Today I’ll begin talking about what I think of when I hear the idea of “sustainable transportation.”

As far as I can tell the place to start with sustainable transportation is walking. That is something that has defined mankind and apparently allowed us to accomplish so many other things (by freeing up our hands and arms to manipulate tools).

From walking I suppose we can advance to using domesticated animals. And yet, I’m not confident that if everyone replaced their car with a horse, donkey, camel, or other rideable creature that the world would be so nice. I seem to remember having read once that the invention of the automobile made cities much more comfortable because there wasn’t horse manure everywhere. Maybe sanitation laws could overcome the mountains of excrement that would be generated? What about all the land that would need to be devoted to raising crops to feed our transportation? I guess that’s the problem with ethanol, eh?

The next option I see are boats. If they’re rowed or sailed, they seem pretty safe to me. Life would definitely be slower, but maybe that’s not our biggest concern. There are even people working out ways to tow ocean freighters with kite-like sails. 

Of course the problem with traveling somewhere by boat is you need there to be a navigable waterway nearby, which isn’t a problem for most of the country. I’m curious about making rivers more navigable. My impression is that in Europe they use their rivers more than we do in the US, and certainly more than in the Pacific Northwest with the exceptions of the Fraser, Duwamish, Columbia, and Willamette rivers. Why aren’t there boats going up the Skagit river? Or the Chehalis? Or the Cowlitz? Or are there? Are the environmental impacts too severe? This is something I’d like to know more about. 

After boating, we move on to the invention of the wheel. We’ll skip over carts pulled by animals and move on to the bicycle. Bicycles require so little of us and are able to move us much faster than by walking. As far as the environmental impact of their production is concerned, I’m not too concerned. The frame takes up the most material and a metal frame can last a long time. At this point I don’t know anything about the potential impacts of producing a frame, but they can also be made out of wood. 

There are numerous components that I’m pretty sure need to be made from metal (the chain), for example, but that’s not too bad. My guess is that rubber production would be more threatening to the environment. A world powered by sails and bicycles wouldn’t move too quickly by today’s standards. Maybe if people weren’t so spread out there wouldn’t be such a need to cross great distances quickly. 

My conservative believe on fast transport is that electric trains are the best bet. They wouldn’t be completely benign, but if they were the only way to travel long distances, the world probably would be more resilient and able to handle the externalities trains create. Of course, the power generation would need to be from a renewable resource or else the sustainability is compromised. 

And fast personal transportation? What do you need that for if you live in a compact town on a train line where you can walk or bicycle to the station in a short amount of time? Ideally, there should be no need for that kind of transportation in towns and cities. But then there’s the attraction of the rural lifestyle. What do the farmers do who don’t live very close to the train? Biodiesel powered trucks? Fully electric cars? Compressed air cars? These are technologies I want to investigate next week during the car experiments. Maybe farming should mostly just happen along rail lines and navigable waterways…

I do not believe fossil fuels are sustainable. I have serious doubts about electric vehicles that rely on toxic batteries. I have not been impressed with what I have read about hydrogen technology, either (i.e., it is extremely difficult to store). 

I’m not aware of a way in which airplanes fit into a sustainable transportation system. But if you want to go up in the air, you could always take a hot air balloon ride, Icarus!