a transit manager on driverless cars (guest post by ron kilcoyne)

A recent post of mine on the potential of driverless cars elicited an excellent comment thread.  My own response is in the works, but meanwhile, here is one of my longtime mentors, Ron Kilcoyne, on the topic.  Ron is the General Manager of Lane Transit District, the transit system covering the Eugene-Springfield area in Oregon.  

About three months ago I read one of Jarrett's posts that provided a good explanation as to why self-driving cars will not become the transportation utopia that its promoters envision. I had just returned from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Annual meeting and this post provided a needed antidote to sense of depression I was feeling.

During the Conference I heard speaker after speaker wax poetic about the trends that favored significant transit growth. And every time I heard wonderful visions of this transit (and pedestrian and bicycle) nirvana, I kept thinking to myself: but what about self-driving cars?  Will they undo the positive trends towards less sprawl, revitalized cities and walkable suburbs? Will we once again become isolated in our pods even at levels unheard of at the height of our past car culture?

The focus of this earlier post (as opposed to the recent one which generated lots of chatter that focused on how we get from today to the self-driving autopia) was the physical limitations that will impede the vision that self-driving cars will replace transit as we know it today. Now being a transit geek all my life (my parents did not drive so I was dependent on transit growing up) and a transit professional for almost 33 years (early in his career Jarrett worked for me) you may think I am not willing to accept change out of fear the buses and trains that I am passionate about will disappear. Maybe a little but my real concerns are far much broader and relate to the social, health and environmental implications of self-driving cars becoming the sole motorized mode. 

Evidence keeps piling up that the keys to longevity, good health and happiness lie in social interaction, physical activity and diet. I might add that beauty is also important; both from easy access to nature and in our built environment. Whereas a car centric society has encouraged isolation, less physical activity and ugly sprawl that has also diminished healthy local food production; there are a number of positive trends moving in the opposite direction. The tea party and its paranoia notwithstanding, more and more people value a physical environment that supports sociability, active and public transportation.  Will these trends grow or wither? Factors other than self-driving cars may play a role in answering that question but at some point self-driving cars could play a major role in determining how society evolves.

Mark Frohnmayer, who is a member of the Oregon Transportation Commission and owner of a company developing an electric car, presents a PowerPoint to groups interested in his vision of the future of urban transportation. The three components of his vision are electric cars, car sharing and self-driving cars. What I found most memorable from his presentation was his illustration of how a part of Eugene transforms into a green urban utopia as acres of land currently devoted to parking are put to other uses. Peter Calthorpe makes a compelling case as to why electric cars are not the answer to our energy or climate issues  and that we will still need urbanism that supports the pedestrian/bicycle/transit modes. Jarrett Walker has likewise presented good evidence as to the physical limitations of self-driving cars in an urban environment. This leaves car sharing as the one component of Mr. Frohnmayer’ s vision that could reduce the amount of land devoted to parking. 

I am a big fan of car sharing and believe that its growth can be an essential component of improving the sustainability of our cities and towns. Indeed car sharing is an important cog toward achieving the types of communities that rank high is positive economic, environmental and social metrics along with an attractive and safe pedestrian and bicycle environments and robust transit systems. Indeed transit needs highly walkable and bicycable communities to thrive and car sharing further enhances that by providing individuals with the mobility and accessibility of an auto when the other three modes are insufficient without being encumbered with the high cost of owning a vehicle. The evidence so far is that car sharing reduces the need for vehicles and increases walking, bicycling and transit use. 

Reducing the percentage of land devoted exclusively to the auto should be a major priority. This is true in communities of all sizes. The combination of highly walkable and bicycable communities with robust transit systems and car sharing can move us in this direction. It appears that this is what more and more people want and with less pavement for autos we can have more local food production, access to more parks and open space, broader housing choices close to jobs and other amenities and support healthier life styles with more physical activity and social interaction.  

Self driving cars don’t have to lead to isolation, sprawl and the demise of transit. They don’t have to be a threat to walking or bicycling. Although these were the thoughts that kept going through my mind at the APTA Conference until I read Jarrett’s post. If we can accommodate twice as many cars on a freeway with self driving cars lets shrink the freeway in half. If the cost of using a self driving car – whether in a car share arrangement or through new pricing mechanisms for all drivers – whether the person pays by the mile or hour then self-driving cars are not likely to be sprawl inducing and walking, bicycling and transit would still be attractive alternatives. However to go back into pessimistic mode while the mix a car sharing and self-driving cars could theoretically significantly shrink roadways and reduce the need for parking, it is hard to envision the politics needed to achieve this end.

Here’s what I think will really happen. Technology rarely has the exact impact that its boosters envision. Edison thought his light bulb would eliminate the need for sleep and I am still waiting for all that extra leisure time that computers were supposed to provide me. I can picture in my head an old Popular Science cover from the 40’s that envisioned a world where we would have personal helicopters. Actually this cover is very relevant to this discussion- there were only a few helicopters in the sky. Can you imagine what our skies would be like if we all had personal helicopters?

The self-driving car boosters envision a world that mixes car sharing with vehicles that can navigate streets without a driver. Up to now automated transportation systems operate on a fixed guideway monitored from a central control point. At what point will self-driving cars be allowed to operate without a licensed driver in position to manually operate the vehicle? I have no idea but anticipate that it will be much longer than self-driving car supporters envision. We are not capable of designing 100% foolproof systems.

Self-driving cars will take away one competitive advantage of transit. Even if a licensed driver must sit behind the wheel he or she can read, text and do the other things possible while riding a bus or train not currently possible while driving. On the other hand, if the cost of using a private vehicle reflects the actual cost of the urban space that it consumes (via a charge by the mile or hour) then walking, bicycling and transit will still be attractive alternatives.  Regardless of who is driving, transit vehicles will still use urban space more efficiently than cars do, except in the lowest-demand areas. 

I don’t foresee an end to peaking in travel, either by time of day or in busy corridors. This means the idea of constantly circulating vehicles will either increase vehicle miles travelled, as they circulate around empty, or create the need for added parking capacity in areas that have high transit market share. For example, here in Eugene there is virtually no parking at the University of Oregon, while Lane Community College has 4,000 parking spaces to serve a student enrolment of 15,000 plus staff and faculty.  Right now there are waves of students going to the colleges for a few hours in the morning (the robo cars would have to circulate empty between the waves), then a few hours when demand drops (need to find parking facilities that do not now exist), and then a few hours of waves away from campus (a reverse of the morning).

My biggest fear is that self-driving cars and robo cars such as driverless taxis will become an excuse for not investing in transit. There is precedent for this. Both in Marin County and in Honolulu plans for rail projects were stopped about 20 years ago when a key policy board was convinced that it would have been more cost effective to purchase every household a person computer that could be used for dynamic ridesharing. Both rail lines are finally under construction 20 years later at much higher costs; the computers were never purchased and although there are now apps that enable dynamic ridesharing, it is clear to all that they are not substitutes for transit.

The busy corridors that can support some form of fixed guideway transport  – be it BRT, streetcar, LRT, HRT or commuter or regional rail — will still need these modes regardless how self-driving cars and robo cars develop. I will not be surprised if it is decades before self-driving cars are allowed to operate in mixed traffic without a licensed driver – so the day when transit systems can deploy robo vehicles for first and last mile travel and reduce low producing bus routes will be after few cycles of bus purchases (heavy duty buses have a 12 year life, lighter duty buses 5 to 7 years.)

Self-driving cars will happen but how they shape society is unclear. We need to be vigilant and do what we can to shape this development towards positive ends and away from negative ones.   Even with self-driving cars, the limitations of urban space will require us to sustain robust transit systems. 

22 Responses to a transit manager on driverless cars (guest post by ron kilcoyne)

  1. Laurence Aurbach January 29, 2013 at 7:39 am #

    Good post, Ron. Another factor I haven’t seen discussed is the cost of the system. If the price tag turns out to be a substantial percentage of the total vehicle cost, then self-driving systems may be more cost effective for higher-occupancy vehicles. The financial considerations might be similar in some ways to the current automated transport industry. Only two or three personal rapid transit systems have been built, using small, car-like vehicles. By contrast, 90 or more people mover systems have been built, using vehicles similar to regular trams and trainsets. Logistics and economics have favored the high-occupancy solutions.
    It may also turn out that self-driving technology is safer operating on dedicated routes/lanes. If so, the condition of limited available road space would tend to favor buses, vans, and other high-occupancy vehicles.

  2. Alex Forrest January 29, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    Ron points out that driverless cars make reading and doing work possible while commuting, as transit does, but it’s important to remember that this is an advantage specific to long commutes. Whatever vehicle people are in, I’m skeptical that they’ll break out their laptops for a 5-10 minute casual trip.

  3. bradtem.myopenid.com January 29, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

    You’re right that our predictions of the future will have flaws, and people will do things we don’t expect. However, I feel confident in predicting that the way we think about urban transportation, both by cars and by transit, is in for a huge change, and the only sure mistake is to assume it’s going to be just like today.
    I have a number of articles on these topics for you to consider at robocars.com but let me open up a few issues for you:
    Sprawl. Sprawl has many elements, but two important ones are low density housing (which is probably not going away) and automobile-oriented commercial zones — buildings set back from roads, surrounded by parking, rarely walked to. As the robocars come, both parking themselves more efficiently and just dropping people off and going off to do other taxi jobs (car share) we will see the parking lots slowly emptying out, even at Christmas. The landowners will be rational and say, “I need to do something more efficient with that land.” I have some forecasts of this in my article on Robocar Oriented Development at http://robocars.com/rod.html
    You’re right to fear that transit investment will drop in the robocar world. Transit turns out to be efficient at rush hour, but less efficient than cars off-peak, at least in the USA, for a total average that’s not very good. The rational and green thing to do is to have properly designed transit (including automatic vanpools as a prime method) at rush hour when road congestion is an issue and load is high, and leave things to robotic taxis off-peak, especially efficient “city car” style ones for trips that never touch the highway. However, that’s not like today’s transit planning at all.
    It’s time for research in the urban planning community. We can’t be sure which way the future will go but we should investigate the various probable paths so we can choose wisely. People can only have their behaviour bent so much. They will get what they truly want but we can adjust things a little if it turns out to give them that in a better way. They crave private, door to door transportation (even at a high price, but especially at a low price) without parking hassles and the ability to read while riding. The robocar is going to give them that.
    Liked off the rod article you will find some other questions I want urban planners to discuss.

  4. EN57 January 30, 2013 at 5:44 am #

    There is no solution to urban traffic congestion with robocars. Just more people being stuck for more hours, days, years in traffic. Except that people won’t be in control of the vehicles – which will make it just as frustrating as riding transit. Real, live people going about their business will need to yield to empty robocars circulating the streets trying to find parking.
    How do robocars work when 80,000 people simultaneously input “Downtown” as their destination at 8am each morning? (remembering that people are free to choose their own destinations and times just as they desire in accordance with their human nature – thanks Matthew Newton). How do thousands and thousands of robocars marshall themselves in the CBD at 4.45pm in preparation for the afternoon deluge of passengers as required by demand? If people have to modify their behaviour to make this system work, where’s the freedom? and how is this any better than what we have at the moment?

  5. Andre Lot January 30, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    I fell an enormous resentment and even outright prejudice against self-driven cars because they can get in the way of other urban-promoting agendas.
    Let’s all chill out and think outside the box.
    For self-driven and non-driver-assisted cars being not able to be 100% fail-proof, I don’t think that will be so much of an obstacle for its widespread adoption. We have many industrial systems (think of escalators, elevators, automated gates) that aren’t perfect either. I think once the public realizes a 99.9995% reliable self-driven car is much safer than an human-driven traditional one, support will drastically increase. In the past, fear of automated systems all hold back a little things like non-assisted elevators or sensor-based secure gates, but no longer.
    Nonetheless, there is a huge potential for a world full of self-driven cars. For a starter, park and ride operations become much easier to manage. You don’t need thousands of people driving on the same freeway peak time, but with cars the challenge of last-mile transportation is eased.
    Self-driven cars can also provide much needed convenience. I envision things like serious – but non-emergency – health crisis where you jump on a self-driven car that takes you to the hospital. It is also possible to envision almost-instant delivery of online purchases if you want to, without the need for a courier to drive to your place, just one to put a package on a self-driven small van that will park near your house.
    The whole parking discussion is also facilitated, because you can then park a lot of self-driven cars on multi-stack places where they don’t interfere with pedestrian uses or take up a large chunk of land while idling for hours.
    Now, I understand why the planning community is so leery of them. It threatens a basic mantra we read nowadays, that you need to build cities for transit as much as the opposite. But I think a more holistic approach is needed. Self-driven cars are not the “enemy” (I read in other blog some activist suggesting a “10-year moratorium” until they can “regroup to discuss its impact”).

  6. Alex Forrest January 30, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    Andre, I wouldn’t expect self-driven cars to be an “enemy” of transit or of cities in general. On the contrary, they provide private transportation without requiring as much road or parking space as ordinary cars. To the extent that they promote pedestrian mobility, self-driven cars can be an excellent asset to the city.
    What is concerning, though, is the idea that self-driving cars–or really any mode of transportation–can serve all travel needs singlehanded. The fact that people usually contrast self-driving cars with transit, rather than with conventional cars, suggests that this line of thinking is prevalent. The same thought process is what led cities to abandon their pedestrian spaces in favor of roads and parking lots: all other modes of travel were viewed as outdated and irrelevant.
    The panic on the part of some blogging communities suggests that many people aren’t very clear on what makes transit so useful in the first place–not hands-free transportation, but maximized passenger throughput per foot of ROW width. The degree to which transit nodes can concentrate pedestrian activity can’t be replicated by personal vehicles: no matter how cleverly engineered, personal vehicles consume too much space per passenger to replace a dedicated transit corridor, regardless of mode. Jarrett has made this point a few times already, and it’s still true–geometry matters!

  7. Robert Wightman January 30, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    Has anyone calculated the number of self driven cars that will be needed to get everyone to work at the same time, or in the same time period? There is still the problem of parking these cars or do the continue to circulate around the streets empty burning fuel while looking for passengers.
    As several people have commented the numbers do not add up. Making the cars driverless is not going to allow any more cars to get on the current road system than happens now. If you live in an area with all one way commuting, into the city in the morning and out in the afternoon, then you might be able to increase through put with reversible lanes but that happens with human drivers also.
    Aerial gondolas are the answer! They just keep going around and around in long loops; just like the call for new space age systems to make public transport obsolete.

  8. Matt January 30, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    “We are not capable of designing 100% foolproof systems.”
    But we are very capable of designing systems orders of magnitude more foolproof than the damn fool humans behind the wheel.

  9. Matt January 30, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    “Whatever vehicle people are in, I’m skeptical that they’ll break out their laptops for a 5-10 minute casual trip.”
    People break out their phones to text when they’re stopped at a light. I’m sure they’ll find something to do for 5-10 minutes.
    “Making the cars driverless is not going to allow any more cars to get on the current road system than happens now.”
    Driverless cars can drive closer (both side to side and front and back) safely than humans can (due to reaction times and predictable behavior). That fits more vehicles in a given space. They also won’t rubberneck and cause congestion that way.

  10. bradtem.myopenid.com January 30, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    There are a lot of things you can do, depending on the city, for the situation of “everybody wants to go downtown” in the morning, and I have outlined a number in my essays. While we’re some decades away from it, grid-based cities have absolutely huge capacity if you can do things like seriously reduce accidents, time lights and traffic flow, clear away all street parked cars, redirect 3/4 of the streets one-way in the rush direction, load balance over the entire grid of streets, encourage smaller vehicles, reduce headways and do congestion charging to meter usage.
    If you start combining unscheduled vans and buses which use small robotic taxis to feed them coming in and to distribute their riders at the destination zone, the capacity of road lanes filled with such buses can be absolutely astounding, beyond anything conceived with today’s transit modes.
    But instead, let’s look at the question at a higher level. Cities are moving away from pure CBD style to a more polycentric style. That means that you don’t have everybody going downtown. This is a problem that limits the ridership of many transit systems, which only function well to and from the CBD and do poorly at the majority of trips which today do not involve the CBD.
    We’re also seeing more variation in work hours (in response to the commute being a bitch if you work 9 to 5.) With full metering you could simply say, “Sorry the capacity on these congested roads is X cars/hour, so we are not allowing more than X cars, period.” Whether it’s the top bidding X cars, or X lottery winners or people lining up on highway onramps as they do today, when people become clear they are not allocated road use, then they do something else — move to transit, move their house, move their job, or most likely, move their hours.
    Computers can do more than drive the cars and make their movements more regular. If we regulate traffic we can eventually move past the idea that more people try to use a road than it has capacity to handle. Once you reduce the accidents and the irrational slowdowns of human drivers, the roads stay at their capacity most of the time.
    I am fond of using markets here, but some oppose congestion charges because they can make the prime road space only for the wealthy. If that’s the case there are other methods I have outlined in other essays at robocars.com

  11. JohnHupp January 31, 2013 at 12:27 am #

    I have gotten the impression that “electronically chauffeured vehicles” will have the biggest impact on limited-access highways. First and foremost, backup control systems will have a positive effect on road safety, continuing a decades-long trend of decreasing rates of traffic fatalities. Fewer accidents means fewer SigAlerts means fewer red spots on Google Maps.
    Even with no traffic, there are plenty of insane commutes here in Southern California. People can have 50-60 mile commutes if they’re really that masochistic. I don’t think driverless cars will have a perceptible effect on people’s desire for shorter commutes, which usually ultimately means transit.
    Driverless cars seem like they would be most competitive short-ish long-haul drives like Los Angeles to Bakersfield, which is to say they would be competing with regional rail, not urban mass transit. And given how long we are going to have to wait for the California High Speed Rail, I don’t think stop-gap innovation at the scale is a bad thing.

  12. Alex Forrest January 31, 2013 at 7:10 am #

    “If you start combining unscheduled vans and buses which use small robotic taxis to feed them coming in and to distribute their riders at the destination zone, the capacity of road lanes filled with such buses can be absolutely astounding, beyond anything conceived with today’s transit modes.”
    On the topic of capacity:
    At 60 mph, with human drivers, a single lane of highway can typically process 2,000 cars per hour (one every 1.8 seconds), which amounts to 2,000 people per hour if we assume 1 person per car.
    Suppose the improvements associated with automation allow a staggering tenfold increase in capacity per lane: now you could move 20,000 people per hour! How does transit compare?
    Tokyo’s Yamanote Line runs 11-car trains every three minutes. The first and last carriages carry 143 people, the other nine carry 162. This means that each train is designed to carry 1,744 people (during rush hours, the *actual* passenger counts get much higher). At existing frequencies, this amounts to 34,880 passengers per hour per track.
    So just to recap: 35,000 people per track vs 2,000 people per lane today, or perhaps 20,000 people per lane in the future. There are real advantages and opportunities in self-driving cars, but they aren’t in the same league as transit when it comes to capacity.

  13. Richard January 31, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    The real transformation will be caused by the move away from the ownership model for transportation to a service model. People who don’t own a car chose from a varity of options to get around. The problem with owning a car is that it is easy and cheap to chose it for a trip even when it is not the best or most efficient option for that trip. For shorter trips, they will likely chose walking or cycling. Many people love to walk and cycle and often do so even if they have a car. Auto taxis will not change that. They have the potential to make walking and cycling much safer and more pleasant. We need to start now on creating the laws and policies that govern their use to ensure they benefit cycling and walking.
    Auto taxis will be best for short to medium length trips. The cost of use will likely be enough to discourage people from using them for long trips or too often for that matter. I would imagine the cost structure would be similar to that of car sharing today. Initially, it would be higher do to the higher vehicle costs. People who have long commutes will probably be better off owning their own vehicle which increases their transportation costs dramatically. Due to this and the pricing of trips by time or km, like walking, transit and cycling, auto taxis will likely encourage and support compact walkable unbanked environments.

  14. Robert Wightman January 31, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    bradtem.myopenid.com says:
    “There are a lot of things you can do, depending on the city, for the situation of “everybody wants to go downtown” in the morning, and I have outlined a number in my essays. While we’re some decades away from it, grid-based cities have absolutely huge capacity if you can do things like seriously reduce accidents, time lights and traffic flow, clear away all street parked cars, redirect 3/4 of the streets one-way in the rush direction, load balance over the entire grid of streets, encourage smaller vehicles, reduce headways and do congestion charging to meter usage.”
    As Jarrett says making streets one way is not good for transit, maybe cars but definitely not transit. Making 3/4 of the roads one way inbound in the a. m. then out bound in the p. m. assumes everyone wants to go to the CBD. What happens if you live in a city where the reverse flow is almost equal to the peak direction?
    Load balancing over the entire grid would be good if the people actually wanted to go in an evenly distributed fashion but unfortunately many want to go to a small area so there is no road capacity for the required number of cars regardless of how small they are.
    “But instead, let’s look at the question at a higher level. Cities are moving away from pure CBD style to a more polycentric style. That means that you don’t have everybody going downtown. This is a problem that limits the ridership of many transit systems, which only function well to and from the CBD and do poorly at the majority of trips which today do not involve the CBD.”
    This is true if your transit system runs in a radial mode but if it runs in a true grid then it is much easier for people to get to the polycentric nodes.There are transit systems that do operate in a true grid. The other requirement is for free and convenient connections (transfers.)
    I agree with most of your other comments about congestion charging and staggered work hours but what you suggest in the passages i referred to would not work in many cities.

  15. Jase January 31, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

    It wasn’t long ago I was a big believer in driverless cars.
    I thought Jarrett’s dubiousness was stupid.
    But I’ve changed my mind.
    I still think driverless cars would be amazing. But I don’t think they’ll happen.
    Our problem is this: we’re applying a heuristic to technology change in this space that we’ve got from observing other areas of technology.
    We see the speed at which the internet, smartphones and communications develop, and assume that can be applied to sensors and spatial computation.
    But there are two very different kinds of invention.
    The first is coming up with a wholly new technology, and seeing if and how humans can use it.
    Things like Twitter, the wheel, microwaves are all examples of this.
    When the invention is good, it spreads like the proverbial clap.
    The second type of invention is trying to solve an extant problem. Things like setting out to cure cancer, inventing a robot vacuum cleaner, making a jetpack so people can fly, making a better battery.
    In each case, we’ve made major breakthroughs, sure, but the technology moves much more slowly than we’d like, and much more slowly than in other fields.
    Solving a problem to human satisfaction means achieving success on a whole range of fronts, technical, cost, safety, user interface, etc..
    At the 1984 Olympics, we might have believed individual jetpacks were around the corner. They are not. We are probably in a similar position now with driverless cars.
    Looking at it another way, we have a 90/10 problem. What seems like 90 percent of the work will get done in 10 per cent of the time. Right when we seem to be on the brink of success, some little bug in the technology or legal environment of driverless cars will prove so wicked and intransigent that they will never become mainstream.
    It’s a bit like those robot vacuum cleaners. To get them to work at a level that’s not completely frustrating, you need to buy one that costs $400. Even then it still gets stuck or does dumb things from time to time.
    I’m sad about this, because I hate car crashes, traffic and wasted time driving, but it’s my new position on driverless cars.

  16. Richard January 31, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    Our current oil, ownership and driver based transportation system is so inefficient in terms of energy, land, resources and time that is has to change sooner or later. There is no other option. Almost all the energy used for passenger transportation by car is wasted. The energy used is much more than required to move the weight of the passenger. With such huge economic advantages to movement of people and goods, it will happen sooner or later.
    I expect it will happen first in China where the are building whole new Cities from scratch. When building a whole new city, they can do it in a way to better accommodate automated vehicles. They also have a great high speed rail system thus cars aren’t needed for long high speed trips. People will be able to use small very efficient light weight automated vehicles for short trips around cities.
    China also spends billions sudsidizing expensive imported oil so the have a huge incentive.

  17. bradtem.myopenid.com February 3, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    To answer a few questions:
    a) A single lane of freeway with robotic 40 person buses and 2 second headway would move 72,000 people per hour (seated) dwarfing the 35,000 (mostly standing) people on the heavy rail. At one second headway it’s double. Not that we would do this, we don’t need to. But the nice thing about a robotic, unscheduled transit system is you use the capacity you have. If you only have 3,000 people per hour to move, you can do it with a lane of road (average is 1.47 people/car.) If you have more, and you are METERING the road, you start saying, “Hey, there are 40 people all going from exit A to exit B — let’s offer them a bus, and raise the congestion price for the cars until they switch.” And you keep doing that.
    b) But, as I noted, you can load balance over a whole grid in many cities. You ask, why would somebody go out of their way to use a grid street 5 blocks west? Well, because there’s metering and the direct street is full. The non-full street that’s a bit out of the way is better than a clogged street, if you’re even allowing the street to clog.
    c) Redirecting 3/4 streets is something you do when the flow is mostly downtown. If you get to a world where you can redirect streets in a dynamic fashion, and drivers are directed by their cell phones to follow the right path, you redirect what you need, not more, not less. Today there are lots of redirected lanes on highways and bridges, but we only do it when we can make separated lanes if possible. Once you have a smarter computerized system you can do a lot more. Redirecting to one-way is safe for humans — robots could even handle lane by lane redirection. It does require every driver have a smartphone that is tracking the street redirections and listening to it. That’s not too far in the future if we want it.
    d) I challenge the statement about the success of grid transit systems. Riders hate transfers, at least in the US. (Japanese and Swiss trains are a different story.) They hate them with good reason. Especially on less frequent non-CBD lines.
    People going between two points in a city not via the CBD want to go directly, door to door, and they overwhelminigly choose cars for this even when they might ride the train into the CBD. This is the curse of the transit line though — because once people see even a modest number of trips they need to take that the transit will not serve well, they cave in and buy a car. And having bought it, they use it even if the transit might have done a decent job.

  18. Transit Riding Transit Planner February 4, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    “a) A single lane of freeway with robotic 40 person buses and 2 second headway would move 72,000 people per hour (seated) dwarfing the 35,000 (mostly standing) people on the heavy rail.”
    Except for that slightly inconvenient part where passengers have to somehow board and alight in less than two seconds…

  19. Marc February 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    Why oh why is Jevons Paradox repeatedly ignored in all the SDV discussions?
    Any attempt at increasing travel efficiency/convenience WILL result in more travel and more congestion. If SDVs allow for increased vehicle loads on any given segment of a highway, the width of the highway will NOT be reduced as suggested above…
    “If we can accommodate twice as many cars on a freeway with self driving cars lets shrink the freeway in half.”
    …No, the highway will retains its current width, except all the lanes will eventually be filled with SDVs.
    Furthermore, SDVs will continue to require ever-more parking lots/garages: Empty SDVs will still need to retire to nearby lots or retreat to distant ones which will – surprise! – increase congestion because more and more vehicles will be making trips that weren’t previously necessary. Right now we have a lot of conventional cars making trips with one person in them and the best idea for the future is: to have empty AND single-occupancy SDVs scurrying around?
    History shows us that, no matter the mode, the more easy, cheap, convenient, and efficient you make travel, the more travel – and thus congestion – you will get. There are no exceptions.
    But IMO the silver lining is: the SDV debate is just idle speculation. Maybe there’ll be some boutique SDVs in the hands of the rich, and maybe even some multiple-occupancy SDVs replacing buses and whatnot, but we’ll probably discover that the technology just can’t scale up, like the IVHS’s of the 90s and the PRTs before then. And this is apart from the issue of future fuels: assuming that gas continues its “three steps forward, one step back” upward march, that we already (disappointingly) realized that ethanol and hydrogen can’t scale up, that our “vast” supply of shale gas is actually concentrated in a limited number of sweet spots, and that we haven’t been able to scale up EVs for over 100 years, what fuel would all the SDVs 50-100 years from now run on?

  20. Mat February 11, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

    Marc, SDVs as you can call them could easily run elecric cars at scale, using the technology that currently exists. That’s what makes them exciting.
    Google is absolutely determined to ram this through, the founders are extremely excited about it and view it as their best chance to have a positive impact on the world.
    Not only that but to every fleet manager and logistics manager in the entire world it is going to make enormous sense, EVEN if they have to keep the driver behind the wheel.
    This is definitely coming.

  21. Marc February 13, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    What existing technology? Gas-electric hybrids remain expensive curiosities, and EVs are even more exotic.
    Right now there is a lot of hype and hysteria over NOTHING. There are only a handful of SDVs in testing. If that’s enough to conclude that mass SDV use is right around the corner, then by this logic I can conclude that conventional EVs are even more of a reality than SDVs. After all, there actually are even more EVs in testing than there are SDVs, and even a handful of EVs in regular use among ordinary consumers. Yet far fewer people are deluded by the notion that EVs are right around the corner!
    EVs and hybrids can’t scale up – we’ve tried for 100+ years already. So far SDVs haven’t scaled up either. Maybe this will indeed happen someday, but I’ll wait till it actually DOES before dedicating so much time, energy, and transit planners’ attention to hypotheticals. Let’s let the technology incrementally, privately mature by itself – like canals, railroads, conventional cars, and airplanes did – before we redirect public resources to accommodating it. Transit planners still have a lot to do before (if) the technology ever scales up, and it annoys me how this silly hypothetical is repeatedly served up as a distraction.

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