Tech Linkage

Oscar Gordon

A Navy Turbine Tech who learned to spin wrenches on old cars, Oscar has since been trained as an Engineer & Software Developer & now writes tools for other engineers. When not in his shop or at work, he can be found spending time with his family, gardening, hiking, kayaking, gaming, or whatever strikes his fancy & fits in the budget.

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69 Responses

  1. DensityDuck says:

    Part of the problem with airships is that you say “hydrogen” and people immediately yell “OH THE HUMANITY” and dissolve into giggles.

    It’s actually not any harder to deal with than the tank of explosively flammable gasoline that most people have hanging under their rear bumper.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Wonder how long it’ll be before people stop doing that, because yeah, hydrogen is a better gas to use, and we do have ways to deal with the flammable nature.Report

      • scott the mediocre in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        I guess/assume that there might be reasonable ways to deal with fire (spark) prevention/suppression (although throughout the Twenties airships seemed to burn/explode with fair regularity), but of course the weight of the mechanism(s) comes off the useful lift. Unless you were thinking of some sort of ultra-efficient free radical scavenger being added to the gas?

        You also have to worry about the greater chemical activity of the hydrogen compared to helium (though apparently hydrogen embrittlement is not a problem in aluminum alloys at room temperature).

        I wonder if anyone could come up with a cost-effective way of producing Helium-3 in industrial quantities?

        I’m also sort of surprised that there isn’t some way of making the diffusion barrier also a very high thermal resistance, so that you could heat the gas (preheat on the ground – waste heat from the propulsion to make up for losses in the air) – 50 degrees F delta gives you ten percent reduction in density.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to scott the mediocre says:

          Thing is, hydrogen isn’t explosive. It supports combustion in the presence of an oxidizer (e.g. oxygen), but even then, like any combustible gas, the mix has to be right for there to be invocations of humanity. And something has to be flammable if you want flamming wreckage.Report

          • J_A in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            In a previous life I worked with compressed natural gas vehicles and the safety of a natural gas high pressure cylinder in your car trunk.

            Because methane was so light even firing a bullet into the tank just made a hole (which could ignite) but the gas was so light that the flame would fly upwards away from the passengers.

            Obviously being at pressure helped A LOT. Also the fact that the cylinder is non flammable so the gas inside the vessel could not ignite and the flame could not propagate inside the vessel and explode.

            I wonder if something similar could be set up. A vessel of fire resistant fibers (like fireman’s suits) and some mechanism (like big springs – I’m flying off my pants here) that would keep the hydrogen under pressure would probably make the flame go upwards in a controlled way allowing for the blimp to land (relatively) safely.

            Would that work?Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to J_A says:

              The bag is (IIRC) built in cells, so the pressure in the cells acts as your spring.

              A lot of the worry about hydrogen is less engineering and more the public watches too much TV & movies & believes crap explodes if you shoot it, or whack it kinda hard, or look at it funny. It’s sad, but I’m sure you know that some design decisions are made for the sake of assuaging public ignorance.Report

  2. Michael Cain says:

    The transit thing suffers the same problems that all vehicles operating at grade level have. Primarily, it can’t move much faster than the surrounding traffic unless you can eliminate crossings. The writers at City Lab regularly go on at length about how grade-level trains/whatever are just much more expensive ways to provide “bus” service. Some years back, a city in Brazil solved much of their rush hour transit problem by blocking off main arterials at rush hour, allowing only buses (both express and local) on them, banning cars from even crossing those streets. That fixed the grade-level problems. Don’t know if they’re still doing it.

    On most renewable energy things, I tend to agree with Dr. Tom Murphy’s stuff (he’s no longer actively writing at the blog). Wind and solar resources in the US, given current generating efficiencies and assuming modest consumption efficiencies are sufficient. Since we’re likely to wait until the last minute to get really serious about conversion, depletion models come into play and we probably need hydro and nuclear as well.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Tell me why grade level rail transit can’t have traffic signal overrides?Report

    • J_A in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Why do you think we need nuclear at all?

      From a dispatch point of view (ignoring a lot of other considerations of cost and environmental problems) nuclear is very ill-fitted to a generation matrix that includes a lot of intermittent renewables. It is also very difficult to scale down in size to accommodate mid and small sized systems.

      Gas Fired generation can bridge your gap faster and more cheaplyReport

      • Morat20 in reply to J_A says:

        There’s a lot of fundamental baseload baked into the system that nuclear can handle. That’s ALL nuclear can really handle, though. as noted, it’s godawful for bringing power on and off quickly.

        Right now, in terms of baseload generation, you’ve got hydro (which we’re running out of places to do and also we’re starting too look at serious issues involving both water demand and changing rainfall patterns due to global warming), you’ve got tidal (which nobody really has working all that great, but the moon is unlikely to disappear), you’ve got geothermal (the US isn’t so great for that, but Iceland is set), and…that’s about it.

        You can fake it with the big solar plants (molten salt and all that), and over a big enough grid you can probably rely on wind to a degree.

        Improvements in rooftop PV will drop peak demand significantly as it builds out, but doesn’t do a lot for baseload. (Peak load tends to correspond with peak daylight, at least here in the South).Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to J_A says:

        Load following nukes can be done. Germany and France do it routinely. Commonwealth Edison’s (now Excelon’s) boiling water reactors have always operated in load-following mode. Westinghouse’s AP1000, the only new reactor design currently being built in the US, is designed to support load-following. Most existing US nuclear plants were designed under the conventional wisdom that if the plants ran full-out, they would produce electricity more cheaply than any other source, so load-following was an unnecessary feature.

        The aggregate decline rate for existing NG wells in the US is about 25% per year. That’s a scary number — each year, we have to drill and finish enough new wells to produce 25% of our consumption. The wells we’re drilling today typically have individual decline rates around 50% per year, so the aggregate will continue to get worse. At some point, the “Red Queen” effect kicks in. It would be nice if I were wrong. North Dakota oil production over the next 18 months may give us a real clear demonstration of what happens when you drastically reduce the rate of drilling in a high-depletion environment (two years ago, ~190 drilling rigs were operating in ND; last summer, the industry thought the declining count had stabilized at ~75; this week the count was 28).Report

        • J_A in reply to Michael Cain says:

          I appreciate your comment on nuclear load following capabilities. Nuclear is the only generation technology I haven’t worked with.

          Having said that my main concern with nuclear is that I haven’t seen any nuclear plant that fully internalizes the TOTAL cost of used fuel disposition. As far as I know used nuclear fuel, at least in the USA, is stored on site or in temporary facilities waiting for the day when the USA taxpayer will fund final disposition, a day that it is further away today than in 2008.

          At least in the case of EDF the French taxpayer reaps the benefits of running the plant and covers the cost of the eventual fuel disposal, but Excelon will never be able to dispose of their radioactive waste. That’s a massive (at this time intergenerational) subsidy to nuclear that I never see reflected in the economics of the technology.

          I actually have a lot of faith in tide power, and I’m in awe at the drop of solar, that has broken the 40$/MWh barrier already w/o subsidies (only in prime sites obviously)Report

          • Michael Cain in reply to J_A says:

            …a day that it is further away today than in 2008.

            And much farther away than it was in 2002. Given the Republicans’ preferences on energy policy at that point, they demonstrated all the tactical brilliance of a garden slug in terms of sewing things up. I guess Cheney — who seems to have been in charge of energy things — really believed that “permanent Republican majority” stuff. They could have fast-tracked opening Yucca Mountain in statute. They could have given the nuclear industry the gift they really need, quadrupling the size of Yucca Mountain in statute (current authorized capacity will be pretty much exhausted if they put all of the existing spent fuel there). Instead, they decided to do it all by regulation, and have lost all of the critical decisions when those regulations went to court.Report

            • J_A in reply to Michael Cain says:

              Why is the taxpayer the one that it’s supposed to pay for Yucca Mountain? Why a “gift” to the nuclear industry, even if they really need it?

              Where I king I would issue a statute that said:

              1. The nuclear industry must, at their cost, arrange and pay for permanent disposal of waste fuel and other radioactive waste.

              2. In my kingly benevolence I order that this disposal be done in Yucca Mountain, NV, and hereby forbid any and all third party opposition to the project

              3. Notwithstanding 2. above, Yucca Mountain’s Enviromental Plan must satisfy the Royal Environmental Protection Agency. The nuclear industry will comply with all Royal EPA requests.

              Do you think the nuclear industry would be happy with Clause 1.? Absorbing the full cost of disposing the waste? I don’t think they would ever accept it because it would make nuclear power uncompetitive.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to J_A says:

                In an ideal world, where the externalities of other energy sources were priced in, it would be fair. Given that users of fossil fuels don’t have to pay for their externalities, though, this would be unfair, and also probably bad for the environment, since it would discourage the use of nuclear power, which as I understand it is all in all much cleaner than fossil fuels.

                If it were coupled with the introduction of a Pigovian tax on fossil fuels, the nuclear industry might jump on it. But I don’t have a good sense of the relevant numbers, so maybe not.Report

              • J_A in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                i’m completely in favour of having all companies pay their externalities. However, in practice, its very difficult to price the externalities of thermal power, moderately easy to price the externalities of about 80% of hydro (and hydro projects do pay for that 80%) and similarly easy to calculate the cost of a single purpose storage site like Yucca Mountain.

                (Easy is doing a lot of work here, but if the nuclear industry was at risk of messing up if the calculation was wrong i’m confident the numbers would come up with better accuracy)Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to J_A says:

                IIRC, the problem with requiring nuclear plants to pay for storage is that nuclear plants would rather recycle the waste, but are not allowed to.Report

              • J_A in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                That would take care of a lot of waste, but not all of it.

                But we should recycle indeedReport

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to J_A says:

                If we’d been recycling from the start, we’d have a lot less waste to deal with. Now we have so much to deal with, storage will be a going concern even if we start recycling in earnest today.Report

              • The nuclear plant owners/operators don’t care about storage vs recycling, just so long as the spent fuel (and its inherent liability risk) goes somewhere else. Reactor licenses specify exactly what fuel can be used. Very few have licenses that include fuel with recycled content. The cost to license a new fuel stream in any of the developed countries is… large. So Japan, for example, has accumulated ~50 metric tons of separated plutonium (and much more than that that has not been separated), but with only one reactor licensed to use fuel containing recycled content. That reactor consumes about 0.5 tons of plutonium per year.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Not to keep beating my horse carcass, but there are other types of reactors besides BWRs, and other reactors can make use of recycled nuclear fuel a lot more effectively than BWRs can.

                So, once again, it comes down to congress and the NRC getting serious about paving the way for better, and smaller scale, reactors to be developed, tested, and deployed. But no, they’d all rather act as if there is no safe and viable way to do nuclear power, and get all NIMBY about it.Report

              • Not arguing against, but since any new reactor design is likely to be built at, or at least tested at, one of the national labs, the first thing Congress needs to do is get serious about cleaning up Hanford and the INL, allowing independent testing at Rocky Flats, and real quality control procedures on stuff bound for the WIPP. Yes, most of those messes are related to military rather than commercial nuclear. But there needs to be a really loud message about trust sent, and cleaning up the past messes is a necessary first step.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Agreed. Hanford has been a mess, and doesn’t seem to be getting any better.Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to J_A says:

                Re (1), reactor owners have been paying billions of dollars into a fund that was to cover the costs of the long-term geologic storage for spent fuel. Sometime in the last few years, a federal court ruled that until such time as there’s an actual plan, the Dept of Energy may no longer collect that fee.

                In point of fact, (1) is (and always has been) impossible without federal government intervention. No state is going to approve storage within their borders — look into the political history of how Nevada got stuck with it.Report

          • Michael Cain in reply to J_A says:

            I actually have a lot of faith in tide power, and I’m in awe at the drop of solar, that has broken the 40$/MWh barrier already w/o subsidies (only in prime sites obviously)

            In select sites — ie, Colorado, where geographic isolation means that some of the federal regulations don’t apply — wind also (certainly with the subsidies, probably without). Xcel has testified that the price that a wind farm will give Xcel if Xcel buys every watt the farm can generate is lower than the cost to Xcel from its existing generation fleet in the region, or from new gas-fired generation. So Xcel signs those 20-year contracts, and throttles its coal- and gas-fired generators back as necessary to maximize wind-power used.

            I assert that the two biggest hurdles the states in the Western Interconnect face in building a reliable all-renewable electricity supply are: (1) state PUCs that don’t want to cede authority to anything higher and (2) the need for inter-state authority that doesn’t fit the feds’ current model for how things should be done. By comparison, the technology is straightforward.Report

            • J_A in reply to Michael Cain says:

              This is like 5 years old info, but wind class cat IV sites were profitable at 85 $/MWh all-in.

              I haven’t seen data for higher class sites and offshore wind and I wonder where the prices are nowReport

              • Morat20 in reply to J_A says:

                A friend of mine had a solar study done on his house. He was locking in (counting tax deductions, interest, maintenance and insurance) about 70% of his energy use at half the best market rate. (5 cents rather than the 10 to 12 most energy companies are offering).

                Some of that is Texas’ rather large deduction, but that’s still…quite nice. I don’t see energy prices from the wire dropping to 5 or 6 cents unless someone gets easy fusion working.Report

              • J_A in reply to Morat20 says:

                It can’t drop there because the wires themselves cost about 5 cents, and that is almost all a fixed cost.

                Your friend and your electricity invoice includes two components: the energy, provided by some generator somewhere, and the wires. At 10 cents per kWh the energy is half the bill and the wires the other half.

                Your friend is getting the energy at 5 cents, which is actually great because it means that now small rooftop power generation applications can deliver energy at the same cost as large chock-full-of-economies-of-scale high efficiency generation plants. But he is really not saving anything on the energy component. All the saving he sees is in the wires portion. He has stumbled into a loophole that cannot last

                The way distribution utilities (the wires in the street) work (rough approximation) is they take all the costs of building and maintaining the wires (all fixed costs) and divide it by the energy all the customers consume. Though the distribution costs are actually costs per household (it costs roughly the same to serve a big and a small house – density is the real differentiator) this arrangement allowed rich, high consumption households to subsidize poorer low consumption ones.

                Enter distributed generation (roof solar panels) and you are putting the whole system in jeopardy. Your friend still expects the local utility to provide the 30% that he cannot produce, and pay them 30% of what he used to. But the costs to the utility to deliver this 30% is the same as when it delivered 100%.

                As distributed generation becomes more prevalent utilities will need to move to a fixed cost per subscriber model. Your friend will see that it will have to pay roughly 50% of his old bill for the wires, plus his 5 cents for his rooftop structure plus 5 cents to the generator that provides the other 30%. Your friend’s saving are just based on getting the wire service for the 30% below cost.

                That doesn’t mean distributed generation is bad. There are good system wide reasons why distributed generation is desirable, even at current costs. Among other things more distributed generation reduces the need for more wires (on a system wide basis, not on our actual house) and will eventually bring costs and prices downwards.

                I would be ok with a system wide subsidy for distributed generation. I’m very uncomfortable with the current exploitation of an unsustainable loophole.Report

          • Oscar Gordon in reply to J_A says:

            I want to have faith in tidal power (I’ve done a lot of work for companies designing tidal turbines, the tech is ready to be fielded for trials). I will have faith once all the well meaning idiots stop throwing up environmental challenges to every proposed siting.Report

            • El Muneco in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

              This is a big issue I have with certain environmentalists – even if you’re the Doctor, sometimes it’s not possible to get it right, and you have to choose between what’s least wrong. In that situation, if you’re beholden to purity, you’re just as bad as the people who want to burn it all down. Operationally, at least.Report

              • J_A in reply to El Muneco says:

                The Environmental approval system in the USA is crazy, and at the end of the day, much less effective than the system in place in many other countries, including many developing countries.

                In the USA scores of agencies at the local, state, or federal government have authority over a little bit of the project, in many cases with overlapping jurisdiction (local and state or two different federal agencies). Then, everybody and its brother can appeal all the decisions at all levels to the judiciary, state and federal, and until the SC rules definitely or denies certiotari, nothing is settled for decades.

                The different agencies involved, all with limited budget, are easy victims to regulatory capture, which is why companies both hate the process for new projects, and love it for existing ones.

                in most other places all environmental approvals are centralized; there is a uniform code to be followed by everyone, which allows to identify violations more easily, and judicial review is very limited.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to J_A says:

                Agreed. Environmental approval should have at most 2 levels, state & federal. Anything else could be advisory, but have limited ability to toss in wrenches.Report

              • Francis in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Oh no. Most projects have very little environmental impact, and those impacts should be handled at the local level. Should a neighboring landowner concerned about a traffic impact and only wanting a dedicated right turn lane into the property being developed need to schlep up to Sacto for planning hearings?

                Moving environmental review to higher levels of government is a long-standing goal of developers seeking to disempower local government and local communities. As land use planning is done at the local level, this would create an incoherent system whereby the local agencies authorize the land use plans, then send them up to the State government for review by an office of mandarins who have no accountability to the affected community and no personal understanding of local issues.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Francis says:

                Fair enough, then how do you propose handling environmental approval of infrastructure projects such that any/every minor interested party can not derail it? If someone wants to put in a tidal turbine, or power plant, or high speed rail line, it should have a straightforward approval process that has a high bar to interrupt.Report

              • Francis in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Well, if someone made me King of California, I’d create a completely different planning process for any project that crosses a county border or has state-wide impact. So rail, most freeway, power and other large projects would be handled only at the State level and with a single-pass environmental review. I would create a special court and staff it with judges who have years of reviewing county level planning documents.

                Project opponents have a full and fair opportunity to be heard and to litigate once, on all the planning documents, permits, financing actions, etc.

                But building consensus for that kind of approach is challenging.Report

              • J_A in reply to Francis says:

                i agree with your system, but I’m not sure if you can constitutionally consolidate all the objections in a single process. Right now, every single person that is going to breath the emissions of your project has a separate tort claim against it.

                I would somehow create a “presumption of environmental fitness” (to call it something) for anything that has agency approval, so that your claim would have to prove that the agency approval was not granted according to the existing law before being allowed to proceedReport

              • J_A in reply to Francis says:

                Normally environmental assessments have several categories (three is normal in many countries). What you describe is basically the first, simplest category, affecting land use but no air or water emissions. Even those start getting messy if the land is swampy.

                But once you move past land use and traffic into infrastructure projects the sky is the limit in terms of the complications that score of agencies and levels bring, and the ability of every single person to claim some sirt of injuryReport

    • Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I like gondolas.Report

  3. Michael Cain says:

    Removed because it was misthreaded.Report

  4. Chip Daniels says:

    Then there is the Blimp House Project, where one can live in a house suspended by twin blimps.Report

  5. DavidTC says:

    I don’t even *vaguely* understand why the hell anyone would build a rail system like that.

    You want to operate a rail system over the road….build a goddamn rail system over the road. It’s called an elevated railway. Plenty of cities have them. Chicago even calls theirs ‘The L’.

    Every single ‘pro’ listed above applies to actual elevated rail except, supposedly, the costs. (Not even the ‘existing bus stop’ thing. Train stations are large because we make trains long and let people enter the entire length. Make trains tiny, make people enter at the front and exit at the rear, and all you need is a staircase/handicapped elevator and a tiny platform.)

    And I’m pretty dubious about that one. The *rails* might cost more, but that’s a fixed cost. Meanwhile, every single car of the TEB system has to be custom built, is expensive, and looks kinda frail. Also, they apparently have elevators inside them?! Elevators that somehow fit between two adjacent lanes of traffic?! (Or how do handicapped people get in from ‘existing bus stops’?)

    Additionally, bending a *two lane* wide train is going to require very sweeping turns and/or a lot of connector space. Seriously, look at that thing turning up there….is that a computer simulation? The left side (aka, stage right) is *longer* than the other side! There is no way in hell that thing can turn that sharply…or, if it can, there’s like a 10 foot buffer between cars! And unlike elevated rails, you can’t ‘cheat’ the angles on sharp turns by veering over multiple lanes or even over the sidewalk…you have to stay *in your lane*.

    There’s a reason that double-length buses have fallen out of popularity: Turning is a huge hassle.

    Also, yes, you can cleverly go over most vehicles…except the ones you can’t. At which point you just…get behind them? And ignore the cross traffic you’re blocking while stuck, I guess? Also, what about the cars that, uh, need to get out from under you, or need to cross your path? So much stupid traffic problems cropping up I can’t even list them all.

    Oh, and now you’ve got all sorts of really weird signal nonsense to deal with. With elevated train tracks, you can put the road signal lights *on* them, so it’s actually cheaper…here, you have to raise all the signals up another ten feet. A minor problem, sure, but a real one.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to DavidTC says:

      The TEB is not an alternative to elevated rail, but to light rail, especially light rail that runs on\along surface streets (see Portland Max).Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Yes, but light rail that runs along the streets has always been a solution in search of a problem to start with.

        If you care about traffic affecting your mass transits system, you either get some other right-of-way, or you build elevated, or you do both.

        In fact, I’d be interested seeing where this TEB system could *even work*.

        Like I said, it *can’t* make turns easily, probably require entire roads to be altered if it’s really going to stay in two lanes.

        It has stupid expensive vehicles, ones that I’m dubious can even be made handicap accessible.

        It requires doing all the ‘clearing out space above the road’ that elevated trains require, except more. Have fun with bridges! Elevated trains can just go up higher and over them, or wander off to the side far enough that the pass over the cross street where it’s lower. Not this.

        Sure, China might make it, but China cares not a damn about right-of-ways or rebuilding roads anyway. China just likes to do weird things.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to DavidTC says:

          Actually, it isn’t. Digging subways and building elevated is not only expensive to do & maintain, the more built out an area is, the more politically difficult it is to do either. Surface light rail avoids a lot of the politics & costs. If I’ve learned one thing watching Seattle struggle with rail transit, it’s that finding available right of ways is exceptionally difficult, unless you are willing to take a lot of political heat or spend a lot of money (which also brings heat)..

          I do agree that it would require a large turning radius, which would limit the routes it could run on, but it was already going to be limited by the minimum two lanes requirement, so I’m not sure how much more the turning radius would limit things. It would be very dependant upon how the streets are laid out in a given area. Same with bridges/overpasses.

          I don’t know how much more expensive the vehicles would be compared to light rail, since no one has built one yet, but there isn’t much about them that should drive costs exceptionally high (just looking at the proposed shape I can see multiple ways to build it that wouldn’t require anything exotic or be exceptionally heavy).

          Handicap accessibility is addressed is the same manner it would be for elevated trains (elevators/ramps at the stop), and the vehicle walls will have doors that can drop down as escape ramps.

          Every transit option that is built into developed areas is going to have problems, restrictions, and limitations, especially rail options.Report

          • If I’ve learned one thing watching Seattle struggle with rail transit, it’s that finding available right of ways is exceptionally difficult…

            Yeah, the Denver metro area communities were fortunate in being able to acquire old rail right of way (much of the West line), lease existing right of way (the Gold line opening this year), or to share with interstate highways when improvements are made (the Southeast line along I-25). The big financial hurdle for extending rail service to Boulder is that the Burlington Northern wants a staggering amount of money to lease right of way.Report

          • Morat20 in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            Watching Houston deal with light rail has been enlightening. “We’re all for light rail! Just, not down THIS street. I live there. Like..move it to that other street. Where I don’t live. I don’t want that crap coming down my street!”.

            And Houston, sadly, needs a complete rail system about 20 years ago. There’s a limit to how wide the freeways can get, and strangely the wider you make them the more people use them and transit times stubbornly don’t get better.

            I think the long term Houston plan was to replace the bus Park and Ride system (out to all the ring cities and far-flung suburbs) with light rail, with a fairly interconnected downtown (even our downtown is sprawled. We have dense commercial areas 20 miles apart.) so that getting into the city was rail, and that most riders could get fairly close to their destination via rail. Leaving buses for short hops inside the city proper.

            Unfortunately, this has been problematic. Half a rail system doesn’t really work, but you can’t just drop it down complete like you can in SimCity. Which has led to all sorts of funding problems (more for the buses being used, which is understandable enough and less for the rail system that can only service a small minority because it’s woefully incomplete) and of course NIMBYism out the whazoo.Report

            • Damon in reply to Morat20 says:

              You can always hope for a quality system like DC’s Metro.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Damon says:

                The ridiculousness of Houston’s sprawl is really hard to understand until you’ve lived it.

                We’re building a third loop around downtown. It’s something like 200+ miles around, and many of the major suburbs are still outside it.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Morat20 says:

                You mean Hwy 99?Report

              • J_A in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Formally known as The Grand Parkway.

                I live ten miles away from work. I’m deemed to live “very close”.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                That’s the one. We really need a rail setup. Light rail, heavy rail, elevated rail — anything but underground rail. As it is we have a heavily used bus park-and-ride system, but the buses use pretty much the HOV lanes that anyone willing to pay a toll can use.

                I mean you can nap, read, or otherwise zone out, but it’s not a lot faster.

                If Houston was Sim City, fixing this would be easy. You’d just demolish enough crap to run the rail lines from the city out, then put in bus stations around the various downtown areas. Ride the rail to and from downtown, ride a bus from the big station to your destinations in the city.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Morat20 says:

                If a city was smart, as it grew, it would map out possible rail corridors and try to keep development along those corridors as sparse as possible so when it wanted to put in a rail line, it could with little trouble.

                Of course, that requires that the city planners be smart, somewhat clairvoyant, and able to convince the population that the real estate in question is being reserved for a good reason.Report

              • Three thoughts. (1) Speaking broadly, such rail corridors existed; they were owned by private rail companies (as distinct from the European case, where the governments largely retained control of rail). (2) Real estate adjacent to a transportation corridor used for moving people tends to be valuable, so there’s enormous temptation to develop and tax it. (3) When people opted for cars, they elected officials who paved the corridors from one side to the other.

                With respect to (3), my suburb has adequate space for streetcars that could feed into the new light rail stations. It’s just that all of that space is already occupied by freight rail, or paved over four or more lanes wide.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                We’re sort of stuck with decades of planners who thought adding a lane to the freeway would fix the problem.

                Which, it turns out, doesn’t work. So city planners now are trying to figure out what to do about that, and what they’d like is “rail”. But people frown upon eminent domain, lowering property values, and otherwise upsetting the applecart. They just want everyone ELSE to stop driving so they can get where they’re going.Report

              • J_A in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                When I moved into Houston in 1998 there were several things about the city that surprised me:

                1. Even though mapwise Houston looks like a 100 mile diameter circle in reality it is more like a lot of spokes (the highways) joining spots. almost all of Houston is actually one or two mile wide strips along the highways, with nothing further away. It surprised me that it was almost impossible (or actually impossible) to go directly from point A over one highway to point B, a couple of miles away but along a different highway, through the back streets, so to speak. I had to hop on the highway, drive to the common hub and jump to the required highway all the way to B.

                2. I was amazed by the enormous amounts of empty space inside Houston. I don’t mean parks. I mean undeveloped land. Take a look at a population density map of Houston ( ). There is land were cows graze a couple of miles south of downtown along the US 90 and Main Street corridors that people drive through while on a 40 miles commute to their homes.

                Hell, there is one such area (approx. 4 sq. miles) about a mile from my house. Even though I live in a very desirable neighbourhood (there are houses in my block that cost 1 million – I paid 130k 11 years ago – yay gentrification) mainly because its only 10 miles from downtown, in all these years no one has developed this area 11 miles from downtown. Instead they keep going further and further away until you need a 200 miles ring to join those neighbourhoods.

                3. Because everybody drives along a very limited number of highways, and there is nothing that is not located along teh highways, I cannot think of a place better suited for a commuter train system like the ones in Western Europe. Probably for much less than the cost of expanding the highways you cold have train links that would reach downtown in 15 minutes and local feeding buses from each station. To go anywhere you would take a feeder bus to the nearest station, hop on a express (two -tree stops to downtown) or milk run train if you aren’t going to Downtown or the Galleria, and take another feeder bus or a cab from your end station. Bus routes would be short and frequent, trains would go along the existing highways fast from hub to hub.

                There. I just described paradise on the bayou. It’s incredible how easily you could turn Houston into a mass transit model city – if you wanted to.Report

              • J_A in reply to J_A says:

                I have a couple of interesting theories about why Houston developers have ignored areas closer to downtown and moved further away. I’m looking forward to an Urbanism OT post to flesh them outReport

          • Oscar Gordon in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            Depending on the proposed route, you’d get NIMBYism, or “not through there, that’s a historic neighborhood”, or “that would remove a lane from an already crowded highway”, or “we need to make sure it goes through this poorly served area*”.

            And no one wants to live right next to an Elevated train. Elevated light rail isn’t as bad, but since ware earthquake prone, elevated systems are expensive.

            *usually coupled with complaints of historic neighborhood, often by the same people who want it to serve the neighborhood, just without disturbing the historic characteristics. These are the people who give transit engineers ulcers and hair loss.Report

          • DavidTC in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            Digging subways and building elevated is not only expensive to do & maintain, the more built out an area is, the more politically difficult it is to do either.

            The more built out an area is, the more *physically impossible* it would be to do TEB.

            Surface light rail avoids a lot of the politics & costs.

            Comparing things to surface light rail is…silly, because surface light rail is literally the dumbest form of mass transit that is still sometimes useful. Surface light rail in the road is essentially dedicated bus routes. The only advantage it has over buses is that it can save some operating costs, and can transition to non-surface light rail when needed. The disadvantage, of course, is that you can’t move it, and it has even less capability to deal with traffic, as it can’t go around it.

            TEB tries to fix that one ‘traffic’ disadvantage of surface light rail, except it doesn’t *actually* do so. It seems to assume that bad traffic mysteriously only exists under it, when in reality bad traffic would stop it from crossing side roads…and it would make bad traffic worse by weirdly restricting traffic flow of cars trapped under and next to it.

            But the proponents of it seem to have failed to notice we *already* have mass transit rail systems that do not have to deal with traffic. As in, they literally don’t deal with traffic at all. One of them is shaped *almost exactly like a TEB*, in fact, with a train running over a road…it’s just a less crazy design.

            If I’ve learned one thing watching Seattle struggle with rail transit, it’s that finding available right of ways is exceptionally difficult, unless you are willing to take a lot of political heat or spend a lot of money (which also brings heat)..

            I don’t know why you think elevated rail right of ways are hard to find. If you have the amount of clearance to run *that* thing, you can build an elevated rail in the exact same space.

            If it’s possible to run that thing, it, by definition, is possible to build *walls* between lanes of traffic and run trains *on top of them*. (Not that that is how you should actually build an elevated track, but whatever.)

            I do agree that it would require a large turning radius, which would limit the routes it could run on, but it was already going to be limited by the minimum two lanes requirement, so I’m not sure how much more the turning radius would limit things. It would be very dependant upon how the streets are laid out in a given area. Same with bridges/overpasses.

            Basically, you’d be limited to wide boulevards, or highways…and highways are exactly the places with bridges.

            And, what’s more, the problem with elevated train right of ways is where they can’t fit entirely over the road…but here, we are *already* talking about a two lane wide road, minimum, and one that can’t turn sharply at that! It’s *exactly* the setup that elevated rail fits perfectly in.

            Handicap accessibility is addressed is the same manner it would be for elevated trains (elevators/ramps at the stop), and the vehicle walls will have doors that can drop down as escape ramps.

            So, in other words, the ‘use existing bus stops’ advantage is…made up? In reality, you’d have to have a station, like a train?

            And, of course, in reality: This actually can’t work anyway. I mean, literally can’t work, at least not on existing roads.

            Road lanes are *different widths* depending on the road, which means the tracks can’t fit between them.

            Likewise, even if we assume that these sides are six inches wide (Which is pretty damn thin to support something like this, especially on curves.), you’ve now put a six-inch wide barrier between lanes of traffic. Oh, and if the road is only two lanes to start with, you’ve now taken out six inches+six inches+a buffer between them in the center to run the tracks in opposite directions. That’s not safe at all. (Granted, elevated rail often put something in the center, also…but they put one stationary thing, not two things moving in opposite directions. They can be *part* of the divider, not need a divider themselves! And, worse case scenario, they get supported from the sides instead.)

            You could *build* roads these tracks worked on, sure. You could even, perhaps, find some ideal existing road and make a system that runs up and down just it. (The Vegas Monorail school of mass transit design.)

            What you almost certainly couldn’t do without a hell of a lot of work is put a system in on a bunch of *existing* roads, especially in these cramped hypothetical situations you couldn’t fit elevated rail.Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to DavidTC says:


              You seem to have some idea that the problem with elevated rail is finding a physical right of way. You are correct that physically, building the rail line isn’t hard.

              Politically, it’s a freakin nightmare. No one, and I mean damn near NO ONE wants to live near an elevated rail line. They may live near one out of necessity, but I guarantee you that every single property owner within earshot of the proposed elevated rail route will raise unholy hell at the idea of putting that thing in their backyard (backyard being anything within earshot). Elevated rail is noisy as hell (I lived near the Chicago elevated rail for a time, there isn’t enough sound insulation in a standard wall to muffle that racket). You also have to have an easement for the line, which means using eminent domain along the whole length (and that never gets the public riled up). You could offer to build sound barriers, but that adds cost, and those aren’t exactly attractive.

              An elevated light rail line is better, as light rail is not as noisy (so the number of people who will be annoyed is greatly reduced), and it’s an easier sell to the public because light rail can divert to run along surface streets.

              I mean, yeah, light rail on it’s face is silly, all of the disadvantages of the bus, with none of the advantages, plus heavy as hell (relative to a bus) and expensive. Cities would be better off using Rapid Transit bus lines in dedicated lanes, but there is this fascination with rail, especially among transit advocates, that drives deployment (see all previous discussions of rail & buses as indicators of class).

              Personally, I agree with you that the right idea for useful mass transit is to run a train right down the center of highways & major arterials, either under it, at the surface, or above it (see Chicago Metra Blue line (along I-290)). Rail is used to move large volumes of people from point A to point B, where A & B are distribution hubs, then buses & cars do the rest. But no one wants to do that who hasn’t already done it, so we are stuck looking for other options, like TEB.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Yeah, what I think I wasn’t really thinking about in all this is: I live in Georgia.

                Here, the problem isn’t dumbasses who demand light rail. Oh, sure, sometimes we get a weirdo or two suggesting it, but most people are perfectly fine with buses.

                Here in Georgia, the mass transit problem is, as I’ve said before, is racism/classism directed at the entire concept of mass transit, keeping it out of Atlanta suburbs.

                We have plenty of room to run rail, in fact, we have plenty of room to run rail *not near anyone*. We’d run it up and down the center of highways, all of which have *plenty* of room, with huge medians, to new rail stations in the middle of nowhere that you get off at an exit ramp. I’m pretty sure we even deliberately set up most of our bridges to be able to run trains under them. Sound and local NIMBYism is literally no concern at all.

                The concern is assholes who think that MARTA stands for ‘Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta’, and if they get MARTA rail up to their suburbs, poor people will ride them up and steal their shit.

                Hell, Cobb County, the county directly to the northwest of Atlanta, with part of it inside the Perimeter, is so urban and poor it basically *had* to have a mass transit system, but has enough rich white voting subdivisions that it’s scared of MARTA. So the county built *their own* incredibly crappy bus system(1), quite possibly because it could keep more control over it and thus keep it away from the rich areas.

                Other places, I am aware, have attached weird class ideas to *specific* types of mass transit, and thus would rather have completely insane types of mass transit like the TEB that have specific class indicators attached to them, despite the fact they literally make no sense at all to use.

                Sadly, as I pointed out, not only is a TEB stupid, but it’s also pretty damn unusable to add to any existing city. You’d basically have to build a road system designed to allow it.

                1) I once waited an hour and twenty minutes for a bus…on a route where the bus comes every thirty minutes, and then *entire route* is one hour.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to DavidTC says:

                You’d basically have to build a road system designed to allow it.

                It is entirely possible that China has road systems that would handle the TEB just fine. I can think of some roads in my area that could run the TEB system as is, or with very minor modification, but there are also vast tracts that would be inaccessible, so it’s utility would limited in ways that might make it unworkable.

                That said, it’s an idea that is trying to address real issues that established urban areas are having with getting transit up & running to relieve congestion. It might be unworkable enough in the US that we’ll never see it here, but it could lead to better ideas for how we can do things.

                Re: Transit and class issues – You’ll find some variation on this theme in every city in the US that is trying to grow transit. I’m not sure how much of an issue it is in cities like NY or Chicago, with well established systems.Report