Autonomous Cars and Induced Demand: a Historical Perspective (Comment of the Month)

From “Marc“.  Links added by me.

 It seems that Jevons Paradox is always in force: as single-occupancy travel has become cheaper and easier over the centuries (first by foot, then by horse/carriage, then by bike, then by car/taxi, then perhaps by autonomous car), all we’ve done is induce more travel.

This is hardly “bad” – who wants to be stuck in the village they were born in for their whole life like most people were in the 18th century on the eve of the Industrial Revolution? – but I think it merely means we can’t yet argue that autonomous cars will overcome the timeless congestion-caused-by-induced-travel phenomenon, and that if congestion therefore remains in populated areas, so too will remain the pressure to get around it via fixed-route transit, on dedicated lanes, viaducts, and tunnels wherever possible.

Congestion in Philadelphia, c. 1900. From, ironically, Professor Eric Morris’s article “How the Motor Car Saved the City, ”

All we’ve been doing in the great project called civilization is swapping out the mode of congestion – the old 1930s Garden City documentary “The City” showed sidewalks oppressively crammed with people, then with horses and carriages and bikes, then finally with cars. Ironically and against what we would ever have expected, the postwar trend towards dispersed settlements has only increased congestion exponentially – why do Atlanta and LA and Houston build 10-lane highways in a desperate effort to outrun congestion, only to find they have to widen them a couple years later?

Amazingly, dilution in living patterns induced by ever-cheaper/easier transportation has not led to congestion relief, but exacerbated it tremendously due to the ever-increasing need to travel for *more and more basic functions that previously required less or no travel.*

Why is there any reason to believe that autonomous cars will overcome this ancient dilemma? I can imagine a world where autonomous cars are eventually organized as efficient rideshares to minimize a lot of initial wasteful, capacity-gobbling deadheading and idle cruising, but I think when the initial wasteful excesses are wrung out, the resulting available capacity will be swallowed by increased travel induced by efficiency. Again, this is hardly “bad,” I think it merely means that we probably won’t escape congestion and therefore there will be perpetual pressure for space-efficient workarounds for congestion (transit).

Finally, while I can imagine eventual vehicular throughput gains on urban/suburban streets induced by cheap mass ridesharing (i.e. fewer single-occupancy vehicles, which will always be inherently space-inefficient regardless of who/what’s piloting them), I’m finding it hard to imagine increased throughput under the “faster and closer bumper-to-bumper travel” assumption. On most urban and suburban surface streets, bumper-to-bumper travel at low to moderate speeds is already the norm, so can we really push the cars closer together? If you’re already two feet behind the guy in front of you, can the autonomous vehicle get any closer? At such close distances, aren’t human reaction times irrelevant because physics are still in force: you’ll still need a minimum distance for a vehicle of a given weight to safely accelerate/decelerate/stop regardless of who/how it’s being piloted.

Moreover, low urban speeds are caused by the *basic structure of the urban fabric itself* – small blocks and frequent conflicts. Autonomous cars can overcome this if we enlarge blocks and limit conflicts (as we already do for limited-access highways) by introducing “smart intersections” and various other traffic control tactics that will attempt to allow strings of autonomous vehicles to speed unimpeded through urban and suburban blocks. But will it be a Pyrrhic victory like the first attempt was?

I love it when someone who can think historically wades into this debate.  Commenter “MaxO” replied:

Here’s a good discussion of the potential for self-driving cars to reduce (or even eliminate) road congestion and increase road capacity:

I also think you’re misrepresenting Jevon’s Paradox. It doesn’t mean that if supply is increased, demand will always increase to consume all of that additional supply. If it did, all roads would always be at capacity. It just means that an increase in supply is likely to induce some increase in demand.

To which Marc replied:

Max, I like the author’s thorough musings, but I think he still seems to be falling exactly into the trap I described: He described various *efficiencies* that will only increase capacity, thereby inducing more travel to fill the capacity.

I’m not arguing that induced travel will cause us to hit capacity *everywhere*, but in any economically dynamic region any transportation efficiencies always seem to be gradually eaten away by induced travel. Autonomous vehicles might not overwhelm Boise or Cleveland – unless they become economic dynamos (again) – but they could Houston or LA.

None of the efficiencies the author described are novel – in fact, we’ve been undertaking most of the improvements he cited for centuries already – lighter and smaller cars, better traffic control devices with optimized timing, better parking management, and so on – and we’ll continue to do so. But again, in regions with dynamic economies, these efficiencies will free up capacity that will be eaten up by induced travel.

It *would* be possible to overcome the historical noose of congestion if the spatial efficiencies autonomous cars introduced unfolded extremely rapidly – in less than a decade. That is, the road space they’d free up would increase so quickly that it’d take us years to dilute ourselves further enough to fill up that road space.

However, as I’m sure the author would concede, these tremendous spatial efficiences – the “1000%” increase in road capacity he pondered or even something more modest like 100% – wouldn’t occur overnight, but over a period of decades. It takes a considerable amount of time for enough of the improvements he described to happen at large enough scales for us to see the capacity increases. It takes time to replace traffic lights on a large enough scale to see large-scale improvements, for enough people to progressively purchase lighter and lighter autonomous cars, for new maintenance and operational practices (“convoys” etc.) to replicate themselves at scales large enough to reap the purported capacity increases.

That is, I think that because these improvements and their resulting capacity increases will occur *gradually,* precisely because they’ll occur gradually any modest, gradual, incremental increases in capacity will be eaten away in tandem by modest, gradual, incremental increases in induced travel. Isn’t this already the history of road transportation: from, say, 1880 to 1980 didn’t we increase roadway capacity by many thousands of percent through incremental roadway construction/enlargement and gradual improvement in vehicular and traffic management technologies? Yet in regions with dynamic economies, incremental induced travel kept pace with incremental increases in capacity. Had that increased capacity caused by efficiency flooded those regions in, say, 5 or 10 years, then maybe we would have thought we “out-teched” congestion. But it always catches up with us – at least in any area where even modestly large groups of people congregate!


(Marc and MaxO, if you want to be linked to here, please contact me.)

Are Fully Driverless Vehicles Coming Soon? Doubts, and Smarter Hopes

The endless debate about how fully automated cars would change our cities often starts with the assumption that we will have fully automated cars soon.  We imagine that we’ll all be riding around in totally automated taxis, whose lack of a driver will make them cheap.

This is the essence of the “driverless cars will replace transit” fantasy.  I’ve argued many times that this idea is geometrically incoherent in dense cities, because regardless of automation there isn’t enough room to move people from big transit vehicles into small ones.

But it’s also important to ask:  How soon is this truly driverless vehicle really coming?

Levels of Automation

Here is the standard 1-5 scale, by SAE International, that everybody uses to talk about this.  Level 1 technology is available now, but the kind of automation that totally eliminates a driver, thus transforming the economics of all hired transportation, comes only at Level 5.


Six levels of automation. Videantis.

Most experts seem to agree we will soon have Level 2, enhanced driver-assistance that shifts the driver to more of a monitoring role, but that the journey to Level 5, actually eliminating the driver, is a long one that has only begun.

Steven E Shladover, from the PATH program at UC Berkeley, has been thinking about vehicle technology for decades.  In his excellent (and tragically paywalled) piece for Scientific American this June, he noted some of the reasons why full automation is so hard, and requires solving problems that are not just technological.

A fully automated vehicle needs to be able to do the right thing any situation, and handle its own equipment failures.  In big airplanes, this is achieved only through multiple redundant systems that make the product massively expensive.  Nobody knows how to scale an airliner’s level of redundancy to an affordable mass-market vehicle.

Crossing the Ravine of Distraction at Level 3

The biggest barrier to full Level 5 automation may also be a reason to leap to it prematurely.  It’s human reaction time at the intermediate levels of automation.  Shladover:

The prospects for level three automation are clouded, too, because of the very real problem of recapturing the attention, in an emergency, of a driver who has zoned out while watching the scenery go by or, worse, who has fallen asleep. I have heard representatives from some automakers say that this is such a hard problem that they simply will not attempt level three. Outside of traffic jam assistants that take over in stop and go traffic, where speeds are so low that a worst case collision would be a fender bender, it is conceivable that level three automation will never happen.  [Emphasis added.]

Anyone examining their own experience will see that this is a big problem, and that it’s not a technological problem.

To make this more vivid, let’s stop and think what the opposite of automation is.  It’s an old mid-century car, maybe my parents’ 1962 International Scout, a tough precursor to today’s SUVs.  The primitive suspension pounded your body with the textures of the road.  Your hand on the stick-shift felt the movement of the gears.  When something shoved back against your attempt to turn, the steering wheel sent the shove right up your arms.  To stop fast, you had to pound the brakes with your weight.  Nothing pretended to protect you from the weather.   With all this vivid input flowing into you, demanding constant decisions, you would never fall asleep at the wheel, or be tempted to look at the newspaper on your seat.  Driving was hard, but often ecstatic.  When power steering and automatic transmissions came along, my elders agreed that by reducing the level of effort and stimulation, these inventions made driving harder to focus on.

The journey from here to Level 3 looks just like the journey from the Scout to here.  It’s the same straight-line path from vividness toward tedium, from control to passivity.  It ends at a faintly ridiculous extreme: you sit there, unstimulated and with nothing to do, but you must still pay attention.  We could reach a point where the only safe “drivers” are people with years of meditation training, since nothing else prepares you for that situation.  And all that training would be expensive, pushing drivers’ wages up!

At Level 3, Forward or Back?

If the Level 3 problem is as hard as it looks, how will we respond?  Tech-optimists will see this as a reason to rush even faster to Level 5, maybe prematurely.  But many people who get a taste of Level 3 will be keen to stop at Level 2, where they still feel like they’re in control.  Level 3 accidents, caused by human inattention but easily blamed on the technology, would inflame both sides in this debate.

At that point, will the reason to go forward be safety?  We don’t know, because we don’t know what the impact of Level 2 will be on fatality rates.  Maybe they will have improved so drastically that Level 5 doesn’t offer that much more, or at least not enough more to make the public ready to accept the loss of control at that level.

So the other issue will be the liberation of labor, especially professional drivers.  All the dreams of driverless taxis, for example, require getting all the way to Level 5.  Maybe it will happen, starting with fleets, but the question of whether you can jump over the ravine of distraction at Level 3, and land all the way at Level 5, is an open one.

Are we sure driverless vehicles will be cheap and abundant soon?  I have no idea, and nobody else does either, but the path does not look easy.

Automated Transit Is Easier!

So what does this all mean for transit?  You read it here first:  Full automation of transit is much easier than automation of cars. (If it’s impossible, that’s only because driverless cars turn out to be impossible.)  Shladover:

And yet we will see highly automated cars [vehicles?] soon, probably within the coming decade. Nearly every big automaker and many information technology companies are devoting serious resources to level four automation: fully automated driving, restricted to specific environments, that does not rely on a fallible human for backup. When you limit the situations in which automated vehicle systems must operate, you greatly increase their feasibility.   [Emphasis added.]

High-ridership fixed route transit vehicles are perfect examples of this possibility.  They run on pre-set paths in a narrow range of situations.  In fact, the busier they are, the more money we should spend to make these situations narrower: exclusive lanes, automated stopping and fare collection, weather protection technologies, and potentially limits on lateral motion, up to and including rail.  Unlike vehicles that could go anywhere, automated transit vehicles don’t need a map of absolutely everywhere.  All of these things make transit automation easier.  In effect, transit is a case where you can get full automation with Level 4 technology.

I am not making light of the considerable challenge of managing the impact of the transformation of the workforce wrought by automation.  I am very concerned about those impacts.  But the effect of automation on work is an issue in many fields, and when it becomes critical we will find a collective solution.  Smart people are thinking about it.


  • Full automation of any kind, going anywhere, the goal that replaces most human labor, is quite a ways off and requires overcoming several obstacles that nobody has cracked yet.  It may not be possible.
  • Driving a partially automated vehicle may be harder than driving a vehicle today, because the distraction problem gets worse.  This may increase the skill level of the labor required, and thus the labor cost.
  • But the distraction problem with partial automation may also cause a premature rush to full automation, plus a strong movement to stop at Level 2.
  • Technologically and spatially, high-ridership fixed-route transit is much more easily automated than any other vehicle under discussion today, because it operates in such limited situations.  Fully automated rail transit, in regular service, is over 30 years old.  Driverless buses are under development and present especially promising options especially in fixed rights of way.
  • If driverless transit were ever achieved, the explosive growth in transit abundance would be extraordinary, because labor cost is the main limiting factor today.  This vast increase transit would mean cities could grow denser with less traffic, putting more opportunities within a shorter travel time for everyone.
  • But again, full automation may not be possible.  We don’t know.

I am not sure what we will do about this, apart from telling the “we-should-neglect-transit-because-driverless-cars” people to take a cold shower.  But that’s the terrain ahead, and to me, it looks like transit has a very promising future.

Choosing our words: autonomous cars or autonomous vehicles?

When you talk about autonomous cars (or automated, or self-driving, or driverless cars), do you really mean vehicles? If so, say vehicles.  The word cars (or taxis) explicitly excludes transit (as well as trucks and many other vehicles).

As a transit planner, I’m routinely told that we should neglect our transit systems, and certainly not improve them, because transit will soon be made obsolete by “autonomous cars.”  There are very low density places where this is true, but it is geometrically impossible for dense cities, because there is simply not room to move everyone out of big transit vehicles into the tiny ones that the word “cars” implies.

However, the fantasy of cars replacing big transit vehicles can lead to serious dystopian outcomes, including higher Vehicle Miles Traveled, higher emissions, and higher exclusion of disadvantaged groups from opportunity.  The fantasy is already encouraging neglect of transit systems and opposition to efforts to improve them, which is having all the negative impacts listed above,  today.

None of these problems arise if the tech proponents would consistently speak of “autonomous vehicles.”  In that case, the notion of autonomous vehicles replacing transit wouldn’t even arise, because it’s obvious that transit is made of vehicles too, and that the automation of transit vehicles would be part of any long-term automation project.

When I press an autonomous-car advocate on this point, they almost always say that of course autonomous vehicles will come in all sizes, including transit vehicle, etc.  But they keep saying autonomous cars, which implies the opposite.

Remember, many people hate transit, love cars, and are generally OK with all the outcomes of mandatory car dependence, especially sprawl.  These people love to hear that autonomous cars will destroy transit.

But if you talk about autonomous vehicles, you can promote autonomous technology without sounding like you’re advocating cars over transit, with all the problems for big cities that this implies.  Why not do that?  You’ll provoke less blowback from urbanists, and have more friends.

Indianapolis: Let’s Talk Transit on Thursday Oct 20

The Indianapolis area votes this fall on a big measure that would create an effective citywide transit system, including a high-frequency grid covering the inner city and several Bus Rapid Transit Lines.  Read all about the plan here.

On October 20 I’ll be at an event called “Real Talk: Transit is On the Ballot”.  We’ll be doing an open house about the plan and I’ll also do a presentation about the big issues that are stake.

It’s 5:30-7 PM at Tindley Accelerated Schools, 3960 Meadows Drive.  Hope to see you there.


Moscow: Reinventing Surface Transit in a European Urban Core


Earlier this year, the Moscow Department of Transportation asked us to help rethink the bus network in the innermost part of the city, an area about 3 km in radius centered on Red Square and the Kremlin.   The first phase of this project just went into operation, so this is a good time to share some of the details of why and how a bus network redesign of this magnitude happens.

Our work was a lively collaboration with DoT staff, local consultants at Mobility in Chain (MIC) and the excellent Moscow-based geographic analysts at Urbica.  As with our recent work in Yekaterinburg, I worked with local experts and DoT staff in an intensive multi-day workshop to hammer out the ideas.  We also helped with some of the analysis and storytelling, and developed the main ideas of the map designs shown here.

Buses Matter in Moscow

You may be thinking: “Moscow has an extensive, highly useful Metro network. Is surface transit even a big deal?”  Yes.  Even in Paris, with the world’s densest metro network, an intensive subway system doesn’t eliminate the need for an excellent and celebrated surface transit network.  Compared to Paris, Moscow stations are spaced more widely, and they are also famously deep, which means longer walks and escalator rides. It takes at least five minutes to move between the surface and a metro platform, or between one platform and another in a transfer station.  And if you’re making a 10-15 minute trip within the core, five minutes is a very long time. Together, these factors make trips using surface modes attractive, provided that the bus and tram network is designed to take people to where they need to go.

Let’s get oriented.  Of all the world’s major cities, Moscow comes closest to being an absolutely regular spiderweb or polar grid.  Major corridors are either concentric circles or straight radial links between these circles.  This is true of the whole urban region, but for now let’s zoom into the center:


From inside to outside, we have:

  • The Kremlin Ring, which orbits the Kremlin, Red Square, and world-famous citadels of religion and commerce.  It’s a wide, fast street and a key stretch of it is one-way clockwise.
  • The Boulevard Ring, consisting mostly of beautiful European-style boulevards with grand parks in the median.
  • The Garden Ring, a very wide and fast high-speed arterial for cars, featuring many grade separations and a generally awful pedestrian environment. Memory crutch: If it has gardens, it’s not the Garden Ring.
  • The Brown Metro Ring — a metro but not a street.  It is outside the Garden Ring on the north and west but follows the Garden Ring in the south and east.  This is the ring of intercity rail stations — just like Paris and London have — and it’s only orbital line in an otherwise radial metro network.


And here’s the bus network as it was until Saturday, October 8.  (Download the fullsize PNG for more detail.)  Wide lines in hot colors mean very high frequency.  The black line is a frequent tram.


If you look closely you’ll notice several problems, apart from the staggering complexity.  They all arise from the design of major streets.

Taming the Moscow Arterial

In its structure, inner Moscow is a mostly 19th century European city — reminiscent in many ways of Paris, Vienna, or Prague.  It’s beautiful and very walkable, except for the major arterial streets.  This is an old photo of the Garden Ring, and most of the ring still looks like this.

Garden Ring on the west side. Photo by

Garden Ring on the NW side. Old photo but typical of how most of the street looks today. Photo by


For years Moscow expanded and redesigned its major streets with the sole objective of moving as much car traffic as possible, at as high a speed as possible.  (It’s routine to see cars going 80 km/hr [50 mi/hr] or more on these streets.)  This goal of car traffic flow caused several decisions to be made that were bad for surface transit.

  • Grade separations: The Garden Ring has numerous grade-separations with intersecting roads.  These grade separations prevent transit on one street from stopping anywhere near transit stops on the intersecting street.  Sometimes your bus will miss a Metro station because it’s flying over or under it, unable to stop nearby.
  • Underpassages instead of crosswalks.   Many of the wide, fast arterials have no crosswalks.  Instead, there are occasional underpasses or bridges for pedestrians, and Metro stations also serve this purpose.  This means the two sides of one of these streets are very far apart, which means the two directions of transit service are not always serving the same place.
  • Forced Turns.  As arterials were expanded and sped up, secondary collector streets — often walkable used by transit — were turned into “right in, right out” where they touch these arterials.  This disrupted many logical bus routes that formerly ran straight across these intersections.  Along the Garden Ring in the map above you’ll notice lots of local routes making U-turns and bizarre looping patterns.  These are mandated by the forced turns.
  • Limited Turns and One-Way Streets.  As we see worldwide, when the goal is to flush cars through a city, you’ll see many one-way streets and restrictions on cross-traffic turns (i.e. left turns if you drive on the right as in Russia, right turns if you drive on the left).  This forces the two directions of a transit line apart — often very far apart so that they no longer serve the same places.  For example, try tracing route T1 (pale blue) from where it enters the map in the northwest.  It ends up serving completely different places in the two directions, all the result of one-way streets and prohibited turns.
  • One-way loops.  Very few people want to travel in circles, but that’s what the buses have to do.  At the very center of Moscow, the Kremlin Ring flows clockwise-only around the innermost core.   This is the biggest obstacle to transit of all.  There are no stops on the south side of the ring, which is essentially a freeway.  So a two-way line flowing across this area would be able to serve the core in the eastbound direction only.  Westbound it would fly nonstop past the core — missing all its major destinations and metro connections.  This is why almost all existing routes have to terminate in the core rather than flow across.  The entire structure of the inner city bus network was dictated by the one-way traffic pattern of the Kremlin Ring.  Indeed, this diagram shows pretty much all of the things that a bus could do at the Kremlin Ring, which is not much:


Fortunately, the Kremlin Ring has just been fixed.  A continuous bus lane has been built allowing buses to run two-way across all parts of the Ring.  Various limited-turn and forced-turn problems are also being solved through infrastructure projects, over the next few years.  (Even the Garden Ring is starting to be civilized, with help from our colleagues at Mobility in Chain.)

This changes everything, and allows for a totally new network that will be vastly more useful.

The New October 2016 Network

The new network, implemented on Saturday, October 8, looks like this.  For greater detail, download the file here.


At this early stage, most lines that could be connected across the core haven’t been connected yet.  Note the dark blue line from southwest to northeast, which is the only new one.  But the network has been reorganized so that it all flows two-way through the core of Moscow, serving the same places in both directions.  This is already a huge improvement.  Note the vast increase in the number of wide lines — meaning very high frequency.  (They are all colors in this map but only hot colors in the existing system map above.)

As always when you’re trying to expand liberty and opportunity for most people, the result is fewer routes running more frequently in simpler, straighter, two-way patterns.

And That’s Not All …

We got to this network by first designing a network for 2018, then backing up to identify the things we could implement immediately.  That means there’s more to come:  The next phase combines these routes into more patterns that run right across the city.  That means even more frequent and direct routes, even simpler routings, even better access across this dense and diverse urban core, all while reducing the actual volume of buses along the Kremlin Ring and vastly reducing the number of buses that need to park there at the end of the line.  We look forward to being able to show those maps soon!


Useful New Term: Captive Driver

The insulting and generally inaccurate term captive rider — for someone who supposedly has no choice but to use transit — still shows up in transit studies now and then, but it seems to be receding.  I’ve certainly tried to do my part to drive the stake into it.

But sometimes the best way to undermine a misleading or prejudicial term is to promote an analogous term.  So I loved this exchange:


Yes, much of my life I’ve been a captive driver, in that I’ve been forced to live and work in landscapes where there are no reasonable choices for how to get around.

One of the worst things about being a captive driver is having to drive when you know you really shouldn’t. I’m careful with alcohol, but there are times when I’m just tired, or irritable, and there’s no choice but to drive.

I know several older people who are captive drivers. They know they probably should stop driving soon, but their happiness and even sanity may require them to stay in the house and garden that they’ve known for decades, even though that’s a place where transit isn’t viable. (And they often lack the smartphone skills to use Uber or Lyft, or have disabilities that those companies can’t handle.)

Captive drivers are everywhere. Will they rise up to shake off their chains?

Pushing Back on Apathy about Bus Service


If you want to know why your bus system isn’t better, the answer is almost always that not enough people care, and that in particular, not enough influential people care.  Sure, there are other kinds of resistance, but those can all be overcome when civic leaders decide that better bus service is important.

We’ve had two or three decades of architects and developers and other elite voices telling us that rail “matters” and buses don’t.  Now we have Uber, Lyft, and all their peers.  Their role is partly helpful — when they help transit agencies withdraw services that are wildly unproductive for them — but also partly harmful — as their PR can help urban elites feel good about not caring about bus service, or even about transit in general, regardless if that’s the intent.

But most people can’t afford to use Uber/Lyft/taxi all day.  What’s more, not everybody lives on a rail line, and not everybody should.  Some places are just not suited to rail transit.  So if you want to serve your entire city, buses just have to work.  (Buses, remember, are also the ideal tool for building a market to the point where rail transit starts to make sense.)

I’ve been working on this issue — against the enormous forces of apathy — for most of my career in North America and Australia.  Lately, we’re starting to see progress, not just in the newly spectacular bus networks of Europe but also in North America’s denser cities.  (Australia, sad to say, still lags a bit.)

In these places, it’s becoming obvious to everyone, not just to transit geeks, that

  • … car-based travel (including Uber/Lyft/taxi) is hitting a wall of limited street space
  • … rail transit systems, if any, aren’t adequate for everyone’s needs.  (And remember, even cities with very extensive subways — like Paris and Barcelona — end up needing extensive, efficient and attractive bus systems too.)

So bus network redesign and reform is taking off in North America.   I’ve been doing these designs for over 20 years, but only recently has it been politically possible to do really transformative redesigns in big cities, like our recent one in Houston.  Up to now, the political direction has often been: “Don’t make any existing rider unhappy.”  This, of course, is a flat prohibition on transformative design, and it ignores the fact that a lot of existing riders, not to mention potential riders, are unhappy already.

That’s why everyone in North America should be following, and replicating, successful campaigns for better bus service.  For example, TransitCenter in New York is helping spearhead a “Turnaround” campaign to get leaders to pay attention to the city’s bus system.

Their excellent report, which I first wrote about here, is impressive because it talks about what really matters to every transit customer: logical network design and improvements to speed and reliability.  They’re getting traction at City Council, which is impacting local media editorials.

The New York transit agency, MTA, is sounding defensive at first, which is understandable and can be overcome  I try to encourage transit agencies to avoid talking this way, because I think it’s bad for their long term public support, but you should understand why they do. Every senior transit agency staffer in North America has been though endless hearings where people angrily demand things from them but refuse to do anything to help.  (For example, in cases where transit service consistently inadequate everywhere, people spend too much time yelling about how they are being poorly service but everything would be fine if the agency just cut service to those other people.)

These days, most great transit improvements arise from partnerships, where transit agencies, city governments, unions, and key constituent groups, and voters at the ballot box are cooperating to put all the pieces in place.   (There are places where transit agencies must lead, most obviously in network design and service quality, but when I lead service designs I do my best to involve cities and key stakeholders in that too.)   There’s always tension in these relationships, but they get a lot more done that yelling at transit agencies does.

So takeaways:

  • Your city would probably be better off with better bus service.
  • Better bus service for your city is not the same as service micro-designed around your personal needs.
  • If you want better bus service, be confident that there are people inside your transit agency who want the same thing.
  • Still, some transit agencies can sometimes sound resistant and defensive.  This reflects their decades of experience of being bombarded with unrealistic demands, often belligerently expressed.  Yelling at them louder does not make this better.  You have to work with them, take the time to understand their situation, and offer to help.




Is the Tide Turning Against Techno-Libertarian Transport Planning?

My little stoush with Uber over the last few days — observing that its advertising seems to be presenting itself as a threat to all public transit, including rail — went modestly viral, coming close to a pageview record for this seven year old blog.  Uber quickly pulled the offending ad.

Again, as I laid out here, if Uber and its ilk — collectively and misleadingly called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) — successfully draw customers away from high-ridership transit services, rail or bus, the result would be several overlapping disasters for our cities, including massive increases in congestion, emissions, road space demanded by vehicles, and inequality of opportunity.

And of course, there will always be people saying that as long as customers want something they should have it, and the consequences don’t matter.  This is how we got all of the environmental problems we deal with today, and many of our problems of inequality.

Meanwhile, the resistance is getting traction.  A Boston Consulting Group report, flagged in Citylab, argues that autonomous taxis will destroy the passenger rail industry, including urban subways.  Anyone with the slightest sense of geometry can see immediately what a disastrous increase in vehicle trips that would be.

Then, Greg Lindsay, a leading observer and commenter on urban tech, noted this:

Alphaville is a blog at the Financial Times, usually a pro-business outfit.  But they’re not just quoting me; they’re sounding a serious alarm:

At FT Alphaville we’ve questioned the rationality of glorifying a business model (Transportation Network Companies, ‘TNCs’ like Uber) that undermines decades worth of urban planning work focused on encouraging mass transit options like buses and trains, whilst marginalising petrol-guzzling space-consuming single-occupant cars. It seems backward, to say the least.

But the tech world seems oblivious to the limitations posed by urban geometry, seemingly convinced that app-controlled taxis can overcome the space constraints of London Bridge at 5pm more effectively than non-app controlled taxis. Why this should be the case, however, is never clearly explained.

They also cite this paper by Matthew Daus, outlining the numerous dangers of the current prevailing TNC business model, including environmental dangers as well as issues of equality of opportunity.  (See his page 20 of his report for the formal litany.)  Here’s the critical bit:

TNCs have grown at a near exponential rate, adding a significant amount of automobiles on the streets of already congested cities. For example, Uber grew from zero (0) drivers in 2012 to 160,000 actively partnered drivers (defined as drivers that have completed more than four trips per month) by the end of 2014 in the United States alone.

As demonstrated in the graph below, the rate of growth has risen rapidly since July 2012:


Uber and its fellow travellers can “grow” like this by continuing to flood dense inner cities with cars, but of course we will run out of space, so that’s not going to continue.  The danger is that the attempt to do this will strangle all of our other options, notably public transit, so that once Uber has taken over our streets we’ll have no alternatives, even though they are all sitting in self-made gridlock, shoving cyclists and pedestrians out of the way.  This is exactly how cars took over the world, 60-100 years ago.

In other words, this seems to be an issue where only strong government intervention, over the noisy objections of the techno-libertarians, is going to save us.

Of course, there is a free-market solution to this problem, which is to charge for the actual market value of limited urban road space.  Once most cars on the road are run by some corporation instead of by individuals, it may be easier to impose the necessary free market forces so that traffic is limited to match the space available.  That, in turn, would drive massive demand back to space-efficient modes such as public transit, but only if techno-libertarian public relations campaigns haven’t destroyed those options first, by encouraging apathy about them.

So it’s an interesting time.  Maybe the tide really is turning.

Speech Has Consequences, or Why I Called Out Uber Yesterday

Early yesterday, I saw an Uber ad which expressed the company’s intent to attract passengers from high-capacity public transit.  The ad is below, and my post in response is here.


In my response I reminded readers of what it would mean to shift large numbers of people from big transit vehicles, like the subway pictured here, to individual Uber cars — in terms of outcomes for cities, society, and the environment.

Within hours I got a Twitter message from a senior person at Uber, asking where I’d seen the ad and then assuring me the ad had been removed.  All good.

But readers wondered if I was over-reacting to a mere ad, or if I regretted my post now that the ad had been taken down.  No, and here’s why.

Advertising, like political speech, has a long history that we can study and learn from.  Precisely because it seems so fleeting and insubstantial, it disarms our skepticism, exploits our desire to be “in” or “cool,” and thus shapes attitudes that will define the world of the future.

This ad also had a context, as part of a torrent of messages — from many parts of the culture including the tech industry — that encourage contempt for public transit, or at least apathy about it, among the relatively fortunate.  And when our transit systems are not what our cities need or deserve, that apathy is the main reason why.  With that ad, Uber had identified itself as an advocate of that apathy.

The only way to disarm that ad was to take it seriously.  Advertising always wants to engage us with a wink and a nod, so that we’ll forgive it for implying things that the company wouldn’t want to defend having said directly.  So to confront it, you have to strip off that mask and make clear that you hear what the ad is saying, and what that implies.

It’s like what you have to do to stop any ongoing pattern of abuse.  Sooner or later, you have to speak up about something that seems minor in isolation.  You have to say: “I know you think this is isn’t a big deal, but in the context of 100 similar things that are being said, it’s doing harm.”  You’ll sound like a killjoy, but you’ll sleep better knowing you did what you could.

It worked.  Somebody at Uber read my post, saw the problem and fixed it as a matter of urgency.  Clearly there are people inside of Uber who want the company to be a more responsible player in urban issues.  I look forward to meeting more of these people, and I hope they prevail in defining Uber’s future.

This is the stance that I encourage transit agencies to take toward Uber, Lyft, and similar companies.  Negotiate from a position of confidence that demands respect for the things that only high-ridership transit can do.  The companies worth working with are those that will be happy to meet you in that space, ready to collaborate to build better, more liberated cities.