will driverless cars abolish buses? (email of the month)

An emailer who wishes to remain anonymous tries to put it all together:

Your recent [Atlantic article] regarding “bus stigma”, along with the concurrent proliferation of various autonomous car posts that I’ve seen all over the web, got me thinking: I am starting to believe that a certain “technophilia” (as you put it so well) not only applies to the “rail-in-any-and-all-situations” proponents, but also to the increasing number of urbanists who have come to view the impending autonomous car future as one in which buses are replaced by Self-Driving Vehicles (SDVs), as they’ve started to regularly call them).

Case in point, this blog post [at Grush Hour].

[Grush's] opinions appear to be very similar to those of the various urban planners and urban designers I’ve met and spoken with over the past year or so.  Now keep in mind that these folks view themselves as “progressives” on the issue of the need for public transportation.  In this case, the author thinks the recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed which espouses that rapidly developing autonomous car technology means we don’t have to build high speed rail is flawed and incorrect, and that the trip purposes of the modes and their associated distances, et cetera, are sufficiently different to mean that high speed rail will still have a place, even with SDV’s.

However, as I was reading this, the kicker came in the last part of the post (I highlighted the most pertinent portions):

The frontier benefits of the SDV will accrue during 2022-2042 as special, restricted applications such as replacing mostly-empty and oversized urban buses, expensive and poorly driven taxis and shared cars. Here is where I would like to see Winston’s call for private funding focused: urban fleets of self-driving jitneys to replace every form of motorized shared vehicle (bus, taxi, street car, shared car, vanpool) from the front door of your home or work right up to the light-rail and heavy-rail transit station and vice versa. Replace them all. Then by 2045, maybe the US Congress will be able to pass another Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill in plenty of time to eulogize the last of the personally-operated SOVs and fix the last of the traffic signals in time to remove them all, because they will no longer be needed.

I don’t honestly know what to make of this …; it seems that people have such a “stigma” against buses that they view SDV’s as being able to replace them completely and instead we would then have an on-demand or subscription-based autonomous jitney/“Johnny Cab” system which takes you (of course) to the rail line – if it doesn’t provide for your whole trip.  To be clear, this author is not the only one I’ve read or person I’ve spoken with who believes this – rather, this rationale is what I am increasingly seeing being espoused everywhere I look.

So, as far as I can tell from reading these materials over the past couple of years, it would appear that the most “anti-urban” (and perhaps least progressive) sort of folks see SDV’s as replacing the need for any public transit whatsoever – including the rail modes right up to true High Speed Rail – while the most progressive and pro-urban folks see SDV’s as at least replacing almost any and all buses (but not necessarily rail), and that “traditional, fixed route transit will only be needed in the densest cores of our cities”. 

Now – and here there are some shades of gray – some posts and articles I’ve read say the highest volume corridors may still justify some form of “traditional” bus service, but then – I kid you not – most of these folks go right on to say that such a corridor (i.e., one where the fundamentals of an enhanced bus or bus rapid transit regime may work) should just likely be rail (or “tram”) lines in any event.  (I saw this theme especially crop up in the comments to your Atlantic Cities post.)

Again, there are many assumptions about the economics of SDV’s, their energy sources, the legal ability to have them operate without a licensed driver behind the wheel, et cetera – but the fundamentals are still there in their arguments, and I think you get the picture.  In any event, I have three inter-related questions for you stemming from this theme:    

1.       Is this another form of “bus stigma”?  Or rather are buses simply most suited to an urban transit speed/capacity niche whose days are numbered, so to speak, as being the domain of the bus?  I find it interesting that most urbanists (but not all – there are actually a few out there who think a robust and subsidized SDV system can even replace rail and other fixed guideway high speed/capacity modes) seem to salivate at the thought of getting rid of the “lowly” bus, but that SDV’s can’t, won’t or shouldn’t replace rail.  Or they at least say that bus service will be relegated to the densest corridors where (eventually) it would be replaced by a rail line in any event.

2.       The follow-on question I have for you is this: is there a future – in a world where SDV’s have been fully developed – for the “regular” transit bus service that operates along a corridor where service is only provided every 15 minutes, or every 30 minutes, or even every 60 minutes on weekends (i.e., the vast majority of North American public transit service)?  Or will SDV’s eliminate the need for such bus service? 

The argument I was told this weekend by a city planner while discussing your “bus stigma” posts and the latest “Google-car” advances goes something like this: a very significant portion of riders today – of whatever income group – use buses just because they don’t have to drive or look for parking, and the fare is reasonable.  If an SDV service can take you door-to-door, without you needing to drive, park or fuel it yourself, for a fare similar to the bus, and for a total trip time at least as fast as the bus (yet likely shorter) but just slightly longer than a purely private car, then in the vast majority of North America where densities are not all that high “the big ole’ regular bus running every 10 to 15 minutes is history, along with the horse-drawn omnibus, and transit agencies will find themselves in the same territory as buggy whip manufacturers…”  This lady even quoted you back at me: she pointed out that if “frequency is freedom”, then “think of the immense freedom and mobility the public sector-subsidized SDV can provide, while saving us the costs of big buses and their unions…”  Sheesh.  So, what’s your take on the future of the regular, non-heavy-corridor bus service that runs every 10 to 15 minutes?   

3.       Finally, my last question: the Gensler fantasy which you took down so effectively seems to always re-appear in some form or another; does it become more (or even less) viable with the assumption that the vehicles are autonomous? 


Jarrett here.  My answer to all of these questions is the same.  It's in my book, and it should be on the screen-saver or refrigerator of every well-intentioned urban visionary:

Technology never changes facts of geometry!

We can be quite confident that nobody (on this world or any other) is going to discover a technology that changes the value of pi or that suddenly causes large, uncompressable objects to fit into boxes smaller than they are.  We know that because we understand the special status of mathematical and geometrical facts.  Indeed, they are so much more certain than any other "fact" that we should have a different word for them.  

And this, friends, is a geometric fact:

Bus bike ped in same street

If you define a "car" as "a separate enclosed vehicle for every passenger or party", then the geometric fact about all cars, self-driving or not, miniaturized or not, is that they take vastly more space per passenger than effective public transit.  This will not be a problem in low-density suburbs, but cities, by definition, are places with relatively little space per person.  Self-driving cars will certainly improve the efficiency with which cars use space, so they will shift the calculus somewhat.  But the bottom line will still be that if you want two crash-safe metal walls between every two strangers going down the same street, you will need a lot more space than if those two people can sit next to each other on civilized public transit.

You will also need vastly more metal and equipment, which means that the self-driving-car-replaces-transit fantasy involves massive industrial production with severe consequences for energy security and greenhouse-gas emissions. 

As for the idea that somehow these cars will replace buses but not rail, this may be true around the margins.  Grush's reference to "replacing mostly-empty and oversized urban buses" is a crude approximation of the issue and misses the point about why these sights occur.  The real problem is that most "legacy" labor agreements don't allow transit agencies to pay drivers less to do the easier job of driving a small bus in a low-demand area, and given that it's cheaper (due to high maintenance costs of fleet diversity) to run a standard modular bus everywhere. (Vancouver's TransLink is a spectacular exception.)  Most transit agencies run low-ridership service that is a drag on their budget, but that meets social inclusion or equity needs.  Most agencies I have worked with would be delighted to see those predictably low-ridership "coverage" services transitioned to a more decentralized or low-cost model, or moved off their books entirely, so that they could focus their big buses in places where they'll be full.

So to sum up, the technophile urbanists who believe that self-driving cars will eliminate the need for public transit are making several mistakes:

  • They are assuming that technology will change the facts of geometry, in this case the facts of urban space.
  • They are assuming that the costs of having every passenger encased in a metal sphere (in terms of production energy and emissions) are readily absorbable by the planet.  (To be fair, the SDV discussed here is one that you don't own but just grab when you want it, so if it replaced the car there would be far fewer cars.  But that's different from replacing a bus.)
  • If they think that self-driving cars will replace buses but not rail, then they haven't informed themselves about the vast diversity of different markets that buses are used to serve.  Self-driving cars many logically replace some of these markets but not others.
  • They believe that public transit is incapable of improving in ways that make it more positively attractive to a wider range of people, despite the fact that it is doing so almost continually.

Again, the whole bus vs rail confusion here arises from the fact that technophile urbanists classify transit services according to how they look and feel, whereas transit experts care more about the functions they perform.

So yes, buses are currently doing some things that other tools could do better, especially in sparser markets.  Some agencies, like Vancouver's, already have the tools to solve that problem.  But when a huge mass of people wants to go in the same direction at the same time, you need a rail if you have tracks and an exclusive lane for them, or a bus if you don't.  I don't care whether it's rail or bus, but the need for a high-capacity vehicle running high quality service that encourages people to use space efficiently — that's a fact of geometry!

“shockingly neutral”: my first sort-of negative review!

WalkerCover-r06 croppedAn intriguing take on Human Transit from Josh Stephens at the California Planning and Development Report concludes with this striking thought:

Much of Walker's technical discussions aren't any more riveting than they sound. And yet, it is, on the whole, … a surprisingly un-tedious exercise in armchair planning. Walker loves and believes in public transit, but his awareness of the costs and tradeoffs render him a shockingly neutral advocate (if such a thing is possible). On the one hand, Walker is trying to encourage stakeholders to advocate for better transit systems. But if you read him closely, you might end up with mental gridlock (while actual gridlock grows all the worse).

I can accept being nonriveting — this isn't Stephen King — and am happy to settle for "un-tedious."  Otherwise, I treat this critique as a badge of honor.  To me as a consultant, few epithets are finer than 'shockingly neutral.'  Yes, my book is about helping you and your community think about the real choices that you face.  And yes, to make those choices, you in your armchair (and your community in the real transit planning process) must think about what you want, and sometimes about which of two things you want is more important. 

I'm sorry if that gives some people "mental gridlock", but functional human beings and communities do this all the time.  Everyone understands the process of budgeting when money is at stake.  Transit simply requires the similar kind of hard-tradeoff thinking in some other dimensions, including street-space, service priorities, etc.  My book also makes budgeting decisions around transit much easier, because it helps everyone understand exactly what they are buying or sacrificing.

Once, years ago, I was working with a community's elected officials to help them reach a consensus on how they want to balance the competing goals of lifeline coverage vs higher ridership.  (The former goal produces a little bit of service everywhere and the latter produces a high-intensity network only when demand is high. See Chapter 10.)  We were having a contentious public meeting on exactly this subject, with the electeds debating each other and the public inserting a range of useful testimony.  The electeds were going to have to vote. 

We took a break, I went to the men's room, and suddenly one of the electeds was at the adjacent urinal.  He whispered: "Hey Jarrett, I know you don't want to say anything out there, but really, what do you think we should do?"

As a citizen I'd have an answer based on my values, but I wasn't a citizen here.  I was here to help a community make its own decision. So my private answer was the same as a public one.  "No!  This is not a technical question. You have to balance your priorities between two things that you value, just like you do when you're budgeting.  This is a chance to express your values, so asking me to tell you what to do is like asking me to tell you who you are."

Obviously, once you've chosen what you want, your consultant will start telling you what's required to deliver that outcome, and in that mode the consultant may sound like an advocate.  But that only happens once the client — you, your community, your electeds — have stated their desires clearly in an understanding of the tradeoffs they imply.

Sorry.  Life's full of hard choices, for people and for their communities.  If it gives you mental gridlock, put down the book or step out of the meeting.  Breathe fresh air, study a flower, or look at the stars.  But sooner or later, you'll decide, or others will do it for you.

dissent of the week: impact of wider stop spacing

Moving bus stops further apart achieves a range of benefits in speed and potentially frequency, as I've argued here and here.  Zef Wagner at Portland Transport recently laid out a similar case in the Portland context.  The post and most comments are worth reading, but I wanted to quote this dissent from commenter Cora Potter. 

Please keep in mind that you have to weigh any time/cost savings of stop consolidation with providing adequate mitigation for people with barriers to accessing transit stops (disabilities, cognitive barriers that require clear landmarks, etc).

Shuffling these riders off to LIFT [demand responsive paratransit for disabled persons] is not a cost effective solution. The average LIFT ride costs nearly $30 (one way). Even with a conditional eligibility system, you run the risk of increasing costs to the point that you might actually end up with more operating funding deficits than gains. In addition, while LIFT is a complimentary service, meant to be comparable in timing and experience for the consumer, there are tolerances to the system built in and a LIFT trip is usually longer, less direct and less convenient in that it requires an advance reservation. The ability to access the fixed route system is usually the least restrictive and most convenient means of travel for people with disabilities who can reasonably access a transit stop.

When you raise the bar for reasonable access by spacing stops at .25 mile, or 4 blocks or greater, you start significantly limiting what a person with barriers to walking or cognitive barriers can accomplish and make it far more of a challenge for them to reach a stop in a reasonable amount of time, or with a reasonable amount of challenge. The difference between walking one block in the cold and rain vs. walking three blocks in the cold and rain can present a huge challenge to a person who can not walk at a 3 mile per hour pace, and is more sensitive to cold temperatures due to normal aging.

So – just keep in mind that wider stop placement, particularly for bus service, will exclude a segment of the population from accessing fixed route. You need to weigh the gains in convenience for people who have few or no barriers to accessing transit with the social and financial costs of excluding the people who do experience barriers to access. My personal opinion is that everyone loses when older adults and people with disabilities are excluded from fixed route by design. You might gain 3 minutes and the sense that you're getting somewhere faster – is that really worth service cuts on other bus lines to offset the increased costs for ADA paratransit? Is it really worth socially isolating people with disabilities? And, with the aging of the population, we really need to start taking the needs of older adults seriously and not constantly tune our system to serve just the needs of commuters.

A quibble: I disagree with dividing the population into "older adults" with "commuters," as Cora does in the last sentence.  The consituency for larger stop spacing is basically anyone who wants to get where they're going as soon as possible, and who is open to walking a bit further in order to achieve that.  This is not everyone, but it's a larger group than "commuters," who are people making rigidly scheduled trips to or from work or school. 

But I agree with both the practical and ethical dimensions of the comment.  The mobility issues faced by older and disabled people are real and the costs of serving them with paratransit are high.  I also believe that allowing older people to become socially isolated is both economically and ethically unacceptable.

On the other hand, it's very, very hard to organize the mobility limitations of small, scattered numbers of people into facts.  In the early 1990s, when US transit agencies were struggling to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act, no issue was more vexed and emotional than eligibility for expensive paratransit services.  For example, ADA is clear that age, by itself, is not a disability — an important insight because people are not only living longer but remaining able-bodied longer.  The process by which a local government assesses people's disabilities is obviously highly emotional for the individual in question and challenging for all concerned. 

A similar issue applies to bus stops.  When we move bus stops further apart, lots of people complain, and people with mobility limitations complain bitterly.  But given the high cost of the close stop spacing, how should those claims be assessed?  In some transit agencies, the default policy has been: "If anybody complains, cave in."  I'm not ashamed of suggesting that transit agencies be more forceful in articulating the tradeoffs, which requires educating their elected officials about what's at stake.  Cora's done an excellent job of articulating one side of that tradeoff.

P1070842I'd also note that in Europe and Australia, stop spacing is wider than in North America.  In Europe, many stops also have major infrastructure that signals their permanence.  Everyone, whatever their mobility limitation, works with that.  The result is that service runs faster and more reliably.  So from that perspective, this is partly a question about how to transition to that outcome.  It could be done most peacefully if it happened over decades, but ours is an impatient age, and transit agencies are under too much pressure to wait that long.

Part of why this is less of a problem in Europe, I'm guessing, is that the permanence and infrastructure of many stops signals clearly that you should take them into account when deciding where to live.  If an older adult can anticipate becoming dependent on public transit in the future, the location of transit stops should be part of their location decision.  This, to me, fits into a much larger agenda of insisting that everyone who makes a location choice — especially about where to live — should be required to acknowledge the transit impacts of that choice.  Today it's still common to encounter the other sequence, in which someone (a) signs a lease or deed of sale or development agreement and then (b) yells at the transit agency because the service isn't what they desire. 

So as usual, I don't have an answer, but I do think the question needs to be seen as geometrically inevitable, which means that those who disagree with us have a rational and ethical basis for doing so. 

dissent of the week: stop spacing and transit’s multiple goals

Ben Smith from Toronto defends closely-spaced stops, on my post on imagining cities without mobility, which suggests the need to focus more on widely-spaced "rapid transit" stops. 

I'd like to be the devil's advocate for a minute and defend somewhat tighter stop spacing. Think of transit as an elevator: You're on the 7th floor and decide to walk up to the 8th floor, and feel that having the elevator stop there is a waste. However, someone who is getting on at the ground floor may also want to get off at the 8th floor, so having a stop there isn't a waste.

I'm not trying to say that transit should stop at everyone's doorstop, but there is a case for having a more local oriented transit with SOMEWHAT frequent stops. However, if demand and density is having your transit vehicle stop every 100m with a large number of passengers boarding at each stop, then it makes sense to use a higher-order transit vehicle with wider stops.

The easy answer to this is that if you can walk from the 7th floor to the 8th floor to get from one to the other, you can take the same walk from an express elevator that stops only at the 7th.  But that may be too easy. 

I personally am willing to walk as far to useful rapid transit (for a long trip across the region) as I will to a final destination.   My personal mode choice algorithm (as far as I understand it) is that I want to (a) minimize total travel time and also (b) get exercise and (c) avoid waiting and especially passive uncertainty.   So I'm as willing to walk the same distance to a place regardless of whether that place is my destination or I'm planning to catch rapid transit there.

Does my philosphical viewpoint on this depend too much on my own abilities and preferences?  In other words, am I assuming that secretly everyone wants to be just like me?  And if so, am I doing this more than anyone else does?

Obviously, as always, we need to recognize a portion of the population that can't walk far, but at the same time we have two widely articulated policy goals that push the other way:

  1. health goals that support encouraging people to walk if they can. 
  2. sustainability goals that require transit with highways rather than with walking and cycling, which means competing for the trip that is well beyond most people's walking distance

Those considerations lead me to a provisional view that the main prioirty for public transit investment needs to be rapid transit that's worth walking to, not slow transit that stops near everyone's door and that looks intimate and friendly in a New Urbanist mainstreet.  That was the core of my argument with Patrick Condon.

Obviously, there need to be mobility options for senior and disabled persons who have greater need for short-distance transit.  There are also other logical markets for short-distance trips where very high frequency is possible (recalling that waiting time is often the disincentive for short trips) such as downtown shuttles. 

But right now, a lot of transit (in North America especially) seems designed to compete with walking, rather than with the car.  Do we have the balance right?

UPDATE!  Ben Smith, the author of the dissent, has had an epiphany!

Dissent of the Week: My Alleged “Bias” Against Rail

I’m relieved to report that commenters who actually saw me give the presentation “A Field Guide to Transit Quarrels” seem to agree that I wasn’t displaying a bias toward or against particular projects, except perhaps for projects that were based on misunderstanding or ignoring some basic geometry.

However, finally I have a comment that attacks me full-on, which gives me yet another opportunity to think about whether I do have a “modal bias.”  It’s from commenter Carl, who I believe saw the presentation in Seattle: Continue Reading →

Dissent of the Week

This one is really for everyone who saw my presentation “A Field Guide to Transit Quarrels,” rather than just looking at the slides here.  Frequent commenter Alon Levy accuses me of “devious” rhetoric.

Reading the notes, I think you’re using a devious rhetorical technique. You say you’re not going to prejudice in favor of any view, but then you associate your own views on transit with reason, and views that emphasize technology or direct service with emotion. The reality is much more complicated …

There’s some interesting back and forth between Alon, myself, and some others below Alon’ comment in the thread.

I’d like to hear in comments below if anyone got the same impression from my live presentation.  If you were there, please comment or email, and don’t forget to mention which city you saw me speak in.

Dissent of the Week II: New York’s Select Bus Service

From Alon Levy on my post re: New York’s Bus Rapid Transit product, the Select Bus Service (SBS), which references this story in New York Magazine.

I’m going to say here what I said on the Urbanophile: it’s an uncritical fluff piece. The reality of SBS is that it’s a substandard product by European standards. The smoking gun is that during fare inspections on SBS, the bus has to stand still. The inspectors drive in and have to drive back, so the bus has to stay in one place until they get out.

Continue Reading →

Dissent of the Week I: Bus vs Rail in “This Country”

From reader M1EK:

I continue, like many it seems, to be amazed at how often you feel the need to tell us we’re wrong about bus vs. rail in this country. Perhaps the fact that you need to keep telling us is itself telling?

I guess it depends on your view of international examples.  Assuming the reference to “this country” means the USA, well, US culture is especially prone to exceptionalism, which we could define as a stubborn disinterest in innovations and experience from outside one’s borders.  For example, the US is the only country where people often comment on international blogs without making clear that they’re talking about the US, a violation of the comment policy but in this case, an instructive one.
Continue Reading →