America’s Love Affair — with Its Cars
It’s a well known fact that Americans love their cars. However, with continued fluctuation in gasoline prices and increasingly congested highways, many Americans are becoming more receptive to giving up their cars – or at least trading the daily commute to and from work – for a trip where someone else does the driving. One possible solution that addresses both high gas prices and clogged roadways is high-speed rail.
In Europe and Asia, where high-speed rail is well established, countries and individual riders alike have enjoyed far ranging benefits as a result – economic, social, environmental and in added convenience. High-speed rail has also begun to gain traction in the United States. The Obama administration has been especially enthusiastic about high-speed rail, allocating millions of dollars to its expansion.
High-Speed Rail Defined
The definition for high-speed rail in the United States differs from the definition used in the rest of the world, where high-speed rail is faster. For instance, the definition of high-speed rail in the European Union covers trains that travel up to 250 km/h (or 156 mph) on newly constructed lines. The EU defines high-speed rail on converted or upgraded lines as trains that travel up to 220 km/h (or 136 mph). At this writing, only one rail line in the United States meets the EU standard for high-speed rail: the Acela Express, an Amtrak train that runs between Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The Acela Express averages 68 mph (or 109 km/h) for its entire distance, but reaches 150 mph (or 240 km/h) for brief stretches of its run.
By contrast, the United States has designated three categories of high-speed rail: Emerging, Regional and Express. Emerging high-speed rail covers corridors ranging from 100 to 500 miles in distance (or 160 to 800 kilometers) long that have potential for supporting future high-speed rail development for trains traveling between 90 to 110 mph (or 145 to 177 km/h) on shared track. Regional high-speed rail is defined as service between population centers located between 100 and 500 miles apart (or 160 to 800 kilometers), and trains with top speeds ranging from 110 to 150 mph (or 177 to 240 km/h) with some dedicated track and some shared track. Express high-speed rail is used to define frequent service between major population centers located from 200 to 600 miles apart (or 320 to 965 kilometers) on trains that travel on dedicated tracks at speeds of at least 150 mph (or 240 km/h).
Although high-speed rail cars generally burn fossil fuels, they are still more environmentally friendly than private cars, for two reasons. First, trains produce less carbon dioxide than would be produced by the number of private automobiles required to transport the same number of people over a given distance. Second, because rail traffic is a form of public transportation, more rail traffic translates to less automobile traffic, and by extension, less highway and city street traffic congestion. In addition, less congestion means less wear and tear on the roadways, which means that they require fewer repairs.
Airline travel used to be a luxury, with passengers treated to full hot meals as well as free checked baggage, comfortable seats and leisurely boarding procedures. Those days are long gone. Airlines routinely charge fees for everything from checked bags to early boarding privileges along with stringent restrictions imposed on carry on luggage.
With high-speed rail, travel times for distances of 400 miles or less could compare favorably to travel time by air — with much less hassle. Train travel has far fewer restrictions on luggage than air travel, along with a somewhat more relaxed boarding process. In addition, many passenger trains feature amenities such as electric outlets for laptops and roomy seats, along with the opportunity to sit back and relax while chatting with fellow passengers or just watching the scenery go by.
High-speed rail has proven to be an engine of economic development, resulting in immediate job creation not only from the construction of the rails and related infrastructure and stations. High-speed rail also stimulates long term economic benefits generally and job growth specifically from commercial, residential and industrial developments that spring up along rail lines. In addition, the addition of high-speed rail can be a boon to tourism. While many airports, by necessity, are located far from the city center, it’s possible for high-speed rail to run right into the heart of a city’s downtown, with stations located near cultural amenities, restaurants, hotels and shopping.
High-speed rail can promote a sense of social cohesion among residents, by bringing distant populated areas closer together. Sprawl is a reality of modern American urban life. The metropolitan areas for cities like Chicago spread far beyond the borders of the city. In addition to sprawl, a large country like the United States often has vast distances between populated areas. High-speed rail reduces the travelling distance between far flung suburbs and center cities.
High-speed rail can also help to ease congestion of urban areas with mega-large populations. By virtue of its speed, high-speed rail allows individuals and commercial enterprises to be located further away from the city center while still being able to readily access its amenities and resources. As a result, urban residents may enjoy a vastly enhanced quality of life.
- High Speed Rail (zoningthegardenstate.wordpress.com)
- DfT urged to consider national High Speed rail plan (railnews.co.uk)
- HS2 Hybrid Bill & High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill announced in Queen’s Speech is “good news for passengers and the economy” (atoc.org)
As much as progressives and ecologically inclined individuals promote public transit, car sharing and other planet-friendly alternatives to individually operated vehicles, the fact remains that America loves its cars. To be fair, there are instances when nearly all individuals need or want access to a car, van or truck. In rural areas and regions where public transit is scarce or nonexistent, being without one’s own vehicle literally means being stranded.
It’s no wonder, then, that one of the most heavily visited exhibits at the 2012 Chicago Green Festival was the all-electric Ford Focus, one of several models on display by Ford. Visually modeled after the popular and well-reviewed gasoline powered Ford Focus, the all-electric model is Ford’s answer to the Nissan Leaf and, to a lesser extent, the dual gasoline and electric-powered Chevrolet Volt. According to the representatives at the Green Festival, there are only 36 Focus Electric models on the road at present, mostly utilized as company cars for Internet giants Google and Yahoo. However, the manufacturing plant in Wayne, Michigan is equipped to produce the Focus along with other Ford models, and can increase or decrease production as demand warrants.
The all-electric model is priced at a hefty $39,999. However, buyers are eligible to receive federal income tax credits that can decrease the out-of-pocket costs; additional financial incentives may also be available at the state level. In addition, owners of all-electric cars are spared the pain at the pump of fluctuating (and usually increasing) gasoline prices. Home charging stations for overnight charging of the Focus Electric are available at Best Buy, with installation by the Geek Squad. Public charging stations are also becoming increasingly available, especially in urban areas.
Like the Toyota Leaf, the Focus Electric derives its power from a lithium-ion battery. The Focus Electric has a regenerative braking system that recaptures up to 90 percent of the energy normally lost through conventional friction braking. It also has a liquid-powered heating and cooling system to regulate battery temperature against exterior conditions, which can be a real advantage with the temperature extremes that occur in Chicago.
The estimated battery range for the Focus Electric is 76 miles, which is comparable to that of the Leaf. The battery for the Focus Electric is warranted for 100,000 miles. After reaching the end of their useful lives for powering cars, batteries will be repurposed for less demanding chores, according to the representatives at the Green Festival, diminishing the risk that spent batteries will be shipped off to developing countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to the model available for viewing at the Green Festival, vehicles were available for test drives. Licensed drivers could take the cars out for a brief spin, accompanied by a representative to provide guidance on operating the vehicles. The Focus Electric proved to be fun to drive. Like other electric cars, its operation is whisper quiet. The ride is smooth and the steering is as responsive as that of a gasoline-powered car. However, the brakes are super-sensitive. A gentle tap is more than sufficient to bring the vehicle to a complete stop. Slamming on the brakes in the Focus Electric may result in flipping the car over.
At present, electric cars like the Leaf, the Volt and the Focus Electric offer a viable, although expensive, in-town alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. In an ideal world where charging stations are as plentiful as gas stations, electric cars may provide a viable option for highway travel as well. With increased driving ranges and reduced battery recharging times , it may well happen.
On The Street of the Lifted Lorax, “the wind smells slow and sour when it blows; and the birds never sing, except for old crows . . . ” In this forsaken place, there are decrepit signs in shoddy disrepair, tufts of grickle-grass, and not much else.
The Street of the Lifted Lorax is Dr. Seuss‘ mythical representation of the consequences of rampant greed and urban sprawl run amok. Although The Lorax was published in 1971, and the animated feature produced in 1972, its lessons still resonate as a cautionary tale, with some of its hardest lessons evidently still unlearned in the real world.
The destruction the Earth’s natural habitats and the effects of climate change are increasingly obvious, with the ironic result of making further commercial ventures viable in regions heretofore inaccessible. The fabled Northwest Passage, long an unattainable shipping lane due to year round Arctic ice cover, may become a reality before the end of this century.
Also ironically, the fossil fuels which are believed to be largely responsible for climate change have become potentially more accessible as well. In August 2005, a Russian research ship was able to reach the North Pole without an icebreaker to clear a pathway – the first time in history. Its mission? To anchor Russia’s claim to virtually half the Arctic Ocean – estimated to hold a full one quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves. Such reserves are nearly irresistible for industrialized and developing economies facing increasing scarcity and higher prices for fossil fuels. A Thneed, after all, is what everyone needs.
The need has become more acute as the planet becomes ever more urbanized, putting further strain on resources such as clean drinking water and arable land suitable for agriculture, never mind uninhabited natural landscapes. According to U.N. Habitat, the world’s urban population will grow from 2.86 billion in 2000 to 4.98 billion by 2030, with much of that growth in the developing world, in medium and low-income countries – with many of the migrants themselves being extremely poor.This is an increasingly urgent situation, which, if unaddressed, is a time bomb in the making. Many cities worldwide are ringed with shantytowns of unimaginable poverty. A major aspect of urban sustainability (if not bottom-line livability) in decades to come will be in dealing with this influx of people, both in numbers and in the scope of their social needs.
This post was originally pubished on JustMeans.com as “The Lorax Revisited” and republished in Sustainable Cities Collective.
A sellout crowd filled the John Buck Lecture Hall at the Santa Fe Building on the evening of Wednesday, October 13, 2010, as the Chicago Architecture Foundation hosted the showing of the award-winning documentary Louis Sullivan: the Struggle for American Architecture. A Q and A session with the documentary’s director, Mark Richard Smith immediately followed the screening.
Family members and loved ones of longtime CAF docent Aileen Mandel, who was featured in the film and who died in 2009, were honored guests at the event. The film was a highlight of a month-long celebration of Louis Sullivan and his work by CAF.
- The film follows Louis Sullivan from his youth and arrival in Chicago as a teenager, through the course of his career, chronicling his rapid ascent to the heights of architectural recognition to his long decent into poverty and obscurity — at least with the public. Although he was largely unsuccessful at making his living as an architect after the turn of the 20th Century, Louis Sullivan’s reputation never dimmed among his professional peers. In fact, Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most celebrated architects of the 20th Century, considered Louis Sullivan to be a mentor, calling him “lieber meister,” German for “beloved master.”
The height of Sullivan’s career is embodied in one of his most acclaimed structures, the Auditorium Building, which also represents a physical manifestation of the symbiotic partnership of Louis Sullivan, the consummate designer, and Dankmar Adler, the brilliant acoustical and structural problem-solver. The original design of the Auditorium Building seamlessly integrated three distinct functions: an office block, an opera hall, and a grand hotel into what was at the time the largest, heaviest structure in the world.
The building’s exterior was inspired by H. H. Richardson’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store, now demolished. The lavish interiors of the Auditorium Theater and the building’s hotel represented the outpouring of Sullivan’s love of nature and his absolute devotion to an organic, uniquely American architecture.
The Auditorium Building created a sensation upon its completion, and was largely influential in Chicago’s being awarded the coveted prize of hosting the 1893 Columbian Exposition. However, the Columbian Exposition also foreshadowed Sullivan’s loss of favor with the public.
The direction of the Columbian Exposition was placed in the hands of Daniel Burnham, as much a planner and master of strategy as an architect. Under Burnham’s direction, the fairgrounds of the Columbian Exposition, which came to be known as the White City, represented a whitewashed refuge of grand colonnades, shimmering reflecting pools and exotic displays of artifacts and people, rather than a realistic profile of its host city.
Sullivan openly voiced his disdain for what he saw as a squandered opportunity for Chicago and America to demonstrate and promote its own architectural voice. His own contribution to the Exposition, the Transportation Building, defied the prevailing theme with its bright colors and bold design. It was well-received by the European visitors to the fair, but the American audience was captivated by the Greek and Roman-influenced elegance of the White City.
The Columbian Exposition was a huge success, drawing millions of spectators. In addition, the classically-influenced Beaux-Arts style of architecture represented in so many of its structures would influence building construction and design for decades.
By contrast, the initial success of the Auditorium Building faded quickly. The office block suffered from the construction of the elevated track that obstructed the view and which had noisy trains running by just a few short feet away from the windows of many of its tenants. The hotel lacked en suite bathrooms, much to the consternation of would-be guests. The opera house, despite its near-perfect acoustics, could not draw enough of an audience to fill its more than 4,000 seats on a consistent basis and lost its main tenant to a smaller facility.
As a result, the Auditorium Building, the jewel that represented the high water mark of Sullivan’s popular recognition, suffered a precipitous decline. At one point the enormous structure was slated for demolition, saved from the wrecking ball only by its sheer size and the immense cost of tearing it down. Roosevelt University took over the building in the 1940′s and still occupies it today, while the Auditorium Theater continues to host entertainment events.
The partnership of Adler and Sullivan did not survive into the 20th Century, and with Adler’s departure, Sullivan found himself without many of the contacts and connections that had generated commissions for the firm. The loss of the partnership, along with his refusal to compromise his vision to adhere to what he viewed as backward-looking imitation, made it more and more difficult for Sullivan to make his living as an architect. His last major commission in Chicago was what is now known as the Sullivan Center, but which spent most of its existence as the downtown flagship store for the Carson Pirie Scott company.
Sullivan spent the latter part of his career designing small commissions, including a collection of banks scattered throughout the upper Midwest. He also produced books and treatises that outlined his architectural philosophy, including his autobiography, titled The Autobiography of an Idea, completed shortly before he died in 1924.
Two other exhibits showcased and celebrated the work of Louis Sullivan here in Chicago. The Art Institute of Chicago hosted Looking After Louis Sullivan, a collection of drawings, photographs, and artifacts associated with Sullivan and his work. The exhibit was free with admission to the museum and ran through December 12, 2010.
The Chicago Cultural Center mounted a spectacular retrospective of Sullivan’s life, architecture, drawings and writings, including numerous artifacts from the collection of the exhibit’s curator, Tim Samuelson, titled Louis Sullivan’s Idea. The exhibit was free and open to the public and ran through March 27, 2011.
This post was previously published on the Chicago Examiner.com website.