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US gas is still cheap by international standards

According to an international survey, the price of gasoline in the United States is still lower than in most of the rest of the world’s developed countries. The survey, by Car and Driver magazine, included this handy map showing the average price of 1 gallon of gas in US dollars for most of the world:

January 7th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: economy, energy, roads/cars, transportation

Soon to be vacant Mobil headquarters should be redeveloped

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Mobil’s huge property, marked in red. Click to enlarge.

In 1987 the Mobil gasoline corporation moved its corporate headquarters from New York to Merrifield, Virginia. It was a major coup for the DC region, and a big early step in the growth of Fairfax County as a major corporate base. In the style of the times and befitting a major corporation, they built and occupied a massive campus-style building, set back literally acres from any of the surrounding highways. The site is pictured at right.

12 years later, in 1999, Mobil merged with Exxon to form what is today the 3rd largest corporation in the world. ExxonMobil’s headquarters set up in Irving, TX, in suburban Dallas. The Merrifield office became the Downstream headquarters, directing refining, manufacturing and marketing.

And now they are vacating their 1.2 million square foot behemoth office building and consolidating their offices in Houston – the oil capital of America.

Apparently they are shopping the building to other prospective office tenants. Fairfax County says they don’t expect it to be vacant for long.

But should this building still be used? It’s a private fortress set in a huge forest, amidst an otherwise urbanizing area. It’s a dinosaur of 20th Century planning. Inefficient use of land, laid out to require everyone to drive, and surrounded by “open space” that’s impractical for anyone to use as an actual park. Bad bad bad.

On the other hand, it’s a huge piece of land at an absolutely great location. It would make a fantastic town center development. The land is too far from Dunn Loring Metro to be walkable, so it wouldn’t be a TOD, but it could easily accommodate a Reston Town Center or Shirlington-like development, which if not perfect would still be a big improvement over sprawl. And who knows, regional transportation planners are starting to discuss the possibility of light rail on Gallows Road (pdf, see page 2, item #8), so maybe in a few decades that transit connection will be there after all.

It’s unfortunate that the region will lose all the jobs associated with Mobil, but it would be even more unfortunate if this opportunity to redevelop one of the prime pieces of real estate in Fairfax County were missed.

June 8th, 2012 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: economy, energy, lightrail, master planning, proposal, transportation

Are electric buses in the future?

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Above: A traditional electric trolley bus in San Francisco.
Below: GM’s wireless electric bus prototype.

Electric buses offer many advantages over traditional fossil fuel buses, but they are more expensive and difficult to run. A new model by General Motors may bring them to the mainstream.

The most obvious advantage of electric buses is environmental, but the fact that they don’t spew any harmful gases into the atmosphere is hardly the only benefit. Electric buses are also quieter and smoother to ride than fossil fuel buses, resulting in a more comfortable experience for riders and fewer negative effects to the neighborhoods buses travel through.

Traditionally to run an all electric bus a transit agency had to install overhead wires. This can actually be an advantage as well, since it displays a sense of permanence to the transit line, which gives trolley buses some of the same economic development advantages of actual trolleys. On the other hand, wires can also be a big negative, both visually and fiscally. Installing and maintaining overhead wires adds so much to the cost of running a transit line that very few cities in the US use them.

But what if it were possible to run an electric bus without the wires? You’d lose that permanence advantage, but the environmental, comfort, and noise advantages would all still apply. And if, after all, wireless streetcars are being developed, why shouldn’t a wireless bus be possible too?

It turns out General Motors is working on one, along with a company called Proterra. Their EcoRide BE-35 model bus is fully electric and runs on lithium-ion battery packs that give it a 40-mile range for every 10-minute charge. The 35-foot, low floor bus design is basically comparable to normal city buses otherwise.

The website doesn’t include details such as whether the bus can run air conditioning (certainly a requirement in a muggy place like Washington), but if they can make the idea work it has potential to revolutionize urban busing.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 17th, 2011 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, energy, environment, transportation

Nuclear knee-jerking

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Radiation doses from a variety of sources.
Image from xkcd.com.

Question: How might the disaster in Japan kill thousands of Americans? Answer: If anti-nuclear knee-jerk reactionaries are successful in using the Japanese tsunami as political leverage to scare Americans from investing in more nuclear power.

How so? Because every year 30,000 Americans die from causes related to coal power production. Thirty thousand. That’s more dead Americans every year than in the entire Revolutionary War. It’s five times as many dead Americans as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined. It’s almost twice the 18,000 estimated Japanese dead from the tsunami disaster.

The longer we use coal instead of nuclear for the majority of our power generation in this country, the more Americans will die.

While we’re on the subject, let’s also talk about how dangerous the nuclear situation in Japan actually is. The chart at right is a snippet from a much larger one comparing radiation doses received for a variety of events. Note that the additional radiation doses received by Japanese citizens in villages near the breaking-down nuclear plant average less than a normal day’s dose (which is to say, they’re getting less than twice the normal daily dose that you get simply by living on the surface of the Earth). They’re less than you get from a dental x-ray, and much less than you get by flying on a jet from New York to Los Angeles.

It’s true that a relatively small number of workers at the plant are getting much higher doses, but the danger to the mass population is quite low. Meanwhile, thousands of people around the world continue to die every day as a result of coal power production. Far more than will ever die as a result of nuclear radiation from any of these Japanese plants. The 30,000 American deaths per year attributed to coal average to more than 80 per day, which is nothing compared to the average of almost 1,400 per day from China’s half-million annual coal deaths.

I don’t mean to imply that we should treat nuclear power lightly. Of course the only reason it’s so safe is that tremendous safety measures are involved. We should absolutely learn from the disaster in Japan to improve safety however possible. But one thing we cannot afford to do is allow knee-jerk reactionaries to stop America from expanding our nuclear production capacity. The human toll of such narrow thinking would simply be too great.

March 21st, 2011 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: energy, environment, history



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