Would More People Ride the Bus if It Looked and Felt Like a Train?
By Jeff Turrentine
It moves through city thoroughfares, towering above automobile traffic. It makes frequent stops to pick up and drop off passengers. It has places to sit, places to stand, and—yes—rubber-tired wheels that go 'round and 'round, all through the town.
But don't call it a bus. It's a "trackless electric train."
In this day and age, we're told, branding is everything. And the humble city bus—what many people tend to think of as the most proletarian, least sexy form of transportation—continues to have an image problem. Buses are the form of mass transit that users love to hate. They're too slow, riders say. They make too many stops. You have to wait forever (outside, braving the elements) for one to show up, and then when it finally does, it's crammed so full that you can't even get on. Ridership, accordingly, is down.
Meanwhile, cities across the country have fallen in love with light rail and are laying tracks and buying stock at a record clip. A light rail system in the urban core of a medium-size city is now almost a prerequisite for courting and keeping a young workforce that increasingly lists public transportation and city-center living as priorities.
But here's the thing: For most cities, buses work. They don't just fulfill their basic mechanical function of transporting groups of people from point A to point B. They also work practically and financially. In particular, the transportation mode known as bus rapid transit (BRT) has proved itself to be an extraordinarily efficient and user-friendly option for cities looking to maximize ridership and rider satisfaction while minimizing costs. In many cities, in fact, BRT—which typically includes a dedicated right-of-way, off-board fare collection and faster and more frequent operations—is giving rail a run for its taxpayer money.
Even so, BRT is missing a certain hip factor. So allow me to introduce you to a new kind of bus, or rather, a train transmogrified. Late last month, residents of Zhuzhou, a metropolis of more than three million people in China's Hunan province, began seeing what looked like runaway trains gliding through the dedicated bus lanes of their city's streets. These rubber-tired, green-and-black concatenations are three carriages long, run on battery power, and can carry more than 300 passengers at speeds of up to 43 miles per hour. Oh, and one more thing: They don't require a driver or an engineer. They self-navigate via a computerized sensor that scans signals painted on the ground.
They're also comparatively cheap—not to mention easy to set up. According to the vehicle's Chinese manufacturer, an urban transit system made up of these train-bus hybrids would cost about a fifth of a subway system covering equivalent distances and ridership. And with no need for track infrastructure, a city could start using the vehicles almost immediately after purchase, assuming it can build the stations and clear the traffic lanes needed to establish the right-of-way.
Carlos Giménez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, is more than curious. Two weeks ago, in an address to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, he announced his intention to visit Zhuzhou and ride its new trackless trains, with an eye toward purchasing a fleet of them for his own traffic-snarled municipality. Before sharing a promotional video, he enthusiastically told his audience of local business leaders that the buses represent "a solution we can implement now, not one that will take decades to complete."
Giménez came into office as a staunch champion of expanding Miami-Dade's Metrorail system. But once he studied the issue more closely, he determined that BRT would be the right choice for his city and region, helping them achieve their targeted ridership numbers at little more than a third of the price. So far, however, Miami-Dade commissioners aren't sold on the idea. They're still pushing for a rail expansion plan that could cost taxpayers as much as $1.5 billion.
Neither side in this battle is wrong or right. The point isn't that BRT is always better than light rail or vice versa. The point is that different cities have different needs when it comes to public transportation, and they should carefully weigh those needs against costs, public sentiment, long-term goals, and other factors before committing funds to create or expand a transportation system. The ultimate goal should be doing whatever it takes to get the largest number of people out of their cars and into some kind of shared transit.
In the meantime, I think we can all agree that the trackless train is sleek and stylish. Call it a train, call it a bus, call it whatever you want. Just get the people on board, and let's get rolling.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.