December 6, 1992
Union of Concerned Scientists
2397 Shattuck Avenue, #203
Berkeley, California 94704
Re: Your book Steering A New Course
Dear Ms Gordon:
There seems to be a lot of good information and ideas in this book, but in a few areas that I noticed, the research was rather superficial, and the conclusions wrong. A name like "Union of Concerned Scientists" is a very powerful aid, but will end up being a liability, if you don't live up to it, and practice good science. This implies maintaining a critical approach to information that you gather from others, many of whom have much to gain from their particular view and little to gain from the truth.
The first example is your assertion that "Congestion is extremely destructive to the environment" (p.25), i.e. that it increases air pollution and fuel consumption. This myth was debunked by Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy of Murdoch University (Western Australia). It comes from the unquestioned use of "engineering thinking" (looking only at the vehicles), which assumes that vehicle trips are immutable, and ignores human behavior. They found that only one effect of congestion is reduced fuel efficiency. Three much more powerful effects are a reduction in the use of the automobile, shorter trip lengths, and increased use of public transit and other modes, all of which serve to reduce air pollution and fuel consumption. The California Air Resources Board has said that the most important factors are, first, the number of trips, second, trip length (VMT), and last, congestion.
The second example is your assertion to me that 40 MPH is the most fuel-efficient speed for a motor vehicle. Newman and Kenworthy found it to be 35 MPH. The same value is given by Harold L. Michael in the conference report "Energy Conservation in Transportation and Construction" (pp.224 & 235), from the FHWA.
The third example is your assertion (p.165) that traffic signal synchronization is beneficial to air quality and fuel consumption. None of your references justify such a conclusion (nor does any other research I could find). They all assume that making it easier to drive will have no significant effect on behavior (there is that "engineering thinking" again!). The scientific method, as you know, requires supporting such a conclusion only upon experimental proof, including an experimental design that rules out other competing possibilities. The only research I could find that even came close measured ambient air quality, not emissions.
Your statement on p.136 "Maglev has several advantages over conventional transit vehicles and airplanes" is very doubtful. After decades of research, Maglev has never come close to commercial viability. And there is a very good reason: the amount of energy needed to hold the vehicles up in the air (and safely!) is obviously much greater than that used by a conventional train, which simply pulls them along on steel rails. With such a wasteful use of energy, there is no possibility of Maglev ever competing with "ordinary" high-speed trains, such as the French TGV or German ICE, any more than rubber-tired vehicles can compete in energy efficiency. This is simple physics. (For more information, call Dan McNamara, California Rail Foundation and Train Rider's Association of California, 415-592-6580.)
As far as HOV lanes go (p.146), you don't mention that HOV lanes created from existing pavement can be beneficial, but not HOV lanes that are constructed by adding new pavement. The latter simply adds vehicle capacity to the roadway, which is (per Newman and Kenworthy) growth-inducing. Removing HOVs from the mixed-flow lanes makes it easier to drive SOVs, hence causing them to drive farther and more often. Claiming a benefit for new-pavement HOV lanes requires scientific evidence, of which there is none. Computer modelling, needless to say, is not such evidence. (For more information, call Akos Szoboszlay, Modern Transit Society, 408-294-0694.)
Similarly, on p.181, you recommend a gas tax, but don't clearly state that it is worthless if the proceeds are used (as in California's Prop. 111) to build or expand more highways. It does make a big difference!
What you are doing is extremely important, but you can do a lot of harm, if you spread misinformation, especially in the name of "Science". (E.g., the federal government is poised to spend billions researching Maglev -- a big waste!) This is a big responsibility.
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.