July 23, 2008

Transportation and education

While Andy Rotherham and Greg Forster are battling it out over school transportation policy, I'll use that opening wedge to talk about the "hydrogen economy" and similar piffles. Yes, there's an education policy angle here; just wait for it. (In fact, there are at least two.)

As far as I can tell, there are two goals of seeking alternative ways to run cars: reducing energy consumption and reducing emissions. Hybrids are somewhat more efficient than internal combustion because the batteries can suck up energy on braking, and as you reduce energy consumption, you inherently reduce emissions. Biodiesel can be efficient if the conversion of used vegetable oil is cheaper than the prevailing fuel costs, so you could reduce total pollution by recycling vegetable oil even if the consumption of the specific vehicle is the same. On the other hand, a hydrogen fuel-cell car inherently does squat to reduce either emissions or energy use because of some basic physics: the energy has to come from somewhere. Unless you can find a clean source for hydrogen (whatever generates the electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen), all a hydrogen fuel-cell car does is change the origin of emissions for the energy.

On the other hand, there is a very specific type of vehicle that I'd love to see go to low or zero emissions: garbage and recycling trucks. Diesel pollution from trucks tends to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods, and there is considerable evidence of a link between diesel particulate pollution and asthma. While it appears that childhood asthma rates may have plateaued recently after a sizable uptick in the 1980s and early 1990s, asthma is still a substantial public health risk for poor children, and my guess is that an effort to switch garbage trucks to less-polluting fuels or even zero emissions will change the lives of children, reduce absenteeism, and... yeah, probably increase student achievement over a generation. No guarantees, but if you don't think it's worth it, travel in a line of garbage trucks on their way to the local dump, with the window open, and tell me afterwards what the experience was like. (Oh, yeah: reducing emissions will also help the health of truck drivers and the folks who sling your garbage every week.)

And it doesn't even require hydrogen fuel-cell trucks. Apparently there's a concerted effort to develop and push natural-gas trucks, and if I had known about yesterday's G-Word show, had a television, had cable, and didn't have several draft papers I needed to respond to last night, I might've watched a segment about it. Then again, such video segments typically feature perky 20-something hosts talking about how to save the world if you only watch more television about how to save the world. I suspect what's really needed is local grassroots organizing to get the worst mobile point-source polluters (i.e., local diesel garbage trucks) out of neighborhoods.

The other education angle is the issue of measurement, or why miles per gallon is probably the worst engineering measurement we use in public policy today. If you teach upper elementary or middle-school math, there's probably an interesting discussion out of the following: which of the following saves more fuel if you drive all vehicles the same distance: replacing a 10-mpg vehicle with a 12-mpg vehicle, or replacing a 35-mpg vehicle with a 60-mpg vehicle? The last Carnival of Mathematics didn't have that, but I'm waiting for all you math teachers...

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Posted in Education policy on July 23, 2008 11:32 AM |