System/Empathy in Transit

My latest Slate column considers Jarrett Walker’s new book Human Transit and the question of how we can make transit more successful: Make it nicer or more efficient (and do we have to choose)?

As befits someone who has spent decades in small, formerly smoke-filled rooms with civic officials trying to implement working transit systems, Walker is a realist, and Human Transit is a spirited guide—prescriptive but with a righteous dash of polemic—to what we get wrong about transit. “In many urban regions,” he writes, “support for public transit is wide but shallow.” People generally like the idea of transit (as characterized by the Onion headline, “98 Percent of Americans Support Public Transit for Others”), but much of our society’s experience and understanding of transit, not to mention our willingness to pay for it, is limited. The very fact that most of us drive, argues Walker, casts a subtle, but powerful, influence onto transit thinking. “In most debates about proposed rapid transit lines,” he writes, “the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take.” Drivers don’t wonder when their cars are going to show up.

The Economist picks up the thread over at its Democracy in America blog.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few years arguing about whether trolleys are silly atmospheric baubles or a vital ingredient of livable cities. Reading this passage, I abruptly realised why it is that I prefer taking my city’s rail-based transit to taking its buses: the presence of a dedicated rail serves as a visual promise of service. A bus stop stands forlornly in the urban wasteland, offering no real guarantee of the existence of the bus. The figure of the passenger waiting for a bus that may or may not ever arrive is a visual cliche. Trolley tracks and electric lines running down the middle of the street, however, are a promise: a line runs here. It may be ten minutes between trolleys, it may be half an hour, but something is going to come down that line and take you where you’re going. The very expense of creating the line tells you: the government has invested too much in this infrastructure for there to be no service. The rails are, literally, an ironclad guarantee.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 at 2:19 pm and is filed under Cities, Commuting, Congestion, Traffic Wonkery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “System/Empathy in Transit”

  1. Brad Templeton Says:

    Tom, now that you’ve seen the speed at which robocars are developing, you may want to consider one of the possibilities I have been investigating, which is the decline of public transit. While there’s no assurance that the world will switch to them, robocars that can self-deliver makes it much more marketable to have people ride in lightweight, 1 and 2 person short range electric city vehicles. Today you can’t sell them but they are perfect as cell-phone-summoned robotic taxis.

    The energy usage of these vehicles is 1/10th the per-passenger-mile energy of today’s US transit, and 1/3rd that of East Japan Rail, one of the most heavily used transit systems.

    If you had such technology, why would you build transit just so you can use 3 to 10 times as much energy to move people around, when you can do it in private, door-to-door with almost no waiting? It’s a hard question for transit planners to answer. In fact, none of them are really considering it at present. And yes, there are similar surprising answers about the road capacity using these vehicles. The answer to “Can private 1-2 person vehicles move as many people as transit lines?” turns out to eventually be “no, they can move a lot more” though this takes a lot more time to accomplish.

    It’s my view that almost all the rules of transit will be erased and rewritten in the next few decades, but transit and urban planners don’t even have it on their radar.

  2. Michael D. Setty Says:

    As perhaps the leading cheerleader for “robocars,” it is reasonable that Brad Templeton quickly dismisses the alternatives, such as dramatic improvements to public transit in the U.S. However, his arguments for neglecting transit improvement are weak, at best.

    As a transit supporter and robocar skeptic, my objections are listed below, from the least to most significant.

    First, assuming robocar technology is as robust as Brad claims it is, you then run into the “quality of components” problem. Robocar proponents make huge claims for the idea, which they must admit will place public expectations for safety improvements over existing automobiles at least an order of magnitude, if not 50-100 times higher.

    But actually obtaining such results will depend on extreme reliability of the hardware, particularly the computer hardware and associated complex mix of vehicle sensors. In turn, such levels of reliability will require very high quality components, e.g., “military” or “Mercedes” grade as opposed to “Hyundai” grade. Mass produced sensors may cost, say $50 to $100 each, each vehicle requiring a dozen or more. But the most reliable components typically cost an order of magnitude more. In this regard the problem resembles the current state of the hard drive market; mass market 1TB drives retail around $100-$150 but much more robust “mission critical” but much lower capacity mechanisms cost several times more, on average.

    I’m certain Brad will argue that quality and reliability will improve over time, but the current state of computer and hard drive technology has taken 3+ decades to evolve to its current state. A similar timeframe is likely with complex technologies such as robocars. And I’m not even commenting about the state of software! After nearly 30 years of development, Windoze is still a big kludge! LIke the original adoption of the automobile, robocars will require at least 2-3 decades for full adoption, probably more if you consider that “full adoption” in the U.S. of the automobile didn’t fully occur until the 1970’s.

    Second, I’m still not convinced the state of artificial intelligence (AI) is nearly as robust as Brad has claimed elsewhere.

    At a minimum, several years of “real world testing” will be required to prove such claims in a wide variety of complex urban environments–assuming any cities out there willing to be guinea pigs. In Nevada driving across the desert is one thing; the Las Vegas Strip or South Virginia Street in Reno is another.

    Third, there is the “human” problem.

    After nearly two decades of effort, the government has managed to convince 90%+ of people (well, at least in California) to “buckle up.” One of the standard pitches for robocars is that one won’t have to pay attention to driving, so one can undertake other activities during the ride. However, in the same manner that having anti-lock brakes cause many to drive “closer to the edge,” overconfidence in the abilities of robocars could cause many to forsake “buckling up.” With such a “human” problem, the safe braking distance margin would have to be greatly increased compared to EXISTING automobiles, if people aren’t to be splattered on the dashboard. Instead of a dramatic increase in road capacity, this would greatly reduce capacity.

    The alternative would be robocar safety interlocks that refuse to move unless seat belts are attached–also requiring seat weight sensors. In turn, how does the computer determine whether that weight in the seat is a human, a dog, a package, groceries, or a baby/small child (and how does the robocar enforce child carseats?) And so on. Remember the 1970’s seatbelt interlock fiasco that the public hated with a red hot passion?

    Fourth, the robocar seatbelt problem raises the issue of how the government would regulate robocars. Currently, driving is perhaps the most highly government-regulated activity the average person undertakes on a regular basis. Given the complexity of robocars and the extremely high level of safety expectations, government regulation of the technology is likely to be at a much higher level. Modifying vehicle systems, e.g., “tampering” in bureaucratese, conceivably become a felony. Insurance companies would certainly want a complete record of everything when investigating robocar accidents and failures, as certainly would the government.

    Cellphones with GPS certainly raise an entire host of privacy concerns which could pale in comparison with those raised by robocars. Will the interior cameras robocars use to determine whether that weight in the seat is a human, a dog, a package, groceries, or a baby/small child also be another revolutionary tool for cops and divorce lawyers?

    Fourth, why not simpler technical solutions such as still-human driven “city cars” resembling beefed up golf carts? Unlike robocars, this idea has been prototyped for years in Palm Desert, California and a few other communities. Why not simply require new developments–particularly employment centers–to be pedestrian and bike friendly, making them transit friendly as a bonus? Not every problem has a “high tech” solution or long-proven technology that solves the problem already exists.

    Finally, before society makes the leap towards wide-spread adoption of robocars, why can’t we slow way down and consider if such technology will create the sort of cities, towns and suburbs we want. Or will we allow robocars to totally remake the landscape to meet the peculiar needs of robocars, in the same way we did to accommodate the human-driven automobile? As someone who prefers to put pedestrians, e.g., PEOPLE, first, I consider that there may be a suitable niche for robocars in our transportation system, but not nearly as widespread as in the wet dreams of many techno-fetishists.

  3. Just visiting Says:

    “Reading this passage, I abruptly realised why it is that I prefer taking my city’s rail-based transit to taking its buses: the presence of a dedicated rail serves as a visual promise of service.”

    If you ever consider moving to Toronto, you may have to look at revising that assumption:

    BTW – the 501 Queen Streetcar is much better now, but for many years the existance of a TTC stop and tracks in the street were nooooo guarantee of eventual service.

  4. Brad Templeton Says:

    I don’t pretend there are not challenges and problems. And while everybody is working hard on safety, and it’s lots of work to reach the very high levels we would like, it is an error to say that more than a tiny group of people choose transit over cars because of safety. This is not to say that car travel is safe, it is among the most unsafe things around, but simply that people tolerate it in exchange for its benefits. All robocar developers I know plan to make it safer.

    Of course, the truth is that in the USA, a fairly small minority use transit today. Surprisingly most miles are in cars even in the supposedly transit-embracing European countries.

    I’ll punt on problem 2. There are indeed hard problems. But the technology is coming, of that I am confident, and sooner than most people seem to think. It’s an error to not consider it at all in transportation planning.

    As for #3, again nobody denies that people compensate in this way. But it’s not a dealbreaker. As you may know, they tried seat belt interlocks in regular cars, there was massive revolt and the rule was more than reversed. Of course, people don’t wear seatbelts on the bus or street car either, and accidents are rarer, but often can be worse in those rare cases.

    #4 was the subject of a recent conference. I’ve written much about this elsewhere. The less government regulation, the sooner more lives will be saved; that’s my conclusion. And it seems that for now, it is also the government’s! But there will be some regulation of course.

    Nothing wrong with city cars. Been doable for a century, but only appears in small pockets. I’ve come to the conclusion there is only so much you can do to make people do what you think is best for them. The best you can do is plan for what they will do in spite of what you tell them. They want cheap, safe, personal, door to door transportation. They want nice neighbourhoods that are interesting but they want yards and play places and safety and good schools for their children a good deal more. Look at what’s coming tech-wise. Look at what people do rather than what they say. Plan for that future.

  5. Francis King Says:

    “It’s my view that almost all the rules of transit will be erased and rewritten in the next few decades, but transit and urban planners don’t even have it on their radar.”

    Out on the freeway, self-driving cars make a lot of sense. In town, with lots of people doing their own crazy things, self-driving cars are a self-propelled accident. So you see, that I, a planner, is doing a lot of thinking about new transport technologies.

    “A bus stop stands forlornly in the urban wasteland, offering no real guarantee of the existence of the bus. ”

    There is a guarantee, if you fit real time bus displays to the bus stop. Not only do you see that a bus is coming, but you can see which bus, where it is going to, and when it is going to arrive.

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How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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