By John Niles, finishing book in January 2018
ONE. Humans continue to demand motorized mobility
There is much to laud about efforts to promote walkable and bikeable communities. Efforts to construct complete streets are to be commended. But the consumption of motorized automobility is a force that cannot be turned back. It has its own engine of growth and its own logic of consumption based on clear benefits that are unmatched by non-motorized modes, nor in most environments with fixed guide way systems such as trains, streetcars, gondolas, and moving sidewalks. Worldwide, growth in demand for motorized vehicle mobility will continue until natural saturation.
Figure 1: In the midst of many reports of a US decline in VMT and vehicle ownership since 2004, the US Department of Transportation published this table in its 2015 Draft Beyond Traffic: Trends and Choices 2045. This points more to an increase in the revealed preference for private vehicle ownership than to peak car. Most other countries with ownership levels far below US levels would be even less likely to be drawing down its revealed preference for private automobile use.
- Automobility. Powered automobility has a 7000-year history with a now wired-in socio-biology that cannot be extinguished. Powered automobility is preferred by most humans and in most travel circumstances. Current automobility is provided principally by oversized and dangerous vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines. The overuse and abuse of these vehicles has proven difficult to manage; and the problem has largely resisted all proposed remedies to date at a scale that is meaningful to the future of nations and the planet.
- Saturation. Vehicle ownership and use tend toward a level of saturation that is calibrated to wealth. As human population settles at 11 billion over the next century, the vehicle population, given by gradual increase in human wealth that correlates with smaller family sizes will continue to approach eight billion [Darg-07], where it should finally plateau.
- America is not unique. All human populations tend toward the level of automobility achieved in the developed world. The USA may be among a handful of countries leading the trend to maturation (ownership saturation), but at base the current American level of consumption of vehicle miles traveled is indicative of a human tendency—a saturation level which all countries move toward—rather than a uniquely American attribute.
Because our home base is North America, many of our reference points are American and Canadian. While we strive to maintain an international outlook, we will certainly have made errors at least in the details. Bear with us as we seek ways to use new innovations to satisfy inevitable demand for mobility while reducing costs to livability and the environment.
TWO. Governments’ burden grows heavier
Governments, when they find ways to afford it, build huge infrastructure justified by projections of surging demand. When highways are built more travelers and greater distances are encouraged. More infrastructure means more maintenance, more costs. More travelers mean more demand, more wear. In many ways, America’s crumbling bridges and highway funding shortfall—regardless of all the argued specifics—are indicative of what would happen to any government that misbalances its build-fund-maintain ecosystem. As we look at roads and highways in other countries, we see minor variations of the same theme: Governments build what they can, and then find themselves overwhelmed by demand, struggling to maintain what they have built, and spending more to build out of their dilemma.
- Infrastructure. Effective transportation systems require a staggering investment in physical infrastructure: design, build, operate, and maintain. For the roads you use daily, infrastructure runs far deeper than merely what your tires may roll over. The roadways alone are complex enough, but transit, rail, air and ship need to interface. Funding needs to be raised. Alternate modes need to be encouraged or at least permitted. And the men and women doing this work are humans trying to stay employed or stay in office. Hence not all decisions will appear to be best or even acceptable from every perspective. Some decisions may appear counter-productive from many perspectives—especially in hindsight.
- Long planning. Transportation infrastructure and planning cycles range from 10 to 50 years. If plans made this year will appear inadequate in 5 years, imagine how will they appear in 25 years? Some pundits are encouraged by the apparent potential of autonomous vehicles in contrast to the slowness of most transportation departments to engage in a large-scale planning re-write for robotic take over at the wheel. But one can also see that the mounting inertia of our existing systems and plans and the gradual collapse of our funding programs set against the rapid-fire news of promised innovation must intimidate planners trying to react to such a remarkable array of technical promises.
- Status quo. As transportation systems age—and many countries and regions have aging transportation systems—a form of inertia-filled decision process sets in to keep the status quo as the default step forward. The US and EU countries inability to address either sustainable funding or demand management through road use charging is a prime example. In theory, putting a user charge on road travel is the only reliable way to manage congestion permanently. But after a couple of decades and many millions of hours of study and debate, virtually nothing practical has come of road use charging campaigns and trials, except for the special case of Singapore. Closer to home for each of us, we can easily glean from local news the decades-long, Sisyphean debates about transportation funding for Greater Toronto (Metrolinx), the Vancouver Lower Mainland (TransLink), and the Seattle-Tacoma central Puget Sound region (multiple transit agencies) that are at best intermittently successful at persuading citizens to pay more for an ostensibly multi-modal status quo that provides useable non-driving choices for relatively few tax-paying daily travelers.
- Inflexibility. Another way to think about what happens to any system as it grows and ages is that change becomes harder. Incremental change such as adding a road lane or a new bus route is fairly easy. Extending a subway is tougher, and planning—or even deciding—high-speed rail or adjusting a fuel tax even more so. In North America, this latter level of forward planning is almost completely stalled. But at a much deeper level of concern is the nature of the high-level view that governments hold about the transportation policies in their purview. The US Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, illustrates this resoundingly in the opening Letter to the Reader, for the Department’s Draft Beyond Traffic: Trends and Choices 2045: “The U.S. transportation system is still proceeding under a 20th century model in which our policies, practices, and programs are presumed to be sufficient, as are the resources devoted to them.” [Our emphasis.]
- Saturation. As populations urbanize, automobility demands change. Yet humans still prefer to own cars. Average trip length may shorten, but then are slowed by growing congestion. Alternatives might be used a bit more, especially where parking is costly. But the private automobile is still the default choice. Minor shifts away from automobility are far less than what is required to ensure adequacy of the current urban and interurban roadway capacity in healthy urban regions. Every city of significant size struggles with saturated roadways in the corridors leading to employment and commercial centers. Whether one attributes this to the fact that building roadway capacity invites more traffic, or to the fact that no government can afford to build capacity beyond current or near-term demand, it is easy to see that any region with growing population will always have saturated infrastructure. There is a lot of hand wringing over congestion, but we have so far found no practical remedy that finds a path to implementation, except for the case of Singapore.
- Environment. Governments come under pressure from many quarters to “do something” about the environment and the automobile is often singled out as a culprit. How is a government to behave? It may find itself bailing out car manufacturers while funding bicycle paths, or building roads “to provide jobs” while funding walkable downtowns. Of course all of this is needed to maintain various domestic industries and political office holders. And, unfairly, these contrasting examples come from different levels of government in the US. But the point stands that governments at one level or another are pulled by contrasting constraints in multiple directions so that the view of what governments can do or should do cannot be easily agreed or even understood.
- Equity. To a degree, unlike any other stakeholder, governments are accountable for user equity, meaning fairness to all classes of citizens in access to mobility. Equity must be weighed and protected. It guides transit subsidies, informs design for access, demands pedestrian safety and cycling access. Various aspects of user equity can add considerable weight and expense to a project.
The result of all this can be an outsider’s view of government transportation policy as slow or wrong-headed. It is difficult to see how any government that inherits billions or trillions of dollars of infrastructure designed and scaled to a prior demand environment can change its path quickly. Many governments are now faced with growing pressures to adjust policies and decisions to a new understanding of environmental dangers, urban growth, and changes in travel preferences. We are observing that government agencies are not reacting decisively, or even reacting at all, to the news that within their planning horizon vehicles will not need a driver.
THREE. Industry and innovation are at new inflection point
While governments are increasingly constrained by burdens of infrastructure, no longer able to meet high and growing demand, while dealing with conflicting requirements, the private sector enjoys new capabilities, new intelligence and new opportunities. Governments are increasingly less nimble while private industry innovates in reaction to growing technology and competition to use it. This implies a crossover—government capability is effectively winding down as industry capabilities increase. We are reaching such a crossover now.
- Innovation. Over the past 15 to 20 years several technologies have made direct inroads into the sphere of automotive transportation in way that can reduce congestion or make it more tolerable. The Internet enables telework so that a portion of employees now work from home thereby removing a small percentage of trips (about 2%) from the commuter burden. Online shopping replaces some car trips with an efficient package delivery system. Smartphones help trim minutes from trips with pervasive GPS navigation and parking finders. Market-based parking pricing with location apps reduces congestion from spot-hunting cars. Level 2 automation that integrates lane keeping with variable cruise control and self-braking can make long drives in bumper-to-bumper traffic more tolerable. Further automation will continue to reduce the negative perception of congestion if not its actual burden. Industry operated carsharing systems, including one-way rental systems such as Car2Go and DriveNow as well as Network Transportation Companies (NTCs) such as Uber and Lyft make a reduction in car ownership possible.
- Opportunity. Government’s inability to act creates opportunity. Municipalities that will not deploy market pricing provide revenue to private parking operators by creating market distortions for a scarce commodity, as well as to smaller firms providing finder services. Government’s long-standing inability or unwillingness to solve the taxi medallion problem opened door for the NTCs. Soon, innovation in the area of autonomous vehicles will permit private companies to take over some transit routes in specific constrained ways: short fixed routes in controlled urban environments. This will grow rapidly from there. Already Mayor Larry Morrissey of Rockford Illinois sees Uber as a way to fill gaps in the city’s public transportation network and help residents get to jobs in places not served by buses. In November 2014, he commented to the State Journal-Register that some federal transportation grant money could be directed to subsidize “a rider’s first six months of transportation using Uber and limit it to work trips.” It is easy to see that as autonomous fleets became available it would make sense for municipalities to lower costs and increase user equity this way.
- Cherry-picking. Industry likes opportunities that are easier to exploit and provide surer profits. Cherry-picking low-hanging fruit has huge advantages for the private sector and major downsides for those with needs not picked to be serviced—often economically disadvantaged populations. The provision of electric Wi-Fi-equipped buses for tech employees in San Francisco has led to protests by those claiming that the shuttles were raising rents in the vicinity of the designated passenger pick up points. UberX is another example to the degree that it cherry-picks young digerati in the center of cities and employs drivers who can afford to own and maintain a relatively clean car. If fleets of privately operated autonomous vehicles can completely replace transit and taxis, as we believe public policy can motivate and private entrepreneurs execute, how will user equity be protected?
FOUR. An intentional future
- Business as usual. Autonomous passenger fleets will most likely be regional entities even if operated by behemoths such as Daimler, Google, and Uber of the near future. A business-as-usual scenario says they will get municipal operating licenses and permissions, set up shop and compete just as Car2Go and Uber do now. Cities would encourage them or not as they currently encourage or block Uber or Car2Go. They will vie for the same business as Car2Go and Uber do now, except being cheaper and faster services than either, they would expect to sell a lot more trips. This would mean perhaps ten to 15 percent of trips within a fleet’s operating region instead of the 1 percent experienced now. Such a business-as-usual outcome would result from automated vehicles acting like taxi or carshare vehicles and simply being another travel mode with companies designing their rates and services to maximize profits rather than maximize PMT per fleet vehicle. If municipal transit authorities apply business-as-usual thinking, they will, with considerable latency, begin to slowly convert their fleets to newer autonomous vehicles of similar sizes and routes—an outcome we hope can be avoided.
- An intentional future. By contrast, it is possible to configure the future of automobility such that a large majority of trips would be in shared, non personally-owned vehicles. This could be accomplished by fleets of vehicles configured to manage a range of concurrent demands and travel needs and using variable routing algorithms suited to both demand management and user affordability. An easily accessible fleet that would be able to address the entire range of needs of travelers that is now satisfied by car, taxi, bus, shuttle, jitney, and car-share.
This book is written to explore what would it take to do that.