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The Road Ahead
Robo-Chauffeurs Could Kill Public Transit As We Know It

Whether or not self-driving cars are the future of public transportation, at the very least they will change the logic of large public transportation projects: a fleet of robo-cars could one day deliver personalized, decentralized public transportation. But what does that mean for our cities’s buses and trains? The Atlantic Cities reports:

We make billion-dollar investments in new transit infrastructure because we expect to use it for decades. Metropolitan planning organizations are in the very business of planning 30 and 40 years into the future. The Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority recently released its dream map of subway service in the city for the year 2040. By then, autonomous cars – in some form – will surely be commonplace.

The question of what they’ll mean for transit was actually on the program this year at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington, where several thousand transportation officials and researchers met to talk about state-of-the-art asphalts, biker behavior, and the infrastructure of the future. In one packed session, I heard Jerome Lutin, a retired longtime New Jersey Transit planner, say something that sounded almost like blasphemy.

“We’re just wringing our hands, and we’re going to object to this,” he warned the room. “But the transit industry needs to promote shared-use autonomous cars as a replacement for transit on many bus routes and for service to persons with disabilities.”

A recent study by IHS Automotive predicted that nearly every car on the road in 2050 will be self-driving; in that kind of world, in which our nation’s highways are populated by hordes of self-driving vehicles packed tightly together at higher speeds and with greater fuel efficiency, massive investments in rail infrastructure or new bus networks won’t make much sense. But these investments are already being made in places like California, which is already massively over-budget on a high-speed rail project that will be obsolete from its first day of operation.

The pace of technological progress is accelerating, and city planners can’t keep up. Self-driving cars are the latest and greatest transportation option, but who can guess what will replace them in the coming decades? A nation criss-crossed with Hyperloops? Ubiquitous telepresence technology? In this respect, we’re more uncertain about the future than we ever have been, and that’s a huge problem for those making decisions about public transit. One thing is obvious, though: we shouldn’t be building for the future with technology that’s already outdated. Looking at you California.

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  • Corlyss

    Who owns these self-driving cars? How do you marshal them for “public transit” when so much of the work forces is service workers who have be somewhere?

    In re: DC. You underestimate the grinding inertia of the DC city government. Almost every advance in traffic management there has come at the point of a Congressional fiscal gun.

    Back when right-turn-on-red was introduced after it had been in operation for years everywhere else, the District first dug in its heels and refused to implement it. Then when Congress threatened to take money away or not give them highway money, they grudgingly relented and announced they would use 3/4 of the money to pay for signage that read “No Turn On Red.”

    Re: asphalt in DC, the District has been notorious for decades for the worst asphalt on the planet. Why don’t they buy better asphalt that can survive the quixotic DC winters? Because the asphalt supplier is one of the biggest political donors to the slugs who run the city council and the Mayor. It’s a classic machine city where half the residents are on the city payroll and the other half is on welfare living in hotels paid for by the city. It’s a disgrace.

    I was mocked here for my lack of sympathy for the Indian diplomat who was strip-searched. Well, in DC, if you eat anything or drink anything on the Metro, you can be arrested and parked in the glorious DC jail where naturally they strip-search you because everyone else they bring in there is a violent criminal or drug addict and that situation demands strip-searching. Ever since I learned that, I was prepared to be strip-searched every time I had to use that grim subway whose stations must have been designed by some Communist who thought the Soviet architecture was the height of beauty.

    • Andrew Allison

      Corlyss, have you never ridden the Moscow metro? The stations are gorgeous. On a more serious note, you are absolutely right about the fallacious thinking.
      The only places where public transit has meaningful utilization are in urban areas. Clogging up the streets with all those makes no sense. What makes sense for those in suburban areas who don’t have or choose not to use cars is autonomous buses that can be demand driven.

      • Corlyss

        No, I’ve never been to Moscow. I wasn’t speaking of the Moscow subway system, but of the ghastly gray buildings without any individual personalities, like what you see in those old B&W pictures of their May Day celebrations. Here’s what I had in mind:

    • Gene

      Do you have any stats on the number of people arrested (or even merely ticketed) for eating or drinking on the Metro? I’ve ridden it regularly for 14 years and seen lots of people doing it. I’ve never seen anyone ever confronted by a Metro cop or any other employee. Does anyone pay any price whatsoever for that behavior?

      • Corlyss

        No, I don’t. Once was enough for me to prepare myself to expect it. As for my personal experience, I rode the thing for about 6 mos. before motion sickness forced me to make other arrangements. I was accosted once by a jack-booted Metro cop who ordered me to put my shoes back on. During the 6 months I did ride it, there were several suicide attempts involving the line I rode, a blizzard that shouldn’t have had any effect on the subway but did, a major wreck, and chronic delays for other assorted reasons. I’m sure it was because I was riding it. After I stopped, I didn’t pay that much attention to what happened on it. I loved the NY Subway system and could happily ride it forever like poor ol’ Charlie on the MTA. But the DC version was just a dreadful experience all around.

  • TommyTwo

    “Robo-Chauffeurs Could Kill Public Transit”

    And then they’ll murder their own passengers, and then they’ll TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!!1!!1!


  • NewClassTraitor

    Of course, some new jobs will be created too — after all, somebody needs to keep these smart vehicles roadworthy and their programming up-to-date… But yes, creative destruction is here to stay…

  • JasperPants

    I’m not so sure. Most people using public transit do so for financial reasons. As wealth builds, families ditch the bus/subway and climb into their cars.

    I don’t see this trend reversing with self driving cars. Vehicles will likely become more expensive the more technologically advanced they become, causing people to use public transit.

    Of course that won’t stop the unions and other entrenched interests from running interference.

    • free_agent

      OTOH, people buy cars when they have the income to support the capital outlay. Autonomous autos can be hired on a per-trip basis, so financially they look a lot more like public transit. And since governments already subsidize public transit systems, it would be natural to subsidize the auto-auto use of the poor. … Especially because there would be very little unionizable labor in an auto-auto fleet.

    • RonRonDoRon

      I don’t think the article is talking about private autonomous automobiles as substitute for public mass transit, but rather about publicly available autonomous automobiles. More like robotic taxis than like robotic chauffeurs. I think the headline is misleading – except in the sense that a human taxi driver is a chauffeur.

  • teapartydoc

    CHANGE is why organized large scale planning never works as well as chaotic market based organization. The future is stumbled into, not readily predictable. The progressives consider themselves to be seers, and they want to enforce their silly fascist vision of the future on us.

  • InklingBooks

    Self-driving vehicles can’t deal with one of the main problems of mass transit–the drunks, the perverts, the jerks, and the mentally deranged who ride buses. On a large bus, there might be riders who’d take the initiative to help, but on a smaller “autonomous car” that would be unlikely. It could get very scary, particularly for attractive young women.

    That’s not even touching on all the things good bus drivers do for passengers, such as holding the bus for people rushing to the bus stop or giving the best stop to get off.

    Self-driving vehicles make the most sense for well-to-do professionals who can’t quite afford a chauffeur. The car could drive itself while they get work done.

    –Michael W. Perry, Across Asia on a Bicycle

    • RonRonDoRon

      “drunks, the perverts, the jerks, and the mentally deranged who ride buses”

      Where are such people more dangerous? On a bus or train with other people, or in an autonomous car alone and with no way to affect the vehicle’s operation (and which vehicle could probably drive them directly to incarceration if there was an attempt to damage or take control)?

    • Tom Billings

      “the drunks, the perverts, the jerks, and the mentally deranged who ride
      buses. On a large bus, there might be riders who’d take the initiative
      to help, but on a smaller “autonomous car” that would be unlikely. It
      could get very scary, particularly for attractive young women.”

      This is a total misconception of what an robot-driven autonomous car will be. It will usually be carrying a single person, or people who know each other riding to wherever they wish to go. While it will replace public transit, by no means must it mimic mass transit’s behaviors towards passengers. It is *not* mass transit!

      If *anyone* is uncomfortable getting into a car with someone else, then call for another car! Once a called car is occupied, and the car is moving towards its destination, it need not stop for anyone the original caller has not vetted as friendly ahead of time.

      I know many here in Portland who *will*not*use* TriMet mass transit, specifically because they have seen gangs and individuals oppress other passengers without anyone’s intervention. The driver would not even push the button to call the police because they knew the perp would be back on the street within hours, while the driver’s schedule was published specifically to be know to everyone, including the perp. I have myself had to intervene, fortunarely just once.

      *Personal* transit by robot car is an improvement in safety, while *mass* transit in *any* setting means trusting your safety to an organization that inevitably has high agency costs on passenger safety issues from top to bottom.

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