All posts by John Shoesmith

About John Shoesmith

I'm an engineer with a strong interest in environmental issues.

Can buses compete with trains?

20140316 Coach coloured

The bus-train from Liverpool to Cambridge (UK) whines quietly by at 90 mph. The journey of 192 miles will take under three hours, faster than trains or cars. It operates under computer control while the staff on board spend their time serving meals and coffees. 120 passengers enjoy the ride, watching TV and arriving relaxed. It uses roads that were built in the last century, with minor changes at junctions to accommodate these large vehicles.  There are no traffic queues because most people chose to use public transport rather than private cars.

The bus is electrically powered and its energy consumption per passenger is less than a tenth that of a diesel car. Its small energy consumption is consistent with the use of renewable energy sources, so it is effectively zero-carbon.

Across the world, bus-trains operate where there are no direct railway lines. On other routes they compete with trains and provide pressure to reduce ticket prices and improve services. They stop at new bus stations at the side of major roads. People use local buses, trams, trains or short-range electric cars to access these stations.

Why can’t this be done now? It is already starting to happen. Long-range electric buses have already been developed and will become more practical as batteries and fuel cells improve. Batteries can be used for buses for journeys of up to perhaps 200 miles, hydrogen fuel cells will permit longer ranges.

Articulated or bendy buses are already common in many cities, and fast articulated buses have been built. Buses are becoming more luxurious, for example some recent  buses have are fitted with personal entertainment systems and internet access.

Automatic control is being demonstrated for cars, and computer control should be easier for buses that follow simple routes on major highways. The system will cut operating costs and allow long journeys without rest breaks. By 2050 automatic control may be mandatory to cut the risk of human error and to provide a rapid and predictable response to problems.

What is needed technically is simply accelerated development and testing to set safety standards. There will also be a need for politicians to change legislation,  provide incentives, and make the required infrastructure changes. Finally there will be a need for personal tax changes to ensure that excessive use of fossil fuels is prevented, since that will drive the use of low energy systems such as this.



Can we make Bus travel more energy efficient?

Buses 2050
Buses 2050


Jim has a beer in the centre of his town. The beer is local, brewed the same way for 200 years. The buses also look fairly conventional, but the truth is that they are 5 times more efficient than buses in the old days – for example in 2014.

Some of that improvement comes from their engineering. Most of it however comes from how they are operated. In 2014 buses simply drove around to a schedule and people waited at bus stops. Sometimes the bus was full, and people got annoyed. Mostly the buses operated nearly empty. In 2050 all that has changed.

Jim will need a bus home. He reckons it will take him 15 minutes to finish his beer and mentions it to Pat, his electronic assistant. Pat comes back in 30 seconds and tells him the bus will arrive in 19 minutes and he has seat 25. The bus comes as predicted.

The main reason that the bus is so energy efficient is that it is nearly full. In 2014 buses in the UK operated with only 9 passengers on average. Most countries operated with similarly inefficient bus systems. Buses were more efficient than cars in terms of emissions per passenger kilometre, but the difference was not huge. In 2050 buses carry 30 passengers on average. The bulk of the efficiency improvement comes from that fact alone.

How is it done? Everyone signals the journeys that they want to make. Buses are sent when there is demand. Sometimes two or three buses must be used. They link together where routes intersect, and people transfer as in the picture above.

The bus company computer controls the buses. The roads are much less congested because far fewer journeys are made by car, so bus arrival times are predictable. There is much heavier demand for buses so they can operate frequently.

What if Jim needs to leave urgently and there is insufficient demand for a bus right now? Pat will scan the options and come up with the best. Jim may have to pay more, and incur greater environmental damage perhaps by using an electric taxi for part of the journey. If so he will pay extra Q tax. But that an unlikely event. Public transport can normally get Jim everywhere he needs to go, at the time he needs to travel.

Shouldn’t the buses be streamlined? These are slow buses for use in town only. I’ll show long distance buses soon.

p.s I apologise for not posting for a few weeks, I had some projects to complete. Note also that even in 2014 it makes environmental sense to use a bus. It will run whether you use it or not, and if you use it the extra fuel burned will be negligible. In contrast if you take the car, however efficient it is, significant extra fuel will certainly be used.






Can we make a better transport system?

Today Jim is visiting a friend who lives in a town 20 miles (30km) away. He walks to his local Swift station. The Swift system has been steadily developed since 2030 and it now covers much of the country. Swift stations are spaced so that most people in towns live within half a mile of a station. Those who live further away tend to use bikes or electric cars to reach the Swift.

At the station - travelling backwards!
At the station – travelling backwards!

He walks straight in a ground level and goes to Platform 1, since he is travelling alone and that platform has standard pods. A Swiftpod has just arrived and the attendant waves him across. Everyone sits in the Swift facing backwards, which takes a little getting used to but means that there is no need for seat belts. If there is a problem and the pod brakes heavily he will simply sink into the seat. Jim swipes his card and touches the screen for his destination.

The pod is moved up to the overhead rail, which runs above the streets. It sets off and soon it is in open countryside. It runs at a steady 60mph (100kph), never needing to stop for intersections.

High speed between towns
High speed between towns

After around 20 minutes the pod approaches his destination. It flies above the streets, missing all the traffic.

Gliding over the streets
Gliding over the streets

Soon Jim hears the handling system lowering the pod into the station. He gets out and walks to see his friend. No hassle, no licence needed, no parking, no insurance, faster than the car, and low energy use (low Q).

Swift brings lots of benefits:

  1. It is lightweight, slender and streamlined to use much less energy than a road car.
  2. It is electrically powered so that it is zero emission if powered from a carbon free source.
  3. It doesn’t take up much surface space, so it can get to the centre of towns.
  4. Everyone can use it, not just those who can get a driving licence. This is because it is fully automatic. (There are special vehicles for the disabled, or for larger families, or for outsize goods).
  5. Unlike the car, it doesn’t kill drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. The reduction in car journeys makes it safer for people to walk and cycle, saving further carbon emissions.
  6. It can transport goods without needing a driver, with vehicles sized to match the load.
  7. It doesn’t need to stop at road junctions because all intersections are flyovers. It doesn’t need to stop to pick up or set down other passengers. This saves energy in accelerating and braking, and it also means that point to point journey times are much faster than a bus and, for many journeys, faster than a road car.

Swift links suburbs and towns to each other and to train stations. It is important because it reduces the use of private cars, which are not energy efficient.  A linked page covers why cars can never be as efficient as a system like Swift.

Why aren’t we developing this type of system? Well, to a limited extent we are. Google have put money into the Schweeb, a pedal powered system – See video. This is currently installed at an adventure park but the principles look exciting. The commentator on the video calls Schweeb hard work, but hard work for a human means a power level which is of the order of 1% of the power required by a car. An electric Schweeb would be very efficient.

There is also a  Polish system called MISTER which has not yet been put into full service but looks very good. There is an excellent video on the MISTER website that shows how these systems operate.

There is a UK version called ULTRA which runs on a track, rather than being suspended beneath a rail. ULTRA is in service at Heathrow Terminal 5 to connect with a car park. More ULTRA systems are planned. Systems like ULTRA and MISTER are called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems, and they have a long history of slow development. There is currently an increased level of interest that will hopefully lead to further orders for these systems..

So while there is some encouraging news, the overall investment in this technology remains too small. The objectives of development also need reconsideration – there is a current focus on PRTs for cities. Such systems would be useful, but the biggest problem we face is transport outside the city. City systems do not need to be very streamlined because they only need to travel at 30 mph (50kph).

The safety and accessibility regulations for PRTs are often read across from taxis, cars and trains. Not surprisingly this sometimes produces a vehicle with similar size and shape to a taxi. If so it is unlikely to have a drastically reduced energy requirement.

New regulations are needed, consistent with the need to reduce energy use. They need to recognise developments in control and monitoring technology that will make crashes very rare and therefore reduce some safety requirements. However the development of  unified safety regulations is a long process. Considerable experience of operation is required so that the regulations can be well designed. 

I made my passengers face backwards to illustrate the possible effects of safety issues. Rear facing passengers survive crashes better, especially if safety belts are not used. They also fit better into the streamlined shape. Safety regulations would not just cover passenger protection from accidents but also issues such as emergency evacuation and health problems during the journey, how close together vehicles could travel, and maximum braking and cornering loads.

Accessibility is another key regulatory issue. A flat floor, for example, provides good accessibility for a tram or bus without any serious penalty, but is not consistent with the best aerodynamic shape in these systems. Would regulators accept that an able bodied solo rider can use a slim, light, easily driven vehicle, or would they insist that all vehicles can accommodate wheelchairs? We need regulation that recognises the seriousness of the energy issue.

A general problem is that governments expect industry to lead with ideas and to co-fund development. The business case for  systems like Swift is currently marginal, because the car is so convenient, and its extravagant energy use is affordable. Of course things may change in future, but who knows? The fact that the  regulatory system is uncertain may also be a problem for investors –  the system shown in the sketch may never be permitted. There are technical uncertainties. The timescales are also too long for commercial investment.

We will be very lucky to get a major commercial lead on a system like this. Direct international action, driven and funded by governments, will be needed to make this type of system available when needed.


Can Better Taxation help to save the Planet?

It is the weekend and Jim is out in the local market. He enjoys buying fresh ingredients himself when he has time.

Jim buying apples in the market
Jim buying apples in the market

Every item in the market has two prices – one in local currency, and one in Q. If he buys the goods, both are automatically recorded to his account. The Q cost is a measure of the planetary damage resulting from the purchase.

There are two types of apple on display. The first have been grown in the South, in an area where apples grow well and wages are low, so their money cost is low. Their Q cost reflects the use of artificial fertiliser, mechanised agriculture, and long distance transport, and is relatively high. The calculation is realistic because every business involved in the supply must pass on the Q of the items or services that it supplies.

The second type were grown locally, using organic fertiliser. The Q cost is low, but the labour involved makes their money cost higher.

Whenever Jim buys anything the Q cost is automatically recorded as part of the purchase. Electricity, food, transport, computers, kitchen equipment, each of them has involved some planetary degradation in its manufacture and the Q cost reflects that degradation.

For larger items like kitchen equipment the Q cost can be spread over many weeks, but nevertheless it needs to be paid. Jim tends to buy goods that are well designed with a long life, so that the weekly Q cost is low.

Jim buying a washing machine
Jim buying a washing machine

Items have a high Q if fossil fuels have been burned to make them, if greenhouse gases are emitted, if rainforest has been destroyed, or if the planet has been degraded in some other way. The make up of Q is adjusted each year by an international panel to try to keep activities in balance. For example the high Q of fossil fuels may cause  a swing to bio fuels, with resulting loss of rainforests. The Q value of bio fuels can be increased to avoid this.

Jim checks his weekly tax
Jim checks his weekly tax

At the end of each week Jim checks his Q account. His home spend looks high. He uses the system to find out why, then he makes a mental note to look into better home insulation and lighting.

Why does he care? The bulk of his tax is directly related to Q. If his total weekly Q is low he pays little Qtax, but as it increases the tax rates becomes steeper and steeper.

Jim's tax bands
Jim’s tax bands

Jim has choices. He can buy his electricity from a range of sources – the more he pays the greener will be his electricity and the lower his Q bill. He can eat locally grown vegetables with modest meat portions(low Q) or select imported vegetables and large servings of meat (high Q). He can travel by bike or by public transport, or by various types of car. The greater his Q spend, the steeper his tax rate, and the more sense it makes to seek green alternatives.

The Qtax system was introduced in 2025, initially just for purchases of fossil fuels, and at rates that were easily affordable. It gradually extended over the following 25 years. This gave people chance to adjust.

Why Q? It was decided at the first meeting of the International Panel for the Quantification of Planetary Impact in 2023. They didn’t show much imagination!

Jim grumbles about the system from time to time, but  he supports it because it is fair. The poor are not penalised. Their energy use is generally small enough to leave them paying little tax. There are still examples of individual extravagance but everyone knows that those responsible are paying a great deal of tax. There is a shared international obligation because countries have Q targets and set their Qtax in order to ensure those targets are achieved. The sacrifices are considered acceptable because they are shared, because technology is constantly providing new green alternatives, and because the resulting global action is proving successful.

Why can’t we do this now? The complete system described here would take a considerable amount of international negotiation to agree how Q is calculated, to agree Q targets, and to modify international trade agreements. Each country would need time to decide how to tax Q, or whether to enforce its Q limit some other way. Implementation would also need to wait until electronic payment is the norm, because it will then be easy to add on Q.

The international agreement of Q limits for each nation is important. Without that there is likely to be considerable opposition since action by an individual nation can never be effective.

Lastly people will need time to adjust. This type of system is unfair if imposed suddenly because many people are locked into a high energy lifestyle by work or family commitments. A cut down system, just looking at a small set of big purchases – for example gas for heating, car fuel, and electricity – could be introduced more rapidly and might start the slow process of producing a green economy.

What we could and should do now is to accelerate serious research into this area. There is good work underway but its funding is intermittent. There will be many practical barriers to implementation and study is needed to find the best way forward.

There is also a need for an ethical debate. The debate needs to engage key religious and moral leaders, since their endorsement will be essential to public acceptance. An important question is the extent of the obligation of this generation to those that follow.

Follow the link for more background. You could usefully fill out the poll. Best of all please comment. Taxation will be important in driving behaviour, and it is at the heart of an urgent moral question – how do we share out the limited resources of a finite planet?

Can technology cut food waste?

Jim is a man of the 2050’s. A busy man, keen to stay fit. His electronic assistant Pat is a tiny computer that Jim carries with him. Jim’s words are black, Pat’s are blue.

Preparing for the day with Pat's help
Preparing for the day with Pat’s help

Jim can spend his entire day focussed on work – which will be the subject of a separate post. Pat only interrupts when Jim has spare time at breakfast or when walking. Pat talks to Jim normally, via an earpiece. Jim talks to Pat normally if alone, or via his wrist watch if in company, which has a touch screen for simple answers. So – what about after work?

Pat helps him make a great dinner

The ingredients come precisely packaged in the correct amounts and to the highest quality and freshness. The delivery methods will be the subject of a later post. Pat does not duplicate anything that Jim already has. Amounts are calculated to meet personal needs. There is no waste in the ordering process.

During the cooking of the meal Pat helps Jim by scheduling everything. Jim can focus on the cooking. Complex food is expected in 2050, with several small courses. Pat looks out for problems, and reminds Jim when things need doing so that everything will be ready for his guests. There is no food spoiled during cooking.

The close of day report from Pat covers input of all major nutrients. It compares those with recommended inputs for Jim’s age and weight, for his exercise level, and for his sporting aims. It draws his attention to any unusual readings, for example if recovery time after exercise is too long.

I chose Jim for this first example because, as a single man, his out of work life is relatively simple. A later example will deal with how e-assistants can help women and families, where they will cope with greater complexity and provide much greater benefits.

The key things that make Pat effective are:

Pat handles all purchases, so he knows what food comes into Jim’s house. He knows the content of processed foods because he gets that from the seller. He pays for all restaurant meals and snacks and drinks.

Pat can see, because there are cameras built into Jim’s glasses. However he can do more than see – he can understand what is going on. Pat recognises plates by their shape, he can read the labels on packets, he understands the colour and texture of different foods. Pat’s vision is stereoscopic so he can also estimate the shape and size of a pile of food on Jim’s plate, and by looking again at the end of a meal he can estimate how much Jim has eaten. The information stored at breakfast includes a list of everything that Jim has eaten. It also includes the amount of food left in cupboards and fridges, so Pat knows when to re-order. If Pat isn’t clear on some point, he will ask.  For example he might not see how much cereal is left.

While Pat acquires images, he does not store them. He extracts the basic information he needs, then discards them. This is considered polite.

Pat can hear and analyse speech in any language, but again it is polite to only store certain types of information such as dates, times, and promises. E-assistants communicate their recording status and ensure they are ‘polite’. Pat will tell Jim if his friends are recording what goes on over dinner.

Pat knows how much exercise Jim takes by looking at movements and Jim’s speed.

Pat can sense various body functions such as breathing, pulse, and brain activity. He knows when Jim is happy.

Jim has agreed that he can share personal data with the e-assistants of his friends, including Kat and Al. So Pat can say exactly what food will suit everyone’s tastes.

Pat scours the internet for local bargains or well regarded local businesses. In 2050 the amount of such marketing information is beyond the capacity of humans to adsorb. Pat handles all order placement and payments, with no involvement from Jim except to approve the more important things that Pat proposes to buy.

And how does all that stop food waste? Because Jim buys no more than he will eat, and only eats what his body needs. The load he places on planetary resources is far less than an average 2013 western man. See the related articles below for different views of how much we waste by eating too much red meat. See also the background page link at the end of this post.

Why can’t we do this now? Firstly because the technology is too bulky, and image analysis is too slow and unreliable. Those things will change and this technology will slowly become more convenient and reliable.

Secondly it takes time to build the required conventions. Restaurants and food sellers will need to provide information in an agreed format. That will take time. Likewise it will take time to develop a ‘polite’ mode so that cameras can be worn to dinner.

For more information and the logic behind this see the Food Waste background page.

Will Future Cities be Linear?

What do you think of these sketches of a future city? I think it could cut energy use, save lots of countryside and offer a great lifestyle.

The linear city from the air
The linear city from the air
City central street showing transport and deliveries
City central street showing transport and deliveries

Every home is close to the countryside. There are restaurants galore. Millions of job opportunities within 30 minutes commuting time. A wide range of sports can be played or watched. There are plays, concerts and cinemas. There is a choice of schools, universities, hospitals, museums, art galleries all within easy reach.

The disabled, the old, children and cyclists can travel safely. Trains are used for travel along the city, moving walkways aid walking across the city. All services, and all deliveries are electrically powered and underground.

A roof and triple glazed walls protect the whole city and keep it at the right temperature. It is easier to control the temperature of the whole city than many individual homes because the external surface is very much smaller. There is no fuel poverty because homes do not need to be individually heated. There is no sweltering heat either if the city is built in the tropics.

The city could be built up to 20 storeys high and perhaps 2 kilometres (1 and a quarter miles) wide. At that scale it could provide homes for millions of people. It would have added attraction if an existing, fast growing city was at one end of the line.

The linear city offers a new alternative. A life that combines a place in the country with the buzz of a major city. A place where a family could be brought up. There is no need for a car, except perhaps for occasional trips at weekends when one can be hired.

The city duplicates the dynamism of similar linear cities like Manhattan or Hong Kong, and by keeping things compact it leaves the environment available for all to enjoy.

Best of all, energy use on cars and heating/cooling will be a fraction of their current level. Follow this link. The red column on the left estimates individual energy use in the UK. Other developed countries will be similar. You can see that cars and heating/cooling represent a good chunk of the way we currently use energy. The linear city could be a big part of a sustainable future, especially with a couple of billion more people to house on the planet by 2050.

I hope the pictures tell the story. I really struggled with some of these, and nearly gave in and used Powerpoint. Sketching is more fun, and I’ve put in for a course starting in January!

The roof controls the city temperature
The roof controls the city temperature
Why linear cities beat urban sprawl
Why linear cities beat urban sprawl

Why can’t this be done now? It can, and to an extent it is. There is however a big leap from a suburban world to living in close company in a city. People still aspire to leave the cities for the suburbs. The city presented here may not seem attractive until the fuel price rises  to the point where individual homes and cars become unaffordable.

I’ll probably enter this concept into a competition in early 2014 to see if it gains any support there. But I’m not hopeful, I think that its time has not yet come.

What do you think? Would you live here? Let me know your views by clicking on the poll or posting comments.

I’ve done a page with a little more information on linear cities in the ‘Background and Assumptions’ section.

Will technology save the rain forests?

Eco-tourism 2050
Eco-tourism 2050

Imagine the scene. A dozen people crowd into a small room. The walls light up and they are in a rain forest in the Amazon Basin. The sights are all around them. The noises of the jungle fill the room. Their leader has a remote control and they move through the jungle. Suddenly one of them shouts – a sloth comes into view. It is undisturbed by the silent camera. Then they spot a jaguar and some howler monkeys, again completely unaware that they are being viewed.

An hour later they leave, to go for lunch together. They are on a week’s safari holiday in California. Tomorrow they will explore a jungle in the Congo basin, the day after they will explore in Costa Rica. The week is costly but the experience is priceless.

Meanwhile, in Borneo, another camera is moving through the jungle. All over the world people watch an orang-utan giving birth through their phones and tablets and 3D immersive equipment. Many of them know the animal well. They regularly view this jungle. The birth will generate world-wide headlines.

There are 100 of these rain forest reserves across the planet, each with its specialised wildlife. A small reserve is 10km (6 miles) square, enough to support some big animals, and many reserves are larger. All of them are pristine. They contain a full ecosystem . The animals are valuable to collectors but the local population guard them with their lives. The insects annoy the locals but they are very careful with their insecticide. Their dogs and cats are kept out. The locals know that their income depends on that wildlife.

Each reserve is virtually undisturbed by people, except for the dozens of cameras, the tracks on which they move, and their maintenance. The animals live in peace.

The economics of all this are simple. The viewers pay. The payment varies, but averages  around $400 per year in 2013 terms, a similar amount to if they were viewing sports or movies. There are 9 billion people on the planet, and 100 million of them subscribe – rather less then subscribe to sports channels but still a substantial number. Half of the annual revenues of $40Bn go to support the reserves. A 10km square rain forest reserve with healthy animal life and a few rare species can earn up to $150M per year in broadcasting rights. That is around 4 times what it would earn as palm oil plantation.

The local populations have plenty of work. They provide guards. They maintain the cameras and tracks. They provide local guides, who control some of the cameras and provide commentary in different languages. They occasionally intervene in nature when disease strikes, because the extinction of a species would be an economic disaster.

As well as the broadcasting revenue there is business from researchers who come to live near the forests. Tourists come to be near the places they have grown to love on screen and to meet the guides. The local towns are booming. The national resorts have immersive rain forest experience systems for their guests.

Significant additional income comes from international efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Local governments provide support funding because of the beneficial effects of the rain forest for drainage and wider tourism. Pharmaceutical companies pay for licences to access the many types of plant life. The business case for these reserves is strong.

Some reserves are privately owned by local business people or by big international businesses. Some are owned by the local state. All are protected.

So it's good night now to our viewers in California. See you tomorrow!
So it’s good night now to our viewers in California. See you tomorrow!

OK – let’s return to the present. Is all this possible? Why isn’t it happening? Well partly because the technology is only just becoming available. Another factor is that it is frankly heart breaking to see rain forests being destroyed, so it makes very depressing television. That would change if the rain forests were properly protected.

How much rain forest could we save? That depends on money. People in tropical countries are often poor. The local business men will always pursue profit. They will do whatever earns the best return. In 2013 we anguish about the rain forest but pay for palm oil. The result – we get palm oil. That will need to change. If we want to go green and protect the environment someone will need to pay.

Would enough people be prepared to pay? I don’t know, but I’ve included a poll below to check views.

The poll results may interest others. If tropical land owners started to see dollar potential in their rain forests they might slow down on the burning. And if big technology companies started to see significant business in rain forests they might start to invest..

This is a link to a supporting page – Nature – Rainforests which includes further background information and assumptions. It has a few more related ideas and suggestions. It also discusses some of the weaknesses in this idea, for example that it may not save very large tracts of forest. If you have any comments or advice, please use the comments box below or contact me via the form on the ‘About’ page..