23 February 2011

Ipswich Motorway: Looking beyond electric vehicles

By Doug Harland
Current transport paradigms are no longer affordable or sustainable. Electrification of our urban transport system is urgently required, but we need to think beyond electric cars.
A comparison between Australia and two countries that have high quality infrastructure, namely Japan and Germany, highlights our great infrastructure delivery and maintenance challenge and this comparison is relevant to understand the uniqueness of Australia. Both Japan and Germany have about 5 per cent of Australia's area and seven times the population and neither are exposed to the damaging climate extremes existing in our sunburnt country. Australia is a very large country to service and produces many challenges.
Australia's taxation base provided by our small population is simply too small for the size of our country to adequately service the population's infrastructure expectations. With congestion in all cities increasing significantly, the result of population peak growth rates in excess of 300,000 per year, it will only get worse. In addition, Engineers Australia's infrastructure report card identified most infrastructure was 40 years old and needed hundreds of billions of dollars to bring it up to a quality standard – couple this with emerging climate change impacts, and the enormity of the challenge is sobering.
Consider Brisbane as a case in point. Although a genuine attempt is being made to ease congestion through major investment in road upgrades using current technology I can share two actual experiences that illustrate a major vulnerability.
I left the suburb of Oxley one morning at 6am for a flight at 8.30am, where in good conditions it is a 40-minute drive. I missed the plane. The $2.5 billion investment on 20km of the Ipswich motorway, and the $3 billion investment on 5km of Clem 7 tunnel were severely compromised by two people who had a bad day and caused an accident, one on the new Ipswich Motorway and one on the Gateway Motorway. Brisbane was gridlocked.
More than $2.5 billion has been invested in Bruce Highway upgrades, and significant works were recently completed between Brisbane and Caloundra. A drive from Caloundra to Brisbane can take one and a quarter hours, however at peak hour, in spite of recent upgrades, the journey becomes two to three hours as one idles along in the congested traffic – more if an accident occurs. Yet to meet unprecedented population growth a satellite city of 50,000 people by 2031 is being planned in the area adjacent to Caloundra, and the transport infrastructure challenges will be huge.
It is clear the electrification of our urban transport systems is urgently needed. But are we destined to have electric car congestion or is there a new paradigm for the future to provide a more sustainable urban transport system? Rail will provide some relief, but is not the total answer. What, then, is the solution?
Several solutions will present themselves: walking, cycling, Segway-type units and personal pod transporters, the latter in my view being the most promising and suited to all weather conditions and providing the most potential for fast, comfortable, low and renewable energy mass transport. Yes, the idea of a pod transporter needs research and development; however that research commitment needs to start now and that is the basis of this article.
Many now hold the view personal 'pod transporters' need to be developed as our next affordable  and sustainable urban transport solution. Imagine a comfortable capsule that seats two to eight people (similar to a cable car cabin) on an elevated track, weighing less than one tonne, stationed within twenty minutes' walk from your home that can have its destination dialled in and travel at 100 kilometres per hour with no intersections to your destination. A consortium involving NASA is one that is looking at a 240km/h sky train. The publically-owned pod is always available so timetables become a thing of the past. While the Skytran concept still has intersections and relies on intelligent systems to bypass congestion, the ability to change to alternate loop tracks at high speed with no intersections would be preferable.
The equivalent of about two months' expenditure on a tunnel project would pay for the factory to manufacture pods for the Australian market, another two months' expenditure would pay for the factory to build the drive motors, and the standard monorail sections made from steel or concrete could be made in a factory requiring a similar investment.
Manufacturing the comparatively lightweight standardised track and support column sections indoors in all weather and under repetitive factory conditions would provide huge financial savings compared to the current site-based technology solutions, as well as many jobs. Think of the kilometres of track that could be made for one month's expenditure on an elevated freeway or tunnel.
In comparing the manufacture of a pod to a car, the embodied energy and material savings are enormous, as it would be long-lasting public infrastructure and it would not require a new design every few years. It could operate on renewable grid-based energy with far less energy consumed per kilometre per tonne. Skytran states it would be equivalent to a car achieving 200mpg. It is a great alternative to meet the emerging peak oil challenge.
The track would also have low maintenance costs compared to road and rail that is subject to soil instability and related movement, again providing a significant economic benefit. The track can be multi-layered to provide additional capacity.
The footprint would be small and existing transport corridors could be used. City streets would only be required for construction, maintenance and delivery vehicles and many could have half the sealed area converted to green space.
Capacities to move more than 40,000 people per hour are estimated as achievable. While it still an idea in its gestation period, it urgently needs a consortium to be formed with relatively modest funding to work with design faculties of universities to simulate it for a city in virtual reality, to identify the many challenges that inevitably arise with a new technology and determine the solutions to each. I acknowledge retired engineer Brian Garsden who stimulated my thinking about  the possibility through his enthusiasm and his book Goodbye Gridlock. We have to find a better and more affordable urban transport solution that is sustainable. To me, personal transporters are a real, practical option for the future and are in urgent need of research and development.

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