January 22, 2018

Don't Give Up on Mass Transit~Driverless Cars Equal Driverless Traffic Jams

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The Economist offers an interesting look at traffic congestion and solutions in the North American context. While on this continent traffic congestion brings hundreds of billions of dollars of economic losses, there are challenges getting that money to fix things like existing transit systems. Somehow the driverless “deus ex machina”, letting the shiny new autonomous vehicle concept take up the commuting conversation puts  governmental decisions about finding money to fix transit in temporary abeyance.
Even The Economist cites the fact that you just can’t build more highways to get out of traffic congestion, and cite the paper by Duranton and Turner (2011). Building more roads “attracts more residents, leads to more driving by existing residents and boosts transport-intensive economic activity, until roads are once again crammed.”
So why do we think autonomous vehicles are so great? Driverless technology will mean fewer crashes and can drive closer together, temporarily boosting road capacity.  “But reductions in traffic will make living in currently congested areas more attractive and hence more populous. Miles travelled per person might also rise, since self-driving technology frees passengers to use travel time for work or sleep. And just as new highways prompt a rise in transport-intensive business, driverless vehicles could generate lots of new road-using activity. Where now a worker might pop into the coffee shop before going to work, for example, a latte might soon be delivered in a driverless vehicle. The technology of driverless cars may make us safer and more productive, but not necessarily less traffic-bound.”
And this is where road pricing comes in. If  “jams occur because a scarce resource, the road, is underpriced, so more people drive than it can accommodate. But tolls could favour use of the roadway by those who value it most. Some places already use such charges—London and Singapore are examples—but they are rarely popular. Some drivers balk at paying for what they once got for nothing, and others are uneasy about the tracking of private vehicles that efficient pricing requires. People seem not to object to paying by the mile when they are being driven—by taxis and services like Uber and Lyft—and the driverless programmes now being tested by Waymo and GM follow this model. If a driverless world is one in which people generally buy rides rather than cars, then not only might fewer unnecessary journeys be made, but also political resistance to road-pricing could ease, and congestion with it.
While this future would mean that fast transportation access is available to user payers, mass-transit and ride-hailing may be just as efficient and cheaper. And the expected congestion in the autonomous vehicle world will mean that underground transit~and faster ways to move a mass of people quickly and efficiently~will still be in fashion. As the Economist surmises ” should congestion prove ineradicable in a driverless world, people will continue to hope for technological solutions, like the long-promised flying cars. While we wait for that—and the clotted skyways that would soon follow—governments would be wise to keep their underground systems in good working order.”
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  1. Plenty of legal, societal & detailed implementation obstacles to overcome. Plenty.
    We don;t even have priority signalling for buses on Broadway today for the 99 bus and we think we can implement this in a few decades ?
    Look where Uber is today. Not allowed at all in Germany, for example, and not yet in BC. The main reason is to protect the establishment (mainly insurance firms, cab drivers, city civil servants to feat off taxi licensing fees,..) . As such, such a complex system where AVs and cars with drivers and cars in a mixed mode travel is way way off. 2100+
    Good for a few PhD thesis topics.

  2. Having every trip be done by motor vehicle just won’t work. We’ve known that for decades. They try to keep blaming congestion on Chinese drivers or bike lanes or lack of autonomous electronics in them but it really comes down to a system that just cannot be scaled up. It works great in the country and low density areas but that’s about it.
    Now they’re trying to claim that by squeezing a bit more efficiency that the problems will be solved. It’s not going to work but they’ll sell a bunch more cars and that’s really all that matters.

    1. Why not ? The motor can be a very small electric motor and the vehicle could be an e-bike, an e-trike like http://www.velometro.com, a golf cart like 4 wheeler driven by a person or a machine, or an autonomous 28 seater mini-e-bus.
      Think multi-passenger option, from 1 to 401, and think size from tiny to very large, and think motor choice from electric to fuel cell to hybrid to diesel engine.
      Cities have to accomodate ALL of that, forever, in parallel even if we outlaw diesel trucks or buses eventually. it might be an AV-truck schlepping container from one port to another in the same lane as an e-bus for 12 people and a 2 seater e-scooter and a luxury Mercedes AV with 5 people in it.
      E-Scooter reps have to make money too, as does the e-bus mechanic.

      1. True, they can be any shape. What seems to be marketed to us so far though are big four seater vehicles. We’ll see what happens. Nobody expected thirty years ago the things we now take for granted.

        1. Dealerships or car manufacturers market what sells profitably. Plenty of two seaters or seven seaters for sale, too but a limited market segment. Plenty of tiny cars available too, like Smart Car or Toyota’s equivalent of it. Again, a niche product.
          The reason EVs won’t catch on fast is not only price, but lack of dealer profitability and inconvenience on longer trips that people do occasionally. That is why most people buy a four seater although 90%+ of the time it is only 1 or 2 people riding it. Why don’t most folks that own a house buy a small very efficient EV ? Because 10% of the time, or even only 3% they drive to Kelowna from Vancouver, or Kamloops, or Williams Lake, or Prince George or even to Alberta.
          Here’s the newest BMW aka Tesla competitor with massive AV functionality https://carbuzz.com/news/bmw-inext-ev-will-absolutely-crush-any-tesla-s-driving-range .. all high end very expensive cars.

        2. I wonder if things like those little Meccanica three wheeled cars will be allowed to drive two-abreast if they’re automated. It would make sense for saving space.

  3. So many breezy assumptions in these Economist articles. As any one of their nameless contributors would put it, their supposition of the benefits and drawbacks of autonomous vehicles ‘contains both a grain of truth and a confident dose of baseless speculation’.
    Assume for the sake of argument that driverless cars are on the road in 10 or 20 years. If coordinated, it’s true they can make traffic run more smoothly and efficiently than thousands of independently-operated vehicles currently do. Think of a flock of birds instead of a flock of locusts. But even those efficiencies are not limitless. Keep piling cars onto the road and at some point you will again run into the simple problem of too much stuff in too little space. There’s a weird and ever-shifting economic sweet space between making something too available and too desirable.

    1. Humans move about. Always have, always will be.
      If you have more of them in a city, by definition it gets more crowded as they all move about, underground, on ground or above ground, even if all electric or in an AV mode.
      The SkyTrain is an AV and has been for 30+ years. That system makes sense for its track, but on a multi-mode track/road all types of vehicles will move about: trucks, buses, min-buses, scooters, e-bikes, small cars, big 8 person limousines etc .. even if they all talk to each other. One seaters, or shall I say one person vehicles i.e. e-skateboards, bikes, e-bikes or electric motorcycles will likely never be autonomous and as such we need to always assume a multi-mode operation of human controlled and machine controlled vehicles in parallel on most roads except perhaps a few “AV only” streets.

  4. Let’s define the ‘road’ as a linear space where multiple activities occur, many of which have nothing at all to do with driving a car but never-the less effect travel plans. These activities and events include things like road maintenance, sewer upgrades and new connections, signal light malfunctions, inadequate signage, poor visibility, poor driving conditions, stalled vehicles, parked vehicles, delivery vehicles, construction vehicles, emergency vehicles, police incidents, accidents, riots, demonstrations, parades, boxing day sales, texting pedestrians, stray dogs, well just name it because it has probably caused a ‘jam’.
    To define ‘road’ (I assume space) as a scarce resource is a false statement. A road is a road is a road where multiple activities occur, some times there are too many activities as in the daily rush hours and this slows things down. So, what? This is exactly what happens when people from many places all have to go to the same place at the same time with a car. This is a reflection of our zoning choices not our road choices. It means that our zoning choices are not supported by mass transportation alternatives.
    Commuters still need to commute by whatever means available and for many this is the car. Very few people can afford to commute by metered kilometer. This is not a realistic option. Remember, people who commute by car from those scattered far off places still need a travel option when they get home after the rush hour for all sorts of domestic and recreational reasons.

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    1. No more cars? What does the ideal city for you look like ? Bikes everywhere? Even for old folks p, in the rain or in hilly terrain? Or only publicly owned transit vehicles ? Car sharing ok, or disallowed too? Cabs? Trucks or food delivery vehicles allowed? How does one get to further out places like Gibsons, Tofino, Chilliwack or rural Langley?

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