Archive for April 3rd, 2009


We hear every day now about the staggering sums of money being thrown at this and that sinking sector of our nation’s economy. It’s hard to understand the scale of all of this. I am just now starting to figure out what a toxic asset is, and I am struggling to grasp what $700 billion dollars means. Or $50 billion to the automakers. So I have been sitting here trying to think of ways to understand all this money talk.

Here is what I have calculated today, cast in terms that even a feeble minded architect can understand.

How much to build a real high-speed rail line from DC to New York? Gets cars off the road, shuttle aircraft out of the skies. Current estimates suggest that high speed rail costs about $50 million a mile to construct. You can quibble with me if you’d like, but I don’t think I am too far off.

                        acela-cmp        tgv_retgv-03-cmp 

Amtrak’s Acela, and France’s TGV High Speed Rail.

So the line between DC and NYC, around 200 miles, would run about $10 billion. That doesn’t seem so bad, when compared to the fact that we have just poured $50 billion down the carmaker sink hole, an amount that is clearly not going to be nearly enough to save them. DC to NYC in about an hour. Good.

Last year, Amtrak’s Acela carried about 3.2 million passengers. On a dedicated right-of-way, high speed rail could easily double this figure. So let’s say, for the sake of easy math, that the passenger count jumps to 10 million. That would mean that the system would cost $1,000 per passenger for a year. Or $100 per passenger over 10 years. Change the ridership calculations if you’d like, but the cost of the system seems pretty manageable even if I am off by an order of magnitude.

As an aside, the Eurostar high speed system in Europe carries 800 passengers per train, with 15 trains per hour. If you run this out, and figure that that capacity would run, say, 12 hours a day, that’s 144,000 folks per day. Now run that out a bit further, and figure 260 days per year, the number of work days at 5 days a week per year. That’s 37,440,000 passengers per year. 10,000,000 passengers per year doesn’t sound like much of a stretch.

Now this is sounding pretty good, after you figure out the additional cost of all the crud that wouldn’t be spewed into the atmosphere by the planes and cars that high speed rail could supplant. (High speed will save a couple of hundred million pounds of carbon dioxide pollution per year in the bargain).

Okay, what’s next. Let’s tackle energy, heat and power for homes, in lieu of repairing the national electrical grid. If we can generate all our power and heat at home, we can substantially decrease what needs to be invested in the grid. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publishes a report card on our nation’s infrastructure every year, and most recently they estimate that we must spend $1.5 trillion dollars between now and 2030 to upgrade the grid. They give our energy system a D+ grade. Sounds high to me.


The EPA has issued a report that examines distributed CHP (combined heat and power) systems, a decentralized, local way of generating all of the heat, power, and cooling for an individual home with high efficiency, using a variety of different fuels and ultimately a fuel cell, taking the house off the grid. They are still expensive – about $15,000 per household. So do the math. That means that 100 million homes (there are about 105 million homes in the US) could install CHP in lieu of spending $1.5 trillion on the grid, and generate all the power, heat and cooling each house requires with a new unit in the basement. Not bad.


The Dachs Mini-CHP unit, manufactured in the UK.

Now what? Food. Here’s another good calculation to give you a sense of scale and economics. Scientists tell us that thanks to our system of industrialized agriculture, an average meal travels 1,500 mile to get to our plate. Now if a semi trailer truck gets about 7 miles per gallon (you can check me on this), then the 1,500 mile trip will use about 215 gallons of fuel. With diesel fuel at about $2.20 a gallon, the cost of your meal should be $473.


Of course there are 20,000 other meals on that same truck, which means that the actual fuel cost per meal is about 2 and 1/2 cents. To feed everybody in the nation for a day, say a billion meals a day, (lots of folks eat more than 3 meals a day) that comes to about $25 million in fuel costs. Per day. And requires about 10 million gallons of fuel. Now here’s the kicker.

CO2 generation for that one day of food: 22.2 pounds per gallon of diesel fuel according to the Department of Energy, thus totaling 222 million pounds. Hmmm – not so good. Average annual US CO2 generation per household: 40,000 pounds, the highest per-household average in the world.

I wanted to add something about water to finish, something that would give me some sense of scale relative to all four of the big issues facing the next city: energy, water, mobility and food. But when I got to water, I found a single fact and was so stunned, I figured I could quit.


Daily – DAILY – water usage in the US is 408 billion gallons, according to the USGS! To put that in some kind of focus, note that we use 390 million gallons of gasoline every day in this nation. So we use 10 times more water than gasoline. 65% of the water is used by industry, about 25% by agriculture, and about 10% for domestic purposes. Yikes.

I guess I am beginning to get a handle on what hundreds of billions of anything might mean. But the better I understand, the worse I feel. There seems to be a big difference between what we think we can afford, and what we can really afford.

I need a bigger calculator.

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