Sunday, August 2, 2009

Days of Our Cars: Are We Trapped in a Transportation Love Triangle?

I was faced recently with a new possible alternative to our emission-related woes, thanks to my work with the big Go Green boss lady, Jill Buck. She introduced me to a company known as Better Place, which, despite an outrageously vague title, has a very specific view of how things can be improved in our transportation realm. What Better Place essentially promotes is the concept of the electric car, which the company believes is a concept that can – and should – be brought back in light of our transport-related woes. They don’t make the cars; instead, what Better Place has done is work towards the creation of a network of systems designed to supplement the use of the electric car. Most of what people are concerned with regarding the electric car, according to spokesperson Jason Wolf, is related to convenience, cost, and range. Not much can be said regarding cost – that much is certainly very subjective, depending on how you weigh costs and benefits – but convenience and range are two aspects of the electric car that Better Place can potentially solve.

Electric cars can only last about 100 miles before the battery dies out. It is this battery that makes the car such an expensive item. Allowing the battery to charge takes hours, as high as seven, in order to renew its energy source. The problems related to such a necessity can basically speak for themselves, but I’ll speak for them anyway – what if you live in a suburb, where you must commute more than 100 miles daily? What if you decide to take a long trip? What if there’s an emergency in the middle of the night and your car is CHARGING? The convenience level on an electric car is severely limited. However, Better Place has a concept that could potentially revolutionize those limitations. They propose battery-changing stations, where a person could pull up, have the battery replaced with a fully charged new battery, and continue on their merry way. Oh, and get this – these stations would even be able to recognize you, and your preferences. Your COFFEE preferences. Now we’re talking 21st century, am I right??

Having these stations, which would presumably be distributed throughout whatever region the company chose to focus on, certainly increases the electric car’s quota for convenience and range. Better Place has also thought of issues surrounding the waste and energy use of the electric car – I don’t want to go into too much detail here (you can find the link to their website and to the Go Green podcast below), but it involves some very intelligent alternative energy sources. Better Place makes a great point – in relationship to our level of technological advancement (which is certainly related to our great need for such advancements) – this is the perfect time to start. Conceptually, the electric car may finally have enough strengths to be as competitive in the auto market as one that relies on a combustible engine.

However – who are we kidding? We don’t have the money for this. We barely have the money to start the many other transportation projects we’ve already started – or worse, that we’ve already promised. (I’m looking at you, California.) While Mr. Wolf states, quite rightly, that California is an excellent place to start, his reasoning seems to me a little shaky in the current circumstances. He cites our disposable income (ha!), innovation (questionable), and leading in environmental change (true of some cities or regions, but rather unevenly followed through as a whole). And that’s even failing to mention the fact that we still have a rather massive transit project on our hands – I assume nobody’s forgotten that little rail line we’ve got planned.

We cannot – period, can’t – invest in mass transit projects and mass networks for new vehicles. We have to choose. On the one hand, we can’t really get out of the rail line now that we’ve voted it in. However, rail is not really in our blood as Californians; we love our cars. And while the electric car is a genius solution to that particular need by our state’s residents, we don’t exactly have the money as individuals to invest in a car that, as of now, can only take us 100 miles at a time.

We’re in a love triangle; torn between our aspirations for an era of light rail that could bring us up to speed (get it?) with the rest of the world, and the appeal of a car that we wouldn’t feel environmentally guilty about owning. And unfortunately, this isn’t the original Beverly Hills 90210, so we can’t pull a Kelly Taylor and merely choose ourselves. Or can we? Are there more alternatives? Or are we already faced with our two best options?

Up next: how will our choice in the above love triangle affect our urban landscapes? What’s next for land use? Stay tuned . . .

. . . and in the meantime, check out the following links: - Better Place corporate website - Go Green Radio interview with Jason Wolf

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