Transportation planning in the Bay Area is doubling-down on investing in transit, despite massive investments since the 1980s leading to a drop in per capita ridership. Why impose inconvenient solutions when the valley is already several steps ahead?
I’m often accused of being negative on any transit projects – but anyone who actually reads my articles will see that I am only negative about ineffective solutions, and I am constantly seeking out and discovering new, much more effective solutions.
On Thursday I was at a technology conference in Redwood City where the future for our congested freeways became much clearer. Instead of sinking money into cost ineffective projects like the SMART train, and possibly trolleys, we need to recognize that the car has become the transportation method of choice over the last 50 years through it’s convenience. Transit simply cannot match the convenience of going door to door without changing travel modes, waiting, putting in buffer time, missing connections…
However our freeways are becoming increasingly clogged. Transit advocates would have us abandon our cars, investing billions in trains and trolleys - not recognizing that we live in the area making the most groundbreaking strides in transportation technology.
Waze – Load Balancing Road Networks
At the conference I attended a lady presented “Waze”. Waze is a mobile app that crowd-sources all the GPS locations of it’s users using a mobile phone app to understand the relative speeds and traffic congestion across road networks. More than that – it proactively informs Waze users when congestion strikes, suggesting alternate routes.
Waze was just bought by Google for an estimated $1.3 billion. It’s being used by ABC’s local TV news affiliates nationwide to help instantly identify traffic congestion.
Combining Waze + Chained Cars
In the limited questioning time I raised my hand and asked the Waze/Google speaker “how soon will we be able to go down to a local dealership and buy a self-driving car that has Waze so it automatically takes the best route?”. Her answer 7 years. She turned back to me and the audience and said “is that significant?”
I said “it’s huge”. If that can happen in 7 years it turns transportation planning on its head. It helps address the traffic that everyone in the audience faced just that day getting to the Redwood City venue.
What this means is we are very close, in long range transportation planning, to road networks which load balance themselves automatically. Imagine you’re cruising down 101 and your car seamlessly takes an offramp, drives down the adjacent frontage road around congestion, and then rejoins the freeway.
Then combine this with Google’s other technology: self-driving cars that can “chain up together” drive with reduced spacing (they brake together as a single unit) increasing freeway lane capacity threefold.
I spoke one on one to the lady from Google. She explained that the major issue is overcoming legislation so that Google or car manufacturers are not sued every time a self driving car is involved in an accident. Self driving cars are much safer than us fallible humans. Google cars have already driven over 800,000 miles without incident. The issue is who legislates – is it at the federal, state or local level. She answered the question saying the answer is clearly federal.
Why Fixate on Rail When Cars Solve the Issue?
This brings up the issue – so why do we need to spend billions on fixed guide rail projects like VTA’s light rail and SMART in the north bay. These projects are sold to us based on claims of reducing congestion, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing mobility. They require investment of billions (in SMART’s case Marin and Sonoma taxpayers are paying a combined $1.2 billion including bond interest for the train). They have no flexibility like a bus, once installed they’re prohibitively expensive to re-route, and if the forecast passengers don’t materialize taxpayers are left holding the bill on a money pit.
Just today I was reading an article about emissions which said that that US politicians underestimated how much car fuel efficiency has increased over the past decade. Emissions are directly linked to fuel efficiency.
Luxury Car Makers Join The Electric Club
Now we have the launch of the BMW i3 – a fully electric vehicle that uses carbon fiber and not metal for its chassis to reduce weight. It accelerates 0-60 in about 7 seconds, far superior to the Nissan Leaf.
What’s significant about this is a luxury car maker is making significant bets on zero emissions cars. Mercedes is said to be holding out for fuel cell vehicles which should be with us in about 2017.
Today we have the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf, cars embraced by many Marinites almost as a statement of their environmental awareness. Tomorrow we will have cars from the top marques that create a ‘halo’ effect.
I am convinced that these “carrot” approaches to fighting climate change, combined with legislation such as emissions based vehicle taxes, are the way to cost effectively address climate change. They use private, not public money, and they’re truly sustainable – few cars are made at a loss over the long run.
Mobility for Those Who Need it
So here’s my vision for the year 2020:
- cars will have overtaken transit in terms of low emissions
- the private sector will help us overcome the major issues of congestion, mobility and climate change; we won’t need to waste taxes fighting the issues
- self driving cars that chain will start to be sold in increasing numbers
- chained cars will be allowed in HOV lanes; these lanes will over time increase to triple their current capacity
- highways will automatically “load balance” so cars will seek out faster routes when congestion strikes
- more people will telecommute using technology to do so
- subsidized self driving cars, vans and buses will help those with low incomes or less able to drive get directly from point A to point
- self driving vehicles will car pool on demand; we won’t be tied to a fixed set of carpool buddies; if we have to work late the moment we want to leave “big data” will identify other travelers going along a similar route, we’ll go to the office lobby and be picked up within minutes
What About People Who Can’t Afford Advanced Cars?
One person after reading this article asked me:
“While these ideas are interesting, the ability of the majority of people to purchase new advanced cars in a declining economy with so many families barely surviving on food stamps is very unrealistic”.
In the early years self driving cars with chaining, load-balanced navigation will be expensive and rare; but over time just like electric windows and cruise controls have become the norm – so will these newer features. Just as today the government is proposing legislating that all new cars have rear view cameras.
We must not overlook the other market-driven revolution going on around us – ZipCars and City Car Share. No longer do you need to have a downpayment of thousands to purchase a car. You can pay to access a car that’s under 2 years old - the size you need and pay just when you need it.
For those with lower incomes consider self-driven shuttles which can be summoned via a phone call (or an app). Instead of being beholden to a bus route the door to door shuttle will pick you up from your doorstep, it will be automatically routed to people going along the same route and it will work on demand.
The costs of subsidizing such transportation for those on lower incomes, or who cannot physically drive a car, is far less than building a train system.
Consider the cost of SMART – $1.2bn. I believe the actual cost before bond interest to be around $600m. Imagine if this money had instead been invested in door to door shuttles that operated on demand. How many fully operational shuttles could that money have purchased and operated for 30 years? Especially if the vehicles are driverless.
More Benefits for the Rest of Us
Even if you’re not one of the first to get a self-driving car that does chaining – you have an older car, or take the bus – there are benefits to chained cars being present on the roads. Self driving cars can compensate “traffic waves” caused by braking traffic. Traffic waves are well explained buy this KQED article.
Studies from the University of Minnesota have found that if as few as 20 percent of cars on the road have adaptive cruise control, these traffic waves will go away and about half of all congestion will be eliminated.
This smooths out the traffic flow and helps eliminate those heart-jarring moments when you’re driving at 55mph and suddenly your lane comes to a complete standstill.
Planning for the Market Driven, Not Centrally Planned Future
This is the world transportation planners need to be planning for – instead of diverting billions away from maintaining our roads and obsessing over fixed guide rail projects.
Finally an apology to developers. Developers really like fixed guide rail projects as they open up building opportunities. Developers want big concentrated, high density development projects and rail, which can’t be easily re-routed like buses, is the perfect complement to their vision.
But developers’ vision isn’t the future. The future is going to be intelligent self-driving cars and dynamic car pooling. This is a vision that instead of requiring billions to impose and force people to adopt transit and move to high density apartments ”goes with the flow”. It avoids us having to waste billions of taxpayer dollars persuading everyone to abandon their cars.
This future allows those of us who want to to continue to live in single family homes; it doesn’t force people to have to live in unattractive , tiny apartments right next to polluted freeways (those that do surely can, there are many cities providing just such accommodation). This isn’t Amsterdam or Berne. It’s the next evolution of Marin – and an example that Europe will want to follow.
Marin can afford to think big. It’s right next to Silicon Valley, it’s still not over built, and it’s at a tipping point. With this vision Marin’s low density suburban and rural beauty can be preserved, and we can address the major issues we face around mobility, fighting climate change and congestion.