Wiki Wednesday: Zero VMT Vehicles

In a StreetsWiki entry on zero VMT vehicles, Streetsblog regular gecko proposes that a focus on shifting mode share to human-powered vehicles like bikes and the Aerorider (right) would be the most efficient means to bring necessary reductions in greenhouse gases, and would transform Manhattan, for one, into a bright green paradise.

Since it is only people that are being moved, using modular vehicles the size and weight of human beings, and optimally much smaller, is a much better, more agile and cost-effective way to move them. Bicycles would be the first step in achieving such systems, by converting 40% of New York City travel to cycling, as in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Borrowing from successes of Parisian Vélib and German public bike systems, scaled up to significantly service New York’s 8.5 million daily commuter population, will be the most expedient cost-effective first step in implementing modern and immediately valuable transit improvements.

Ultimately, if zero VMT vehicles replace standard vehicles there may be justification to consider them negative VMT vehicles; doubly so if they can serve as modular components of transit systems to greatly improve systemic efficiencies, practicality, and costs.

We could see this entry being expanded with info, for instance, on how bike share can serve to complement existing transit systems by relieving overcrowding. Any takers? If so, sign up for Livable Streets account to add to this or any other article.

  • J. Mork

    I don’t get it. A HPV is a vehicle and it travels over miles, so it must have vehicle miles traveled > 0.

    Why not “zero emissions” vehicle?

    (Ignoring the fact that a vehicle does require food input, which consumes fuel [probably petroleum] to produce and transport.)

  • Miguel Marcos

    > into a bright green paradise

    And a much less noisier one, too.

  • jr

    Yeah, the terminology in this article appears to be wrong or at least very confusing. VMT = Vehicle-Miles Traveled. If we are saying that VMT only measures vehicle-miles for things with combustion engines in them then maybe these human powered vehicles are not producing any VMT. But, I’m pretty sure VMT is not a metric that is specific to the source of a vehicle’s movement. Maybe I’m wrong though.

  • glrrrp

    how many calories does it take, each way, for a fellow cyclist to bike to work in Manhattan? And if that cyclist lives on cheeseburgers, what then is the true cost from a greenhouse gas emission perspective?

  • I agree with Mork and JR, and since the phrase “zero VMT vehicle” only exists in this post and the wiki entry, I think it’s a coinage by Gecko. Gecko, please consider changing the name.

    There’s nothing wrong with vehicle miles traveled in principle, it just depends on the vehicle and the externalities associated with it. In our culture, we’re trying to reduce VMT because of waste, pollution and carnage. We should separate these out.

    From the second law of thermodynamics, there are no “zero waste vehicles”: such a thing is as impossible as a perpetual motion machine. The closest you could get would be an “ultra efficient vehicle,” but the ultraness of it would change as technology changed.

    If I understand the entry properly, these vehicles generate no emissions by themselves, but the human beings do produce more carbon dioxide when riding them than when walking – and if the riders derive energy from meat or processed foods, the livestock raising, food processing and cultivation generate greenhouse gases. So they’re “zero emissions vehicles” in a narrow sense, but not in a broad sense.

    Since even roller skates generate carnage, I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a “zero carnage vehicle.” If it can go significantly faster than a bicycle, it will be that much more dangerous. Still not as dangerous as a car, of course.

    So what we’ve got is a “relatively efficient, low emission, low-carnage vehicle.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well.

  • gecko

    #5. Cap’n Transit, There is a certain amount of energy required in the normal course of living; especially, in maintaining health. If you look more closely at those people who are unable to move themselves — or unwilling — you’ll find that their energy and emissions budgets are many times larger, and any increased energy usage and emissions by healthy active individuals are negligible.

    Zero VMT technology follows a long and very effective tradition of describing phenomena modeled around ideal situations that ignore aspects that are considered negligible. The energy and emissions of a cyclist — and anyone using a hybrid human-electric vehicle — compared to someone driving a car are considered to be negligible. Even more importantly, as cycling (and zero VMT usage) replaces car driving and greatly improves transit, there will likely be an accelerating canceling affect.

  • I agree with Cap’n Transit that “zero vehicle miles traveled” is a confusing label for a means of transport. Zero-emissions vehicle is much easier to understand.

  • BTW, the aerorider looks like an amazing technology. In a place like New York, I’d want to see it implemented as a sharing service (a la Zip Car) because it would still occupy significantly more road space (for driving and parking) than a pedestrian or conventional cyclist. In pedestrian-oriented communities, you should be able to accomplish most of your activities on foot, by bicycle (with trailer if necessary), or via mass transit, and only have to resort to car-like vehicles exceptionally.

  • jr

    @Gecko, you didn’t really explain why they are called “zero VMT”. Think about it. These are “V” vehicles that “T” travel “M” miles. It doesn’t make any sense to call them “zero VMT”. Capn Transit rightly points out that VMT by itself only measures the amount of travel and not the negative externalities produced by that travel. Some modes of travel, like bikes, can have relatively high VMT and low externalities. I think that’s a better way to think about it. In any case, “zero VMT” seems to be a malapropism.

  • James

    Right. These are Zero Emissions Vehicles. A Zero VMT vehicle would be one that simply sits in one spot and does not move. The article needs to be amended to reflect this.

  • gecko

    It is agreed that VMT is a rather unfortunate metric and smacks of jargon, but where it is used bicycles are not mentioned since bicycles provide no real contribution to the statistics except that wide-spread use will lower energy, emissions, and congestion values which is the main purpose of the VMT metric.

    It is also agreed that enclosures on bicycle-like vehicles as on the Aeorider pictured above are as much a liability — for increased size, weight, and susceptibility to wind — as they can be of some benefit to improve streamlining and protection from weather.

    This is a work in progress with the focus being on designing, building, and using vehicles that do not contribute to vehicle miles traveled and mitigating the extremely troubling and negative effects of accelerating large scale car use.

    The focus is not on wordplay despite the fact that the term “Zero VMT Vehicles” is just that.

  • jr

    the term VMT has no jargon in it… its quite straightforward…

    VMT = # of vehicles * miles-traveled

    if your concern is that VMT as measured by most DOTs does not include non-motorized vehicles then you have a point… but you’re kind of butchering the terminology to make your point and in my opinion that doesn’t help your cause because absolutely noone in the transportation profession will take the term “zero VMT” vehicles seriously… also, in my opinion, this kind of thing weakens the validity of a source like “streetsblog”… i’m really not trying to be confrontational but it sort of irks me that transportation professionals don’t take bike/ped advocates seriously and a lot of the time its because bike/ped advocates come across as having no scientific basis for their arguments… using the term “zero VMT” vehicle just reinforces that image in my opinion

  • gecko

    #12 jr, (#6 gecko: “. . . describing phenomena modeled around ideal situations”) “The concept of ideal gas is useful in technology because one mole (6.02214 ×1023 particles) of an ideal gas has a volume of 22.4 liters at the standard conditions for temperature and pressure and many common real gases approach this behaviour in these conditions.” “Mass on a pendulum. In the small-angle approximation, the motion of a pendulum is approximated by simple harmonic motion.” A familiar example of a trajectory is the path of a projectile such as a thrown ball or rock. In a greatly simplified model the object moves only under the influence of a uniform homogenous gravitational force field.

  • gecko

    Following this line of thought in terms of powering, emissions, size, safety (away from automobiles), costs, environmental impact, distributed on-demand capabilities, etc., . . . , bicycles and other vehicles with similar attributes would be better considered ideal vehicles.

    They currently fall short in certain things like automated and distance travel and being operated in hostile manmade and natural environments but not entirely since bicycles have been described as the Italian secret weapon during World War II (to escape the enemy) and the Defense Department recently contracted with Montague to adapt them for use during battle, in particular, by paratroopers. This has evolved to the full-size folding consumer bike under the brand name Swiss Bikes.

    Perhaps the Defense Department could be convinced to lead a major design effort around the ideal vehicle to respond to our current dependency on foreign oil and the serious problems of national and local transportation being a major threat to United States security.

  • gecko

    #12 jr, “if your concern is that VMT as measured by most DOTs does not include non-motorized vehicles then you have a point… ”

    Hopefully, by now you’ve have had a chance to think about the purpose and usage of VMT and how it makes absolutely no sense that bicycles and similar ideal vehicles be included in this metric.

    The vehicle miles traveled metric has been established to capture information on the use of automobiles at least in part to limit the destructive effects of this type of technology where ideal vehicles provide very viable solutions.

    Ideal vehicles have a nullifying effect.

  • Gecko, as a linguist I’m asking you to be more responsible in your use of language. As the Cap’n said above, it’s much more straightforward to talk about the specific costs of various vehicles: emissions, resource waste, carnage, sprawl induction.

    Your latest coinage, “ideal vehicles,” is similarly misleading and counterproductive. By definition, ideals do not exist in real life. There is therefore nothing to gain from taking a class of real or planned vehicles and putting this word on it.

    I liked it better when you were using specific terms that focused on the benefits of the types vehicles you were promoting.

  • gecko

    #16. Angus Grieve-Smith, Perhaps it may be worthwhile having a discussion about what may be considered an ideal vehicle with self-propulsion being a good place to start and compared to walking, bicycles improve efficiency by 300% to 400% with similar improvements in range and speed with a small fractional increase in overall size and weight.

  • Gecko, an ideal vehicle is one that takes up no space, consumes no resources, emits no pollutants, puts no one in danger, and gets the traveler to the destination in no time flat. Anything less may be a tremendous improvement over what we have now, but it is simply not ideal.

    Bicycles are nice. They’re faster than walking, they’re relatively cheap to buy and maintain, they don’t require any fuel or emit any pollutants (although cyclists may eat more and fart more than pedestrians), and they’re much less dangerous than cars. But they do injure and even kill people on a regular basis, they require an effort to propel (especially up hills or over bridges), and they often take longer than cars or transit, and provide less protection from the elements. Good, but not ideal.

  • gecko

    #18. Angus Grieve-Smith, Regarding “. . . although cyclists may eat more and fart more than pedestrians . . . ”

    you may want to revisit an earlier post at #13 gecko: “The concept of ideal gas is useful in technology because one mole (6.02214 ×1023 particles) of an ideal gas has a volume of 22.4 liters at the standard conditions for temperature and pressure and many common real gases approach this behaviour in these conditions.”

  • To add more fodder to this discussion:

    “WASHINGTON, June 10, 2008 – The American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE) is joining Congressman James Oberstar (D-8th, MN) Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee announcing the classification of the bicycle as a Renewable Energy Vehicle (REV) and Renewable Zero Emissions Vehicle (RZEV).”

    Please, let’s classify a bicycle and other human-powered vehicles as zero-emissions vehicles. It is a clear and easy concept to understand. A zero-VMT vehicle just sounds bizarre.

  • gecko

    #20 Urbanis, Zero Emissions Vehicle (RZEV) is a great name! And, Congressman James Oberstar (D-8th, MN) has been most supportive in improving awareness of this very good way to travel.

    “Zero-VMT” was crafted to provide focus on a possible solution to be incorporated into initiatives designed to directly reduce automobile vehicle miles traveled.

    The big issue is to start considering this category of vehicle as serious transportation, to spur broad implementation and improvements, and start reaping the significant benefits.

    None of this stuff is written in stone. Just remember, some of the first autombiles were called horse-less carriages which may not be considered a great name either. But it did describe a transition.


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