Automobile Infrastructure Personal Rapid Transit Urbanism

Will autonomous cars change the role and value of public transportation?

» Self-driving cars could alter how we get around—and also change the way our cities work.

Even the concept of a self-driving car is enough to get people talking in raptures about the potential for a utopian future society. It could fulfill the promise of “personal rapid transit” transportation planners hoped to provide decades ago, offering personalized point-to-point service without the hassle, congestion, or crashes involved with driving.

The autonomous vehicle, some predict, will replace many of today’s forms of transportation and radically expand mobility by allowing people, including the young, old, and disabled, to get around without having to walk, without having to know how to drive, and without having to wait for a bus or train. Operating without a driver and using electricity for power, the autonomous vehicle could be cheap to operate and environmentally friendly. It could, in fact, replace car ownership for many households.

We’re years away from the rollout of any self-driving car that people can purchase, and we’re even further from a future city with no human drivers on the street. But progress toward autonomous cars has accelerated, and companies from Google to BMW to Volvo suggest that they’ll be able to offer such vehicles relatively soon.

How exactly will autonomous vehicles affect our transport systems and our cities in general? As I’ll describe below, they may radically alter the types of public transportation regions provide for their citizens, and they may increase—or decrease—the sheer amount of driving people do. Given the fact that these types of cars are almost definitely coming at some point, it is time to begin the conversation on how to handle them, since their impact on the urban environment is a matter not only of private research and development but also of public policy questions about space, access, and who decides how our transportation system will work in the future.

I gained some insight on these issues at the International Transport Forum (ITF) in Leipzig, Germany that I’ll relate here (full disclosure: as part of the Media Travel Programme, the Forum covered the cost of my attending and traveling to the event).

New forms of mobility: An intermediary step toward autonomous vehicles?

The basic forms of urban mobility have hardly changed over the past century. Walking, biking, public transport, driving, carpooling, and taxiing represent the vast majority of trips. Each of these modes has, in essence, remained technically similar while there has of course been a very significant shift away from public transport toward single-passenger automobiles as cities have spread and become less dense.

Advanced computing is slowly but surely altering the interactions between people and the transportation system, potentially with the endgame of eventually replacing most motorized modes with fully autonomous vehicles, which would represent a radical change in technology.

The development of these new forms of mobility thus far has been evolutionary and taken advantage of the technology offered by smart phones in particular. The creation of hour-by-hour car-sharing options such as Zipcar encouraged people to rely on public transport, walking, and biking for most of their trips but also allowed them access to automobiles on demand, and research indicates that car sharing does, in fact, significantly reduce household car ownership.

Also made possible by new technology, French company BlaBlaCar‘s simplified paid ridesharing allows people to split the costs of long-distance trips for its 10 million users. According to BlaBlaCar head Frédéric Mazzella during a panel at the ITF, the service has yet to enter the U.S. market because with gas prices “at two dollars a gallon, there’s not much to share.” The U.S.’s weak transit systems and sprawling physical environment also limit the ability of users to carpool.

Undoubtedly the most prominent entry in this field of technologically informed transportation solutions has been Uber, whose fleet is generating up to $10 billion in annual revenues. Like Lyft and others, Uber’s offer of cheaper taxi services has been transformative; in San Francisco, for example, traditional taxi rides have declined in number by at least 65 percent over the past three years.

Now other startups are attempting to, in a similar vein, supplant traditional public transportation. Boston’s Bridj guarantees seats, faster travel times, and wifi for customers who are willing to pay slightly more than they would for a public bus.

What’s undeniable is that novel approaches to transportation have relied on tactics that avoid many of the regulations that have been in place for decades, or require them to be altered. Zipcar’s initial implementation, for example, needed a change in Massachusetts’ car rental laws. Uber’s services, more dramatically, require public entities to classify its operations differently than taxis (though that may be changing), allowing its independently contracted drivers to avoid full insurance and reducing the public sector’s ability to cap the total number of driver services being provided, guarantee stable fares, or ensure adequate pay for drivers.

It is true that the arrival of these transportation options has increased the mobility of many people who do not own, or do not wish to use, private automobiles. Uber’s Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy David Plouffe (who was the campaign manager of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign) emphasized in an ITF panel session that the company’s services are being used in many cities as a gap-filler. “We are very excited about how we help public transportation,” he noted. By guaranteeing transport from the end of a rail line, for example, Uber can ensure peoples’ ability to get home at all hours when they’re not living within walking distance of a stop in a way that less available and more expensive taxis may not be able to.

“The only option is getting more people in fewer cars.”

These new taxi offerings may also be able to reduce costs for their users even further through the use of carpooling; UberPool and Lyft Line, for example, allow two to three people to share the same ride, and its cost, with one driver. Today, according to Plouffe, 20 percent of Uber rides in San Francisco are shared.

For cities coping with congestion, this kind of carpooling does suggest benefits for traffic reduction and Plouffe is right when he says that “the only option is getting more people in fewer cars,” since new highway construction is untenable in most places. Switching people out of single-passenger automobiles and into carpooling-like services could, indeed, reduce traffic. But if these people are choosing not to use transit, they may be making traffic worse. After all, twenty cars with three people each still take up more space per capita than a bus with sixty passengers.

The rapid rate of technological change in transportation has been a challenge for the public sector because of the difficulty of keeping up. For better or worse, the government’s ability to regulate urban movement has been undermined by the speed of the tech companies and their publicly attractive insistence that they’re only increasing mobility. David Plouffe claimed at the ITF that Uber is “hungry for new regulations,” but it’s hard to avoid the sense that Uber simply won’t accept regulations that don’t fit with its revenue motives.

The rise of tech companies effectively making their own rules and then asking the public to accept them puts in question the government’s ability to maintain stability in the industry while ensuring safety and continued access. Is the public sector abandoning its role in favor of crowdsourcing and crowd ratings?

Another question is the long-term impact of the services of these new companies. In making the argument for its importance, Uber’s public relations strategists have emphasized the company’s success in creating 20,000 new jobs per month. Similarly, Bridj suggests that it is providing supplemental services to public transportation, not competing directly, therefore creating more transportation jobs in general. It’s unclear, however, how many taxi drivers are now losing their jobs or suffering from reduced incomes, or whether public bus routes are not being implemented because of the availability of new private options.

The rollout of self-driving cars

The new jobs created by such technological advances may be ephemeral at best, because the autonomous car is likely coming soon, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that transportation companies are licking their chops to reduce the labor costs of their operations. While new services, from Zipcar to BlaBlaCar to Uber to Bridj, continue to rely on drivers to function, what would happen if labor were simply removed from the equation altogether?

There’s disagreement about how soon self-driving cars will come to market, though Google’s autonomous vehicle is already making the rounds, both literally and in the media. The fact that it has been tested on highways across California surely indicates that popular use of the technology isn’t far off—even if the experience of riding in the vehicles leaves something to be desired.

Slate’s Lee Gomes points out that there’s still plenty of work to be done, beginning with the fact that the Google car relies on highly complex maps of every street it drives on, and most streets have not yet been mapped. But it’s hard not to believe that some sort of vehicular automation will be rolled out soon. “Autonomous cars are going to happen so fast that it almost doesn’t matter what you’re going to do between now and then,” Robin Chase, co-founded of Zipcar, told me in an interview at the ITF. She predicts a public rollout in the next five to ten years.

But the question for our cities is how these autonomous cars will be introduced; will they simply replace today’s Uber drivers, or will they be owned by individuals? In an article in CityLab last year, Chase delved into this problem, arguing that individual ownership of self-driving vehicles would be destructive, increasing congestion and encouraging significant increases in car travel by people who order their vehicles to drop them off in front of stores, only to have the car circle the block for hours as they shop. Indeed, the ITF has modeled out scenarios showing increases in miles traveled with the rollout of self-driving vehicles.

Alternatively, a world in which autonomous cars are shared, perhaps operated as Uber-like taxis or alternatively as some sort of publicly or cooperatively owned service, could have significant benefits for cities by reducing the need for parking, encouraging intermodal trips, and expanding mobility by providing lower-cost travel options.

Changes in the role of public transport

As suggested by Uber’s David Plouffe, new mobility options may be providing an important complement to existing public transport systems. Evidence from San Francisco, where technologically advanced mobility may be most instilled in the popular culture, suggests that there hasn’t been a dramatically negative effect on public transportation thus far.

As of December 2013, Uber was already providing 160,000 trips per week in the Bay Area, a number that has likely increased in the subsequent months. Those trips, however, do not appear to have reduced transit ridership. Indeed, according to statistics from the American Public Transportation Association, ridership on buses and trains operated by all four of that region’s major transit operators—BART, San Francisco Muni, Oakland’s AC Transit, and Caltrain—increased between 2013 and 2014.

So perhaps Uber et al. are actually increasing transit ridership. Or maybe ridership is not increasing as quickly as it could given that metropolitan area’s relatively explosive population growth. It is probably too early to tell.

What is likely true is that the prices being charged for these taxi-like services are too high to attract most people out of public transportation for their daily trips. As Robin Chase told me, even UberPool, at “Five to seven dollars a trip, is still not what people can afford to get to work. Fourteen dollars a day, that’s not happening… and that’s [Uber’s] best case scenario!” At those prices, bus and train ridership is not likely to be dramatically affected.

On the other hand, Chase told me that she thinks that automated cars will dramatically change the equation for public transit services because of the much cheaper prices made possible when there’s no human labor involved. For Chase, “buses, shuttles, minivans, school buses [will be] all gone.” Because of the ability to substitute automated cars for these low-capacity transit modes, they will simply disappear from the options available in the urban environment as cities recognize the limited utility of their fixed schedules and inability to adapt to point-to-point demand. And she expects this change to come sooner rather than later.

“Would you prefer what we have today, [where] only poor people use [most transit service] and it sucks, or would you rather that poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?”

When I asked her about how this would alter the public sector’s role in transportation, she noted that she expected governments to switch from subsidizing service provision for all to providing vouchers for automated transportation for the poor, much in the same way that the government in the 1970s switched from building public housing to providing rent vouchers.

I raised the prospect that this would negatively affect poor peoples’ mobility, but Chase rejected my premise, arguing that lower-income people would be able to use “the same vehicles that people who can afford it are using… Would you prefer what we have today,” she asked me, where “only poor people use [most transit service] and it sucks, or would you rather that poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?”

It’s an interesting point, but it would require a very significant public role through subsidies if we’re to maintain mobility for low-income people who do not have access to their own automobiles. Are American cities ready to provide direct transportation subsidies for poor people to use self-driving cars? How would those subsidies work, and would people have access to unlimited trips and travel distances?

Paratransit services provided by many cities already offer people with limited personal mobility a point-to-point alternative similar to that which could be offered by automated cars. Today, paratransit trips cost the public purse more than three times as much to provide as regular bus and rail services according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, but that’s in part because of the low capacity of paratransit vehicles, high labor costs, and their non-fixed-route services. Eligible customers in most regions are allowed to take as many trips as they’d like upon advanced reservation, generally at a per-ride fare on par with traditional transit.

But paratransit has been implemented thanks to a federal government mandate resulting from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Without a similar requirement, will cities have the incentive to subsidize poor peoples’ trips? Or will they simply abandon traditional transit and leave those people to fend for themselves, at whatever price point charged by the companies operating automated vehicles?

Chase’s vision—that low-capacity transit operating on fixed routes will be replaced by automated cars that allow point-to-point trips—has become a commonly cited argument among those who suggest that governments cease investment in public transportation. To them, why spend any public money on transportation if all our problems will be solved with driverless cars?

But eliminating bus lines would disassemble the transit grid that makes the network work in most places. A large share of transit users rely on buses to take them to the train, or vice verse. Automated cars could fill some of that gap, but it’s hard to see them replacing local transit routes entirely.

In addition, eliminating bus routes as a component of the urban transit system could terminate one of the biggest perks of living in many cities: the unlimited-ride fare card. For tens of thousands of people—even millions of people in some cities—the unlimited ride card allows people to move about their city on public transit at one fixed price per month, giving them the ability to take side trips and explore new parts of the region. Could trips in automated vehicles be incorporated into such a system?

For Chase, “major, hard routes” like subways and elevated lines—and probably bus rapid transit, though she did not name it—would remain important even with the mass use of automated vehicles. The most heavily trafficked transit corridors, with more than 5,000 people moving per direction per hour, cannot be handled by automated vehicles alone. When operating in its own lanes and in a dedicated right of way, transit also has the potential to be quicker than automated vehicles.

So for dense urban neighborhoods and major job centers, public transit will likely remain a fact of life.

It’s also worth emphasizing that any advances in technology that provide for automated cars could also result in automated public transport vehicles, potentially saving significantly on the cost of operations by eliminating the need for driver labor (it could also reduce the cost of shipping by, for example, eliminating the need for truck drivers). Automated trains are already common for new subway and elevated rail systems, and some train lines in cities like Paris have been converted from driver to automated operation.

Buses moving around the city with no drivers could be more frequent because of reduced labor costs, and certain bus lines could probably be operated profitably. In other words, automobile automation could have a genuine competitor in automated public transport.

Automated buses and trains, much like automated taxis, do come at a cost: Significantly fewer jobs in the transportation business. Is this a tradeoff worth making? Is the robotization of transportation labor a benefit for society as a whole in that while it will eliminate transportation jobs, it will reduce the cost of getting around, producing more jobs in other industries? Or are the well-paid jobs in transportation worth retaining as an essential pathway to the middle class?

Implications for the urban environment

The mass adoption of automated cars could radically alter how the urban environment looks and works—particularly if, as Robin Chase suggests, they’re shared. The easy availability of cheap point-to-point transportation in which passengers are free to read, watch films, or sleep while travelling around could increase the amount of time people are willing to travel each day, increasing overall vehicle use.

Automated cars could also devalue urban cores by making biking and walking, or waiting for transit, less appealing when a robotized car can arrive practically instantly at the touch of a button.

But Chase’s sense is that people “really enjoy clusters.” People like living and working near one another, and that has led to the renaissance many American central cities are experiencing today. Uber itself seems convinced of that fact; the company is planning a huge headquarters complex in the heart of San Francisco filled with walkable shops and restaurants and—intriguingly—it will be directly adjacent to the T-Third Street light rail line. In its urban perspective, the complex is diametrically opposed to the suburban, generally car-oriented campuses under construction by fellow tech giants Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Chase notes that the real benefits of the autonomous cars will actually be to the currently less-accessible parts of dense cities. Today, she argued to me, “If you live in Brooklyn, and you live three blocks from the A [Subway] train, your house is more valuable than if you live within 15 blocks of it,” but with the automated car, people there will feel like they are much closer to the Subway stop and therefore their home values will increase. But living in the exurbs, with no effective public transport available, will remain unappealing to many.

Perhaps her vision is optimistic, but I don’t disagree with her sense that most people won’t want to spend more time in a vehicle—automated or not—if they can help it, especially since they’ll be paying for the privilege.

And the automated vehicle, if widely adopted, could do wonders for the livability of urban neighborhoods by significantly reducing the need for parking. If every automated vehicle replaced 10 now privately owned cars, we would need one-tenth of the parking spaces at peoples’ residences. And retail, parks, offices, and other attractions would need virtually no parking, since the automated cars could simply store themselves somewhere else—or serve other customers—once they’re finished being used.

Eliminating parking would reduce housing costs and free up space for other, more important needs.

Urban transportation politics after the rise of the automated car

Self-driving cars will transform our cities, but how will they transform our urban governance?

Plouffe’s argument is that the public sector’s role has diminished, will continue to diminish­­, and does not need to stop diminishing.

At the ITF, Uber’s David Plouffe painted the rise of his company’s services—and the potential future implementation of automated cars—as a sort of reaction to the limitations of our era’s public sector. For Plouffe, many cities “don’t have the ability to build whole new public transportation systems” because they “don’t have room or money” for new subway lines or other investments.

Plouffe’s argument is that the public sector’s role has diminished, will continue to diminish­­, and does not need to stop diminishing. As a result, private actors such as Uber are needed to fill in the gap and, in fact, replace the government in some ways. Uber’s mission, Plouffe said at the ITF, “is to provide more mobility options so that cities can plan better, make better choices, and actually save money.”

But who should be doing the planning: Uber or our democratically elected governments?

There’s no doubt in my mind of the validity of Robin Chase’s evaluation that the current American public transportation system, particularly in smaller cities and suburban areas, is too often a repository for the poor. Inadequate funding has produced inadequate service, leaving people isolated and, frankly, often desperate to purchase their own cars.

But automated vehicles are no panacea, nor are they an excuse for the continued defunding of the necessary and vital transit systems that will continue to serve our cities in the decades to come. Uber’s current shared services, while cheaper than the taxis of yore, are still far more expensive than public transit. Even if self-driving cars lower costs further, it’s hard to see how they could ever match the low operating costs of far higher capacity buses and trains, especially if everything is automated. So we shouldn’t rush into the privatization of every element of our transportation system; we cannot allow it to be hijacked by new technology without first ensuring that changes do not negatively affect the parts of the system that do work.

New technologies offer the opportunity to change the way we think about transportation and likely offer us opportunities to improve our cities. But the public sector, and the civic sector in general, must continue to play the key role in planning, identifying essential investments, and aiding those who are in need.

Image at top: Google’s newest self-driving car, from Flickr user smoothgroover22 (cc).

Airport London Personal Rapid Transit United Kingdom

Are London Heathrow’s ULTra Pods the Future of Transit?

» Successful implementation at huge U.K. airport could mean more interest in PRT elsewhere.

Proponents of personal rapid transit systems have frequently promoted themselves as opponents of traditional public transportation. Unlike expensive metro or light rail systems, they claimed, their PRT lines would be cheaper to construct, more convenient for passengers, and more attractive for users. Now that a new line is readying for opening in the United Kingdom, the technology may attain new prominence.

Over the years, most attempts at implementing PRT have failed due to a lack of interest from investors — and as a result of deceptive, dishonest campaigns by “pod people” who simply promise too much.

Even with the rebirth of modern rail systems over the past few decades in the United States, PRT continues to be brought up as an environmentally friendly solution for urban transport, allowing passengers virtually instant access to vehicles, stop-free commutes, and direct access to many destinations. In other words, it theoretically can solve many of the deficiencies of regular transit, which requires waiting for trains or buses to arrive, multiple stops along a route, and a walk or drive to and from stations. Yet only in 1975, at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown, has a system that allows such on-demand travel by automated train been constructed.

Next spring, London’s Heathrow Airport will take a step forward to advance the PRT concept with the implementation of a new network connecting its Terminal 5 and associated parking areas. The ULTra (Urban Light Transit) system is being developed by Bristol, England Wales-based Advanced Transport Systems and will initially travel between three stations along a three-mile track using 21 four-passenger vehicles. The mini-cars, which travel at speeds of up to 25 mph and which use lasers for guidance along the 7 foot-wide pavement, have tires and are autonomous, meaning they more closely replicate the experience of automobiles than trains. They’re battery driven and use energy at the equivalent of 200 mpg.

Vehicles are designed to bypass stations, allowing non-stop travel. Customers will pick their destination by pressing a button on a touch screen before departing. Empty vehicles will be available at all times at stops for passengers needing to get between the car parks and the airport terminals, or vice-verse.

The system didn’t come cheaply — at $41 million, the private airport owner that paid for the line and some of the technology’s development is making a big bet that it hopes to eventually expand throughout the airport and into the surrounding areas with 400 pods at a cost of $330 million. That is, if this first test goes well.

If the claimed $7-15 million costs per mile (without rights-of-way) are to be believed, this PRT is cheaper than normal transit, but not much. Per passenger, its costs may actually be higher, since it is only expected to handle about 500,000 annual passengers, an average of less than 2,000 a day.

Nevertheless, the system holds promise: its use of batteries installed in each vehicle rather than an electrified third rail or catenary makes the corridor easier to maintain and cheaper to build — an advantage that will soon be replicated in the implementation of similar technology on tramways. The use of electricity rather than diesel motors (as in the existing buses used by passengers) will eliminate local-source pollutants and decrease noise levels. The elimination of human drivers will improve travel times by 60% and reduce operating costs by 40% — if initial estimates prove accurate. Passengers will get direct and instant access between parking lots and the terminal; plus, they’ll eventually be offered similar service to surrounding office buildings and hotels.

Unlike the cities in which PRT lines are usually proposed, this airport environment provides a sealed-off, protected setting in which to experiment with this model for a new form of transportation. The ULTra project seems highly likely to operate problem-free here, but what is the appeal elsewhere?

Abu Dhabi is planning a new city called Masdar that will not allow cars and instead rely on PRT lines to connect people from one place to another; San Jose is planning a people mover between its airport and surrounding transit stations and neighborhoods; other American cities like Mountain View and Ithaca are “studying” the idea, though there are no definite plans there. Companies such as SkyCab and Vectus are planning their own rival PRT technologies to spread around the world, and unlike some previous PRT pushers, they seem truthful in what they expect to provide (in other words, they don’t claim that initial capital costs will be paid back with fare revenue).

For airports and new cities, PRT could supplement other mass transit systems rather effectively and encourage people to live car-free lifestyles by providing them destination-to-destination service with minimal walking to and from stations. In newly built environments, PRT could be constructed cheaply and it could be installed in such a way that does not disrupt its surroundings. Proponents use this fact as evidence for the universal applicability of PRT, claiming that it should replace transit systems since it would allow for the phase out of cars, but their arguments are weakened by the realities of the way cities work.

PRT cannot replace light and metro rail systems, as its capacity is far lower. Along major routes at peak periods, systems that are capable of carrying hundreds of people per train every two minutes are necessary, and PRT will never allow that kind of operation.

Similarly, if a PRT vehicle sounds awfully like an automated car, the analogy isn’t far off: indeed, the idea that people would be able to travel by themselves from one place to another is simply an advanced version of the car sharing systems now being implemented in places like Paris. Most major cities have serious transportation needs along heavily traveled lines, and PRT will not be able to do much there, since the lines would be completely overloaded and therefore unusable if implemented in very dense cities like New York or San Francisco.

In addition, PRT’s proponents ignore the fact that their calls for dense networks of lines and stations would duplicate the already existing road system and degrade the urban landscape with elevated structures. This is no effective already to urban sprawl, since direct access to PRT stations every few blocks would undoubtedly encourage the sort of spread-out environments that have blighted American cities for decades. For those that don’t care about that problem, a cheaper alternative might be to wait a decade or so for more advanced automobiles that can negotiate existing streets without drivers. Stations wouldn’t be needed for such a system — people could simply call an automated service, and a robotized car would arrive in front of the house. This is no less a fantasy than the installation of hundreds of miles of PRT tracks above city streets.

This experiment at Heathrow Airport, then, will test some of the basic arguments of PRT advocates and probably verify many of their claims about the system’s effectiveness, but it won’t provide a solution to the deeper problems with the idea.

Note to readers: Discussions of PRT frequently produce angry debate. There’s nothing wrong with spirited interchange, but let’s try to restrain ourselves from personal insults. They are not acceptable here and will be deleted. Image above: ULTra in action at Heathrow, from Advanced Transport Systems Ltd