Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Hypocrisy of TreeHugger.com

"TreeHugger". The name is synonymous with in-your-face environmentalism - the kind of activism that stands up to corporate abuses in defense of nature's majesty.

So imagine my surprise at seeing Lloyd Alter, one of the most active members of TreeHugger.com, acting at the behest of corporate construction interests!

Allow me to explain. In one corner, there is personal rapid transit, PRT, a promising new green transportation technology. A PRT system is currently being built at Heathrow Airport in London. For the uninitiated, here are a few facts about this system:

  • Phase one is on budget and on schedule to open next year as a parking lot circulator, with plans in place to extend it throughout the airport and beyond.

  • The system features light, automated, battery-driven vehicles which run on demand on a dedicated guideway, and initial versions will move 1200-4800 people per hour, equivalent to buses running every 1-3 minutes.

  • Vehicles produce no local emissions, using batteries charged from the electrical grid.

  • Vehicles consume the equivalent of a 100 mpg automobile, and are even more environmentally friendly than that because they run off grid power, and can therefore take full advantage of advancements in clean power generation.

  • The system is more energy efficient per passenger than any other transit mode.

  • Construction and operating costs are significantly less than light rail, and PRT provides no-wait, non-stop, private travel, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

  • The system meets Kyoto sustainability targets today - 35 years ahead of schedule.

Now, if you are a true environmentalist, what possible problem could you have with a system like that?

So that's PRT. In the other corner, there is traditional light rail transit. Now, I'm as much a fan of rail as anyone - I'm amazed by metro/subway systems like NYC and Toronto - but light rail is not a panacea. There are many situations where PRT is a much better option than light rail.

The problem is, light rail has its proponents, and those proponents see PRT as a threat. Light rail construction firms and consultancies stand to lose BILLIONS of dollars if a new technology like PRT cuts into their monopoly on city transit, so it is in their best interest to see PRT fail.

Which brings us to the Light Rail Now (LRN) website. LRN is a corporate astroturfing website - basically a site that presents itself as a grass roots effort, but is in reality just an undercover marketing campaign - in this case, underwritten primarily by three rail companies.

LRN has a somewhat famous "analysis" of PRT called "Cyberspace Dream Keeps Colliding With Reality". It was written anonymously, never published, and only exists on the LRN website in its "FACTS" section. It's basically promoted as a scientific analysis of why PRT would not work.

One problem: it's complete fiction. It's not a scientific analysis, it's marketing fluff, written to disparage PRT and preserve light rail's monopoly on city transit. Here are four separate, detailed rebuttals which debunk every major point in the "analysis".

But even though the LRN report is not accurate, it's very effective. Responsible journalistic entities wouldn't touch it - they know better than to trust anonymously written marketing fluff from an astroturfing site - but the LRN report gets plenty of circulation in blogs and forums, where transit activists who've never heard of PRT quickly buy into the criticism and spread it further.

Which brings us back to TreeHugger. Lloyd Alter apparently got a stack of propaganda from Ken Avidor, including one of Avidor's cartoons and a link to the LRN report. But Lloyd is not a journalist, so it didn't occur to him that an activist sending out propaganda should not be trusted to provide the full truth. Lloyd basically parroted Avidor's campaign verbatim.

But bad journalism is not necessary hypocrisy - maybe Lloyd was just being lazy? Nope. I posted a comment to that thread which outlined Ken Avidor's association with LRN, and LRN's association with corporate rail interests, but my comment never appeared. Then I sent an email to the TreeHugger editor detailing my concerns - no response.

And then there's this comment from Lloyd, in which he sarcastically acknowledges the objections. So Lloyd certainly cannot claim ignorance to the evidence.

No, Lloyd and TreeHugger have clearly chosen to ignore fact and support corporate rail. He's been shown the potential environmental benefits of this new technology, and he knows it's being built as we speak at Heathrow, yet he's still touting the rail company line.

Pure hypocrisy.

So the next time Lloyd goes on and on about the importance of biodegradable flooring, ask him why he is bashing the most environmentally friendly transit solution since the bicycle. Ask him why he has such a problem with a transit technology that can provide ultimate convenience and availability, and can also get us to Kyoto energy levels 20 years ahead of schedule.

It's obviously a question he's trying to evade.

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Blogger Mr_Grant said...

Don't forget this, from the State of Virginia report on PRT:

"The expected capacity of PRT systems would also be equivalent to the observed capacity of existing light rail and busway lines (roughly 10,000 pphpd). This is possible despite the much smaller vehicles due to the short headways enabled by automated operation and the higher average speeds achieved through separated guideways and off-line stations." (p.3)

"ULTra [Heathrow] technology has been used on two British test tracks and demonstrated its ability to offer six second headways and potentially serve 2000 passengers per kilometer. This service capacity is significant in that no other UK light rail system currently operates at this capacity." (p.9)

3/13/2008 9:35 PM  
Blogger gary said...

I suppose we should expect vested interests in traditional (failed) mass transit technologies to respond as they do.

btw, here's my own PRT concept...




3/30/2008 6:56 PM  
Blogger Hayduke said...

So, who is this "Transportation Enthusiast" who posts anonymously around the blogosphere on subjects PRT-ish?

Something to hide, perhaps? Say a vested interest in PRT?

Sounds like a young, impressionistic student to me, either in economics of engineering.

Care to respond, or should I post this question on my blog?

4/12/2009 4:43 PM  

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