A Next Step for Autonomous Buses?

Photo: David Wheatley

A fully autonomous bus is now in regular service in Scotland.  It still has employees, two in fact.  But if this technology works out, the ultimate goal is probably to run buses with no employees on board. In wealthy countries, the cost of running a bus is mostly the cost of the driver, so in theory, if and when all the bugs are worked out, a driverless bus could be far more abundant, for a given operating budget, than buses with human drivers can be.

That will be wildly controversial. I have mixed feelings about it. But driverless rail transit has existed for decades, starting in Vancouver in 1985. The lack of a driver is why trains in Vancouver come every few minutes even late at night. In emergencies people like for there to be someone in charge, but the voices coming over the intercom from headquarters often have a better picture of the situation than an on-board employee does. Driverless buses would definitely be part of a world where security is based more on electronic surveillance, and like many people I have mixed feelings about that.

But if we end up in a world with abundant and affordable autonomous taxis — still a big if — it will be very hard for cities to function without autonomous buses. When we remove the hassle of traveling by private vehicle, and reduce the cost, everyone will want to do it, and a city simply doesn’t have room for that.  The only other solution will be heavy decongestion pricing to make the affordable autonomous taxis less affordable, and/or bus lanes on every street so that buses effectively bypass autonomous-taxi congestion.  That may be the answer, but in the long run I’d rather see public transit be abundant, so that everyone can go places quickly in a space-efficient way.

Portland: Big Transit Service Changes in SW Hills

Here is a little deep dive into how bus network designers think, with an example from very close to (my) home.

Over the past year, our firm has been working with the Portland area transit agency, TriMet, on the “Forward Together” project, which developed a plan for the next several years of bus service improvements.  (The plan will eventually represent about 10% more service than the agency ran in 2019, but TriMet is still recovering from post-Covid workforce shortages, so it can’t do everything at once.)  The plan went through major public outreach and was adopted earlier this year, and a few items have already been implemented.  Now, (August 27, 2023) they are rolling out what will probably be the most controversial part of the package, a series of big changes in Portland’s southwest hills.

The Forward Together plan was motivated by twin goals of ridership and equity.  In general, the plan retains and expands services that either:

The plan includes a major expansion of the Frequent Network in high demand areas, and new local routes in underserved suburban areas with large low-income populations.  Where TriMet was running services that are justified neither by ridership nor by equity, the plan reduces or even eliminates those services.  That’s because even though the total service budget is growing, TriMet is also trying to align its services with current goals, rather than just continuing to run services designed around the goals of the past. I wouldn’t recommend this in every city, but this is the answer to the specific problem posed by TriMet’s limited resources and the goals they have adopted.  

Let me give you a quick tour of SW Portland, using TriMet’s map of the old (2022) network.

TriMet network in 2022, before the changes. Green number shields and wider lines denote high frequency. Dashed lines run only briefly (mostly rush hour only). Map by TriMet.


Downtown Portland is in the NE corner of the map, where all of the colorful light rail lines converge.  Immediately west of downtown is a bank of steep hills, running north-south.  Just southwest of downtown, where you see Line 8 ending in a loop, is a huge hilltop complex of medical destinations, including the Veterans Hospital and the old part of the Oregon Health and Science University campus.  This area, called Marquam Hill, is one of Portland’s biggest transit destinations outside of downtown.

Along the west and south edges of the map are the inner-ring suburban cities of Beaverton, Tigard, and Lake Oswego along with the Washington Square Mall.  That ring, linked by orbital lines 76 and 78, is typical older suburban fabric with some dense centers but heavy car orientation.

TriMet’s mapping style makes all the bus routes blue but distinguishes the Frequent Service Network (every 15 minutes all day) with a slightly wider line and a green number sheld.  You can see that there are two big frequent corridors in SW Portland: 54 along Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy and, further south, the 12 along Barbur Blvd.  Except for those two corridors, inner SW Portland (excluding the inner-ring suburbs) is mostly  low-density and relatively affluent.

With a focus on ridership and equity, and the drop in downtown commuting due to ongoing work-from-home, this area just had to be rethought. Here is the new network as of August 27, 2023:

New TriMet network, same color scheme as the map above. Map by TriMet.





As I mentioned, the plan does delete some services that meet neither ridership nor equity goals, mostly all-day local routes in affluent low-density areas that had little ridership except at school times.  Some of these are reduced to school-hour trips only, and a few, such as the 50 in the NW corner of the map, are dropped entirely.

In addition, this redesign seeks ridership and equity with two other big moves:

  • Shift in focus from peak to all day.
  • Shift in focus from office commute destinations to destinations of diverse workers and visitors.

The old network also had a number of services geared to bringing office workers downtown.  As in most US cities, there are fewer of these commuters than there were, and like many agencies, TriMet has heard that it needed to provide better service to a more diverse audience, not just office workers but also everyone else traveling all the time for all kinds of purposes.  So some specialized downtown-oriented services were removed.  In the old network, for example, Line 94 in the southwest corner of the map approached from suburbs beyond Tigard and went all the way into downtown duplicating Line 12.  That was no longer justifiable, so in the new network those riders will need to use Line 12 to complete their trips.

But the biggest and most complicated reworking, encompassing all of these issues, happened at Marquam Hill.  At Portland’s largest medical destination, the network had become too focused on rush hour, even though medical workers and patients come and go all day.

The hill has long had Line 8, a Frequent Service bus to downtown, and it also has a cute aerial tram to another medical campus nearby.  It also had a big network of rush hour express routes from all directions, numbered in the 60s.  These routes duplicated all-day services and mostly helped people avoid transferring.  That can be justified only if the buses were full, and they no longer were.  They ran only at rush hour, which meant they were not useful to many of the lower-income people working shifts all around the clock at the hospitals.

We needed to rework this to remove some of the duplicative rush hour service, and to provide a more useful all-day pattern of service from the south.  In the old network, you could get to Marquam Hill from the south only at rush hour.  To do this, we revised two of the lower-ridership southwest lines (43 and 56) so that instead of going downtown, they’ll go to Marquam Hill.  Where they cross Line 54 in the Hillsdale district, just south of Marquam Hill, people coming off of outer part of these lines will need to transfer if they are going downtown, but people from all over the southwest will be able to use these lines to get to Marquam Hill much more directly.

This is an inconvenience to some existing downtown riders, so we selected routes where that would affect as few people as possible.  We chose Line 56 for this role because much of this line duplicates the Frequent Line 54, which is being upgraded to be Frequent all the way to Beaverton.  The segment along Beaverton Hillsdale Highway served by both 54 and 56 is where most of Line 56’s ridership is.  Only riders from the Scholls Ferry Road segment of 56 will need to transfer to reach downtown, and this is not a high-demand area.  Meanwhile, the segment of Beavertion-Hillsdale Highway where 54 and 56 run together has many low-income apartment areas where people depend on transit.  Instead of giving them duplicative routes to downtown, the new arrangement gives them direct Frequent service to downtown (54) and a direct bus to Marquam Hill.   There’s no avoiding some duplication here, but this change makes it less wasteful and more useful.

As for Line 43, this issue is rich with memories, as I lived near the intersection of Terwilliger & Taylor’s Ferry as a teenager.  I was at TriMet as a teenage intern when the current shape of the line was designed, and while I used it I knew it would always be a poor performer.  Much of the line is close to the more frequent Line 12 on Barbur, and if you are west of where the two lines cross, the 43 is so slow to downtown that it makes sense to transfer to the 12 for a faster trip.  That’s one reason why we felt that only a small area (between Barbur Blvd. Transit Center and Macadam Ave) would be affected if we reoriented this route to Marquam Hill, an area that had neither high ridership nor a high priority on equity grounds.  (It does have one business district, which we served another way; read on.)

Just south of there, the plan removes Line 39 from Lewis & Clark College, prompting the biggest outcry in the public outreach.  Lewis & Clark is a liberal arts college located on what is effectively a cul-de-sac for transit.[1]  It’s not on the way to any other destinations, so it has to justify its service all by itself.  Ridership was poor, and the campus was running its own shuttles to downtown.  The final design here divides Line 35, which runs along Macadam Avenue just west of the river, and sends half the service via Terwilliger & Taylor’s Ferry — not directly to Lewis & Clark’s front door anymore, but within a short walk. This change restored direct all-day downtown service from the business district at Terwilliger & Taylor’s Ferry, which was losing it with the removal of Line 43.  I’m normally very resistant to this kind of splitting of service because it reduces frequency.  Here, however, it was the right solution because the segment of Riverside Drive that loses half of its Line 35 service is very low-density, very affluent, and has almost no ridership.

There’s a nice side effect of this change: new all-day service to the main gate of Tryon Creek State Natural Area, one of Portland’s most spectacular wilderness parks. A great new opportunity for people to get out into nature on transit.

You can explore the whole plan, and the justification for each part of it, in our Forward Together final report, which is online.  There you’ll find both an explanation of each change, and also a description of the how the plan was revised in response to public outreach.  Not everyone will like these changes, but they will help TriMet create a more efficient network that’s useful to more people, and more people who really need it.



[1] The neighborhood beyond Lewis & Clark, called Dunthorpe, is very, very low-density and affluent. Before the big redesigns of 1979-82 it had its own bus route from downtown, evidence of how completely oriented toward coverage (rather than ridership) the system was in those days.  Today, nobody would think of running buses into Dunthorpe, probably least of all the fortunate folks who live there.

Amtrak’s Long Distance Trains: Not Just “Land Cruises”

Last week I wrote about the tension that the US national rail carrier Amtrak faces between ridership goals — which require focusing on its best markets — and coverage goals — which require covering the entire country.  I was applying a framework that I developed for urban public transit, but that seemed relevant enough to be useful in discussing Amtrak.  The post attracted a great comment thread with lots of lively disagreement.  So let me briefly respond to the commenters’ main objections.  To be clear, though, I am not an intercity rail expert, so I am intentionally keeping a high altitude on an issue with lots of rich detail.  I may be wrong, and if so I’m sure commenters will say so, with receipts.

To recap:  Amtrak sees its biggest growth opportunities as corridors linking major cities under 500 miles.  (This is also the ideal distance for high-speed rail, but Amtrak’s plan is about providing medium-speed service even as high-speed rail is developed in parallel.)  The company’s new vision document, Amtrak Connects US, is almost entirely about investing in such corridors, serving trips lasting a few hours at most.  But the US also has huge states with small populations, and there, Amtrak runs its multi-day long-haul trains.  Worldwide, only Russia, China, and Canada have longer passenger train lines than the US.  The Chicago-Los Angeles train formed by the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited, is almost three times longer (in both time and distance) than the longest line in Europe.

Amtrak’s long-haul trains have two roles: they are marketed as a scenic and relaxing way to travel between cities if you’re not in a hurry, but people also use them for access to towns along the way.  (I was thinking of the first market when I carelessly called them “land cruises, and the objections of many rural readers is understandable.)  These services do as well as they do only because they combine both markets , so each kind of user depends on the other for the total package to make sense. You can see the “land cruise” role competing with the local access role in the service design. For example, these trains sometimes follow routings selected for scenery but not population, most obviously in Montana where the Empire Builder‘s far-northerly routing goes through spectacular Glacier National Park but misses all of the state’s largest population centers.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Map: Jkan997 at Wikipedia.

Many commenters objected that these can’t be coverage service because their ridership is actually pretty high, so I should be clear that by ridership I always ultimately mean ridership divided by operating cost.  These trains are expensive to run.  I will not delve into the arguments over Amtrak’s accounting for these trains, but it’s easy to see that they can’t be using labor very efficiently.  The many rural stations need staff, all of them serving just one train at a time.  The long runs require crew to rotate in and out of duty on board, so those people need places to sleep.  The frequent delays mean that employees (both on the train and at the stations) often work longer than their scheduled shifts, incurring overtime.  It’s all very labor intensive, compared to short train lines where you turn over passengers quickly and most your staff can go home every night.

Meanwhile, the fares, if you don’t get a private room, are almost zero.  Portland, Oregon to Wisconsin Dells in central Wisconsin, coach, nonrefundable, a month out, is currently showing a fare of only $128, which is about 6.5 cents per mile.  A similar coach seat on the Northeast Regional train from Washington DC to New York with the same features is $31 or 13 cents per mile, twice the cost for a service that almost certainly costs Amtrak less to provide on a per passenger basis.  So the cost of these services lies not just in their inefficiency but in their low per-mile fare, which of course is what keeps them affordable enough to have a lot of use.

So can these services be justified by their ridership?  It depends entirely on whether you count ridership in passengers or passenger-miles.  If you want long-distance services to look good, you count passenger-miles, which values one person going ten miles as much as ten people going one mile.   In the urban transit context, there is a similar suburb-vs city debate.  If you want to make long-haul suburb-to-city service look better than shorter runs within the dense city, you cite passenger-miles, but some inner city folks will object that those long distances are a side effect of poor land use planning and location choices, not an actual benefit.  The benefit lies in how many actual human beings have gotten to where they’re going.  There’s no objective way to decide the question between measuring passengers and measuring passenger-miles.  It comes down to what kinds of trips you value.  A rural-urban divide is unavoidable on that point, because long distances are the defining fact of rural life.

My other question about the “rural lifeline” case for the long-distance trains is: Do these services really match the pattern of rural demand?  Probably not.  If you were optimizing a network for access to rural communities, it wouldn’t look much like these long-haul lines. Instead, it would look like a robust set of links between smaller centers and nearby larger ones.  Most rural intercity travel demand isn’t for the thousand-mile trips that Amtrak makes.  It’s more local, under 200 miles, with smaller centers usually needing access to larger ones that have more jobs, essential services, and onward transportation options.

This, of course, is the role of a robust bus system, working with trains as appropriate.  The major Australian states, for example, have publicly funded intercity bus+rail systems that connect most rural towns into their nearest larger center, with onward connections, bus or rail, to the big city.  This pattern is most likely to connect small towns to the destinations most useful to them.  As commercial intercity bus services wither in the US, there will be an increasing role for state funding and management of similar services.  I’ve beaten this drum before, but right now, in the US, rural transit between towns is mostly provided by county-level agencies with minimal state coordination.  Every county line is a potential barrier for travelers on those services.  At best adjacent counties have to make deals to allow service to flow over county lines to serve the trips people need.  What’s missing is often a network managed and funded by the state, running many of the lines that commercial carriers once ran.  Pieces of that might be rail, but a lot of it is probably logical bus networks that may cross the state but don’t cross half the country.

Does that mean the long-haul trains shouldn’t exist?  Not necessarily.  Personally, I’d love to see more of them.  Overnight trains are having a renaissance in Europe, and this suggests new markets where some useful rural service could be combined with overnights between bigger cities.

But still, Amtrak is right not to focus on these trains as part of a ridership-maximizing strategy.  Right now they are part of how Amtrak meets its competing goal of covering the whole country.  But because this has become an exercise in counting states, and thus Senate votes, the result is such thin coverage that most rural communities don’t have access to it. Even towns with stations may not have service in the right direction, or at a useful time of day, or with the decent on-time performance that comes only from shorter lines.  Most of the lifeline access that the rural US needs is logically provided by robust bus networks, managed by states if they can’t make a profit. By all means let’s keep and celebrate the long-haul trains, and expand them as appropriate.  But let’s not let them distract us from what it would really take to provide liberating transportation to rural America.

Amtrak’s Endless Ridership-vs-Coverage Problem

Amtrak is about to see more Federal funding than it’s had in decades, and is finally in the position to talk about major growth. But their “Amtrak Connects US” vision document is worth reading to notice two things: They continue to face a conflict between ridership goals and coverage goals, and they don’t feel that it’s safe to talk about that openly.

To review:

  • Ridership goals are served by concentrating good service where there are lots of people to benefit from it.
  • Coverage goals are served by spreading service out so that you can say everyone got some, regardless of whether people ride.

Ever since I did the first scholarly paper on this in 2008, I’ve been helping transit agencies face this problem honestly and make clear decisions about it.  Pretending that you are doing both just produces confusion and unhappiness, because these goals are mathematically opposite. They tell network designers to do opposite things. Rhetoric can paper over the problem but won’t resolve it.

For years, Congress has berated Amtrak for not being profitable (which would require ridership) while demanding that it run service to every corner of the country (coverage).  The high-ridership thing for Amtrak to do, as the report makes clear, is to focus on improved frequency and travel time for trips of under 500 miles, a distance where rail service between city centers can effectively compete with flying between airports, and this in fact is what the plan recommends. But that means the improvements won’t be everywhere.

Yet when it comes to highest-level summary, the report seems pressured to de-emphasize its own recommendations. Here are the seven bullet points that form “Amtrak’s 15 Year Vision” (p9). I’ve labeled each with whether it refers to ridership or coverage.

  • Add service to 160 new communities, large and small, while retaining the existing Amtrak network serving over 525 locations. [Coverage]
  • Provide intercity passenger rail service to the 50 largest metropolitan areas (by population).  [Ridership]
  • Serve 47 of the 48 contiguous states, expanding corridor passenger rail service in 20 states and bringing new corridor passenger rail service to 16 states.  [Coverage]
  • Add 39 new routes, and enhance 25 routes.  [Coverage]
  • Introduce new stations in over half of U.S. states.  [Coverage]
  • Expand or improve rail service for 20 million more riders annually—which would double the amount that the state-supported routes carried in fiscal year (FY) 2019.  [Ridership]
  • Provide $800 million in total Amtrak revenue growth versus FY 2019. [Ridership]

While ridership is the focus of the actual policy, four of these seven points emphasize coverage instead.  Three of the them count states, which has nothing to do with ridership or population but does matter when counting votes in the Senate, the US’s ultimate enforcer of coverage-oriented thinking.  Amtrak takes pride in serving 46 of the 48 contiguous states, though most rural states are served only by “land cruises,” trains that take 2-3 days to cross distances of over 1000 miles.  These provide useful access to some rural towns but are much too slow for travel between major cities, and their schedules — once a day at best — are almost guaranteed not to be going when you need them.  Amtrak recognizes that these trains are not a growth market.  The future lies in the shorter more frequent links under 500 miles, but the obsession with state-counting in these high level bullet points shows how Amtrak must dodge the obvious in its rhetoric.

Even more striking, Amtrak does not seem to feel it has permission to draw a map that would show what they’re actually doing.  Here’s a bit of the mapping that comes with the document:

Sample of mapping from Amtrak’s report.


Colors are used here to show where some service is being added, but this map tells you nothing about the actual levels of service on each line. It’s misleading about the pattern of existing service — where frequency is massively concentrated in the Boston-Washington “Northeast Corridor” — and also about the degree to which different corridors are proposed to be improved.  In short, it’s a coverage map, designed to emphasize how many places are affected rather than what the benefit is. Meanwhile, a quick internet search turns up a map of 2015 Amtrak frequencies that gives you some sense of how unevenly service is actually distributed:


Frequency based map of Amtrak in 2015.

Amtrak wouldn’t draw its own map in this style, so somebody else did a put it on the internet.  (This, by the way, is how the idea of showing frequency on local transit maps caught on in the US in the 2000s and 2010s: With encouragement and advice from this blog, impatient advocates drew the maps when the transit authority wouldn’t and this helped give the transit authorities the courage to do it themselves.  Today, at least in the US, most major agencies show some indication of frequency in their mapping.)  Sure enough, Yonah Freemark has already drawn a frequency based map of the Amtrak plan!

Yonah Freemark’s frequency map of the Amtrak plan.

But you won’t find this map in Amtrak’s report, and I can imagine the internal conversation over why.  “It will make it look like we hate North Dakota!” Yes, indeed, in the US there are many states with two senators and very few people. Amtrak is planning for ridership, so it doesn’t propose to improve service there.  Ignoring North Dakota is an inevitable consequence of a decision that ridership is the goal.

So we get a report that lays out a ridership-driven plan — higher frequencies where there are lots of people — but doesn’t dare say that at the highest level of the document: the bullet points and map that everyone will look at even if they don’t read the text.

I’m not criticizing Amtrak here! This is probably exactly the appropriate framing for their political situation. But you should read this document to practice reading for ridership-coverage tension, to help you recognize when this contradiction is hiding inside your own transit authority’s thinking or rhetoric.

The 100 Most Influential Urbanists, Past and Present?

Planetizen has done its “100 Most Influential Urbanists” list again.  The voters were readers of Planetizen, who tend to be US urban professionals and advocates.  I’m honored to be there, at #42, along with many, many people that I admire.

You can ask all kinds of questions about this list.  It’s admittedly US-centric, citing folks from other countries based mostly on their influence on the US discourse.   I also wish it didn’t try to compare living people with figures from the past, which is impossible.  Living people are almost all biased in favor of the living.  So I wouldn’t make much of the fact that I’m #42 while Hippodamus of Miletus (498-408 BCE), came in only at #85.  Hippodamus has certainly been more influential, and not just because he had more time.

You can also use the list to start fun arguments about what urbanism is.  Is it a field of study and action, or does it imply an ideology? If the latter, should some of these people — like Thomas Jefferson and Frank Lloyd Wright — be considered anti-urbanists, since their vision of the ideal human settlement was really more rural than urban?  Does anyone whose work affects cities count, and if so, who doesn’t count?

For better or worse, though, people love lists.  If you’re a list-lover, I hope you enjoy this one. Don’t take it as any authority about who’s more important than whom. But if browsing it leads you to discover the work of someone who inspires or intrigues you, it will have done its work.

Poll: The 100 Most Influential Urbanists?

Planetizen is running a poll to create a list of 100 Most Influential Urbanists.  They last did this in 2017, when I was honored to be #57. They now have a new list of 200 nominees, partly based on public nominations, and want the public to rank them. I’m honored to be shortlisted again.

Personally, I’m not sure don’t how to vote in a survey that mixes figures from throughout (Western) history with people living today.  That mixing feels unfair both ways. People who lived longer ago have had more time for their influence to be felt. On the other hand, the living tend to be strongly biased toward other living people. Do those two unfairnesses cancel each other out? Probably not, except maybe among historians.  The bias toward the living is overwhelming. I’m not really the 57th most influential urbanist ever, because there have been countless influential people, in cultures all around the world, in all the millennia that there have been cities.  So I’d have had an easier time figuring out my vote if I hadn’t had to choose between people I know well and people who lived 2500 years ago. It’s like being asked if I prefer apples or Shakespeare.

Note, too, that the survey is asking how influential people were, not whether that influence was good or bad. The list contains several people whose net impact on urbanism has been negative in my view, including Robert Moses, Le Corbusier, and Elon Musk.  Will they be assessed purely on the magnitude of their influence and not its direction?  Perhaps historians can be called upon for such godlike moral neutrality, but I find myself struggling to give such figures fairly high marks for “influence,” since I would be contributing to their influence by ranking them.

But methodologically questionable as they always are, people love lists.  So whatever method you use to make these mysterious choices, I hope you have fun with it.  Vote here.

Akron: Welcome to Your New Network

New network in the core of Akron. Red = every 15 min, dark blue = every 30 min, light blue = every 60 min.

by Evan Landman

Akron METRO launched their reimagined bus network on June 4th!  Jarrett Walker + Associates assisted the agency in developing the new service plan over the past 2 years.

You can download the full map here.  On this page there’s also a side-by-side trip planner showing how any trip is made differently in the new network than the old one.

Despite dealing with the same operator shortage as all transit agencies have faced, METRO were able to implement nearly the entire service plan on Day 1, which included the following key elements:

  • 5 new high-frequency 15-minute corridors.
  • 3 new 30-minute routes in addition to 5 existing 30-min routes
  • New regional connections to greater Cleveland (which also implemented a JWA network redesign last year.)
  • Expanded weekend services, particularly on Sundays.

Old network for the same area. Red = every 15 minutes, purple = every 20 minutes, dark blue = every 30 minutes, light blue = every 60 min. Pale orange lines were less frequent than every hour.

Before the new network was implemented, METRO’s most frequent routes ran only every 20 minutes. The new network establishes frequent service to many key destinations and neighborhoods, including major hospitals, the University of Akron, and other important civic institutions. The Reimagined Network was designed to provide frequent and convenient service in busy places where many people need to travel to, while continuing to offer lifeline services in places where and for people for whom transit is essential.

With the new network, the median person in Summit County who lives near a bus route can access over 54% more jobs with a 45 minute transit trip; these outcomes are even larger for lower-income people and people of color, who are more likely to live in central Akron, where the new network’s most frequent routes are concentrated. This was achieved without a reduction in coverage – about 1% more people are now within a short walk to a transit than with the old network.

JWA congratulates METRO on the successful implementation of this plan. We’re proud to have assisted the agency in developing a new bus network that responds to the travel needs of today’s riders, and establishes the foundation for ridership growth in the future.


The Old, Old Idea of High-Tech Cars

Dense cities don’t have room for everyone’s car.  If too many people use cars, they take up all the available space and still get in each other’s way, which is what congestion is.

This was all obvious, and much discussed, when cars first appeared on the scene.  So the prospect of making the car the dominant tool of urban transportation — as opposed to, say, something you might rent to make a trip into the countryside — should have been easy to recognize as a scam.

Historian Peter Norton’s first book, Fighting Trafficchronicles how this scam took over the United States to create the way of life that most Americans now see as normal.  Exploiting understandable frustrations with the for-profit transit of the time, the nascent car and petroleum industries “partnered” with government to build a sense of inevitability around car-based travel.   This campaign had all of the disastrous results that were in fact predicted at the time — road carnage, pollution, and congestion.

Why did people fall for it?  In part, because “innovation” was going to fix those problems soon, leading us to a new utopia where we could take our cars wherever we wanted, safely, cleanly, and without delay. Norton’s new book, Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving, fills in more detail on this critical element of the scam, and shows how it operates in the driverless car narratives of today.

Obviously, actual technological improvements to make driving safer are to be welcomed.  The danger lies in the impossible visions of the congestion-free autonomous-car-dependent city, which is then cited as a reason not to invest in proven methods of urban transportation, such as public transit.  The claim that autonomous driving can fix congestion is no longer as loudly proclaimed as it was a few years ago, but it’s still out there.  The only basis of this claim is that because a computer’s reaction time is faster than a human’s,  autonomous cars could drive closer together at high speed, taking less space.  This, of course, is a minor improvement compared to the countervailing force of induced demand: Eliminating the hassle of driving will cause a lot more driving.  We have seen this before.

In the century-long history of high-tech car boosterism, Norton detects cycles of peak hype roughly 25-30 years long, peaking in the 1930s, 1960s, 1990s, and now.  At the peak of each cycle, a burst of technical innovation, fused with intense funding and public relations efforts, seems to bring the dazzling future almost within reach.  When the vision fails to deliver, there’s an inevitable pause of 20 years or so.  Memories fade, and perhaps more important, a generation reaches their 20s who don’t remember the last cycle, and whose sincerity and energy give the effort new life.

Norton calls the newest of these cycles Autonorama (a portmanteau of Futurama and autonomous), but his description of it captures what all four cycles have had in common:

Autonorama is the place where old-fashioned car-dependency is lent new credibility through the application of a fresh gloss of high-tech novelty, where simple possibilities are neglected not because of their inferiority but because of their simplicity, and where implausible promises of perfection divert attention from practical possibilities of actual improvement.  In Autonorama transportation research looks like public relations (and vice versa), theoretically possible performance is equated with actual performance, and technology is less a human means to human-chosen ends than a mysteriously willful entity that inevitably delivers ever-better solutions …

None of this is a secret, really. If you read business journalism you can find corporate gurus explaining their methods with pride:

In 1929 [Charles] Kettering distilled his advice into an article, written for Nation’s Business, called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.”  “If everywhere were satisfied,” he explained, “no one would buy the new thing.”  To Kettering, transport sufficiency was a threat to motordom’s future.  He advocated perpetual insufficiency, propelled by an ever-receding promise of future perfection.

In the book’s first four chapters, Norton explores the four cycles that we’ve been through so far, ending with the current moment of autonomous-car boosterism.  But the most powerful chapter is the fifth, “Data Don’t Drive,” which will train you to recoil when you hear the term data-driven.  Norton explores how invocations of data as the ultimate authority invite us to surrender to interests and goals that may not be ours.

Part of the problem is that data is a valuable commodity.  “Data is the new oil,” as they say.  Norton even turns up a McKinsey report arguing that the real importance of driverless cars is that it will allow us to spend more time interacting with screens, generating data about ourselves that can be used to target and manipulate us.

But the real issue is that data is a tool, not a goal, and only humans can specify the goal.  As Norton puts it, “data can tell people which efforts are serving their goals and which are not, but the goals must be chosen first, and by people.”  In my own career, I’ve seen countless studies that sought to overwhelm the reader with data and analysis, not to illuminate the real choices (as our firm‘s work does) but to make them surrender to the goals (sometimes not clearly stated) of the proponents.  Traffic engineering is full of this kind of talk (“the data show that we need to widen the road”) and you’ll sometimes hear it in transit planning too.

I heartily recommend this book.  It will remind you, once again, of why historians are as urgently needed as scientists in our brave new technological future.


Lyft: The End of Shared Rides

I frequently travel in places and situations where public transit isn’t useful, especially in the transit-poor United States.  So I’ve been a frequent user of Lyft, a shared-ride competitor of Uber.  It was an easy choice.  Although the Lyft and Uber products are the same — often provided by the same cars and drivers — Lyft’s founders were credibly supportive of public transit, so their basic branding, “Uber with a conscience” or “Uber but nice” was pretty much directed at customers like me, although I had no illusions about where the ultimate profit motive would lead them.

One virtuous thing that Lyft attempted was shared rides.  For a lower fare, you could get a ride that would also pick up someone else along the way.  This would reduce VMT and provide lower fares for fare sensitive folks, though still much higher than public transit fares.

I used this service once.  On a departure from the airport, it paired my trip with one in a substantially different direction.  The other trip was to a point further from the airport than my destination, and yet it served that trip first.  I ended up with a travel time about twice what my direct travel time would have been, and much more than the app had estimated.  I never used this option again.  My impression was that they were overselling the product in contexts where it wasn’t appropriate, and they were offering the same discount to the person dropped off first — whose trip is exactly what it would have been if traveling alone — as to the person whose trip was being made much longer.

Drivers apparently hated it too, judging from many of the comments on this Reddit thread.  They didn’t pay drivers enough to deal with the hassles, including customers not understanding the rules and poor relations between strangers sharing the car.  Now, Lyft has abandoned shared rides, although Uber appears to be planning to expand them.

But shared-ride products are still needed, especially when demand appears all at once in high volume.  A common scenario: A plane lands at a small-city airport at midnight.  A line of 100 people ends up at the taxi stand.  Taxis are programmed to carry single parties.  In this situation I will usually poll the people around me in line to see if anyone shares my destination, which may be likely if it’s a downtown hotel.  But we must then present ourselves to the taxi driver as a single party, or they will charge us more.  It’s remarkable that in this particular case, late night airport to downtown, there isn’t a workable solution.  Because while it can be a pain to have another person in the car, it would be even better to get to the hotel at 1 am instead of 3 am, and a small town with 17 taxis and a few Lyft cars is not going to serve us all very quickly if it insists on serving us all separately.

Of course, there should really be a bus to downtown meeting this late-night airplane, but planes are late a lot, and transit agencies can’t devote a bus to meeting an unpredictable arrival time.

If you are not a traveling businessperson like me, this may all sound very “first world problems” to you, but there is a lot of VMT in carrying a bunch of people from an airport to the same distant cluster of hotels at the same time, all in separate cars.  I’m disappointed Lyft couldn’t focus this product on that problem, grouping people only when their destinations were very close together, and thus creating a product that both customers and drivers could be believe in.

Update on Human Transit, Revised Edition

First draft of the cover. Thoughts?

Whew! Last night I delivered the manuscript to Island Press for a Revised Edition of Human Transit.  It’s been a bigger project than I expected.  I started out thinking that I could just add some material and the rest would stand as it was, but as I got into it I saw more things that I could improve, and now it’s pretty substantially revised.  There’s nothing I would retract in the old version, of course.  Certainly, the geometry isn’t out of date.  But there are things I can say better now, so I do.

There are new chapters on planning for diversity, planning for access to opportunity, and network redesign, as well as new material on flexible transit (a.k.a demand-responsive transit or “microtransit”) and on Bus Rapid Transit.  And I’ve added some more pointed commentary about the challenge of sorting through technological claims that have been amplified by venture capital.

It should come out in February 2024.

Meanwhile, here’s the rough draft of the cover, based on a sketch by the architect Eric Orozco.  We were trying to capture the way that an abstract transit line turns into access which turns into human joy and possibility.  Let me know what you think.

And yes, now that that’s done I should be blogging more.