I've been doing a lot of thinking and researching on transit issues recently and I agree with the folks who are saying that, yes, we know that we need stuff like light rail and biofuels but most of those are massively capital intensive. What are we supposed to do now?
Well, there are a lot of valid responses to that but I think that, if it were up to me, one thing that we would be doing is creating a Liberty Ship-style program to optimize and standardize procedures for making what are known as "camels". These are converted bus bodies or scratch-built beasties that can be hooked up to the back of a diesel truck to make instant mass transit vehicles. They made tons of these (badly, from what I can see) in Cuba starting in 1990 when the Soviet Union fell and they needed mass transit pronto.
Now, again, I agree that the ones the Cubans built were loud, crowded, and too damn long for most streets. Typical Marxist command economy design. But the fundamental idea, done well with developed world technology, looks like a mighty good option to me. They're cheap and fast to make. They're easy as the dickens to deploy, and as better options come online, the trucks can go right back to the uses they had in the first place. Even most of the parts could be stripped and reused, one way or another.
I've looked at plenty of pictures and some diagrams of camels and afaict, they're pretty much a box on wheels with a standard connector to the truck and seats and windows to make them practical as passenger vehicles. Now, as I wrote on my blog a while back, old schoolbuses (working) go for a couple thousand bucks out there, so we could get plenty of seats, windows, doors, etc. cheap. Yes, the prices would go up some, but even if they did, I just can't see us having a legitimate reason to complain about putting U.S. workers back to work to make bus seats. Not exactly a capital-intensive business for a company to go into.
Do I understand issues with ADA compliance and such? Yes, actually, I do. And the cost of keeping such a vehicle going long-term if it's not built with the kind of massively expensive materials and techniques that streetcars and buses usually use and that make them so expensive.
But that's the beauty part. There is no long term for these. These just need to get out on the roads and last for a few years. If they start to fall apart after then, if the shocks aren't heavy-duty enough, the seats starting to sag, and so on, who cares? It's all just a temporary measure. And it will cost a hell of a lot less than trying to implement more sophisticated mass-transit systems soon enough to deal with some of the circumstances we may be facing soon.
And, as all of us who have managed projects with lots of users know, it's damn near impossible to do a good job for a reasonable budget for anything mission critical that can't get deployed until your work is done. It's much cheaper to build out anything if there is some existing service that keeps the users (pretty much) taken care of in the meantime.
Anyway, that's it. Let me know what you think.