Monday, July 5, 2010

Green Transportation Technology, circa 1916

In my travels this summer, my Dad and I went to Louisville for the 75th Anniversary Antique Automobile Club of American national meet.  My Dad is a long-time collector of antique and classic cars, mostly Packards.  While I have some interest and have an antique car of my own, let's just say that my interest in the car hobby is not as developed as my Dad's.  I also realize, as I am sure he does as well, that our society loved, and continues to love, the automobile a little bit too much.  It has "driven", and been the basis for, land use decisions that exclude any other way of getting there except by means of a car.

Of course, we can't ignore the environmental consequences of this love affair with the automobile, both in terms of the environmental costs - in the extraction of oil from the earth and contribution of carbon to the atmosphere - but due to the importance of cars in our culture, they tell something about us as a society.  And regardless of what you think of them, they are objects of human achievement.  In many ways, they are a mixture of art and machine.  They have also provided many a way of life and a key to the middle class, especially in the 20th Century.

So, in Louisville this past weekend, we were able to witness a celebration of our society's love of the automobile.  For many, these sorts of meets are family events involving multiple generations. Over 700 cars assembled from around the nation and were displayed at the Convention Center.  The only criteria to participate is that they have to be some sort of vehicle and be at least 25 years old.  The oldest car that I saw was a 1903 Curved-Dash Oldsmobile.  There were a range of other cars of all makes and models, motorcycles and commercial vehicles.

One that stood out for me was a 1916 Milburn.  Click link for full view of automobile and history of the marque. Here are some pics:
Yep, it was an electric car.  Batteries in the front and rear and they had their own charging apparatus.

Apparently, electric cars were fairly popular in the early days of the automobile.  Travel by automobile was still a bit of an adventure in 1916 with almost all gasoline powered engines requiring manual cranking to start the engine - and a lot of persistent and applied strength.  Being the early 20th Century, the job of starting those gasoline powered cars fell mainly upon men.  The electric car was developed as an alternative way of getting around that did not require cranking and was particularly popular with women.  Some say their very existence helped with the women's suffrage movement and the imposition of Prohibition - women used the cars to politic and go to places farther afield than they otherwise could get to on foot.  The interior provided a "living room" environment, and being electric, was comparatively quiet.

The popularity of these electrics diminished as gasoline engines shed the crank and converted more and more to an electric starting mechanism.  Short-comings of the electrics, things that we are still overcoming today, were the heavy weight of the batteries in relation to the car itself, the short life-span of the batteries and need to replace them, the relatively short range of operation, low speed and the need for accessible charging stations.  All of the weaknesses here were either non-existent with an internal combustion engine or gasoline technology was far superior in comparison.  And, the unintended consequences of the reliance on gasoline power hadn't been experienced yet.

So, we still face challenges in the electric car technology.  Hybrid vehicles have helped bridge the gap, but it is still a long way to go to unseat gasoline powered vehicles from their prominence.

While the technology develops further, we need to make wise land use choices that minimize the dependence on the gasoline powered automobile, enhance pedestrian and bicycle access and encourage mass transit.  We do this by promoting mixed uses of residential, office and retail space, and increased density along alternative transit corridors.  Limiting new buildings to universal three stories does not promote this kind of land use pattern.

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