TRANSITions – San Diego High Speed Transit Forum

On November 12, 2009 about 200 people met at the Brown Chapel of Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego to discuss the future of transit in the area.  The event was organized by the Design Innovation Institute and sponsored by the Center for Urban Infrastructure (www.c-u-i.org), Qualcomm (one of the largest employers in the area), the San Diego Association of Governments (www.sandag.org), Advanced Transit Systems, LTD (www.atsltd.co.uk), and others.

The evening began with a video showcasing high-speed rail.  Calvin Woo, the cofounder and executive director of the Design Innovation Institute, welcomed the audience and read letters of endorsement from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, San Diego County Board of Supervisors member Ron Roberts, and the Vice President of Nissan Design America, Bruce Campbell.

In his keynote address, the psychologist Richard Farson, founding dean of the School of Design at the California Institute of the Arts, and president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, spoke movingly on the power of design to change the world.  Designers, he said, don’t just design buildings, but organizations; not just houses, but family life; not just interiors, but relationships; not just transportation, but community.  And community is our greatest defense against all the social indicators of despair – addiction, divorce, crime, child abuse, suicide.  On the other hand, good design can increase creativity, health, cooperation, affection, liberation.  Social scientists think that cars have destroyed our communities.  Stressing the need for innovation, he warned that “anyone who is doing what he was trained to do, is obsolete.”  He argued for a new role for designers as “meta designers” who focus on the issues underlying design, and concluded by urging those in the audience to become leaders and collaborators.

A short video from Advanced Transit Systems followed showing how the ULTra PRT system can be used as a feeder for a high-speed train station.

Next in the program, there were brief presentations from six invited speakers, introduced by, Sarah Catz, director of the Center for Urban Infrastructure at the University of California at Irvine, who described herself as a “certified transportation geek”.

James McJunkin was a transportation designer at Rohr Industries in the 1970’s when they were pursuing a number of advanced transportation concepts.  These included the Aerotrain, a 60-passenger train that rode on an air cushion, and was propelled by a Linear Induction Motor, maglev trains using the Romag motor which provided both levitation and propulsion, Monocab, a 6-passenger rubber-tired PRT system, and even a maglev PRT.  All these systems were developed to the point of full working prototypes, and Momocab was demonstrated at the 1972 Transportation Exhibition in Washington, DC where it was ridden by the Secretary of Transportation.  (This talk was particularly exciting for me because my own introduction to PRT was from a Rohr brochure I received in the mid-1970s.  For more than twenty years, until I discovered ATRA, I thought that the PRT concept died when Rohr pulled out of advanced transit in the wake of their near-collapse as a result of delays and cost overruns in their contract to build the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system.)  Mr. McJunkin also designed small footprint stations during this time.  He observed that today’s concepts are not much different from those he worked on 40 years ago, and wondered aloud how it is that we lost so much time.

Harry Watkins, professor of strategy and sustainability at Point Loma Nazarene University, pointed out that in burning fossil fuels we are in effect using the energy of ancient sunlight.  To be sustainable, we must meet our current energy needs using the current supply of solar power.  He described the “cradle-to-cradle” design concept – a closed loop system in which waste equals food.  I.e. waste from one process becomes food for another.  And he described bio-mimicry, a design methodology that draws upon Nature’s time-tested solutions to solve the problems that we face.  As an example he offered the Japanese bullet train, which generated a loud noise when entering tunnels.  The problem was solved by studying the shape of the Kingfisher, a bird that can dive into water without making a splash.  As a side effect, the redesign increased speed and reduced energy use.

Alan Gin, professor of economics at the University of San Diego, and publisher of the monthly Index of Leading Economic Indicators for San Diego County, shared current projections that the population of San Diego is projected to increase by one million people by 2030 – mostly in outlying areas.  The city’s unemployment rate, which has traditionally been lower than the national average, is now above average.  The area’s already overburdened transportation system may be a contributing factor to this.  There are plans to add new HOV lanes, and extensions to the trolley, but every indication is that the quality of transportation in the area will continue to deteriorate, and limit economic vitality.

Neil Cummings, president of American Magline Group, outlined plans for a 269-mile maglev train line from Anaheim to Las Vegas that is projected to cost $12.1 billion.  Mr. Cummings claimed that the higher construction cost of the 300 MPH train would would be offset by reduced maintenance, making it competitive with steel-wheel-on-steel-rail trains.

Eric Anderson, senior project manager at Parsons-Brinckerhoff, showed off plans for a $470M inter-modal transit hub at Denver’s Union Station, and a similar project for Saint Louis.

Rich Flierl, founder of the Center for Connective Architecture and a principal at Cooper Carry (www.coopercarry.com), claimed that the American Dream of a house with a two-car garage and a big back yard, is dead.  (Personally, I always thought that the American Dream was that the average person could prosper by his or her own efforts, without the assistance, or even the permission of a power-elite.  By this definition, the American Dream is not only still alive, but has spread throughout the world.)

There was a brief question-and-answer period, after which Dr. Farson was available to sign copies of his latest book, “The Power of Design: A Force for the Transformation of Everything”.

All in all, the evening was a fine introduction to a wide variety of transportation-related concepts and issues.  Strikingly different visions were represented, from half-billion dollar downtown intermodal transit hubs, to decentralized automated transit networks.  Perhaps a good next step would be to organize an event that would help people to choose the approach that is most likely to meet the needs of their community.

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