Friday, August 16, 2013

The New Factor, or, The Choo-Choo Problem

The recent discussion of the Hyperloop brought up a common criticism that one hears often enough about rail transit of all types: it's based on "19th century technology." The critic will argue that streetcars are relics of the past, best left in the dustbin of history where we tossed them during the rise of motordom, or they will say that high-speed rail is based on technology from a bygone era and that obviously mag-levs or monorails or hyperloops are the future. They may even derisively refer to HSR as a "choo-choo train."

First off, the time that a particular piece of technology has been around does not imply obsolescence. When we human beings find a good idea, that idea doesn't come with a shelf life-- we keep tinkering with it and improving it as long as it makes sense to do so. Door hinges, for example, were invented so long ago in antiquity that we can't even accurately date it. Examples of them appear at least as early as 5,500 years ago, and the basic concepts behind the metal barrel hinge haven't change much since timeless antiquity. The flush toilet has been observed in archaeological excavations of the 26th-century BCE Indus Valley civilization, and recognizable modern examples can be found as early as the 16th century. This sets aside the fact that the electricity that allows these critics to put their words out onto our gloriously modern Internet was most likely generated via steam power, as most modern power plants, even nuclear and solar-thermal ones, are ultimately driven by steam turbine.

Even in the area of transportation, some of the best ideas are rather old. The diamond-frame bicycle, which is the most efficient form of passenger transportation known to man (in the physics sense of efficiency-- energy expended per kilo of payload moved), is unchanged since 1885. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that automobiles are also 19th-century technology, their birth dated to the Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1886. Aircraft are only slightly younger-- a modern pilot would find the controls of the 1909 Curtiss June Bug familiar.

These critics would no doubt argue that automobile technology has advanced significantly since the 19th century-- but then again, so has rail. Nobody who has ever ridden a modern high-speed train would confuse it for a second with a 19th-century model. The advances in technology and engineering to allow a rail vehicle to reach 300km/h are just as impressive as the leaps from early automobiles to the Prius, and a modern streetcar is rather different from its 1920 ancestors. There is a perception of trains as dated, and cars as modern, that likely stems from the advertising efforts of the motor industry in the mid-20th century-- and that has somehow invaded our national consciousness.

But in another sense, the fact that railways are old technology is really relevant. The question is, how can we best organize our cities and our lives, how can we best move people from place to place in a world that is warming and running out of oil? The answer is renewable, electrified public transport, supplemented by active transportation, regardless of when the technology for that transport came about. While research is always nice, we don't need a shiny new tech breakthrough in order to implement these things. The technology is already there-- our problems are political.

No comments: