real shortage of uranium, thorium offers several technical advantages. U233 is often described as the best thermal reactor fuel, produces many delayed neutrons (Which is good for safety and easy reactor control), and produces more neutrons per fission in the thermal spectrum than most other fuels yielding better neutron economy.

In addition, Uranium flourides are far more soluable in molten salts, which are sort of the ultimate in breeder reactors. Its not difficult to imagine that fluid fuel breeder reactors are more economical to operate than solid fuel light water reactors, given there is no necissary refueling downtime, no fuel fabrication, 1/100th the waste disposition, 1/100th the fuel cost, and a significant amount of marketable fission products ready for processing in a molten salt, from xenon to fission platinum group metals.

"The history of railroads in the 1800s shows that oil is not essential for railroad operation and maintenance."

What differences are there between the 1800's and the Present Peak World in terms of the availability and costs of the necessary resources (copper, iron etc)?  

Are their significant differences in demand and competition for those resources in our current Peak Civililzation economy compared to the 1800s?  

Are their significant differences in the availability of those resources in terms of abundance, difficulty/ease of mining and location of mines?

At this late date in the Oil Age I think we will go electric by default (too late for the Jettsons flying hydrogen circus carz etc).  

Maybe the dying economic powerhouses that helped dismantle the rail systems in favor of fossil-fueled busses with rubber tires could be reinvigorated with a national program for rail.  

What differences are there between the 1800's and the Present Peak World in terms of the availability and costs of the necessary resources (copper, iron etc)?

On the positive side, we have GIGANTIC mountains of potential scrap that can be recycled with low energy input.  And we have MUCH improved technology that can do more with less material input (and substitute materials, aluminum was priced close to gold in the 1800s).  We can also extract lower grades ores with our improved technology.

OTOH, almost all high grade ores are depleted and there are more people (good & bad, rail works more efficiently with higher density).

Best Hopes,


And don't forget we already have huge roads connecting all of our major cities, the Interstate Highway System. If we used a lane or two as a road bed for our rails we would save huge funds. Of course, the oil companies, car dealers and manufacturers and other internal combustion dependent interests would scream like wounded banshees.
  But if Joe and Linda Lou Blockhead are convinced its the only way they are going to be able to afford their McMansion we have a chance to make it work.
I agree about the highway system conversion to a rail system - maybe save a lane or two for the rich and their fancy electric flying cars (no sarcasm intended - some people will still live like bandits... I mean make out like bandits).

The "other internal combustion-dependent" dinosaurs will either adapt or die.  Their (or their share-holder's) choice.

Using existing highway road beds to support heavy
electric rail lines is a bit problematic because
rail lines move much heavier loads that highways.

It isn't impossible to do, it would just require
digging the existing right-of-way down to bedrock
or some similar man-made substitute and rebuilding
that portion of the right-of-way to handle the
increased load.

Out of curiosity, how does the Load over Area compare between heavy rail and highway? A Train is heavy, but it is also really long. A truck is much lighter but also not very large. How wide would the track have to beto be mounted directly on top of the pavement? How many highways are straight enough and level enough for this to actually work?
Different answers for different Rail.

New Orleans Streetcars can take any street corner that an 18 wheeler can. 10% grade is possible.

Light Rail has 90' radius curve & 6% grade.

Freight Rail depends upon load.  US Coal trains and some others have heaviest loads in the world, cold steel deforms.  Double stack containers require ~20' (forgot exactly) clearance.  Grades over 1.5% are problematic.  Interstate curves are OK for rail (I think freight can take 200-250' radius curves but they have to slow down, Interstate (vague memory) is 600-900' minimum radius curve.

tate123 may know more.


Of course, the loads carried by any road-legal vehicle would be easily handled by rails over the same roadbed.

Yes, I'm thinking of the Blade Runner here.

"aluminum was priced close to gold in the 1800s"

And maybe aluminum will be priced close to gold in 20xx ????

I'm sure some locales will be able to do this successfully. I hope yours is one of them.

Not likely. Aluminum is just about the most common material out there, making up a sizeable fraction of the earth's crust. About the only think required to extract it is the knowledge to do so, and some energy. The energy use is on the same order as the energy used to make steel, or any other metal for that matter. Certainly this will never again approach the cost of gold unless by some twist of fate gold becomes dirt cheap.
The energy use is on the same order as the energy used to make steel, or any other metal for that matter.

I think the value of all metals will increase substantially - not necessarily as high as gold on an wt:wt basis, but enough to crush our current world mass-production economy.  

Any mining, farming, synthesis or transportation requiring cheap oil for energy and/or for material will no longer be subsidized by Mother Nature.  


Aluminum is made using electricity, which has nothing to do with oil. Iron is made using coal, same thing. Coal is dug by electrical equipment and transported by rail, has very little connection to oil.
"Aluminum is made with electricity " - the majority of which comes from coal-fired plants.  And Coal Mining and Transportation Requires Oil.

According to Heinberg's "The Party's Over," we mine coal using oil - mostly via strip mining using giant diesel powered heavy equipment (burning hundreds of gallons per hour), and in the transportation, which can be more expensive than than the cost of the coal transported.  And in the manufacture of the equipment and machines (how many barrels per car etc) involved in mining, transport and processing.

Heading Out did a series on coal mining (see TOD index above) but I don't recall he or anyone else on TOD broke down the energy inputs for the different types of coal mining or the indirect costs in the equipment and transportation (I may have simply missed it).

Oil depletion also affects electricity indirectly - as former oil users Fuel Switch (twitch) to electricity for their energy needs the cost of electricity will increase as will all mining processes that require electricity.

There are already concerns that North America will not meet current demand for electricity within the next few years.  And we freqently discuss switching our Mass Transit and EVs to electric power.

I don't know the energy breakdown for the mining and transportation and refining of all base metals but I suspect oil is involved much more than not... and no matter, because as oil declines people will migrate to all other energy sources and costs will rise.

Peak Oil means Peak Matter.

You'll be relieved to know that the price of nuclear is far more independant of the oil price than coal, and is far more scalable.

All of civilization can be run on nuclear power.

Nuclear cannot easily "load follow", raising and lowering output as demand rises and falls.

France is able to ~90% nuke by 1) being 10% hydro 2) Trading power with Switzerland (and Austria 2) they sell nuke late at night and get back less hydro power at peak 3) Sell nuke at Luxembourg which has pumped storage 4) Sell nuke at night to Germany, Spain, Italy and perhaps England.  They turn off their FF plants then.

Nuke is good for base load and that is about it (and filling pumped storage with excess).


I'm afraid its difficult for me to wrap my head around nuclear only doing baseload as a real crippling factor, when baseload is the most needed piece of generation infrastructure in the electrical grid.
Iraq functions without base load generation :-P

Blackouts at 3 AM are minimally disruptive, blackouts at dinner time (6-8 PM) are maximally disruptive.  Not good at rush hour either (stop lights).

Base load is important, meeting Peak demand is even more important.  Nuke cannot meet Peak Demand, hence blackouts at rush hour & dinner time.

Given a choice between lots of Peak generation and limited fuel or a steady nuke base load, I would take Peak Power and and a hot dinner and use a wind up alarm clock.


Thats sort of a false dichotomy, and we're not really disagreeing here.

We just need to replace all coal baseload with nuclear.

You stated

All of civilization can be run on nuclear power

I do not think that it can with any commercial nuclear power technology on-line today.

Nuke = Base load which is nice but not sufficient.

In my rough draft of what I would like the North American grid to look like I have WInd =55%, Nuke =23%, Pumped Storage = -19% & +15% plus hydro, solar, geothermal (reworked to serve as peaking power) and so forth.

I cannot see how to do it w/o nuke, but the less nuke the better.


But do we have the time, infrastructure and resources, and the political concensus to mine all the uranium necessary and build all of the reactors necessary - all over the world - in time to switch our civilization over to electricity generated by nuclear power ?

(I'll have to go review Prof. Goose's piece, "Is Nuclear Power a Viable Option for Our Energy Needs?" again to dig into the details).

The nuclear route sounds good on paper but may not be practical for the Real World - just as CERA makes consistently wrong Oil production pRojecTions based on a test-tube world that requires that "all goes as planned", (even though they then say it all depends on geopolitics and technology etc...).

Our Post-Transition descendants might be able to convert to a nuclear-electric world, but they will likely have a much smaller world population and much more simplified logistics to deal with.

But do we have the time, infrastructure and resources, and the political concensus to mine all the uranium necessary and build all of the reactors necessary - all over the world - in time to switch our civilization over to electricity generated by nuclear power ?

Easily. Nuclear power is not gated on fuel avaliability.
Our Post-Transition descendants might be able to convert to a nuclear-electric world, but they will likely have a much smaller world population and much more simplified logistics to deal with.

I find it highly unlikely that the population will ever be below 5 billion again.
I'll point everyone here just in case the question of efficiency arises yet again:

I welcome more well-supported data, if you have it or have a pointer to it.

Here is what I wrote at the bottom, in conclusion:

The aim here is not just to decrease the rate at which fossil fuels are depleted, but rather to decrease overall energy usage such that the entire system can eventually be supported by renewable energy sources. That primarily means electrically-powered vehicles - not the "hydrogen economy", which is an energy mirage. The obvious exception to "electric propulsion everywhere" is aircraft, which will almost certainly have to rely on liquid fuels. Aircraft, I contend, should be the primary market for biofuels.

A transportation system that relies on a "non-renewable" resource is bound for collapse - the only question is whether we adapt in time, not whether we need to adapt.

One other comment: sure, maybe only 0.5% commuted by bicycle in the U.S. in 2000, but using that data point to conclude that cycling can only be a small part of the solution is confusing cause and effect.  People, in general, will not cycle when doing so is dangerous and unpleasant.  Cycling is dangerous and unpleasant in car-dependent communities.  The solution is not to abandon cycling, it is to address the problem of car dependency!

I could see a future where half of all passenger-miles are on a bicycle, but my crystal ball gets cloudy when I look for the steps to get there.

I favor more transportation bicycling.  My links states:

Step Four - Promote More Transportation Bicycling

Simple steps, such as more bike racks in city downtowns, perhaps replacing car parking spaces or in unusable spaces, would make bicycle commuting easier.  Streets with excess capacity could have one traffic lane converted to two bike lanes.  This is a city by city effort, with differences in every locale.  So a national program is less effective other than making it patriotic to bicycle to work, school and shopping and promoting secure bike racks at Urban Rail stops or allowing carry-ons.

I would hope that the census of 2020 will note that 3% to 5% of Americans commuted by bicycle.  A good "silver BB" !  And about as much as I can realistically hope for in 13 years.

Best Hopes,


Portland Oregon currently manages 4% (closing paragraphs in this pdf):

A bunch more data in this pdf on what other cities have achieved:

The figure in Victoria, BC is 6.1%.

One street was recently changed from two not-overly-wide lanes in each direction right beside the sidewalks to only one lane in each direction for cars and one bike lane in each direction.  This makes life infinitely more pleasant for not just cyclists but pedestrians as well.

Just to share a personal note -- last weekend I aired up the tires in my 40-year-old Schwinn LeTour and rode around the neighborhood. About five miles or so in the NW Austin hills. Couple of things I noticed:
  • Boy howdy, am I out of shape -- haven't had that much exercise in 10 years or more.
  • The Texas hill country burbs are pretty bicycle-unfriendly. A few streets have bicycle lanes, but they start and stop with no apparent plan. Where do you go when the bike lane ends?
  • That little generator thingy for the headlight probably isn't very efficient. When I engaged it I could really feel the increased drag. However, it didn't need batteries or anything and still works after all this time.
Carry on...

And good work, Alan!

On a personal note, my youngest brother (when he lived in Dallas) commuted by bicycle to SMU when the weather was good.
One of a handful of faculty that bike commuted and he biked further than the others.

Now he drives to ASU at Tempe from Phoenix.  He is considering moving to where he can bike to a Light Rail stop and take the rail in when it opens.

Thanks for the compliment.


I have been an urban cyclist and cycle tourist for decades.
Here are a few pointers.

It is not particularly dangerous to share the road with cars if the cyclist is visible and rides predictably.  Wear a reflective vest or equivalent.  Signal your intentions.

Cyclists should stay to the right side of the road/lane, as per any slow moving vehicle, unless obstacles impede right side riding, in which case the cyclist should occupy the middle of the lane, though never move to the middle without verifying that space is available, and signalling as a matter of habit.

The most dangerous place for cyclists is at intersections, though sidewalks are also risky.  Stay off the sidewalk and exercise great care at intersections.  Take a bicycle through an intersection in the same way that you would take a car through the intersection.  If you're going to walk, behave like a pedestrian.  The half and halfs are the ones who get whacked.

Most urban areas in Canada offer can-bike courses, which teach safe cycling technique.  Probably similar courses are available in the US.

I wear a helmut if I'm on a bike with racing geometry (twitchy, designed for quick lateral movements) but not on my commuting bike (long wheel base, slow steering - allows me to sleep through the potholes as the bike tends to track forward).  Mountain bikes are not particularly well designed for road cycling as they have a high center of gravity.

If you're of the Darwinian frame of mind, in hostile environments you can pack your frame with ammonium nitrate.

Otherwise, courtesy (including taking measures to increase your visibility) will go a long way.  For me its gone thousands of klicks.

If you're of the Darwinian frame of mind, in hostile environments you can pack your frame with ammonium nitrate. :-) :-) :-)

I need to work on coping with automobile traffic. As for the bicycle lane, it's just a paint stripe on the street so I'm still sharing it with crazy Texas drivers. And your advice on intersections seems vaguely familiar, I probably learned all that decades ago.

First thing to get is probably a helmet. The LeTour is sort of twitchy. Or I'm sort of shaky.

Your Schwinn LeTour was and should still be an exceptionally conservative and stable design. Check wheel and steering bearings. Check that frame and fork are straight or at least unbent. Check tire inflation and try to find something similar to those luscious OEM LeTour tires. Adjust your position on bike. Don't ride a twitchy bike, even racers shy away from them. Twitchy most often means a mechanical fault.
Perhaps the bike is the wrong size for him?

Try going to a shop and ask for a bike fitting.

Have them give it a once over for mechanical faults as well.

You need say no more to convince me on crazy (oblivious) Texas drivers...I usually ride recreationally at least 35 miles per week, and traffic is quite challenging.  At least in Austin you have a slightly more bike aware population...
This is a very good summary.  Statistically, in the US at least the sidewalks are the most dangerous places to bike.  That's because every driveway is an uncontrolled intersection, and in most places motorists expect only pedestrians on sidewalks and don't look for faster-moving cyclists even at controlled intersections.  One of the better known crash studies found that riding on the sidewalk in the same direction as adjacent traffic was twice as dangerous as biking in the street.  Biking on the sidewalk against the direction of adjacent traffic was four times as dangerous as biking on the street.  The Bicycle Transportation Institute is one of the best resources for bicycle transportation information in the US.

Bicycles are generally viable for trips up to five miles, which still covers about half of auto trips.  The problem is that governmental authorities don't support it.  Having worked on bicyclist advocacy for 20 years, if legislatures and city councils would get rid of their anti-bicycle laws and put in a few pro-bike laws, and the police were to enforce a pro-bike policy instead of pro-motorist policy, we in the US could switch to at least 10% of trips by bike fairly quickly.  This is one of the reasons I'm sure we could avoid collapse.  

The real problem with riding bicycles for transportation in the US is that automobiles are status symbols.  Regardless of the actually relative standing of a cyclist and a motorist, most people perceive the motorist to be higher status than the cyclist, and the police enforce that.  Most people are living in the status game, so they won't bike.  The "danger" of bicycling is mostly just a convenient excuse.

League of American Bicyclists LCI #1405

Much can be done to make bicycling more enjoyable
and practicable, but it is basically a fair
weather mode of transport. Rain and oil slicked
roads are a real pain on a bike. Snow and ice, not
to mention temps well below 0 F are literally
killers for bicycle riders.

Anywhere that cities have found it worthwhile to
own and run a fleet of snow removal equipment
cycling will probably remain a marginal, fair
weather transport option.

In my experience, cycling basically competes
against the transit system, not cars.

Has anyone found any data on the accident, injury,
and fatality rates per mile traveled for cycling?

Rain, except for downpours, is an inconvenience and not much more.  I live in a place with several feet of snowfall each winter and temperatures below freezing from now until April.  If snow is a problem where you are, get snow tires.  If ice is a problem, get studded tires.  The coldest I've biked in is -18F.  The bike worked the same as ever, though my car wouldn't start.  I've talked to people from Alaska who have biked in much colder. If you can dress for running, you can dress for biking.

In my experience, bikes compete with both automobiles and transit.  They compete with transit because like automobiles, they are a point-to-point, on-your-schedule form of transportation.  They compete with automobiles because biking is often faster than motoring for shorter trips and is as cheap as transit.  Bikes are better exercise than either of the two, which also means that you have perspiration that you don't with the others.

This Ken Kifer page is the best I've ever seen on the "risks" of bicycling.  I think it's funny that everyone wants to know per mile rates, which always bias in favor of longer journeys.  On a per mile basis, everyone should fly airplanes everywhere.  And like everything else for motoring, the lack of exercise is externalized for cars/trucks.  Most people in the US die of heart attacks, often brought on by lack of exercise, in particular because of a lifetime of sitting on one's backside in a personal automobile.

Riding in cold weather works for me. I've
gone as low as -30 F, but won't do it anymore.
Once you've gotten frostbite you are much
more susceptible to it getting it in the same
place again.

On the other hand, it doesn't work for a
large portion of the population who won't
ride at much below 55 F. My mother for
example. As a result, bicycle
in cold areas tends to be used
opportunistically when the weather is good.

When the weather isn't good, people tend to
take transit or their car which is why I
think Alan's emphasis on transit is a good
one. If you can convince folks that their
quality of life improves by not owning a car
at all the savings in energy use are much
greater than if you are limited to
convincing them to take a bicycle sometimes
instead of their car.

The question about accidents, injuries,
fatalities per mile is a serious one because
it is a good measure of how serious the risk
of these problems would be if you increased
bicycle ridership. I don't have the figures anymore and
my memory is a bit hazy because I last looked at this over
10 years ago, but I remember a figure of something like
7 times more fatalities per mile for bicycle than for travel
by car.

My memory might be wrong, but I think it is legitimate to ask about the figures. Personally, I no longer ride bicycle anywhere there is car traffic. It just doesn't feel safe.

I've got 500,000 kilometers in the saddle. A handful of broken bones but those were all due to offroad racing. Two stitches in my chin, forty stitches in my thigh. The two stitch accident was a drunk exiting a narrow blind enter-only alley at 30 mph. And 35 years later a post office truck turned left onto a dedicated bicycle path, going the wrong way in a one-way, and kept coming even after I made a full stop. That driver had a forged green card, a forged California driver's license and was allowed to walk.
I know other riders who can't get through a season without multiple trips to the ER.
I quit winter riding when City of Chicago increased salt usage by 10X? 20X? Rots the bike, rots your clothes.
The question about accidents, injuries, fatalities per mile is a serious one because it is a good measure of how serious the risk of these problems would be if you increased bicycle ridership. I don't have the figures anymore and my memory is a bit hazy because I last looked at this over 10 years ago, but I remember a figure of something like 7 times more fatalities per mile for bicycle than for travel by car.

You're missing the point. Per mile measurement is great comparing car trips to other car trips. The appropriate measures for comparing bike to car trips would be either per trip or per exposure time. Bicyclists have shorter trips than motorists. I can bike for a full year and not add up to some people's driving distance per month. It's like flying. Most plane crashes happen on take off and landing, the vast distances in the middle are almost always uneventful, but those are where the distance is added up. Car trips are mostly a problem at the beginning and end of the trip, when in an area with frequent intersections. Bike trips are almost all in areas with frequent intersections. The intersections are the problem.

I have read these pages by Ken Kifer, and found them most helpful when taking a 400 mile tour a few years back.  I must point out that Ken Kifer was killed while riding his bike at night despite his experience and prudence.  A loss to humanity indeed.

Personally, I was able to commute 5.5 miles each way for about 8 months of the year in central Illinois.  Flat terrain, predictable weather, low speed limits (~30-35 mph).  However, I was definitely a transit commuter when not riding so did not reduce the number of cars on the road. With good tires, lights, and fenders front and rear you can commute in all but the most terrible weather.  

That said, one of the major safety points of a bicycle is its maneuverability and stopping distance relative to cars.  With ice and snow in the equation, this advantage is reduced along with the reduction in available lane width and shoulder caused by snow plowing.  As gung-ho of a cycle commuter as I am, as long as the roads are car-centric I will avoid winter commuting with any snow or ice on the ground.

I must point out that Ken Kifer was killed while riding his bike at night despite his experience and prudence. A loss to humanity indeed.

Yes, Ken was hit by a drunk driver. No one is safe from drunk drivers. Drunk drivers should get mandatory jail time and a life-long driving ban, as well as being prosecuted for 2nd degree murder when their drunk driving results in a death.

I avoid biking on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights because of drunks. Otherwise I do something else for raging downpours and heavy snow. Those are so rare that it isn't really a consideration.

Your numbers don't seem right to me.  Here's a study on energy efficiency:

I don't know how exactly it was calculated, but it seems like a reliably source.  I assume it is based on empirical data.

It shows urban rail uses 13% less energy than car, urban buses use 32% more (!), intercity rail 16% less, intercity bus 69% less (all of these per passenger mile).

Urban rail and bus always has capacity problems.  If you run a line with enough capacity to hold enough passengers for the highest-demand leg of the journey, you'll have empty seats the rest of the time.  The number of empty seats tends to be very high, except for exceptional places like New York (and urban rail's numbers would probably be much worse if it wasn't for that one city).

Electrified rail makes it possible to use alternate forms of fuel, but it isn't very energy efficient.  At least, not in the US at the current time, with current technology, and anything like current usage patterns.  

(Personally I can't help feeling a bit absurd when I see a dozen or even two dozen people being carried around by the 20 ton monster that is a rail car)

But dozens of lanes of oil burning 1 to 3 ton vehicles stacked up as far as the eye can see with one person in almost all of them is NOT absurb ?

Public Purpose is a discredited right wing propaganda "think tank".

The VERY low rolling resistance of steel on steel plus Regenerative braking makes the weight of the vehicle a minor issue.

BART uses aluminum body cars.  If vehicle weight were an issue, more systems could use aluminum.

As noted, electric Urban Rail is quite energy efficient directly but saves even more energy indirectly.  (Those absurb urban freeways squander energy diretcly and even more by supporting suburbia and exurbia).

Best Hopes for a 1950 to 1970 change in Urban form in reverse,


"But dozens of lanes of oil burning 1 to 3 ton vehicles stacked up as far as the eye can see with one person in almost all of them is NOT absurb ?"

Of course that's absurd too.  Trading one absurdity for another is not a big step forward!  I'm not pro-car, I'm just tired of the low expectations we have for public transit.

"Public Purpose is a discredited right wing propaganda 'think tank'."

Do you have other numbers?  Honestly, I am eager to see other analysis of total energy use.  The numbers in the parent are taken from a variety of sources which don't necessarily match up against each other, and I have a hard time taking them seriously.

"BART uses aluminum body cars.  If vehicle weight were an issue, more systems could use aluminum."

Perhaps as energy efficiency matters (and I don't think it does in current public transit designs) designs will change.  But (somewhat bizarrely) light rail is actually heavier than traditional heavy rail, so designs are getting worse, not better.

From the numbers I've seen, building current designs is not a significant step forward.  Some form of electrical rail could be a substantial step forward, but none of the ones being proposed.

I am a believer in the "tennyson" measure of passenger density as a means of evaluating rail corridors.

Count the # of pax that go by a single point on a line for a day or week; do the same for every other point and then average the points.  This gives the average passenger density for the line.

Adding new rail lines adds pax density to all of the existing lines.  Efficiency increases as the system enlarges.

I am unsure that weight of LRVs in heavier than Rapid rail, first that I have heard of it.

Almost all forms of Urban Rail are a significant improvement due to the direct + indirect energy savings.  Autos = sprawl Urban Rail = TOD.


"I am unsure that weight of LRVs in heavier than Rapid rail, first that I have heard of it."

This page (2.2.1 and 2.2.2) list systems categorized as light/heavy rail:

These pages give specs on several light rail systems: -- as an example, Portland's Bombadier cars are 46 tons.

The R160B seems to be the most modern NYC subway car: -- it is about 36 tons.  But it's also substantially smaller, 60 feet vs 89 feet long.  In terms of weight/passenger (with standing) the R160B is about 505 lb, and the Bombadier is about 435 lb.  Other examples are Frankfurt (Siemens/U4) at 470 lb and the Siemens SD-100 at 480 lb.

So I was kind of wrong and kind of right: light rail is lighter per passenger, though typically heavier per car (and perhaps per axle).  With regards to energy, weight per passenger is more important.  The numbers aren't dramatically different between the two.

Thanks for the data !

Rapid Rail (aka subway, heavy rail) is uniformly high floor cars/high platform stations.

The trend in light rail is towards low floor/low platform (easier ADA & bicycle access, cheaper stations).  

One complaint of low floor designs is that there is less useable floor space (low floor buses are terrible, it is like chopping 5' off the bus in reduced capacity as wheel wells take up space) and greater mechanical complexity and weight.

However, these are minor points in my mind.  The greatest energy savings from Urban Rail come from changes in the urban form.  This effect varies from line to line and over time.

In that respect, commuter rail is least effective (little or no TOD) and streetcars are most effective (Portland's streetcar has generated more TOD by $ value (not by # of units) than their excellent Light Rail system).  However, they all work together synergistically.  Portland's Light Rail system is about 44 miles and streetcars are only ~5 miles.

Portland's new commuter rail will feed a Light Rail/bus hub just west of the tunnel to Portland.  Most riders will take Light Rail east (some west, some to bus, some to the TOD developing at that hub) to Portland where some will then take the streetcar to work.  Syngery for everyone :-)

An interesting example is Miami.  A "Subway in the Sky" was built in the early 1980s (19 miles from memory) with low ridership and TOD.  Considered a failure in the 1990s. Miami funds plans to expand to 103 miles and TOD at existing stations springs up ! (As well as ridership on old line)

In 2004, I counted 15 of 23 construction cranes within 3 blocks of a Miami Metro station.  After being ignored by developers for 20 years !! Post-Peak Oil exports, I expect very few Urban Rail stations to be ignored.

Low friction rolling steel on steel and regenerative braking are major energy saving technologies.

Aluminum body cars are feasible (see BART) but electricity savings do not yet economically justify them.

And to repeat an earlier point, adding new miles to an existing system raises passenger density along the pre-existing lines, thereby raising their efficiency.

If the Islamic Republic of Arabia kicks out the House of Saud, the energy efficiency of existing Urban Rail will increase significantly as people will flock to the non-oil transportation alternative.  Each new rider standing up takes little extra energy to transport.

The same is true of significantly higher gas prices.

Even San Jose is getting 1,800 TOD apartments.

Best Hopes,


The numbers in the parent are taken from a variety of sources which don't necessarily match up against each other, and I have a hard time taking them seriously.

For example?

I assume by parent you're referring to my page,

When I started collecting information I was actually quite reassured to see the number of sources that have data that "makes sense", i.e. there are no wildly differing real-world experiences.  I would think the variety of sources is a strength, not a weakness.  For example, I can look in the annual report of an airline and come up with actual fuel efficiency numbers that come very close to the "book" values you would calculate using the pilot operating handbook.  If that doesn't convince you that the numbers are pretty close to what you can expect, then what will convince you?

Well, there were some specifics that threw me off:
  • Why would you even include intercity rail with standees?
  • Why did you use 1.5 passengers per vehicle for cars?  I've seen 1.1 from several independent sources.  Maybe you are using numbers for Canada, or maybe elsewhere, but it doesn't seem like you are using anything in particular.  None of which helps cars, but it makes me wonder about all the other numbers too.
  • Diesel bus where?  Trolley bus where?  The efficiency of a mode of transport without context isn't meaningful.  Period.  Even theoretically.  You can't get 100% occupancy for urban lines, even theoretically.  If you started using 100% occupancy in automobiles they'd start looking pretty good too.
  • Prius, Smart and Explorer are your automobiles?  None is representative, nor is there an attempt to find an accurate average.  At least include something middling, like a Corolla.
  • Motorcycles should be better than cars.  Probably they aren't because the numbers you use for car occupancy are too high, and because you don't include a representative automobile.
  • Passenger-miles per gallon is a weird unit.  Maybe this is a weird Canadian-US hybrid -- the miles per volume from Canada, the gallons from the US.  This makes it harder to compare to other sources (like automobile efficiencies, with which most people are fairly familiar).

Sorry if this seems picky, but you asked and this is why I had a hard time taking the analysis seriously.

  • I don't claim intercity rail has standees - all the intercity rail rows have the crush capacity equal to the all seated capacity.  Unless you're referring to commuter rail as "intercity" - here it is debatable, as commuter rail sometimes has standees but is usually intended to not have them.

  • I used 1.5/car to be generous to car users. i.e. to put cars in a better light, so as to ward off criticism of being anti-car.  Whatever number you use is arbitrary, as average car occupancy is not the same everywhere!

  • Huh?  "Diesel bus where?  Trolley bus where?"  Did you actually look at the table?  "1982 New Flyer Trolley Bus (Fleet of 244 in Vancouver, BC, Canada)" is not specific enough for you?  How about "MCI 102DL3 diesel bus in commuter service in Santa Barbara, California, USA" - still too vague?

  • The Prius is the most fuel efficient large car on the market, the Explorer is a representative SUV sample, and a Smart car shows that efficient-for-one is great but it isn't more efficient than a Prius that is full.  If you want representative look at the "Corporate Average Fuel Economy" entry.  If I cover the extremes and an average then what is the point in filling in a dozen examples in the middle?  Yes, I could be a new car fuel economy guide, but I think the table is full enough as is.

  • Motorcycles are better than cars in typical usage, but no, in reality, if you fill a reasonably efficient car with 5 people you will be more efficient overall in many cases.  If you think it unlikely a car will ever have all seats filled, that's fine, adjust accordingly.  I make no comment as to the likelihood of the maximum efficiency ever being achieved.

  • I don't understand your last comment at all.  I chose miles-per-US-gallon specifically to make it easy for people from the U.S.  #passengers * miles/gallon is a perfectly sensible measure.  If you prefer energy per distance rather than distance per energy use the "MJ/km" column and divide by the number of passengers to get MJ/passenger-km.  How many units would you have me do the calculations in?  I can think of many more - energy in kWh, energy in different chemical equivalents (diesel instead of gasoline, for example), there's Imperial gallons as well as U.S. gallons and litres, then there's nautical miles (used in aviation and marine) rather than statute miles or km, ...
can you add an entry for electric bikes?
I looked up the original source, the Transportation Energy Data Book.  Here are their numbers in the most recent edition:

Auto (highway)  3549   1.00 (relative to car)
Bus transit     4160   1.17
Bus intercity    932   0.26
Air             3587   1.01
Amtrak          2935   0.83
Rail transit    3228   0.91
Commuter rail   2751   0.78

The report does specifically warn about the difficulties of comparing different modes of transit nationally.  But it's hard to explain away just how small the differences are  between public and private transit's efficiency.

It will take time to digest this with precision.

A cursory look notes that 1.00 is auto (highway).  What is auto (city) or more exactly auto (city, rush hour) ?

Best Hopes,


I couldn't find any numbers for autos except highway.  It would probably be reasonable to extrapolate based on the published city/highway mileage numbers for cars; I believe there was data related to that in TEDB.  You'd have to assume that the ridership was the same, which probably wouldn't be too far off.  That would presumably be representative only of non-rush-hour traffic.  There was also quite a bit of information on waste due to congestion, which is related; combining those might be difficult.

I guess you could say that commuter rail is similar to highway auto traffic, where rail transit is more like city auto traffic.

One thing I'm a little baffled about is how badly Amtrak compares to intercity bus, as I'd expect them to at least be similar.  Perhaps buses have a consistent level of ridership that Amtrak doesn't, probably from a combination of cost and flexibility (intercity bus systems seem to respond to demand much better than trains).

Some years ago, I did an analysis of AMTRAK fuel mileage outside the electrified Northeast Corridor.  They had, from memory, 82.x pax-mile/gallon then.  Southwest Airlines was at 52.x pax-mile/gallon.  First 9 months of 2006, SWA was up to 56.7 pax-mile/gallon.

Amtrak was in the midst of buying new, more fuel efficient locos then, so better #s today.

One energy weakness of Amtrak is their long distance sleeper cars.  Rolling hotels (20 to 24 compartments/car vs 66 or 88 seat pax cars) with associated lounge & diner cars (required for sleepers).  However, Amtrak is, I am told, converting to combined diner/lounge cars (1 extra non-pax car instead of 2).

Until they electrify, I am not a cross-country Amtrak fan.  Regional service (no sleepers) is quite energy efficient.

BTW, did you take Table 2-10 from the ORNL report and convert ?  Is so, the pax counts (1.57 for car, 1.72 for light truck/SUV) are way out of line for urban travel.

Best Hopes,


Amtrak's efficiency is still surprising.  Freight trains can carry 8 tons of freight for the same energy as Amtrak uses for one person.  That's just weird.

"BTW, did you take Table 2-10 from the ORNL report and convert ?  Is so, the pax counts (1.57 for car, 1.72 for light truck/SUV) are way out of line for urban travel."

No, I hadn't really looked at that table; I just used the passenger-mile numbers they had without looking at vehicle-mile.  That does seem high, at least from numbers I've seen elsewhere.  OTOH, while commuter traffic tends to have lower occupancy (which is a number frequently noted, since it related to HOV lanes), if that's averaged with non-commuter traffic the numbers might reasonably go up.

Some systems save on labor costs and run the same train sets all day and night long.  Others cut back to one car trains off peak.  As the labor vs electricity cost ratio changes, so should operating procedures.

And many systems have decent loads all day long.  My beloved St. Charles streetcar operated 24 hours/day (2 after midnight till 5 AM, 20 at peak) with good loads (80% of operating expenses from farebox + ads using 80 year old rolling stock).

Portland (from memory on my last visit) operates 2 car trains on the Blue Line all the time, one car trains on Saturday & Subday for Gold Line and one car trains on Red Line Sunday only.  Decent ridership almost all of the time.


At least, not in the US at the current time, with current technology, and anything like current usage patterns.

There is a big difference between countries. Maybe so that in the US, trains are not really packed. But this example is actually quite normal in Japan. Ofcoarse it is not alway so busy, but usually it it uncommon that you can sit in the train.
While reading the wealth of information on The Oil Drum, one thought always comes to my mind: what more can be done to expedite the transition away from petroleum hydrocarbons?  People are great at arguing when peak oil will/or has occurred--but how many people here have taken steps to pressure our government into change and to inform the people around them about the challenges we face?  I know I have not, but I want to change that.

I know this is very basic, but I think it would be very helpful if someone posted an article on which government officials are best to write letters of concern to and how to spread awareness of peak oil.  A guide for the average Joe to follow that lets him tell the government, "I am upset with what it happening and I want change."

One reason I believe so little is being done regarding our dependence on oil is 1) very little of the general public are even aware it is a problem, and 2) many of the people who are aware about it do not believe it is an actual threat.  I bet many of our political leaders do not think it is a problem.

Most of my friends are aware of peak oil, but either don't believe it will happen any time soon or for some unfathomable reason to me just are not concerned.  I was discussing awareness of peak oil with a co-worker and he told me that he did not discuss it with his wife because she does not like to hear "technical talk" and that most of his friends think he is a crazy, rambling tree-hugger who wants to save the earth.

I know I got off-topic from what I was stating (and the article!), but know that I want to start doing more to spread awareness.  How many other people visit this site and are concerned about our future, but have not done anything about it?  If there are people who visit the site and have done nothing, maybe all they need is a nudge in the right direction.

I was going to stay mum and see how the discussion flowed, but since you ask the direct question ... I think the easiest way to tip the equation for bicycles is to click on over to the League of American Bicyclists and join up.  For $35 you help them build "a bicycle-friendly America" ... and you get some bicycling magazines you can read or share.

(Nice article Alan, maybe you have a quick-click to aid rail.)

BTW, I think the Danes are contenders for the current world record, with 20% of current trips walking or by bike:

BTW, I think the Danes are contenders for the current world record, with 20% of current trips walking or by bike

I think that's the figure for biking alone.  The Danes don't quite match the Dutch; the figure for the Netherlands I see is 28% of all urban trips are by bicycle, 18% by walking, for a total of 46%.  I'm pretty sure that's of all trips, not just work commutes.

This figure also gives hope for the future - in the Netherlands, that is.

Good thing I said "contenders" ;-)

On the whole, it looks like the US, with its increasingly urban populations, has room for improvement.

The situation in the Netherlands is a bit different. It's hard to compare.

For example:

  • There are bicycle paths every where. And that means: Everywhere. You can go everywhere on your bike. Everywhere. And good quality. Separated from the roads, well maintained, etc.
  • The gas tax in the Netherlands is the highest in the world
  • The road tax will kill you if you have a heavy car (it's based on weight)
  • The government aggressively promotes cycling etc. They even had a tax-break if you bought a new bike (but they cancelled it now)
  • And let's not forget the one thing Holland is famous for: It is completely flat. And by flat I mean as flat as the bowling ally in your local Mall.

But there are other factors:
  • The Netherlands has no oil at all (just a cup or two in the north sea)
  • The Netherlands has a handfull of domestic bicycle factories. They need the sales.
  • The Netherlands has no 'domestic' car industry. The only true Dutch brand died long ago.
  • There are no / almost no 'new cities' in the Netherlands. Some cities have existed for more that 2000 years. The local infrastructure is partly still based on the middle ages. (Well, almost, that is)
  • Dutch don't like spend money. Not like the americans anyway. The prime-minister lives in an ordinary house. The savings rate is rather high, compared to other OECD countries.
  • The Netherlands is about the most densely populated country in the world. (Apart from Hong Kong and the like)

So it is not only the politics, or the attitude of the people. More of a mix.

Great post, like most everything you post.  A few questions....

Detroit and Big Oil have large lobbys in DC, it seems to me if this takes off the market for streetcars and parts and infrastructure would be high.  Are rail unions actively lobbying and who currently in the US manufactures Electric Rail products and are they lobbying?

Also Mass Transpo is a juicy terrorist target and in larger cities to provide airline type security is cost prohibitive.  If we have a few train/subway bombings here in the next couple years do you think that will hurt the plan much?

So my main questions are in your opinion who is really standing in the way of what is obviously a good idea?  And can you post a proposition that we can copy and paste to our legislators?


Also Mass Transpo is a juicy terrorist target

Perhaps, but it is easier to provide reasonable security on one rail line than on a whole network of roads or for an office building.  The same applies to air travel - with all the effort and expense applied to try to prevent bombs on aircraft it still remains (as far as I can tell, I've never tried it) quite simple to rent a cube van, fill it with explosives, and park it next to whatever it is you want to blow up, with far more devestating effect.  Ditto for shipping containers.

But no, we can't impede road or container traffic, or even car/truck rentals.

More to the point, the number of people killed on mass transit systems, including through terrorist action, is as a drop of water compared to the ocean of fatalities on the roads.  People accept this, for some reason.  Apply the same level of effective safety regulations to road transport as are applied to air transport and your average car would cost, ...well, much like what your average airplane costs.  i.e. about 4 times as much.  Plus, more than half of current driving license holders would no longer have a license.  Again, society is not willing to be consistent in these areas.  We sacrifice much at the altar of personal mobility and car industry profit.

"Also Mass Transpo is a juicy terrorist target..."

I'm terrified at the possibility of some Oklahoma City kind of nutcase driving a truck loaded with explosives onto a busy bridge during rushhour, parking it, escaping and then setting off the bang remotely.

Not really, no more so than any other crowded area at least. The reasons a plane is so tempting goes roughly like this.

  1. Lightweight machine, a small bomb can cause serious damage.
  2. Flying, no easy escape route. Cripple the plane and you kill everyone on board, it can't just pull over.
  3. Planes are expensive anyway, 200 million a pop even before counting the passengers.
  4. People tend to be afraid of flying anyway, this only reinforces that, so it tends to work well.
  5. If you hijack a plane, you can be taken almost anywhere in the world. Hijacking a train is not nearly as useful.
  6. Planes are expensive, so they're almost always filled to capacity.

Basically, a bomb on a train won't do nearly as much damage, and anyone not killed by the initial explosion will be fine. In addition, people aren't generally crammed in as tightly, so there's less potential for damage.
Hmmm... I would have to say somebody is stroking their Angst of public transportation. All of this exists in Europe and people use the train and the bus for ages. So what is the big deal? That you have not been to Europe or that you didn't look around yourself if you have?

And did I mention that I live in the US for a decade without a car? I commute every day on the train and a light rail system and a couple of busses. I would even take my bike to work if not for the fact that all 30 bike slots on my train are full and they won't let any more bikers on after that.

Sadly, my local train and bus lines can at best accomodate a fraction of a percent of the total highway traffic. If you built them out to the maximum utilization possible on a rail system, they could probably carry a couple of percent of the traffic.

So how is that going to be anything but a marginal solution?  Or are you suggesting to tear down a 60 mile long strip of homes to build another rail in parallel? That is certainly not going to happen.

And you do realize that a Prius is probably more efficient that a diesel powered train? A next generation Prius with four commuters will easily beat the crap out of any electric commuter rail system and put way more passengers on the highway.

The solutions are out there. Today. They just don't fit into Angst fantasies. They do, however, fit into the show room of the Toyota car dealership. How boring. Yawn.

And you do realize that a Prius is probably more efficient that a diesel powered train? A next generation Prius with four commuters will easily beat the crap out of any electric commuter rail system and put way more passengers on the highway.

Bzzzt. Wrong.  The Prius is very impressive, but even with 4 people in the car you're getting about 240 passenger-mpg.  That pales in comparison to electric rail.  Heck, even high speed rail - 300 km/h service - does better than that, in some cases quite significantly (for example, TGV Duplex averages 80% occupancy - same as 4 out of 5 seats filled in a Prius - which results in approx 500 passenger-mpg).  As for urban light rail service, it can be as efficient as 2500 passenger-mpg.

Try again.  Not even close.

In addition to being dead wrong about efficiencies (because he did not google or click your link), Infinite is also dead wrong about capacities.

"Roads have capacity limits which can be determined by traffic engineers. Due to traffic congestion they experience a chaotic breakdown in flow and a dramatic drop in speed if they exceed about 2,000 vehicles per hour per lane. [9] Since automobiles in many places average only 1.2 passengers during rush hour, this limits roads to about 2,400 passengers per hour per lane. This can be mitigated by using high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, but many people prefer to drive alone.

Light rail vehicles can travel in trains carrying much higher passenger volumes.[10] If run in streets, light rail systems are limited by city block lengths to about four 180-passenger vehicles (720 passengers). Operating on 2 minute headways using traffic signal progression, a well-designed system can handle more than 30 trains per hour, achieving peak rates of over 20,000 passengers per hour per track. More advanced systems with separate rights-of-way using moving block signalling can exceed 25,000 passengers per hour per track. [11]

Most North American systems are limited by demand rather than capacity and seldom reach 10,000 passengers per hour per track, but European light rail systems often approach their limits. When they do, they can carry as many passengers as a 16-lane freeway in the space of a two lane roadway. If passenger volumes exceed light rail limits, heavy rail systems can be built to carry many more people."

The passenger-volume equivalent of a 16 lane freeway can certainly make more than a few percent impact. Rail already carries high percentages in many Asian and European cities.

Asian cities have bike/ped mode shares of up to 80%, showing that the Netherlands are nowhere near the limit (see

My hometown estimates bicycle mode share at 10 to 12% depending on time of year, etc.

If you ever commute on a ligth rail system, you will find that it is empty most of the time. In order for it to be useful, you have to run at least one car every 20 minutes. Which means that during business hours the cars are empty except for a few passengers. During commute hours they are up to 80% full bit that is only for two hours out of 18 or 20, i.e. we get a utilization of some 0.8*0.1 + 0.1*0.9 = 0.17 or 17%. In other words: you have to divide your passenger miles by a factor of six to get to the effective number.

I get to see this picture every day. It ain't pretty.

But I agree that it is still good to have light rail systems. If it does nothing else, it saves me from having to buy a car.

If you ever commute on a ligth rail system, you will find that it is empty most of the time.

Well, that is certainly an overgeneralization.  You must live in a different sort of place than what most light rail systems (in the world, not the USA) serve, as once every 20 minutes is pretty damn infrequent.  Many European systems have trains arriving as frequently as every 2 to 3 minutes during the peaks, with frequency lower (e.g. every 10 minutes) off peak.  I'd expect running about double capacity during peaks to be the norm in North America as well.  This seems to be the case in Portland, with every 15 minutes off peak and twice as frequent during the peak (quick glance at the schedule, let me know if I'm off).

As another example, Calgary's C-Train south line (route 202) starts running at 4:15 in the morning with a train every 15 minutes, then after 7:00 it's

7:01, 7:06, 7:13, 7:21, 7:28, 7:35, 7:40, 7:45, 7:51, 7:57

i.e. roughly once every 6 minutes on average.  After 9:00 the schedule goes to once every 10 minutes: 9:10, 9:20, 9:30, 9:40, 9:50, 10:00, 10:10, etc.

These trains are not empty.  Ridership on the system is 230,000 per weekday.  All carried with only 116 cars.  42% of Calgary's 112000 downtown workers arrive on the C-Train.

"Well, that is certainly an overgeneralization."

Probably. I am talking about my own experience in the US which describes a situation in a major metropolitan which has an urban "design" that basically leaves no good choices for upgrades. No that it could not be made a lot better easily. A first step would be to get the planners in adjacent counties to talk to each other. Currently they drop you off at a bus stop where you have to wait half an hour for the bus of the other agency because yours arrives a minute after the other bus left.

As for efficiency... I think my light rail system carries a few ten thousand people a day with some 50 or sixty cars. It is a total financial flop.

The San Francisco Muni bus system has schedules similar to yours. It works actually pretty well and I liked using it while I could. Getting to and from downtown is not too bad. But getting out of SF, on the other hand, can be challenging unless BART gets you there.

I certainly miss well designed transportation infrastructure   such as can be found in Germany, Switzerland and the UK. But from what I can see there is relatively little political interest in the US to build these systems and operate them properly. Correct me if I am wrong. I could use some good news over here. Seriously.

I assume that you are in San Jose, with the worst Light Rail 'system" in the US.  TOO slow downtown, too many $, not enough sense.

The two best US Urban Rail systems "on the drawing board" with funding are Miami (103 miles of "Subway in the Sky", 90% of current residents within 3 miles of a planned station and half within 2 miles.  #s will be better than that when they open) and Salt Lake City (Denver just below them).

SLC is building rail before development in some areas and is voting to increase taxes/funding in order to speed up the 30 Year Plan.  SLC has a ideal mix of light rail, streetcars & buses IMHO.

Dallas has a solid program with real benefits.  Once 2030 plans are completed (I hope by 2016) they will have a decent system in place.

Best Hopes,


Good guess. :-)

I really hope people somewhere else have a bit more common sense. While I really appreciate to have it personally, it makes no sense whatsoever.

I believe that the future in many areas will be busses. Bus lines can be established a lot easier than rail systems and the cost is not prohibitive. Area coverage is certainly much better. And unlike in Europe there should be no shortage of drivers. And as far as I can tell, a well utilized hybrid bus has a very reasonable efficiency.

Moreover, shuttle busses can be run on demand. With everyone having a gps enabled cell phone it does not take much wizzardry to call a shuttle bus at any location at any time.

Sadly enough... my train operator can't even tell when the next train will arrive in the station. Europeans had those systems twenty years ago.

You may have forgotten about New Jersey Transit's "River Line" which runs from Camden to Trenton.  Begun in 2004, its farebox recovery vs. operational costs must be the worst of any light rail system in the U.S. at present.  At a price of a cool $1 billion or so, with cost overruns and a lawsuit thrown in, it's ridership is up to about 8,000 trips per weekday.  Admittedly, it will be difficult to identify any light rail system with a lower return on investment.  I say this with regret because I use it to get to my job in Trenton, and love every minute of it!  :)
the same is true of road capacity - full @ peak hour almost empty otherwise

(for the record, today i biked 10 mins, trained 1 hour and then bussed (gas powered) 10 mins to get to university)

The sad truth about rail systems is that they won't work for much of the US infrastructure because it is too spread out over large areas to be covered efficiently. Where I work I could probably reach 5% of the companies in the industrial areas by rail and 10-20% by bus.

I used to have a five hour commute every day for a distance of 35 miles. The last five miles took almost one hour each way on the bus. I lasted seven months on that job and then I had enough. None of the companies another mile down the road can be reached at all by any form of public transportation. We are talking thousands of employees here. And don't think about riding your bike, either, unless you like to ride on the highway because there is no other road. An employee of that company got hit by a car while riding his bike just a couple of weeks before I joined. He never came back to work.

Now I take the light rail to my current workplace. On average three people get on and off the train at my stop which covers an area which is populated with at least 300 cars on nearby parking lots. Among the 100 employees of my company exactly two take the light rail. There might be another one or two who had a remote chance of commuting by public transportation. For everyone else the infrastructure is simply not there to get them to work and back home.

I agree that rail systems are great and they work. But they work in places like Singapore, London and Tokio. They do not work well in much of the US. What will work well in the US, however, are shuttle busses because they can be made energy efficient and drivers are cheap.

The sad truth about rail systems is that they won't work for much of the US infrastructure because it is too spread out over large areas to be covered efficiently.

That is true to some degree, but the Calgary example shows what can be done regardless of sprawl.  Calgary has sprawl.  Lots of sprawl.  Yet, the light rail system is a huge success.  The same can be said for many new light rail systems in the U.S.

In many instances new light rail systems have been the catalyst of change that has been required to reduce the effects of sprawl.  Keep in mind that the incremental cost of service on light rail is extremely low - just buy and operate another vehicle (a vehicle which can last 30-50 years, I might add) - whereas the incremental cost for roads can be very high once the capacity of the road is reached.  Even if your light rail system is currently seriously underutilized, it may not be in future.

I need to take a look at the system map. The problem is always how to bridge the last few miles between the rail system and people's neighbourhoods. If it works, it's great, but in order to work it has to get people to where they need to go.

I am not worried much about cost. In my books light rail systems, railways etc. are public infrastructure and they do not have to be self sufficient. Would you get rid of sanitation and water services if they were not self sufficient or would you rather support them with taxes?

Part of my criticism about the rail idea is that it is not a "one size fits all" solution. The presented numbers, seem to be on the optimistic side of the spectrum and I do not see a real world impact in many areas that could come close to the ideal performance. I admit that I might be wrong.

For one thing, riding the bus in the US seems to carry a stigma and judging from my own experience I can not see how rail systems can work without supporting bus systems for which there is often little public support. But that might change, if we make it expensive enough NOT to ride the bus.

The real clincher is that much simpler measures like taxing gasoline and raising CAFE standards could lead to immediate results which are orders of magnitude beyond the limits of what electric rail systems can do over the near-term future.

Taxing gas and raising CAFE are "no brainers" but politically difficult.  Urban rail is a carrot, not a stick, which makes it more politically possible.

There are no significant indirect energy savings from higher CAFE, but Urban Rail saves more indirectly that directly.

Someone noted that DC has some nice areas.  Many of these were slums when DC Metro opened and they turned around with higher density and more walkable areas.  The limited # of such TOD areas has driven up teh price.  My "solution would be to increase the supply of stations, flood the TOD real estate market and drive down home prices at new stations to affordable levels :-)

It has been widely observed that middle class pax will ride a bus to get to a rail station, but will not ride "only bus".  Perhaps not logical, but that is observed behavior.

Best Hopes,


And you gloss over your assumption that those things will remain as they are. They won't remain that way when liquid fuels are not available.
You're right about the US being different than Europe and Japan in having a lower population density, but what that means is that we have a greater need for intercity rail than intracity rail.  At a minimum, we'll still need to ship goods around, since it is unlikely that everybody is going to learn how, or even have the resources, to make everything they need themselves.  

Its true that a lot of our cities are poorly laid out for rail, but I think they are also poorly designed for car traffic in a setting where liquid fuel is really expensive.  But I wouldn't count on all of the businesses that are in place now staying where they are.  If commuter lines are installed in advance, when fuel prices get painful, the places near the lines will likely thrive, and that is where most of the jobs and homes will be.  

And of course its possibile that the future of commuting will simply be that there is a lot less of it.

I can not commute on a train that goes 300km/h for 500km without a single stop. I need a train that stops every three miles and then accelerates its whole mass back to almost full speed. Urban light rail service is 50-80% full 10% of the day and  basically empty the rest of it. They are hauling empty cars most of the time and that kills your efficiency number to something that is not far superior to next generation hybrids which stand still 90+% of the time...

But I agree that the TGV is a great engineering accomplishment. We need more of those. We need more light rail, too.

But I don't expect either system to take on more than a few percent of the passenger traffic in US settings. Busses can probably amount to 10-20%. The remaining 80% of people will still need cars.

And once you have a next generation EV, your main energy consumers will be your big screen tvs and computers, anyway. So why worry about excessively about transportation? It is, for all practical purposes, a solved problem.

Infinite, did you STILL not read the link which gives actual in-use efficiencies for urban rail, along with the theoretical full occupancy efficiency?
The stop/start thing is another red herring. Almost all urban electric rail uses regenerative braking, so that braking energy is fed back into the grid, rather than being lost as heat like friction braking energy is.
Your ridiculously low expectations of "a few percent of passenger traffic" are already exceeded in many US cities.
If you go to you will see that more than 20 US cities already have transit mode shares above 10%, including New York city's 55%. So your "low expectations" for transit mode share after peak oil are already exceeded in today's low gas cost environment.
The linked report above also makes clear that cities that have invested in rail have higher transit mode shares (kenworthy showed this was true worldwide in his book Cities and Automobile Dependence). This is only common sense because rail travel is more comfortable than bus travel and because rail is not bogged down in the gridlock that all cities experience on roadways.
You may have noticed that this website is called "The Oil Drum", not the energy drum, and people are concerned about transportation because it consumes the lion's share of oil. Not many TVs and computers are oil powered, but essentially all current automobiles are. Did you really miss this obvious point, or are you just trolling around?
I read the page. It is a great source of information. Thanks!

I understand the concept of regenerative breaking. However, realities where I live are different. The local train is an old diesel system and they are fretting over electrification for decades. They just invested in more diesel locomotives. Go figure. In the meantime I am watching the indicator on the 5000 gallon diesel tank go visibly down every time I walk by the locomotive when I get on and off. It is frightening how fast that thing sucks fuel. Breaking is achieved by good old mechanical breaks that smell burnt by the time it stops.

The light rail system I am riding is under-utilized by a factor of three, if not five. It can't be any other way because it does not get people from work to where they live, in suburbia.

Bot of these issues are not technical but political. Nobody in the community is willing to pay for electrification and there is virtually no urban planning that adresses the commuter problem aside from building more highways.

New York city is not the problem. The problem are people commuting in SUVs 50 miles each way from urban workplaces to suburban sleeping quarters. One of our employees lives almost 80 miles away and drives in every morning at 6am. This is where the majority of America's gas gets burnt. Now couple that with inefficient vehicles and you have a recipe for waste.

There is no way suburbia can or will be abandoned anytime soon. People have settled in for generations to come.

But there are many ways to make vehicles more efficient. I just demonstrated that technologically we can get a factor of four to ten out of vehicle efficiency, at which point it becomes more urgent to make better refrigerators and big screen tvs than better cars.

"Not many TVs and computers are oil powered, but essentially all current automobiles are."

I was pointing out that energy is interchangable. Not just theoretically but practically. We are burning natural gas to make electricity while we could use it easily for transportation. Commuter vehicles can be powered by electricty, even with today's technology.

I do not see any reason to look at transportation energy any other way than at energy for other uses. And if one looks at it that way, transportation energy needs become relatively tame - if one is willing to tax gasoline at 100% like the Europeans and raise CAFE standards to where the automobile industry should be instead of leaving it where it wants to be.

I can not commute on a train that goes 300km/h for 500km without a single stop. I need a train that stops every three miles and then accelerates its whole mass back to almost full speed.

Two points:

First, that 300 km/h train example was not 500 km without a stop, it was Paris to Lyon with 3 intermediate stops.  Minor point, but...

Second: modern urban light rail vehicles, especially lighter weight European ones, are more efficient than high speed rail, despite all the stopping and starting.  Regenerative braking helps a lot here - in the best example I found of a Siemens Combino in Basel, 41.6% of the energy consumed was recovered through regenerative braking!!!

No amount of regenerative breaking helps on a train which is empty. The one I am riding is virtually empty 80+% of the day. It is simply a matter of commuter light rail not being nearly as efficient as an urban transportation light rail system.

I do believe in the magic of technology (I am defigning for a living), however, technology breaks down if it is used in the wrong way. I am using a prime example of that principle every day.

Sharply higher fuel prices and regular
might go a long way to convincing people
that suburbia might not be as permanent as
was stated a few posts back.
I agree, however, suburbia has its upsides. For one thing it has lots of roof area to offer for solar cells. Probably enough to generate enough energy for its own transportation and power a few inner city blocks at the same time.  

No amount of regenerative breaking helps on a train which is empty.

Well, it still helps, but I understand your point. :-)

I get it, San Jose's system sucks - that does not invalidate the advantages of light rail in many other areas in the U.S., though, at least if the system is sensibly planned.

I already post but I'll repeat myself.

Big screen TV's and computers need not be energy hogs.
We have very efficient and powerful computers today and technology for better is close on the horizon. OLED for example.

Clockless cpu's

"Paper" Display

Another big energy hog today is wirless links but these are getting better quickly.

Power problems here are easily sovable.

Finally for general lighting

Sadly, my local train and bus lines can at best accomodate a fraction of a percent of the total highway traffic. If you built them out to the maximum utilization possible on a rail system, they could probably carry a couple of percent of the traffic.

How is that possible? Let's see, if we have a 4-lane (per direction) highway full of cars all speeding at 80 mph, disregarding all safety margins and staying at the distance of one second of each other, and if we suppose that each car has five passengers, the total capacity of the highway on a 20 mile trip would be 3600 x 5 x 4 x 4 = 288,000 passenger-trips per hour. Note that real capacity is many orders of magnitude smaller, because of safety margins, lower average speed and lower number of passengers per car.

If we take an subway line, one track per direction, 75 passengers per car, 8 cars per train (because of platform length) and two trains per minute (easily possible) and the same 80 mph speed (also easily possible, half a minute margin is enough to brake safely in case of emergency, and traffic control ensures that the safety margins are not breached), and the same 20 mile trip, the capacity of said line would be 8 x 75 x 120 x 4 = 288,000 passenger-trips per hour. Note that while these figures talk about the maximum capacity, they are by no means unrealistic, and such numbers are really seen on the busiest lines at rush hour. And if the demand really is greater than this, more lines can be added.

Your safety margins are more than a little inadequate.  You will not find any rail system in the world operating at a headway of 30 seconds at 80 mph.  45 seconds at half that speed, perhaps.  Don't forget dwell times (the time it takes to load and unload passengers) - the train behind can't just keep going top speed all the while.

For roads one car every second is absurd - one every two seconds at 80 mph is itself almost impossible, and if you throw trucks in the mix and want even a modicum of safety you should expect a following distance based on at least 6 seconds between car and truck.

Here's some real-world numbers for you:

The highest capacity double-track rail rapid transit is believed to be the Yamanote line in Tokyo reaching 100,000 passengers per peak-hour direction. Hong Kong's busiest line carries 75,000 and some European lines reach 60,000. In past eras high ridership was sustained on rail rapid transit and light rail or streetcar lines in several North American cities. This is no longer the case.

In North America, Mexico City's Line 2 with 75,000 passengers per peak-hour direction is the heaviest. In the United States and Canada, no lines exceed 50,000. NYCT's two-track trunk combining lines E and F (Queens Blvd. Express) carries 49,800 [..]

I believe in Tokyo they actually have subway cars with no seats at all because seats just get in the way of cramming as many people in as possible.  Personally I think there is such a thing as too high density, and that Tokyo subway line would count. :-)

The train I am riding runs effectively on a half hour schedule, 20 minutes during commute hours. Since it is a full sized diesel that takes over a minute just to slow down to get into the station, you can not run it on a two-trains-per minute basis. Even if you electrified the system, there is no way you could push 288,000 people through per hour: the parking lots around the stations are full as it is. Where do you suppose the people riding the system will park their cars to finish the last five miles of their trip? There are no busses to get from the train station to the where people live. So now you need new busses for 200,000+ commuters...

The fastest system in my neighbourhood, BART, does not come even close to what you are proposing. For one thing... you couldn't get that many people on and off the platforms without risking people being pushed on the rails.


The 4 track Lexington Avenue subway in NYC is maxed out at 600,000 to 650,000 pax/weekday (data from memory).

That is basically it's upper limit.

OTOH, only the Blue Light Rail Line in Los Angeles is near it's capacity (~100,000 pax/day) and that could be increased with grade seperation at several intersections that would allow more than 4 car trains.

Every other US Urban Rail Line (AFAIK) can be expanded, often dramatically.

Hiawatha in Minneapolis can add 1/3 more cars (and should) for 7% of the original cost.

Best Hopes


Yes, that is entirely plausible.  From personal experience, I can assure you that no NYC subway line is jam packed more than the Lexington Avenue subway.  It is an experience onto itself.

Come to think of it, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a billionaire) uses it to get from his Upper East Side abode to City Hall every day, as far as I know.  Imagine that!

God bless him.

Actually, these numbers are plenty. Definitely more than what I would have expected, certainly orders of magnitude more than what I am experiencing in my neck of the woods. Thanks for the information!
I did a little calculation the other day.

An average commuter car travels 15,000 miles a year. In a Prius with 40mpg this equals 375 gallons of gasoline. Since gasoline has an energy content of 131MJ/gallon, the total energy used by the car ammounts to a little over 49GJ or 13,650kWh.

Now, the Prius is probably not more than 40% efficient (I would venture to guess it is more like 30%). An all electric vehicle comes closer to 80%, and thus doubles the efficiency. In other words, if all we want is to move a driver 15,000 miles a year in an EV, we need no more than some 6800kWh worth of electricity. That is about as much electricity as a person uses in CA and about half as much as the average US citizen.

It is pretty clear that the Prius is a rather conventional car with rather conventional weight and acceleration/speed specs. It was designed for the mass market and appeals to the mass market remarkably well.

It is also clear from looking at the Honda Insight that the Prius is at least a factor of two shy of where a commuter car could be.

So now we can extrapolate that a 15,000 mile commute can be had for no more than 3400kWh. Moreover, these cars have two and four seats, so they can transport people for little more than half of that number, again...

So let's say we can satisfy our commuter problem with some 2000-3000kWh in electricty and a rather conventional EV architecture. And this is still more energy than we would use if people took busses with hybrid engines.

To put that in perspective, an American walk-in fridge uses approx. 500kWh a year (a typical European model needs one third of that).

A big screen tv running for six hours a day is 300kWh.

A 12,000 BTU AC unit is assumed to consume approx. 1100kWh a year.

My computer at work probably uses 90W on average 24/7 (what a waste) and thus comes to 788kWh annually.

So what exactly is it that makes transportation so dependent on cheap oil? It is simply waste. We are not driving next generation hybrids but 5.8l V8s with open loading decks and burn ten time more fuel than is actually needed to get is from A to B.

So if you are telling me that you are afraid of a future with less oil or no oil at all, I am telling you that you are a wastefull person who just can't imagine using an appropriately sized vehicle for your daily purposes.

"So if you are telling me that you are afraid of a future with less oil or no oil at all, I am telling you that you are a wastefull person who just can't imagine using an appropriately sized vehicle for your daily purposes."

Well, I'm afraid of a future with less oil, and my family bikes/walks for most of our transportation. I biked to work today, and yesterday, and every day last week, etc.  In fact, I haven't driven our one small station wagon to work for about four years.  In the six years I've been working here, I've driven it to work twice.  

I'm more worried about the economic dislocations of the change than how it would effect my family.  If it were just us, or even just us and the people who read this website, I wouldn't be worried at all.  However, most people were financially damaged by the recent higher oil prices, and they are likely to be hit harder if prices don't fall.  They are in for trouble and I expect them to take others down with them.  They've already taken down 150,000+ Iraqis and 2000+ US soldiers getting their fix.

I understand your fears... but...

What I do not understand is how a nation which just got hit by high gasoline prices (which were approx. half of the prices my parents pay in Europe), got  back into the habit of buying large trucks:

To me it looks like Americans desperately need a real beating before they will learn to do the right thing. This is not much different from the little kid that won't learn to respect fire any other way than by burning itself.

As much as I feel your pain, I do not see much of an intellectual learning process at work here.

"They've already taken down 150,000+ Iraqis and 2000+ US soldiers getting their fix."

Now that is the result of voting an obvious idiot into office who is the store front for some of the worst right wing ideology we have seen in decades. Again... Americans only seem to learn painfully slowly. In this case it took six years.

None of this has any bearing on the fact that other people have well working economies running at twice the price for gas. They also happen to drive smaller cars and ride public transportation systems. The one in London is pretty good... I've just been there. And Singapore has an excellent one.

I quite agree with you now, since you're making my point for me.  Now consider that this nation of people who "desperately need a real beating before they will learn to do the right thing." are in charge of the most devastating military on the planet, and have demonstrated that they will vote in "an obvious idiot into office who is the store front for some of the worst right wing ideology we have seen in decades."  I don't really agree with how bad you think our president is, but I appreciate your coming around to my point of view :-)

The problem is that these people who "only seem to learn painfully slowly" are the ones you are expecting to change fairly quickly to a reduction in  our main source of energy (in BTUs), and our only significant source of transportation energy.  Assuming you don't live in the US, I envy you not having to deal with the economic fallout of these people who "desperately need a real beating before they will learn to do the right thing."  However, living here, I'm concerned.  If Churchill was right when he said "Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, after exhausting all other options", then you'd better watch out as well, since it may be your options we exhaust before we do the right thing.

The military of this nation has just proven to all of the world that it is a paper tiger that can't beat a bunch of crazies with the will to die. Is that supposed to terrify the Chinese who survived the Japanese attacks and Mao? Or the Russians who survived Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin? Anyone in the third world who has nothing to loose?

Which country or continent are the US going to invade next? Europe? For its oil? Or Japan for its hybrid technology? Laughable. The US will spend the next twenty years licking the wounds of its soldiers (quite literally) and paying back the national debt created by the "conservatives".

"Assuming you don't live in the US, I envy you not having to deal with the economic fallout of these people"

I do live in the US and I saw the riots in the streets when oil went to $3.50 a gallon. The masses were abandoning the GM and Ford dealership and went to worship at the Churches of Toyota and Honda. It was terrifying... when you were on the boards of either GM or Ford.

And it must have been terrifying for the GOP to see that after all they had done for the country, the voters dropped them like a hot potatoe to go back to the terrorist loving democrats.

There are really awfull things happening in the US right now. But they all have to do with civil liberties being suppressed by the neocons and none of this has to do anything with oil and gas prices.

""Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, after exhausting all other options", then you'd better watch out as well, since it may be your options we exhaust before we do the right thing."

Is this a threat? I would be terrified, if I didn't know that the difference between ending up as a victim of a drive by shooting is age, skin color and the neighbourhood I live in. Remember? I do live in the US and I have learned a little bit about US culture. It ain't that bad... it's just very different from what you expect. And the last thing middle class Americans will loose is law and order on their own streets. They might loose their SUVs, though.

"hot potatoe"

He He

So what exactly is it that makes transportation so dependent on cheap oil? It is simply waste... So if you are telling me that you are afraid of a future with less oil or no oil at all, I am telling you that you are a wastefull person who just can't imagine using an appropriately sized vehicle for your daily purposes.

And I'm telling you that you have a very superficial view of the problem of Peak Oil.  Increasing efficiency doesn't solve the problem of a declining non-renewable resource.

Personal and industrial transportation will decline Post Peak Oil.  There is no way around this.

Declining cheap Oil energy means declining materials for everything mined or farmed or sythesized using oil or oil by-products.  Transportation is not just about the fuel consumed, it's also about the materials and energy necessary to build and maintain the vehicles and infrastructure.  

And it depends on a population that can afford vehicles in a world of scarcity where the price of aluminum (or other base metals) might equal that of gold.


"Personal and industrial transportation will decline Post Peak Oil. There is no way around this."

I guess I just do not feel uncomfortable about this fact. I do not enjoy commuting and I do not see any need to transport even more Chinese junk into even more Walmarts.

"Declining cheap Oil energy means declining materials for everything mined or farmed or sythesized using oil or oil by-products."

I could make the same argument again: I do not enjoy having stuff made from plastic around. I do not enjoy throwing endless amounts of plastic wrap away every day, either. But I have to because that is how everything in the US comes.

"And it depends on a population that can afford vehicles in a world of scarcity where the price of aluminum (or other base metals) might equal that of gold."

Actually, a lot of Aluminum is made using hydroelectric facilities. I am certain I will be able to live without aluminum cans and limit my use of aluminum foil in the kitchen to a minimum.

As far as the price of aluminum goes, let me give you an example: a German aluminum hut used to have the following cost problem: to get their raw material from Australia to Rotterdam was one third of their transportation cost. To get it from Rotterdam to Basel on the River Rhine was another third. And to ship it from Basel to their site ten miles away was the last third. They got all their electricity for free because they owned a hydroelectric dam across the river and it had been paid off for over sixty years. Competitors of theirs refined in Japan with electricity from a nuclear power plant and saved the transportation cost for the raw materials which offset the cost for electricity.

Steel is made with coal, not oil. Coal is plentiful and the only limit to coal use is global warming. Steel can be recycled easily. When the SUV craze is over we will have more steel sitting around in our junk yards than recyclers will ever buy.

Similar things can be said for most materials. They can either be replaced because they are only convenience materials or they need very little oil for their production.  Those which are energy intensive like aluminum, will at best rise in price by 50-100% (price of solar electricity over non-renewables). But if you know a source for gold that is only 100% more expensive than aluminum, I take it!

Fear usually arises from missing information and can be cured by information. In this case, a solid introduction to industrial processes will help.  

good luck.
Infinite, you are making a very common mistake when calculating the efficiency of an EV vs an ICE.  For starters, you mentioned that a gallon of gasoline holds 131 MJ of energy.  This is factually true.  What you failed to calculate is that the average passenger ICE only has around 12% efficiency.  Granted some newer cars are approaching 14-15%, but its still a very small % of the overall stored energy content.

Now, as you stated, this same Prius consumes 13750 kWh a year of electricity.  This would only be true if the Prius could use all of the energy per gallon of gasoline.  Because it can not, you should instead base your final calculation as follows:

13750 kWh * 0.12 = 1650 kWh a year.

This is not a lot of energy over the course of a year.  As you commented yourself, this is like keeping your computer on 24/7 all year long.  Wasteful, somewhat, but doable if nuclear, solar and wind are scaled up.

Now, I just got off work so my calculations here may be off slightly, but lets assume that the average home solar system produces 2500 watts at peak, and there are 4 hours of peak sunlight averaged out every day over a year.  This system would yield:

2500 * 4 = 10000 watts
1000 watt/h = 1 kWh
10000 / 1000 = 10 kWh/day

So the average Solar system would produce at least 10 kWh of power a day using the above parameters.  Over the course of a year, thats 3650 kWh, or more then 2x the power required to run a Prius for an entire year!  Granted, some energy loss would occur due to the inverter and battery storage, but if your buying a EV, investing $10,000 into a power source to run said car for 20 years isn't exactly a bad idea.

Under this setup, you ideally wouldn't see any increase of power demand for the average household.  Of course, this is based on the assumption that said peak oil conscious individual would invest into a non-grid dependent power source.  Alternatively, the federal, state or local government could require the purchase of a solar array when buying an EV, assuming one wasn't already in place.

In short, this combination of technology will result in almost no net gain of grid related energy consumption!  Doable if you ask me :)

I've done this calculation before. If you add in solar cells along the road way it gets pretty good esp for electric trains.

A electric train with solar panels along the roadway and pumped storage basically runs for free and you actually get energy back.

So I think trains are still the best.

You could just as easily coat an EV with the new CIGS panels.  I wonder how efficient such vehicles would be with them...
Alan - appreciate your work and posts on TOD.

Living in Japan I am well aware of the importance of electrified rail, and how that integrates with the local neighborhood.   My PO is 2 blocks away, the grocery store and drugstores 3 blocks away, doctor 4 blocks, etc.   I can walk anywhere for my daily needs.

More importantly, I have (1) city subway and (2) private full size rail lines available to me (with 15minute or less walks) to go outside of my local area.   Don't have a car, don't want one, don't need one.

It is my belief that many Americans would find value in such a living arrangement, so I encourage you - there is hope!  I concur that it is much more important to develop a new mode of transport (electrified rail) in any given city, than simply recasting the current mode (100% automobile) into a slightly modified one (an auto with a higher MPG.)

My dream would be to be able to recreate my current social living in the US - but I know that at this time it is not possible, with NYC coming the closest (and still the only major city in which rail is truly extensive.)

Two challenges for the future of rail in America: (1) there is a minimum threshold of connectivity and availabilty of rail to make it practical to replace the automobile (in the life of a person who wishes it to be so.)   The small projects you listed at the end of your article are not enough.  I am familiar with several of the cities listed and know that I would still want/need an automobile even with the proposed projects.   Given that more is needed, how about:

(2)  The role of private rail companies - here in Japan there has been a significant role for the private rail companies, who usually maximize their business by creating large Department stores as terminus to a rail line.   Could that not be a possibility in the US?

Right of ways (ROW) are an important issue; do you see cities and counties leasing (to private rail companies) at no or low cost the use of current ROW that exist on current thoroughfares, for the implementation of rail?

Note on human behavior:  No matter how wonderful the electrified mass transportion is here in Japan, automobiles are quite popular and numerous.   The freedom of individual movement is overwhelming in draw.

Mexico City has publicly owned shopping centers in each subway stop. By leasing to shops and restaurants those clever folks pay much of the cost of the rail lines, and the vendors keep the stations clean and policed.
  They're so popular that getting on and off the subway should be the Mexican national body contact sport. They get a glazed look in their eyes and charge the cars. The squeezing is definitely a cheap thrill.
See my post above on right-of ways. When cities and counties begin to see property values collapse because of the lack of affordable transportation they should see the light
We already subsidise cars hugely-roads are fantasticially expensive. If the real costs were included in automobiles we already can't afford them.
  We need to figure out a way to make this sexy-how about someone writing a little subway porn, sponsor some websites with hot people on bicycles getting laid! I'm dead serious about that, until bicyclists loose their nerd image we're sunk up against Detroit!
Yes, that's for sure!   The automobile industry spends $13 billion a year on persuasive advertising.  In the end, what matters most to them is to insert as much sex appeal in their commercials as they can.  The underlying message in all this?  How about "if you don't drive, you don't count."
Dang! Is that why I don't count? I wish somebody had told me earlier! I would have gotten myself one of those "automobiles"...

How about a car advertising solar tax? 100% tax on the cost of any car ad going towards solar electricty subsidies. $13 billion a year will buy a lot of energy independence...


VW's advertising slogan: "On the road of life, there are passengers, and there are drivers. Drivers wanted."

My question: if you want drivers so badly then why do your cars have 4 times as many seats for passengers as for drivers?  Shouldn't you be building motorcycles?

PO and GW is a global problem, a less US-centric approach wouldn't hurt.

Where I live (Sweden), Phase 1 has been in effect for very long time now, along with a gas price of $5/gallon. We still consume a huge amount of oil (below half of Americans, which is still a huge amount). Rail is not a silver bullet, you don't have the luxury of thinking "we'll solve the personal transport problem later".

Personally, I don't think electric vehicles need that much help in terms of incentives to be successful. And there are a lot of things that could be done that would benefit both (fuel tax, congestion fees with exemption for EVs).

If you are concerned about GW, coal burning power plants are the most important target. Peak oil will take care of itself from an environmental point of view, coal, in comparison, will not. Even worse, countries like the US are fooling around with the idea of coal-to-liquids conversion which is a horrible crime in terms of CO2 emissions.

I think Sweden is planning to eliminate all oil consumption by 2020, which is quite ambitious, but then, it has done all the right things so far to get there. And Sweden, unlike the US, has a healthy relationship to taxation as a means of political control, whereas here in the US taxation is mostly used by politicians to buy votes and bribes from industry.

Alan, excellent post!
Has anyone discussed a combination of electrified rail and EV?  I imagine this could be modeled on ZIP cars, where you don't own the car, but have free use of whatever is available. The EV that people would drive to and from the station would belong to the utility/service.  This sort of arrangement might prime the pump, in that people would get experience driving EVs before they had a chance to buy one, or maybe find out they have no real need to own a car in the first place.  This might also be combined with ideas like those from Andy Frank, so that the daytime electrified rail could be partly powered by off-peak electricity stored in the EVs parked at the station.

The electric station car combined with electric rail, the efficiency and convenience would be fantastic.  

Put the words "Station Car" into Google search, you will get more useful ideas than you have time to read...but let's again be honest, until gasoline goes to four or five bucks a gallon and stays there, it ain't gonna' just points up once more though the fantastic efficiency gains that are possible...until we basically declare a "wartime" footing, and see every drop of wasted fuel as a threat to national security, we cannot even begin to imagine how much consumption can drop with no real loss of mobility and prosperity, in fact, it would lead to the most massive freeing up of American wealth in our history....It is so sad, we know what can be done, what in the end must be done, what would create a truly modern, clean efficient nation, but have no interest in doing it :-(  Instead, we go around telling each other horror stories...."It's the CARS, BURN ALL THE CARS!!"  No interest in solutions, just attempts to push inane fanatical's so sad.

Roger Conner known to you as ThatsItImout

hugg just produced a link to a huge and relatively recent New Yorker article on bicycling in that city:

maybe that's been posted already.

Another technology that will help here is the electric scooter, including the Segway.

They have the same advantages of bicycles: personal, low cost (even a segway is cheaper than a car), low footprint, complementary and compatible with electric public transport (many versions can be put inside of a train), and very efficient.

Being small, building the vehicle has lower ecological, material, and energy costs; and it takes less of the energy of transporting a person. Moving a ton or two of metal to move a person is about the most unefficient idea I can think of.

Sweating or other disconforts disuade commuters from bicycles (although after a few months of cycling the body gets fitter and can go faster and farther with no sweat). A scooter keeps better with traffic speed so it is less dangerous. And parking and congestion problems dissapear.

It solves the main problem of electric mass transport, making the last mile from the station to the destination much easier and faster.

¿Is there some calculation on the energy cost of a scooter commute vs a hybrid car commute? ¿Why are not TODers and POers in general clamoring for better rules for scooters and segways in trains, cities and roads?

The irksome problem I find is that we will keep on wasting our resource by continuing to invest in dead ended unsustainable suburban living rather giving up on that project and invest in a urban design that is a reasonable alternative for sustainable living.
Yes, why is that? Is there no way for America to get away from seeing the urban area as the ghetto that breeds crime and poorly educated people?

After all, I have seen rather nice urban areas e.g. in Washington. They just happen to be unaffordable for average income families. On the other hand, is raising your kids in suburbia with its copycat homes and copycat malls that much better? What it your kid going to learn? To use the copier?

It was done, a third of a century ago, Davis California:

A development of homes with passive solar heat, solar hot water, permiculture gardening, bike and walkways and narrow streets to reduce water runoff and free up more land for agriculture, in other words, all the things we talk about now.

After the oil price collapse of 1982, it was promptly forgotten and ignored.  However, it has been there, sustainable living using half the resources of any similiar sized housing area, for a third of a century...the savings in energy, water consumption, and the reduced greenhouse gases over that many years, a secret little gift to the world, by the architects (now pretty much forgotten) Mike and Judy Corbett.

Now, with the addition of truly usable electric and hybrid cars and electric rail for transport, the efficiencies can be astounding, with a lifestyle that is truly more enjoyable than the average city today.  Lightweight Prius sized plug hybrids with advanced batteries and small propane or natural gas engines as the prime mover....this is not rocket science folks....

If you want to help the world, send your child to a good design and engineering school, and instill in them the type of thinking we have seen from the likes of the Corbetts.  Of course, the most unpopular thing to say in America today is "We can solve that if we use our brains."

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

This was a good post. Electrifying the
freight system has the advantages of using
existing technology and of being controlled
by relatively few people. If the rail system
operators decide it is a good idea they can
do it by fiat. There is no need to convince
200 million consumers to change their ways.

Commuter rail is also a good idea. I think
that the arguments about load capacity miss
the main point. For many people getting to
and from work is the main determinant of
whether or not they own a vehicle at all.

The provision of  reasonably fast, safe,
and comfortable means of getting to work
is the key to reducing the number of
people who own cars and the number of
people who will be willing to live in areas
that don't require car ownership.

The benefits in reduced energy cosumption
with increased quality of life are immense.  

This was a good post. Electrifying the
freight system has the advantages of using
existing technology and of being controlled
by relatively few people. If the rail system
operators decide it is a good idea they can
do it by fiat. There is no need to convince
200 million consumers to change their ways.

We also need Freight Transit Oriented Development. Electrifying the freight trains and then having most goods travel by truck to/from the railyard is inefficient. Congestion and pollution are reduced, but not where we need it the most (in the cities). If we load a boxcar with widgets and send it directly to the retailer's warehouse. We don't need to burn a drop of diesel. From the warehouse to the store an intermodal move would make more sense (most stores not having the freight density for a rail siding).

If the suppliers and manufacturers are close together then we don't need to spend near so much moving stuff around in the intermediate steps. Plus high job density makes mass transit and high residential density easier to do.

Over the last 30+ years as transportation has gotten cheaper we have broken up the high density industrial areas and scattered factories and warehouses to isolated areas in pursuit of cheap labor. Maybe we need to reverse that.

After the oil price collapse of 1982, it was promptly forgotten and ignored.

Not quite totally ignored. Judy Corbett continued on, helping to write the Ahwahnee Principles, founding the Local Government Commission and serving on the board directors of the Congress for the New Urbanism. The principles underlying Village Homes continue to have influence.

A number of developments are underway in the U.S. that are designed with similar sustainable principles and with agricultural components, like Serenbe, GA, Pringle Creek, OR and Mountainside Village, ID.

There are hundreds of other developments being built that are designed to be walkable and mixed use. See the Town Paper list for links. Developments like these can do well in supporting Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, electric bikes and other low-speed electric vehicles, because regulations in most states restrict such vehicles to streets with 35 m.p.h. speed limits or less. Celebration, FL, for instance, has one of the highest (if not THE highest) per capita usage of electric vehicles in the U.S.

Another development idea that was influenced by Village Homes is Conservation Subdivision Design. It's largely identified with one planner, Randall Arendt, and focuses on clustering homes and preserving the remaining area of a land parcel as parkland or wilderness. CSDs are usually single family homes on cul-de-sacs in relatively isolated locations.  When you combine it with permaculture and organic gardening, you can get something that bears a family resemblance to Village Homes -- here's one example.

I think you have it as correct as possible without a detailed engineering analysis kudos.

And I agree with your analysis on EV they are not good early on and form a secondary transport mechanism later. The main reason I agree is that it will take a long time to determine how much of the road infrastructure we can maintain post peak.

My guess is actually very little. As you mention from  and heavy equipment and other types of transportation not amenable to electrification could be run off compressed NG.

The most important thing is we need electric rail and trolley cars and as if we add electric taxis to the mix we have a pretty good urban transport system. The key point is focusing on developing our urban centers.

As far as urban living goes the addition of some well kept parks and green spaces makes urban living quite delightful.
Urban gardens are also a big hit.

The next question is how long can we wait to put this infrastructure in. What we need is a graph showing how the cost of electrification compares with the price of oil.

I'm pretty sure that once oil goes over 200 a barrel projects like this are going to be difficult to do.

Its a fairly strait forward analysis. Take for example the cost of creating a concrete block and shipping it to a construction site. Plus the oil cost for the labor costs etc for laying one block. Guessing transport/oil costs could be as high as 30% of the overall costs. Even if they are as low as 10% then tripling the cost of oil basically takes out 20% of our GNP. Add in secondary effects and we are talking about maybe losing basically 40% of GNP in a 200 bl world.

A crash electrification program under these conditions could eat up a additional 20-30% of our GNP.

So the worst case scenario for electrification i.e waiting till its way to late results in us trying to accomplish this task with 40% less GNP than we have today it it could consume 30% of that. So we would lose 70% of our GNP leaving on 30% for the rest of the economy.

These above numbers are of course guesses but I don't think they are that wild. I know for shipping for example bunker fuel has risen to represent 60% of the costs of transport.
So they are probably not that far off.

America living on 30% of the GNP we have today will not be a pretty place.

The alternative i.e electrifying early probably costs lets say 10% of the GNP and hardens say 30% of our GNP or more agianst oil costs. So in a sense we would at least stay even in the face of tripling of oil costs. If you consider we would also not have to bear the burden of electric rail development at that time then it protects say 50% of our current GNP. More if you consider that we would have a more efficient economy adding a hidden bump in GNP.

Overall if we play our card right we would be looking at losses of only 10-20% in GNP before hitting a sustainable level. We might even be able to have slow growth say 0.5-1% from that level for some time. Continued efficiency increases and technical advances then could cause real wealth to grow even though the energy inputs may decrease.

For example right now we use plasma and some lcd tvs and energy hungry computers. Technology exists today to drastically cut the energy use for the same use cases.

Finally of course as we get more enery efficient and solar cells get better we reach the point that they could power a significant amount of our electrical needs.

So we can certianly grow our wealth for the same energy inputs.

Just taking better advantage of existing rail would be relatively cheap/easy.
1)Get more trucks/trailers off highways through more intermodal or Triple Crown type setups.
2)Most commuter rail goes unused ie once an hour large parts of the day. Why not have a light rail system using those tracks the rest of the time.
3)A big gripe about commuter rail is that most stop at every puny stop turning every 30-mile ride into an hour ordeal. How bout arranging a system that stops only every say fifth/big stop. A train leaves downtown, everybody getting off in the first four stops are in the last car. As the first stop is approached, the last car is decoupled, glides/decelerates to first stop. That small diesel/hybrid or electric car then proceeds to the next stops while the main train is long gone. Folks getting off in the next zone are in the second to last car and so on.
4)Electrification makes the most sense in urban areas first.
Supporting suburbia a little long.

I thought that there is a way that suburbia might last a little longer. If personal vehicles were redisigned so that they were 10th the weight(namely less superfluous features), had limited speed, say 25mph, and limited acceleration (basically a modern areodynamic Model-T )-- and at the same time the traffic lights were replaced with turn-abouts to allow more flow. Suburbia might be able to last a little longer.

There is no way that China is going to fit another billion cars there, so if they were smart the would institute light weight, limited speed personal as transportation to replace cars. They would also get a jump on the market to these designs and they do have the internal market for this.


This is all good concerning urban electric rail.  Included above are a few comments about how large our country is, and the importance of our freight trains hauling goods and agricultural products.  What good is an optimal urban rail system if we cannot transport our goods across this country (and feed our urban areas)?  Since diesel trains are our existing infrastructure, they must not be forgotten in the planning.  Recently, JMG posted links to two good RR articles describing huge problems with the currently overstressed system.  I will take the liberty of reposting those links for anyone who didn't read them then:

Rush Hour on the Rails
Top Producer, September 2006, By Marcia Zarley Taylor

Let's Fix Rail Gridlock
Top Producer, October 2006, By Kendell W. Keith, president of the National Grain and Feed Association

I believe the RR's transfer freight at 1/35 of the energy required by trucks.  I'm disappointed that the DOE's plan now includes "making trucks more efficient" rather than increasing rail service.  Politician's need to be contacted about this subject.  Maybe biodiesel could find it's niche in RR's once we get those perennial soybeans growing... (only for RR's, that is)  
Also, I found the recent stories concerning copper wire theft from electric rails in Europe alarming. Alan, would these systems need copper, or other metal?

In India they have electrified most of the main rail lines

and kept the copper from thieves.

In the US, trolley wire was a peculiar profile.  Simply outlaw possesion or sale of copper wire with this profile w/o a license.  Scrap dealers would need a certificate from a transit agency or railroad before dealing with trolley wire.

Copper on the contact side of the wire is the best solution (with a very small amount of silver alloy, 1 oz/ton is one good option but pure Cu is OK).

We should electrify our frieght RRs ASAP. Just electrifying a railroad adds 20% to capacity (faster acceleration & braking) and speeds transit times (rule of thumb).

Best Hopes,


Step 1 of my linked paper (at the beginning of the article) is "Electrifying Freight Railroads".


Very good.  I have read it now.  I hope it can be accomplished soon.
Alan or anybody,

Opinions or experiences with this system? Would it really work?

CyberTran: Ultra-light rail for cities and suburbs

No, mass transit is not just for cities like Boston, New York, and
Washington D.C. CyberTran[1] is a form of mass transit suitable for
most parts of the nation, from suburbs to the densest parts of
Manhattan. It is not so much a new system as an overlooked one. The

It offers 24-hour availability.
Your journey time is about the same as in a car.
Your rail-car is ready when you are.
You never need to stand.
Stops are near your home and your final destination.
You can read the paper during your trip.
No magic is involved.

CyberTran ultralight rail uses small cars carrying 20 passengers.
(The same-sized cars could be configured to hold anywhere from six
to 30 riders.) Small, light cars run on cheaper tracks. The total
capital cost of a CyberTran urban system (including rail and
guideways) is about a tenth or less the cost per passenger mile of
conventional light rail[2]. That is important -- capital costs
dominate rail expenses.

CyberTran is an automated, driverless system. (With so many tiny
cars, it has to be.) Outside of rush hour, it would be an on-demand
system, calculating routes on the fly. During rush hour in dense
urban areas, a series of CT cars following one another closely would
mimic a conventional multi-car train with fixed schedules.
Regardless, you would never have to wait more than five minutes or
so for a car -- usually less.

In-system transfers should take even less time, because when you
bought a ticket, the system would know you needed to transfer and
when. And because of the high degree of computerization (each car
would have an on-board computer, plus the system would have a bank
of central computers), routing would be optimized. Transfers would
be avoided when possible; when transfers were needed, the routes
would still be direct enough. You would never go around Robin Hood's
barn to get to your destination.

Given the small numbers of passengers per car (and the fact that
stops would be made at offline sidings, without blocking the main
track), travel would also be optimized to minimize the number of
stops. That is, passengers would be sorted onto cars by destination.
Sometimes this would result in virtual expresses with few or no
stops between a passenger and her destination. Rush hour might not
always allow this, but at minimum the number of stops made would be
reduced. You would never have to stop at every, or almost every,

There will be a lot of stations available. Stops are offline from
main guideways -- one CT car stopping does not delay others. CT
stations can be as frequent as bus stops.

Because of automation, you can afford more surplus cars, since
unused capacity is parked, not rolling, not consuming labor or
energy. You can also afford not to fill the cars.

In most cases you will have a stop within easy walking distance of
both ends of your journey. In addition, even major stops don't have
to be major multi-acre lots like the BART Park 'n' Rides in San
Francisco. Park 'n' Rides can consist of many small parking lots,
not giant branches of the night auto supply. If you live in a
nightmarish suburban development, with acre after acre of housing
and no shops or suitable areas for a transit stop within walking
distance, you will still find a (comparatively) small, pleasant CT
stop with parking a short drive from your home.

CyberTran is not designed for people to stand in the aisles. As
mentioned, the cost is about 10% that of conventional rail, and most
of that is in guideways, not the cars. Cars won't need to be
overloaded during peak hours to pay for off-peak travel. You are
guaranteed a seat. You only stand if you want to stretch your legs --
an option you don't have driving.

You have the comfort of a car, probably more, and unlike buses,
every car is fully wheelchair and disabled accessible. There is
plenty of room for luggage -- more carry-on baggage space than pre-
deregulation planes. (Depending on local policy, they may easily be
designed to accommodate baby carriages and bicycles as well.)

It is safer than auto travel, with a lower probability of accidents,
better crash resistance, and built-in airbags.

CT is better than normal transit in terms of protection from both
crime and harassment. Unlike normal transit, it provides a low
penalty in convenience for following human instinct in choosing
transit companion. A CyberTran car is divided into compartments of
between two and five seats each. So upon entering, you can avoid
compartments with anyone you feel uncomfortable with, or wait a few
minutes and order a new train if the whole car feels wrong.

There are special security features; every seat has a phone that
connects directly to security. There are pull cords like those in
old trolleys that automatically override all programming and pull to
nearest secure destination, notifying security. Since you can tell
which cord was pulled and there are not many passengers to a
compartment, identifying anyone responsible for "prank" stops or
false alarms should be possible in almost all cases.

U.S. city and commuter buses get fewer passenger miles per gallon
than cars or even light trucks/SUVs[3]. Vehicles burn a lot more
fuel stopping and starting than traveling. Buses have to deal with
normal stop-and-go traffic and all the stops to pick up and drop off
passengers. If they were fully loaded all the time, that might make
up for it. But according to DOT, even with standing-room-only during
peak periods, city and commuter buses on average carry only nine
passengers. Buses do reduce congestion, but not by much. One bus
replaces many cars that would otherwise be on the road, but buses
turning and changing lanes in city traffic and especially buses at
stops cause congestion as well.

Most city and commuter buses are miserable to ride. Bus trips take
longer than car trips to the same destination; further, trip time
can be unpredictable. Passengers breathe fumes, often have to stand,
and depending on the route, may suffer harassment while traveling.
Buses also perform an essential function. In the U.S., city and
commuter buses are the only means by which poor people or people who
can't drive can get around inexpensively. (Very few U.S. cities are

To replace buses with a form of transit that is less expensive, more
convenient, and more comfortable would be a kindness to city and
commuter bus riders, and to the cars that currently share the
streets with them. Replace the busiest, most crowded bus routes with
CyberTran first, then the next, and so on until you replace all
routes with three or more runs daily. Put a transit stop at every
former bus stop on these routes. Bus riders will be much better off,
and the streets will be less crowded and congested.

Ridership won't be limited to former bus riders. A lot of people
will decide it is better to read a paper or nap on new generation
transit than to spend the same or more time stuck in traffic in a
commute. Many will decide it is better not to fight traffic and
parking when visiting friends and relations, or eating (and
especially drinking) out. Given accommodations for luggage and
packages, some may even use it for shopping.

And that will lead to demand for transit on other routes. Transit
routes will become selling points in real estate. Developers will
build along them, and demand them near existing tracts. In short,
you will get the same kind of feedback cycle that currently leads to
more auto use. CyberTran runs about 30 cents per passenger mile
(cheaper than auto transportation) in a system with 10,000 users or
over -- something achievable in fairly low-density areas. (In other
words, if 25,000 people live within 10 miles of you, your area could
support a CT system. In short, it is practical wherever population
density, living and working combined, exceeds 81 people per square
mile -- something true for most people in the U.S.)

While super-light rail is not quite door to door, there is no reason
everyone can't have it near their home -- anywhere a bus stop could
go. Unlike conventional light rail, super-light rail does not
require high-density development. Although it will fit quite nicely
into new urbanism, or even old urbanism, it also will work well in

So how ecologically beneficent is CyberTran? Energy savings are
substantial; depending on electricity source (and thus thermal
conversion and transmission losses) it would get between 119 and 264
passenger MPG[4]. Because CyberTran consumes less land per passenger
mile, disturbs the land less than highways or even conventional
light rail, and gets much higher utilization out of its vehicles, we
can also expect infrastructure savings of close to 90% compared to
an automobile-based system[5]. There is even a high-speed version
that can reach speeds of 150 mph and replace airplanes for trips
under 400 miles (I'd say more).

CyberTran is just one of a whole class of trains known as ultralight
rail. Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems offer the same benefits,
but trade higher costs for greater convenience. Basically they use
smaller cars, and thus operate more like automated taxis than
trains. Their advantages are, you never have to share a ride with
anyone but your traveling companions, and you always go direct to
destination with no (instead of few) stops. The disadvantage is that
smaller cars mean more motors and generally higher costs per seat.
In addition, CyberTran makes more use of standard rail technology
than PRT systems. It is less bleeding edge. There are fewer new
technologies to go wrong.

Here is the link to CyberTran and to various PRT systems:

SkyWeb Express (formerly Auto Tax2000, formerly PRT2000)
CabinTaxi PRT System



[1] John A. Dearien, Struthers Richard D., and Kent D. McCarthy,
CyberTran: A Systems Analysis Solution to the High Cost and Low
Passenger Appeal of Conventional Rail Transportation Systems. Nov
2001, CyberTran International, Inc, 22/Jun/2004. PDF Link

[2] Ibid 1 P.5 (Note the cost per seat in examples given is five to
ten times less. But once you include greater utilization from
computation, one tenth the cost becomes a conservative estimate.)

[3] Stacey C. Davis and Susan W. Diegel, TRANSPORTATION ENERGY DATA
BOOK: - Edition 22, ORNL-6967 (Edition 22 of ORNL-5198). Sep 2002.
Center for Transportation Analysis Science and Technology Division
of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the U.S. DOE, 23/Sep/2005
PDF Link.

Table 2.11 Passenger Travel and Energy Use in the United States, 2000

[4] John A. Dearien (Junior), "Ultralight Rail and Energy Use," in
Encyclopedia of Energy, ed. Cutler J. Cleveland (Elsevier
Publishing, March 2004), 255-66.

The calculation is based on Dearien's estimate of .106 passenger
miles per gallon. If the electricity is generated via renewable
energy and transmitted through the grid, line losses might be as
high as 20%. Converting that to gasoline equivalent gives the higher
figure. In our current grid, line losses generally result in about
36 units of energy delivered for every BTU of heat consumed. This is
due to both thermal and transmission losses. That results in the
lower figure. If solar energy was generated along the guideway (as
CyberTran is seriously considering), you would have no thermal
losses and virtually no transmission losses. In that case the MPG
equivalent figure would be around 330 MPG.

[5] Dylan Saloner and Neil Garcia-Sinclair, "Environmental Impact of
Ultra Light Rail Transit: Lessening the External Costs of
Transportation," Alameda, California, 9/October 2006. p5,pp 20-21 -

Unproven Gadgetbahn that is VERY unlikely to work as advertised.


Two Other Comments (another blog) about CyberTran

Taipei Taiwan has a similar about 10 mile long rubber tired people mover toy which is a total folly also. The cars can train but are still very small and can not begin to carry the rider ship that would use a real rail line would bring. Taipei built a heavy rail subway after this rubber tired folly. At least they learned from there earlier mistake.

Alan (not me)
Subject: Re: [LRPPro] CyberTran: Ultra-light rail for cities and suburbs

Cyber-Tran can not be Light Rail because it is automated. The definition of Light Rail mandates capability of surface operation.  Automation denies that, Metro Mover in Miami and Sky-Train in Detroit prove the folly of automated systems, Las Vegas and Seattle have not helped.  This nonsense about very frequent small cars in the sky has been going on now for 40 years. UMTA made a costly high tech study of them many years ago now and gave up even before MetroMover and Sky-Train proved the folly.  Some people live and learn, Some people never learn or, if they do learn, they have learned they can get another research grant for personal aggrandizement.

E d  T e n n y s o n

Hello Alan Drake,

I just wanted to thx you for this keythread and the most excellent job you have done as thread moderator.  I think it was a good learning experience for all involved, and IMO: your 'textual tone' and vast knowledge made the TODer community raise their standard of discussion to a more data-centered dialectic.  BIG Kudos to you!

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Agreed. Thanks for all your good work Alan!
Message from another forum

1. Streetcar vs Bus Operating Cost Comparsion
    Posted by: "Bill Robb" bill937ca

Light Rail Now has a comparsion of streetcar versus bus operating costs using comparative data provided by Portland Streetcar Inc. in Portland, Oregon.

Portland Streetcar Inc reports that  a streetcar attracts 30-50% more ridership than a bus.  Comparsions are give for a four milecirculator (like Portland Streetcar) and for an
eight mile line haul route.

In both cases the streetcar comes out ahead on a cost per passenger mile even though carrying 30% more passengers than the bus line.

Although capital costs are far higher for streetcar lines, buses have shorter economic lives (18 years in Ontario, but significantly less in the US) versus 30-40 for streetcars
with a mid-term rebuild.  Also buses generally receive hidden subsidies from public works budgets covering street paving.

All this seems to support the long time TTC [Toronto Transit] contention that buses are more suited to short feeders with moderate traffic levels and streetcars are appropriate for intense traffic on line haul routes.

Bill Robb