Yale’s Great Energy Blog, launching today, is where students from across the university will answer a question we pose to them. This week:

Smarter Ways to Get from Here to There: Perugia, Italy, is a city that has made a concerted effort to eliminate car traffic from the urban environs, with people moving around via a unique system of escalators and frequent, reliable mini-trains. How could this approach work in other cities, and could similar approaches be adapted for long-distance travel to reduce reliance on personal automobiles?

Next week: How to Feed the World’s Energy Poor

MiniMetrò’s Modern Movement

Rachael Styer, Environmental Studies, ’12

There was a party in Perugia when the MiniMetrò came to town in 2008. Hailed by city-dwellers as a revolution in public transportation, the MiniMetrò is a tram-style transit system engineered by the Italian-based Leitner Group. For mid-sized European cities like Perugia, concepts like MiniMetrò are a unique solution to an ages-old transportation problem: the modern city is built atop and among the narrow streets of the hilly medieval city, causing motorized transport in and out to be challenging.

Although the concept of a rail system and escalators is nothing new to most city planners, the MiniMetrò offers valuable insight into a future in which commuters and long-travelers can be less reliant on personal forms of transportation. It links various forms of public transportation to effectively streamline travel routes. In Perugia, a commuter can transfer with ease from bus or car to MiniMetrò to escalator to city center, flowing seamlessly between these modes of public transit.

Movement towards easily accessible, inter-locking mass transit systems offer cities opportunities to reduce air and noise pollution which accompanies motor traffic into downtown areas. Adapting systems similar to Perugia’s to suit long-distance travel routes would work towards eliminating the need for certain types of motor traffic on a large scale: a MiniMetrò which linked airports or suburbs to city centers could reduce the energy required by personal cars or taxis to fill this transportation void.

Texas Won’t Fit in a Perugia System

Eli Mitchell-Larson, Environmental Studies, ’12
In an effort to tackle congestion in crowded city centers, some major cities like London have tried charging large, blanket fees to anyone who wants to drive within a central area. Although this is a laudable strategy, I appreciate Perugia’s efforts to reduce car traffic which focus on providing effective public transportation alternatives instead of simply de-incentivizing driving. Reducing car traffic promotes better local air quality, encourages a healthier lifestyle, and reduces fossil fuel emissions so why don’t more cities, particularly in America, try to cut down on the number of single passenger car trips? In the US the scale of transportation often doesn’t lend itself to rapid public transit solutions.

Citizens of Houston, TX, for example, consume about 15 times more energy in transportation alone than do citizens of Hong Kong because of an extremely low development density that requires long commutes. In places like Houston, applying the “Perugia model” would be difficult. Developing a public transportation system to serve this expanding, low-density suburbia could merely perpetuate an inherently unsustainable lifestyle in which every family owns a large, isolated home and multiple cars. The ultimate solution might be to provide people with compelling reasons to stay in dense urban environments instead of moving to the suburbs in the first place. I think there must be something deeply satisfying about reaching all of one’s daily destinations on foot, but this may be a case more easily made when walking to work means crossing a medieval Roman aqueduct.

Jumpstarting Efficient Communities: Resources

Erin Derrington, Pace School of Law & Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, ’11

Could energy efficient technology approaches work in cities in the United States? Like most complex policy questions, the answer is, it depends.

Certainly, technology is available to accommodate shifts in energy and travel trends. Political will is a critical component driving transportation change, but several complementary reasons may encourage communities to explore and implement efficiency options. Numerous case studies demonstrate that green innovations in the transportation sector can be economically and environmentally beneficial, create demand for skilled, localized jobs, support national security interests by reducing dependence on foreign energy sources, and can create and maintain vibrant communities.

Already, many states and cities are charging ahead to achieve smart energy solutions tailored to localized needs and preferences. Coordinated local and regional transit oriented development, as well as tiered access to efficiency infrastructures, from charging stations to light rail corridors, will be critical in creating sustainable, community-tailored transportation alternatives.  Get efficiency case studies, resources and more>>

Rail in America: Fast and Full

Brian Kauffman, MEM Environmental Management, ’12

US economic stimulus efforts have pushed the idea of investing in high-speed train travel back to the forefront. This is great news for environmentalists, as well. Encouraging travelers to shift from driving their own cars to riding trains is a key element of getting from here to there, smarter.

Debates are raging in California, Florida, Illinois about whether these train lines are a good way to put people back to work and create better transportation systems for the future. Such transit lines will only be smarter environmentally (not to mention, economically) if ridership is strong. A packed train demands roughly the same amount of energy as a train with just a few folks on it. Not to mention, an empty train will be the first to feel the effects of budget cuts down the line.

The Department of Energy’s 2010 Transportation Energy Data Book details that energy intensity of America’s light rail systems varies immensely. In 2008, San Diego’s train system used roughly 2,000 BTU per passenger-mile. On the other hand, Memphis’ train system used 22,000 BTU per passenger-mile.

When we think about the environmental impacts, in America, high-speed lines will be truly “smart” if we encourage enough people to use them!

Innovation Always Leads the Way

Megan Altizer, Environmental Engineering, ’12

What’s the best solution for cities grappling with pollution and traffic congestion? In Perugia, Italy, a system of escalators and “minimetros” allows them to operate virtually car-free. In Shenzhen, China, officials are considering a “straddling bus” system designed by Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment, to be built directly on existing roadways. Exporting transportation systems to other cities is not as simple as it seems. Existing transportation infrastructure, construction impacts and travel distance travel all impact the decision.

Though these two solutions are strikingly different, each corrects similar issues while meeting unique needs. In Perugia, it was necessary to accommodate population fluctuations due to large annual festivals, while also accounting for the financing power of a population of 160,000. The minimetro system, unlike other transportation systems, like subways, fit their budget. Furthermore, the stations, designed by Jean Nouvel, peacefully co-exist with the city’s historic architecture. Similarly, if Huashi’s design is implemented in Shenzhen, congestion could be reduced by 25-30 percent at one-tenth the cost of building another comparable system. In addition to being economical, the solar-powered buses mesh seamlessly with existing infrastructure, requiring no tunneling or elevated tracks.

Whether Perugia or Shenzhen’s solution could be implemented elsewhere is a question of numerous complex factors. But, success doesn’t derive from novel technology to be applied as a grand strategy, but rather the willingness of populations to find tailored strategies. Minimetros and straddling buses might function in other cities or over long distances, but the take-away message should be their innovative and open-minded problem solving approach.