Is Your Next Car a Streetcar?

Hopping on a streetcar to get to work has a 1930s vibe to it. While streetcars continue to ride the rails in many European cities, they have largely vanished from American cities, and they have a nostalgic aura. But in spite of this, and spurred by the current economic downturn, Americans continue to use public transportation at record levels. More than 2.8 billion trips were taken on public transportation in the third quarter of 2008 -- a surge of 6.5 percent over the third quarter of 2007 and the largest year-to-year increase in 25 years. Light rail had the highest increase among all modes of public transport, posting a jump of 8.5 percent in the third quarter and a cumulative year-to-date gain of more than 10 percent. The trend is expected to intensify as fuel prices rebound, concern for the environment and energy independence increases, and urban city center revitalization continues.

These days, with roller-coaster fuel prices sending consumers into a tizzy, public transportation is receiving grassroots support even from people who would never dream of riding public transport themselves. For instance, U.S. voters, many frustrated by horrendous traffic in their communities, approved more than 20 transportation initiatives in the November election. Even with a historic economic downturn gripping the U.S. economy, more than half of these just-approved initiatives will raise taxes to help finance the new transportation systems. While gasoline prices in the United States have dipped, some predict that they will soon return to near-record levels, even as auto sales have plummeted to their lowest levels in decades. Planning and feasibility studies for passenger rail transit systems are under way in nearly 100 U.S. cities in response.

While traffic and fuel costs are prime movers in the quest for public transportation, environmentalism is also at work. Citing the impact of the automobile on climate change, some believe that reducing vehicle miles traveled is a critical component of what could be a climate-change solution. With increasing congestion and a decline in quality of life, cities of all sizes face urgent imperatives to reduce vehicle miles traveled. But rail transit initiatives often face complex planning, financing and deployment challenges that take years and even decades to overcome.

So what's the answer to the desire for light rail systems in light of the difficulty in deploying them? One solution might be using technology designed for the Third World and adapting it for major urban areas in the United States. Since 1973, John Parry, the founder and chairman of United Kingdom-based JPM Parry & Associates, has focused on devising and deploying appropriate technology for developing nations in Africa and beyond. The Parry "trolley" -- ultralight, ultralow-carbon, low-cost, rapidly deployable rail transit -- is the culmination of his life's work.

One of the key benefits of the Parry trolley system is that it can be put into service quickly without electric rail or overhead catenary. Instead of drawing power from these conventional sources, the trolley's propulsion is achieved via patented, self-contained hybrid kinetic energy, which is adaptable to a wide variety of fuel sources, including hydrogen fuel cell technology.

"The Parry streetcar is the green alternative many communities are seeking in their quest for low-carbon transit strategies," said Barry Seifer, Parry Transit CEO. "We're receiving validation of this perspective from all quarters, from the Obama administration to a number of states with whom we are in early discussions regarding location of headquarters, production engineering, supply chain coordination, streetcar manufacturing, and customer service and support. More imminently, we are entering negotiations on several pilot installations."

Some say transportation's tipping point has arrived, and the American transit market is undergoing a structural shift to light rail. Demand for increased mobility and more non-auto transportation options is surging, yet half of Americans have no access to public transit. Maybe an old-fashioned idea like streetcars can pave the way.