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Archive of posts filed under the Technology category.

Gates Redevelopment: Planning for Innovation

“When people come together they become much more productive” – Geoffrey West

Currently, the Old Gates Rubber Plant is being demolished. Its long anticipated demolition will pave the way for years of development and, in the end, provide South Denver neighborhoods with new places to shop, eat, hang out, and better connect with new friends.

This piece will not cover the demolition timetable, the history of the site, or what might have been; this is a piece laying out an idea for something new, something interesting, something that will continue to make Denver a lure for future generations to move to Colorado.

Imagine a cutting edge research institute within ten minutes of downtown Denver. A site that has great access to open space, public transit, historic neighborhoods, and great parks. This site would have a bustling center with shops, apartments, great restaurants, and tons of energy. The heart of this community would be built around innovation, creativity, and the next generation of scientists, designers, and entrepreneurs. A place where new technologies are being built in cooperation with universities, businesses, nonprofits, and local municipalities.

What I am envisioning is something best defined by Bruce Katz: an Innovation District is a location that clusters leading-edge anchor institutions and cutting-edge innovative firms, connecting them with supporting and spin-off companies, business incubators, mixed-use housing, retail and 21st century urban amenities.

The concept of the Innovation District it is not drastically different than the original plan for the redevelopment, where it is different is the clustering of anchoring institutions, and supporting companies. I am imagining a series of facilities that satellite locations for: CU, CSU, and the School of Mines. If done correctly, the three schools could share their resources in the purchasing of equipment, better run challenges, and foster new businesses that utilize students from the different institutions.

In terms of supporting organizations, space could be provided for the many other schools around the city: Metro, Johnson & Wales, the Art Institute. This connecting of universities would allow non-technically oriented students to assist these future companies with help in marketing, accounting, advertising, planning, art, etc.

Outside of schools, this would provide an impetus for businesses to relocate to Denver, they would have a plethora of talent to pull from, researchers at close reach, transit, historic neighborhoods within walking distance, a newly enhanced S. Platte River, and all within 10 minutes of Downtown Denver.

http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/12/30-silicon-cities-katz#


It’s time for a trolleybus comeback

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Trolleybus in Seattle.

Trolleybuses are rubber-wheeled buses that are powered by overhead wires. They offer a number of advantages over regular buses, but are very rare in the United States.

There are currently only five US cities that operate trolleybuses. They are Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Dayton. Trolleybuses are so rare because they require overhead wires, which are expensive to install, limit bus route flexibility, and are often considered ugly.

On the other hand, compared to normal diesel buses, trolleybuses are quieter, smoother, cleaner, and accelerate faster. They also offer a sense of permanence that normal buses can’t match.

Many of the advantages of trolleybuses come from their power source. Since they run on electricity rather than fossil fuels they emit no fumes, and they accelerate quickly, smoothly, and quietly. However, all those advantages can be duplicated by wire-free electric buses without the cost or trouble of overhead wires.

So why bother with wires?

Because the cost and relative rarity of wires is a sure signal that a transit route will be predictable and permanent. Wires provide the same sort of visual fortification that rail tracks provide. They are a clear signal to riders that they are dealing with a significant and special transit line.

Since so few trolleybuses have been built in recent years, and all the cities that use them have used them for decades, it is difficult to know how much of an effect wires without tracks can have on transit oriented development. Given the push for affordable BRT in many cities, the potential prospect of TOD-inducing buses is something that ought to be explored.

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Trolleybuses can shift lanes without disconnecting their wires.

Trolleybuses even offer a significant advantage over rail streetcars. Since they aren’t tied to tracks, flexible trolley poles allow buses to switch lanes in order to go around obstructions. Without tracks to constrain them, trolleybuses mixing in a lane with cars are less likely to be held up by traffic. Additionally, many trolleybuses are built as hybrids and are capable of lowering their poles and running on batteries or fossil fuels as a backup.

It is unfortunate that the so few trolleybus systems survived the 20th Century. Most of them fell victim to the same transit death spiral that destroyed most American streetcar systems.

However, streetcars are enjoying a renaissance because contemporary planners have discovered they can be useful. It may be time for trolleybuses to enjoy a renaissance of their own.


Are electric buses the future?

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Above: A traditional electric trolley bus in San Francisco.
Below: GM’s wireless electric bus prototype.

Electric buses offer many advantages over traditional fossil fuel buses, but they are more expensive and difficult to run. A new model by General Motors may bring them to the mainstream.

The most obvious advantage of electric buses is environmental, but the fact that they don’t spew any harmful gases into the atmosphere is hardly the only benefit. Electric buses are also quieter and smoother to ride than fossil fuel buses, resulting in a more comfortable experience for riders and fewer negative effects to the neighborhoods buses travel through.

Traditionally to run an all electric bus a transit agency had to install overhead wires. This can actually be an advantage as well, since it displays a sense of permanence to the transit line, which gives trolley buses some of the same economic development advantages of actual trolleys. On the other hand, wires can also be a big negative, both visually and fiscally. Installing and maintaining overhead wires adds so much to the cost of running a transit line that very few cities in the US use them.

But what if it were possible to run an electric bus without the wires? You’d lose that permanence advantage, but the environmental, comfort, and noise advantages would all still apply. And if, after all, wireless streetcars are being developed, why shouldn’t a wireless bus be possible too?

It turns out General Motors is working on one, along with a Colorado-based company called Proterra. Their EcoRide BE-35 model bus is fully electric and runs on lithium-ion battery packs that give it a 40-mile range for every 10-minute charge. The 35-foot, low floor bus design is basically comparable to normal city buses otherwise.

The website doesn’t include many details that will have to be addressed before very many transit agencies pony up money (such as whether the bus can run air conditioning), but if they can make the idea work it has potential to revolutionize urban busing.


Apps track bikesharing in real time

Do you use B-Cycle? Did you know that you can track dock and bike availability online in real time? Knowing ahead of time which stations are full or empty makes bikesharing tremendously more user-friendly.

Online maps accessible from your computer are available for both Denver and Boulder, and smart phone apps are free to download for iPhone and Android.

Happy bikesharing!


Nuclear power, the US, and Japan

Question: How might the disaster in Japan kill thousands of Americans? Answer: If anti-nuclear knee-jerk reactionaries are successful in using the Japanese tsunami as political leverage to scare Americans from investing in more nuclear power.

How so? Because every year 30,000 Americans die from causes related to coal power production. Thirty thousand. That’s more dead Americans every year than in the entire Revolutionary War. It’s five times as many dead Americans as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined. It’s almost twice the 18,000 estimated Japanese dead from the tsunami disaster.

The longer we use coal instead of nuclear for the majority of our power generation in this country, the more Americans will die.

While we’re on the subject, let’s also talk about how dangerous the nuclear situation in Japan actually is. The chart below is a snippet from a much larger one comparing radiation doses received for a variety of events. Note that the additional radiation doses received by Japanese citizens in villages near the breaking-down nuclear plant average less than a normal day’s dose (which is to say, they’re getting less than twice the normal daily dose that you get simply by living on the surface of the Earth). They’re less than you get from a dental x-ray, and much less than you get by flying on a jet from New York to Los Angeles.

It’s true that a relatively small number of workers at the plant are getting much higher doses, but the danger to the mass population is quite low. Meanwhile, thousands of people around the world continue to die every day as a result of coal power production. Far more than will ever die as a result of nuclear radiation from any of these Japanese plants. The 30,000 American deaths per year attributed to coal average to more than 80 per day, which is nothing compared to the average of almost 1,400 per day from China’s half-million annual coal deaths.

I don’t mean to imply that we should treat nuclear power lightly. Of course the only reason it’s so safe is that tremendous safety measures are involved. We should absolutely learn from the disaster in Japan to improve safety however possible. But one thing we cannot afford to do is allow knee-jerk reactionaries to stop America from expanding our nuclear production capacity. The human toll of such narrow thinking would simply be too great.

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Radiation doses from a variety of sources.
Image from xkcd.com.