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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 3 -- FALL 2002
 

TNDs Going Electric

Many years ago, an innovative thinker by the name of Walt Disney came up with a concept called Disneyland. In it were several exciting neighborhoods where people could visit not only the past but also the future. "Tomorrowland" featured a time where people would ride monorails in the sky and electric vehicles on the ground. Neighborhoods were to be compact with central squares, and large individual automobiles would be unnecessary. We could have learned a lot from that man -- maybe we did.

Today, the traditional neighborhood developments (TND) are not far off Walt Disney's vision for the future. With houses positioned closer to the tree-lined streets and wide front porches in abundance, people are encouraged to socialize with the passers-by. The narrower street design with sidewalks on both sides slows traffic and encourages walking throughout the village. A town center with parks and shopping makes the area inviting and convenient. The question, though, is how to best get around.

Traffic studies continually point out that the majority of our driving is done within a 25-mile radius from home and in short, frequent trips. Little errands that eat up time and pollute the atmosphere. In the more densely populated areas of the TND, where the post office or the grocery store are nearby, the use of our automobiles may not be the easiest method of travel. With lights, traffic circles, stop signs, pedestrians and other cars, a jaunt to the market in a car may seem rather cumbersome.

According to the executive summary on Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2000 (published, November 2001), there has been an average annual increase in emissions of 1.3 percent, with the largest yearly change from 1999-2000 of 2.5 percent. In part, this dramatic growth is attributed to the burning of fossil fuels. Power plants, trucks, SUVs and other fuel inefficient vehicles all contribute to the problem. The steady progression of global warming and increasing health risks due to poor air quality will soon make stricter emission controls a part of our daily lives. The question of the future of transportation is a monumental one that will be debated for years. What then, can we do to help our little section of the universe?

Electric vehicles may be part of the answer. Electricity is a clean, efficient, non-polluting form of energy. It can be created for immediate use or stored in rechargeable batteries. It can be used for light rail, cars and light electric vehicles (LEVs). Many states, such as California, which have adopted cleaner air standards, making the promotion of alternate, less polluting, fuel-source transportation a mandate. Even federal guidelines recommend that a percentage of all new vehicles commissioned for official use be motorized by engines relying on cleaner energy sources.

Light Electric Vehicles (LEV's) include some great concepts consisting of bikes, scooters and cars. All are powered by a battery that is rechargeable by plugging into a regular 110-volt electrical source. The range varies with the size and type of the vehicle, with some of the larger cars traveling 35-40 miles on a single charge. Speeds are required to be less than 25 mph, with most of the smaller bikes clocking in at an average speed of 16mph.

Considering the characteristics of the TND, what could be better? An open, slower vehicle that permits the rider to not only attend to errands, but allows for kibitzing with the neighbors. Not approved for roads with a speed limit over 35 mph, it would be difficult to commute a long distance, but a short trip on residential streets to catch a train or bus to work would greatly ease the sense of congestion that traffic brings. Pick up or drop off the kids, deliver a plate of cookies, go to the pool ... the possibilities are endless.

Not a real exerciser and not nearly as cool as a Harley, the electric bikes and scooters are the most versatile of the LEVs. They do not need special parking arrangements and can zip around traffic like a more traditional bicycle and take up less space than the electric cars. College campuses, police patrols, vacation destinations are all sectors where these convenient vehicles can play an important role.

In an area with a more elderly population, these vehicles would serve to extend the independence of our aging citizens. Where a car may be become too large and cumbersome to operate as age decreases our flexibility and reflexes, the safer alternative may lie in this smaller more maneuverable option. Those who have problems walking or physical disabilities may be greatly assisted with an electric tricycle or a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEVs). Add a cart to the back and the rider can complete most of the day's chores in a single trip.

The largest and most car-like of all the LEVs is the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV). Holding from two to four passengers, it is a quiet, solid alternative to the automobile. Unlike a traditional golf cart, the NEV is faster, more stable and equipped with a variety of safety features. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires that all NEVs have the same basic safety gear that automobiles possess, including lights, seat belts, windshield wipers and turn signals. Licensing is dictated by each state, as is the use of helmets on the more open vehicles. Even larger automobile companies such as Diamler-Chrysler and Ford have ventured into this arena and dealers can be found across the country.

In light of the recent, turbulent world events, increasing global warming, and worsening air quality, America must start to turn its eyes towards alternate energy sources. We can no longer ignore changing weather patterns throughout the country. In the Washington D.C., area, the number of Code Red/Ozone Action Days this summer alone has significantly increased from previous years. Concerns are also moving towards the overuse of a finite resource. Eventually, we'll run out of gas. Conservation is everyone's concern.

New urbanist Jim Kunstler, author of "Geography of Nowhere" and "Home From Nowhere," cautions that our world is changing quickly. "We are going to have to live [and work] more locally than we do now," he said. "And, [in] a world with disordered oil markets, we are going to have to make different arrangements for getting around." Taking his own advice to heart, Kunstler can be seen tooling around town on his Egocycle, an electric bike he keeps charged up and ready to go.