Barrow, Since You Asked

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Last week’s trip to Barrow, Alaska — with a stop at Deadhorse — was not a business trip for a transit consultant.  We weren’t looking for transit, or even really for a town.  We were looking for landscapes, plants, birds, indigenous art, an unfamiliar sea, and of course latitude.

Still, on news that I was going, a prominent figure in the microtransit world tweeted me this:

So with him in mind, I snapped this pic at the Iñupiat Cultural Centre, where I saw a small bus with several riders arrive and drop off a man, who went into the adjacent library.

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Barrow’s a small town (<5000) and this is a typical small-town transit bus — except for the lack of markings, which doesn’t surprise me.  Barrow is a largely indigenous community with locally-oriented problem-solving networks that aren’t going to be visible to an outsider, and there’s no reason they should be.

It was my only sighting of that bus all day, not that I was looking for it.  Mostly, people get around Barrow in pickup trucks, SUVs, and deafening little ATVs.   Not much on two wheels.  And people walk.

Like many Alaskan towns, including the capital, Barrow has no connections to the larger road network.  It might as well be an island.  Owning a car, then, lacks one of its main attractions — you can’t “hit the open road.”.  Here, the roads don’t go out of town.  In a car, you’re as trapped in town as you’d be as a pedestrian.

Well, one road ended at a lake, but it had a surprising amount of traffic, as though everyone who wanted to get out of town had only that one place to go.  And you can drive to Point Barrow, but only if that track to the left, in very deep wet sand, looks safe to you.  We were wimps.

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It is an interesting town, though, especially when you consider that absolutely everything you see got here on a boat or an airplane.  It’s on stilts, as it’s built on permafrost that turns into bogs in the summer.  Mostly wood, although the nearest tree is several hundred miles away.  And mostly not trying to impress us, which is fine.

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On the Limits of Ridesourcing and Microtransit PR: the Video

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The “end of fixed transit” narratives coming out of the tech industry (and sometimes also from architects and visionaries) are an increasing problem for dense cities, where, as I argued here, the primary need is to provide movement and liberty for vast numbers of people in very little space.  Even where ridership is moderate, replacing big vehicles with little ones can only mean more vehicle trips, with all of their congestion and environmental impacts, and if little vehicles are made more cost-effective in labor terms (prior to automation) then this can only be because of a race to the bottom on driver compensation.

The key fact to remember: even that low-ridership suburban bus line that looks empty all the time is probably doing at least 10 riders / service hour (that is, per hour that one transit vehicle is running).  No  ‘door to door’ service can possibly match this; you are not going to take 10 people to their individual doors in an hour, especially if they live as far apart as they usually do in the suburbs.  Ten boardings per hour is a dreadful performance for a fixed route and almost unimaginably high for anything demand-responsive to achieve.

So the only way for a low-productivity service (riders/service hour) to outcompete big buses is through a race to the bottom on wages and compensation, which has consequences for both service quality and for the larger society.

The most urgent thing transit agencies need to do, right now, is start talking more confidently about what their fixed-route, high-ridership transit service is achieving, so that they negotiate with the new players from a position of strength and confidence.

More on this soon, but meanwhile there’s a video.  It’s from a presentation I did to the Board of Capital Metro, the Austin area transit agency, last month.  It’s here, but you need to select “VIII, 1” on the fifth row on the right, to get to the right spot.  The presentation is about 40 minutes, and it ranges across many themes, but always comes back to the spatial geometry issue.

How Does a Transit Plan Change Where You Can Go?

by Evan Landman, the lead data analyst at Jarrett Walker & Associates

For years, we’ve talked about the utility of isochrone maps as a method of visualizing the mobility impacts of different transit choices. The idea is to communicate in a simple, direct way, all of the places a person can get to from a point under different transit network scenarios. Much of our firm’s work involves leading cities and transit agencies through public processes where the outcomes produces by transit networks based on different choices are explicitly compared. We’ve come to rely on isochrone maps more and more as the technology to generate them has become more widespread and accessible. This has led to a proliferation of images like these:


These static images generated with Remix show isochrones from the center of Yekaterinburg, Russia, under an existing network (left) and a proposed network (right). The location, one of a series of 10, was selected because it was judged to be a well-known place relevant to many people’s travel patterns, and thus a place where the isochrone difference would be easy to understand.

Of course, no set of possible isochrone locations will accurately represent the places of interest of all people who would be impacted by a plan. Better still would be to offer a tool that would allow people to create their own isochrones from any location, and compare the direct impact of a proposed change on the places most important to their own lives and travel behavior.

With that background in mind, we’re excited to share a new tool designed by Michael Baker International, our partners working on a transit network redesign project in Richmond, Virginia.  Using GTFS files generated for three conceptual network options, this web map generates travel time isochrones for three different network scenarios. You can check out the live version here.  The point is to let people explore, for themselves, how the different options would affect where they could go, and hence the opportunities in their lives.

As more and more of the work of outreach and documentation of transit planning projects moves online, new opportunities have emerged to communicate the true impacts of these plans. Techniques first deployed by open-source software developers, stimulated by the ever-growing capability and adaptability of web mapping software and abundance of GTFS data, are now well-documented, established practices. We are constantly adapting these tools as part of our efforts to clearly explain the outcomes of such projects to the people who will be directly impacted by them.

As Scudder Wagg of Michael Baker International, who directed the tool’s development, put it:

We’re always excited to work on innovative tools and new ways of visualizing the value of transit.  We enjoy taking on new challenges and finding ways to help residents understand and explore how different transit concepts can change their lives. The technical hurdles to implementing this tool were not all that great. The biggest challenge was getting the right people talking to each other in a way they could understand so that our transit planners, GIS professionals and web developers could all understand the desired outcome and figure out how to get there.

What Do We Do about “America’s Sorriest Bus Stop”?

Streetsblog just completed a “Sorriest Bus Stop in America” competition, in which readers sent in photos of awful bus stops and then voted on which was sorriest.  You can peruse finalists here, and via links at that post. Here’s the winner, in Silver Spring, Maryland, as hailed in the Washington Post.  (Follow that link to the Google street view, which lets you look around.)awful-bus-stop-1024x639

Here are some things to think about as you marvel over this gallery of horrors.

  • It could be worse, even in America.  My job takes me to some very dire and neglected places, and I can assure you this is not even close to being America’s sorriest bus stop.  That little paved waiting area, with a capacity of maybe four people, looks downright luxurious compared to many stops I’ve seen, where you choose between standing in a ditch or in a traffic lane, or else on private property where someone will yell at you.  I’ll dig up some pictures later, or maybe commenters will share some.  But meanwhile: if you go to a low-income first-ring suburb or exurban area of your favorite US metro area — especially outside any incorporated city, and especially along an infrequent semi-rural bus route — I bet you’ll find contenders that will match or exceed the above.
  • Be careful who you blame.  Most transit agencies have no control over bus stops, but the media loves to blame transit agencies for everything.  When talking about this, be clear that cities or highway authorities are usually the ones who created this situation.
  • Ask: “Would no bus stop be better?”  In many cases, the best way to get off of a “sorriest bus stop” list would be to remove the stop.  That’s certainly the only option that the transit agency is likely to have, so if everyone agrees that this is the transit agency’s fault, you’re pushing them in that direction.  This could even be a good idea in some cases.  Wider stop spacing always means faster service, and a better case for good infrastructure at the stops that remain.
  • Is the Issue the Stop or the Crossing?  In this case, I’d argue that the big issue is the lack of a safe place to cross the street.  Transit agencies sometimes get sued because someone got hit crossing the street at one of their bus stops.  (Remember, transit agencies get blamed for everything.)  I sometimes advise transit agencies to consider pulling out bus stops in places where it’s not safe to cross, for three reasons:  (1) It reduces accidents for which the transit agency will be blamed, (2) stops where you can’t cross the street provide service in only one direction, which is never of much use, and (3) it helps put the onus on the city or highway authority to fix the problem if they want the stop.
  • Ask: “How exactly would you fix this?”  Want a larger waiting area?  At this Silver Spring stop, you’ll have to cut into that embankment and build a new retaining wall, which is expensive.  This stop looks like it’s in highway right of way, but many “sorriest stops” can only be fixed with land acquisition, which is really, really expensive.  Adding a crossing here would also be expensive.  I mean, you wouldn’t feel safe crossing here with nothing but a painted crosswalk, would you?   We’re talking signs, lights, and probably a new pathway across that grassy median.  It adds up.
  • Ask: “How many people benefit?”  Streetsblog advises us that 12 people per day board at this stop.  I’m sorry, but that’s not very many in the context of a big urban area like Greater Washington DC.   How much money should be spent for 12 people here that could be spent for the benefit of hundreds somewhere else?  It’s a hard question.  Of course, transit agencies are concerned for every rider’s safety, but if you have a safety problem affecting small numbers of people, removing the stop is actually the only choice that’s both safe and reasonable in cost/benefit terms.
  • Ask: “Is the service permanent?” or “Does the service have ridership growth potential?”  Many sorry stops are on coverage routes, which are low-frequency services in places where the development pattern is hostile to transit anyway.  Coverage routes have predictably low-ridership, and low-ridership service is less likely to be permanent.  These services are much more likely to be replaced by various new transportation options — including partly subsidized taxi/Uber/Lyft etc — than high-ridership lines are.  Building permanent infrastructure around a service that may not be permanent is a bad idea.  In the worst cases, transit agencies are forced to run inefficient service solely in order to maintain the illusion that the infrastructure has value.
  • Some stops serve people getting off but not on.  This outbound stop on the right side of Las Vegas’s Rancho Drive (to the left of the nearest telephone pole) is pretty sorry, but it’s approaching a low-demand end of the line, so not many people board.  The stop on the other side, for going downtown, has a shelter, because lots of people board in that direction.  Transit agencies do think about these things, and spend a lot of energy trying to get cities and highway agencies to think about them.

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I share everyone’s visceral revulsion at horrible bus stops.  But if you imply that something should be done, you should think about what that should be, and why it would be a sensible use of public funds.  Often there is something that should be done.  But not always, and sometimes, alas, the only cost-effective thing to do would be remove the stop entirely.

I hope this helps to explain why these situations persist, even despite media humiliation.  Some of these problems have no easy answers, and certainly no popular ones.

The Chinese Straddle Bus Exists! What Now?

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The Chinese straddle bus has now been built, and run on a test track!  Whee! Here’s the gee-whiz video.

As I said before, I think that especially in wealthy countries, this thing is mostly useful as a parable, whose message is:  Look how much money people will spend on infrastructure whose sole purpose is to avoid taking any space from motorists.

If the thing has any application, it’s probably not in Europe or North America, because:

  • It’s massively capital intensive.  The little rail-like running-ways in the street are the least of it, and the fleet is the second-least.   The stations must be massive elevated structures, with a mezzanine above the top of the bus.  Existing bridges would almost all need to be raised.   Countries with high construction costs will find this a barrier.
  • It will serve stations located on expressways, which tend to be bad places for the pedestrians that the bus will attract and disgorge.  The only solution to this is massive grade separation, leading to a continuous pedestrian plane at the station level, well above the street.  This leads to urban design that essentially abandons the ground plane to cars and rebuilds an entire pedestrian city above it.
  • The vast raised pedestrian plane was a hot idea for about 15 minutes in the 1970s, giving us London’s Barbican, Paris’s La Défense, Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill, etc etc.  Today, most European and North American urbanists hate these places and insist on solving problems on the ground plane, though of course the pendulum could swing again.  But it’s much more common and accepted in East Asia, and to some extent in former Soviet countries.
  • There’s also the problem that if you build this thing in an existing dense city, you are building it right outside of someone’s window.  So you probably need a political structure that can make and enforce highly controversial decisions, as opposed to the kind of deference to public protest that prevails in most Western democracies.
  • You really have to redesign big districts around this thing, which is another big barrier unless we are talking about entirely new areas.  A high pedestrian plane only works if the idea is shared by many surrounding buildings.
  • Where this thing connects with underground subway lines, your mezzanine for this elevated thing is at least four stories away from the subway’s mezzanine.   This requires high-volume vertical circulation, which no inventor has ever really cracked.  Elevators are really inefficient at high volume, and escalators are really slow at it.
  • The nature of this technology makes it hard to demonstrate at the right scale.  There is a basic conflict between “huge capital expenditure” and “demonstration of new technology.”  It’s the same problem that monorails and maglevs and “Personal Rapid Transit” and many other cool ideas have had.  Inventors need places to do demo projects.  But it’s not smart for a city to agree to be Version 1.0 of something, while also spending billions on the assumption of its permanent success.  This is how cities end up with stranded transit assets that can become net barriers to good transit (see Scarborough RT, Toronto, or the airport maglev in Shanghai, etc etc.)

(Update: In the third top-level comment below, Brian Smith points out that the surface space this thing takes is still wider than a bus lane, so why not just do aa busway?  He also points out that the vehicle is rigid and the test track was straight.  What happens when it goes around curves?   It takes more horizontal space of course.  And it seems to rely on a ground-level third-rail, which is considered wildly unsafe in the business.)

Having said that, if anyone can pull this off at scale, it’s probably China, which seems to tick all the boxes I’ve identified.  They have the sufficiently centralized decision making, low enough construction costs, ability to do things at scale, and relative indifference to Western aesthetics that this thing requires.  They are also building entirely new districts, which offer the best possibility for actually organizing a place around the correct elevated ground plane. So yes, it may happen, and it may do some good.  Which doesn’t mean it’s not, deep down, ridiculous.

Anton Dubrau’s Automated Transit Maps

Back in 2010, cartographer Anton Dubrau got my attention with his beautiful hand-drawn map of the Montréal transit system.  In my post on his work, I wrote:

There’s no question that the most beautiful network maps will continue to be those made by hand, with great care and thought, by people who know the city.  I’d like to say “most useful” as well, but that will be true only as long as they can be kept up to date.

Anton agreed, but now he’s not so sure.  He emailed me today:

It feels like a long time ago that Google Maps started publishing their transit maps generated by algorithms. You wrote about it, and I actually made a map by hand of Montreal’s frequent transit that you used in this discussion of algorithms vs humans for maps, on your blog: Montréal: The Pleasure of Maps Made by Hand, or by Eye.

Even though I advocated for maps made by hand at the time, the question of algorithmically generated but nevertheless pretty and functional transit maps has occupied me since then, for years. Well, working for Transit App, I had the chance to spend a significant amount of time trying to make the best algorithmically generated maps possible. We spent a significant amount of effort on this. Although not perfect, I feel we’ve gotten pretty far.

We published the maps last week, they’re shown inside Transit App. We wrote about our mapping story, telling it as wanting to achieve the prettiness of Apple’s more manual solution, but the scalability of Google’s automatic process. In short, we wanted algorithms to draw beautiful transit maps. Check out Chicago’s Loop as an example.

Jarrett here.  In the images above, Google is on the right, Apple in the center, and Anton’s new Transit Maps product on the left.  I recommend their entire post, which is a fun and well-illustrated read, if a bit brash.  Anton:

It’s a bit brash, in true startup fashion, but the response has been pretty positive overall so far. The story is getting shared by tech celebrities like Benedict Evans, NYT data journalists, and quite a number of transit thought leaders (Yonah Freemark, Second Avenue Sagas, Taras Grescoe).

So far we’re only including rail lines, and the odd BRT here and there. That’s a more technical limitation, bus networks are still a bit too complex – we plan to add them later.

Maybe this is interesting for you as well. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

I like it!  I wonder how much information density it can handle.  A simple frequent bus network?  A complicated mass of overlapping lines with numbers like 674Q, as in a typical peak commute network?  I’d encourage them to aim for the former and not bother with the latter, which are impossible to map clearly and are better found with trip planners anyway.

I don’t run many private sector press releases here, but I’ve liked Anton’s work for a long time, and as someone who routinely needs realtime info in lots of different cities, I admit I’ve become fond of Transit App.

Good Article on My Talk on Microtransit …

amon-logo-headerCaleb Pritchard at the Austin Monitor did a very clear writeup on my new talk on the impacts of microtransit (Bridj etc.) and ridesourcing (Lyft, Uber etc.) on public transit.  In it, I push back hard on the notion that these services have any potential to “disrupt” public transit in any meaningful way, though there are potential synergies around the edges of transit’s mission.

Here’s the most important paragraph:

“There’s an enormous amount of public relations noise coming out of the tech industry, and most of it is directed towards people who don’t understand transit very well,” Walker said. “And transit leaders like yourselves really have to be able to confront that and say, ‘No. The fixed-route service, especially frequent fixed-route service, is doing something incredible that no tech innovators are doing or show any signs of doing.’”

Read the whole thing.

Guest Post: David Moss on Driverless Buses


David Moss is a Detroit-based freelance transportation writer. When he is not writing about vehicle technology, he spends his time hiking. You can reach him at @davidcmoss


Buses driving autonomously might seem like something from science fiction but the technology is developing fast, and is actually in practice, or at least in a trial phase, in a number of cities all across Asia, Europe and North America.


The most important finding is that while European and American driverless trials are for very small buses – too small to be transformative to the larger public bus market – larger buses are now also under development, in China and also in a recent announcement by Mercedes.  If perfected, these large buses would have the potential to dramatically increase the quantity of transit service that agencies could afford to offer.

China

While there has been a heated debate in the United States over driverless vehicles, China took the initiative by developing a self-driving bus that completed a 20 mile trip through the city of Zhengzhou in August of 2015. Using a variety of sensors, cameras and an integrated navigation system, this bus was able to roll through the streets of Zhengzhou at a top speed of about 42 miles per hour.

This remarkable achievement was the end product of a three-year trial conducted in the city by Yutong—a Chinese bus company and the creator of the bus. This company, along with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has shown that it is possible to put a driverless bus on the road and do it safely. However, while this test was impressive, it’s still going to take additional testing before a full-scale rollout can begin nationwide. Fortunately, that is currently in the works as the Chinese tech firm Baidu has recently unveiled a five-year plan to introduce a variety of autonomous vehicles at the streets of Wuhu.

While Google believes that the first truly autonomous vehicles to be used full time on the road will be taxi cabs, Baidu believes that the future of this technology is in driverless buses and/or shuttles. Although it should be said that their five year plan not only focuses on autonomous buses and vans, but on cars as well.

Singapore

A few years ago, Singapore launched the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI)—a joint partnership with the Land Transit Authority and A*STAR – whose primary goal is to research and develop autonomous vehicle technology.

SAVI has currently partnered with MIT on improving public transportation systems in urban areas by using autonomous vehicle technology. Several trials will take place this year, and the test route has already been planned to test the efficacy of driverless technology solutions. This study, which is expected to take about two years to complete, will end in 2018—at which time the public is expected to have full use of driverless transportation technology.

Greece and Switzerland

Greece also tested a small driverless bus in the town of Trikala—a rural community nestled in Northern Greece. Their trial lasted from October 2015 until February 2016, and featured a ten-passenger bus that could navigate the streets at a speed of about 12.4 miles per hour. In Switzerland, two driverless “SmartShuttles” are currently being tested in the Old Town of Scion. They are currently carrying passengers for free. The trials will continue over the next two years.

The United Kingdom

London unveiled plans to introduce autonomous bus-like vehicles this year. This plan—part of the Greenwich Automated Transport Environment Project (GATEway)—will utilize driverless shuttles that will be first tested on the streets of Greenwich—around the O2 Arena, several residential areas and the North Greenwich tube station. Currently, the Heathrow Airport shuttle operates between the business car park and terminal five. Seven of these shuttles will be modified for use in these trials, which are slated to begin later this year. If the trials prove to be successful, then people can expect to see completely autonomous shuttles used for everything from transportation to automated deliveries.

Belgium and Sweden

Belgium is also working on its own autonomous transit system that is due to be launched in 2018. This project—which is a joint partnership between the Belgium public transport operator De Lijn and the Brussels Airport Company—will feature driverless buses that are expected to transport passengers and airport staff around the airport.

In April of 2016, Sweden also conducted a trial on driverless bus technology, completed by Ericsson, a Swedish IT company that operated minibuses using 5G technology. However, their plan is not only to have autonomous electric vehicles transporting passengers, but also to develop a whole system of vehicles working together in a highly efficient transportation hub.

United States

The Bay Area is ground zero for autonomous buses in the United States.  San Francisco has developed a detailed plan for driverless vehicles on its roads, a system that will use both buses and shuttles. And a Bishop Ranch business park in San Ramon, California is initiating a pilot program in the summer of 2016 that will use two EZ10 pods to relieve traffic congestion in the area.

The Future of Driverless Bus Technology: Benefits and Concerns

Driverless technology may well be the wave of the future. And there are several reasons why that is the case. The vehicles in question are good for the environment because they are all electric and in full use they will dramatically reduce a city’s oil consumption. They are also safer than human driven vehicles. Some studies have also shown that driverless vehicles are more efficient and will increase the flow of traffic—particularly in congested areas.  But most importantly, they would allow transit agencies to make bus service dramatically more abundant, by severing the link between operating costs and labor costs that constrains all bus operations today.

It is also clear that many people have concerns about driverless technology. There are still many that believe that driverless buses are unsafe.

Certainly, there will be labor resisitance to automation, though history shows that automation usually prevails in the end. While the jobs of some drivers will indeed be lost due to the adoption of this technology, that will be offset by an increased need for other specialized workers. More mechanics, programmers and technicians will be needed to maintain driverless buses and keep them operating correctly.

However, so far, autonomous vehicles have proven to be safer than manned vehicles. That’s because they eliminate the “human error” factor common in many accidents. And while some people are still concerned about these vehicles’ reaction time, sensor arrays and vehicle safety technologies are improving continuously.


There are still, among other things, liability issues to be ironed out and there are too many public fears to be pacified. However, we can expect that eventually, driverless buses—like driverless cars—will be a common sight on our highways and roads.

 

Hello, Austin!

4896438450_b514415d0e_bI’m heading for Austin Sunday for two days of meetings about the relationship between transit, microtransit, and ridesourcing (Bridj, Split, Uber, Lyft, etc etc).  (Yesterday’s post may be a preview of my angle on this topic.)

The event open to the public is a Capital Metro Board Workshop Monday. July 25, Noon-2 pm, at the Cap Metro headquarters 2910 E 5th.  Note that this is a Board meeting and there may be some other business.

Look forward to meeting lots of cool people in Austin!

Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry?

He may be a brilliant visionary in all kinds of ways, but Elon Musk’s “Master Plan, Part Deux” makes grand plans for the abolition of fixed route transit without thinking clearly about urban space:

With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses. It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don’t have a phone. …  (Emphasis added)

Musk assumes that transit is an engineering problem, about vehicle design and technology.   In fact, providing cost-effective and liberating transportation in cities requires solving a geometry problem, and he’s not even seeing it.  In this he’s repeating a common delusion, one I hear all the time in urbanist and technology circles.

Musk’s vision is fine for low-density outer suburbia and rural areas.  But when we get to dense cities, where big transit vehicles (including buses) are carrying significant ridership, Musk’s vision is a disaster.  That’s because it takes lots of people out of big transit vehicles and puts them into small ones, which increases the total number of vehicles on the road at any time.  The technical measure of this is Vehicle Miles (or Km) Travelled (VMT).

Today, increasing VMT would mean increased emissions and increased road carnage, but let’s say technology has solved those problems, with electric vehicles and automation.  Those are engineering problems.  Inventors can work on those.

But there is still, and aways, the problem of space.  Increasing VMT means that you are taking more space to move the same number of people.  This may be fine in low-density and rural areas, where there’s lots of space per person.  But a city, by definition, has little space per person, so the efficient use of space is the core problem of urban transportation.

When we are talking about space, we are talking about geometry, not engineering, and technology never changes geometry.  You must solve a problem spatially before you have really solved it.

The reigning fantasy of Musk’s argument is that we must always “take people all the way to their destination.”   To do this we must abolish the need to ever change vehicles — from a train to a bus, from a car to a train, from a bus to a bike — and of course we also abolish walking.  This implies a vision in which buses are shrunk into something like taxis, because a vehicle going directly from your exact origin to your exact destination at your chosen time won’t be useful to many people other than you.

So a bus with 4o people on it today is blown apart into, what, little driverless vans with an average of two each, a 20-fold increase in the number of vehicles?   It doesn’t matter if they’re electric or driverless.  Where will they all fit in the urban street?  And when they take over, what room will be left for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, pocket parks, or indeed anything but a vast river of vehicles?

There are audiences for which Musk’s vision makes perfect sense, people for whom useful high-ridership transit isn’t an option anyway.  There are two big categories of these people:

  • People who live in outer-suburban and rural areas, where space is abundant and high-ridership transit isn’t viable.
  • The top 20% or so of urban residents, who can afford to use relatively expensive services that would never scale to the entire population of the city.

If you are in one of these categories, your most urgent task is to remember that most people aren’t like you, and that cities are impossible if everyone lives according to your personal tastes.  As Edward Glaser said, “one’s own tastes are rarely a sound basis for public policy.”

That issue, right there, is the great disconnect between tech marketing and genuine urban problem-solving.

Tech marketing is all about appealing to elite personal tastes.  It runs on the assumption that whatever we sell to the wealthy today we can sell to the masses tomorrow.  But some things stop working when everybody buys them.  Cars in dense cities, for example, are not a problem when only the top 20% are using them; it’s mass adoption of cars that makes them ruinous to a dense city and to the liberty of its citizens.  Ask anyone in a fast-growing developing world city about that.

Here is the harm that this all this elite chatter about abolishing the bus is doing:  It’s introducing fatal confusion into the discussion of urban development.

Dense cities that want to live in the real world of space and time, and that do not want to become dystopias that are functional only for the rich, need to use urban space efficiently.  There is some simple and well-proven math about how to do this, which is also the math of how transit systems achieve high ridership.

These cities need to organize themselves around frequent transit corridors, where big-vehicle frequent transit, bus or rail, can prosper, allowing the city to grow dense without growing vehicle trips.

Someday some of these corridors will be rail or Bus Rapid Transit.  But the only way to grow enough corridors quickly, so that you cover much of the city with frequent service that can succeed in ridership terms, is to take frequent fixed-route bus service seriously.  If you don’t do that in your land use planning, you’re going to end up building a city where fixed transit is geometrically impossible, and then you’ll have to settle for Musk’s vision.  Geometrically, that vision can only mean liberating transportation just for the top 20% or electrified, automated gridlock for everyone.

Smart cities aren’t just the ones that chase the latest technology fads.  They’re the ones that think carefully about the spatial, geometric problem that a dense city is.   Because if it doesn’t work geometrically, it doesn’t work.