Transit trends to watch + reducing need for roads

By Paul Supawanich on Remix Blog 31 Dec 2016

1) Managing first-mile/last mile gap solutions

The first and last mile of the transit trip has been a challenge for decades. The culprit? A lack of pedestrian infrastructure and street connectivity, a challenging mix of land uses, or all of the above. Traditionally, a transit agency’s role in delivering passengers to their final destination ended at the bus stop. However, transit agencies are now exploring means of moving people beyond the stop.

Agencies in Florida, California, Colorado, and others have taken the lead in partnering with ride-hailing services such a Uber and Lyft to help serve their customers in areas that are challenging to serve with traditional fixed-route transit. What makes these partnerships different is a rider discount/subsidy when using one of these services paired with transit. In the select areas where these services have been piloted, riders benefit with more responsive service and transit agencies benefit by being able to reallocate their limited transit resources to areas with higher rider potential. Many of these early partnerships are still in a pilot phase and the long-term benefits and consequences remain to be seen. However, these partnerships have provided an additional tool in the toolkit for providing transit access in difficult to serve areas.

Some agencies have gone completely multimodal to leverage the boom in bikesharing. Bikeshare is a natural extension of the transit network and has already demonstrated its reliability as an urban commute option. Today, over 80 cities in the United States have some form of bikesharing and many of them have been designed to extend the reach of existing bus and rail lines. Chattanooga’s bikeshare system is even called Bicycle Transit System, reflecting its true nature of getting people from point A to B. Los Angeles’s recently launched bike share network is branded as Metro Bike Share(consistent with the transit agency) and will accept the agency’s TAP smartcard for transfers. 

Los Angeles launched its bikeshare program in 2016 under the Metro brand. source: LA Metro

2) Tactical transit

Why do things take so long to change? This is a common question in our industry with a long set of answers, depending on who you ask. Some of you have heard of the concept of Tactical Urbanism, largely popularized by the work of Mike Lydon. Our friends at Transit Center took this concept one step further and outlined how it could apply to transit. Briefly, Tactical Transit (sometimes called Lean Transportation) has the underlying principles of trying new concepts quickly in small projects. From those pilots, learn and demonstrate. Then improve and expand on those ideas at scale.

This article from Transit Center outlines how AC Transit in the Bay Area and TARC in Louisville, KY have applied some of these concepts to improve bus stops for passengers without a multiple-year capital improvement program. Another great example comes from Vancouver, BC where TransLink and a consultant team tested various queuing methods at a busy bus-rail interchange station. Rather than spending weeks on costly and complicated modeling, planners used the principles of tactical transit to determine the best methods of queue management at the station in three days. You can even watch time-lapse video of the experiments in action.

Need help with strategies for applying Tactical Transit at your agency? Find a problem that needs to be solved. Build a minimum viable solution that both solves that problem in a measurable way and serves as a demonstration on how it could be scaled in the future. Try it out and see what happens.

3) Leveraging Mobile

Smartphone adoption across transit riders continues to rise; how should transit agencies leverage this trend? In a way that benefits riders and reduces the barrier to riding the system. There are two clear cases where smartphone technology can accomplish these goals: mobile ticketing and real-time rider information.

To some, mobile ticketing may sound like a “nice to have” but not a critical component to a traditionally “cash-centric” transit industry. However, many transit agencies have few fare vending locations where customers have access to multiple-use transit passes or the ability to use credit cards. As a result, customers who cannot access those locations are stuck paying with exact change on the bus. In addition, agencies have an incentive to reduce the amount of cash in the system: reducing dwell times, farebox maintenance needs, and the cost of the audit trail for cash handling. Mobile ticketing options give customers access the entire gamut of fare products. Those same passengers may be more likely to purchase passes (vs single ride fares) and will no longer be fumbling with change at the farebox.

Real-time rider information has done more than any other strategy for reducing rider anxiety when waiting for the bus. Yet, many agencies only provide wait times, missing a larger opportunity to help passengers with their ultimate goal: arriving at their desired destination. We’ve seen a variety of great transit applications at agencies around the country. We’ve also seen plenty of attempts that don’t quite hit the mark. A great transit app should provide information about real-time rider information, where the bus goes, and any transfers needed to complete that journey. All of this, plus an interface and design that have been proven to actually work for riders. As transit agencies’ mobile presence continues to evolve, we hope to see real-time rider information improve in 2017.

4) Vehicle Technology

At the California Transit Association conference this fall in Oakland, CA, the big shiny new buses on display were slightly different from years past. Nearly all of the manufactures offered an electric vehicle. In addition, in a corner of the expo hall, a small version of the driverless vehicles already in service in the Bishop Ranch office park in San Ramon, CA was on display. In the scheme of transit vehicles, these are both unprecedented as compared to five years ago.

In the past, use of electric buses was limited to a few small agencies’ downtown circulators. In 2016, there were agencies operating electric 40’ vehicles as part of their standard fixed route service. Foothill Transit and the Antelope Valley Transit Authority (both in California) are examples where electric buses are planned or in service on regular fixed route service. With battery technology exponentially improving, it’s only a matter of time until the operating costs of electric vehicles fall below those of diesel, hybrid-electric, or CNG vehicles.

There’s no lack of articles and news talking about what autonomous vehicles will do for mobility in America. But you don’t hear too much about autonomous transit. The best examples across North America are in the form of airport people movers, the existing Vancouver Skytrain system or the forthcoming Honolulu rail project. Yet we saw autonomous buses on the street operating in mixed traffic in 2016 for the first time. The Bishop Ranch shuttle operates 12-passenger autonomous vehicles around the suburban office park. In addition, driverless shuttles began operating in Lyon, France in September. In late 2017, HART in Tampa, FL is slated to begin testing an autonomous shuttle on the Marion Street corridor.  

Electric autonomous vehicles on display at the California Transit Conference this fall in Oakland. source: Paul Supawanich

2017 is certain to showcase more examples of these advances in vehicle technology.

5) Transit Agencies Advocating for Better Streets

We know that small improvements in the street can have monumental benefits to transit riders. For example, transit priority lanes on San Francisco’s Church Street helped improve travel time reliability by 20%. Other improvements such as queue jump lanes, transit signal priority, and bus bulbs can also ensure schedule reliability and improve the competitiveness of transit versus driving alone. Unfortunately, only a few agencies across the United States both operate transit and have control of the streets under their vehicles.

In the past year, the NACTO Transit Street Design Guide was released, providing a compilation of best practices for designing streets with riders and transit operations in mind. As a result, transit agencies such as Tri-Met, King County Metro, Miami-Dade Transit, and the SFMTA in San Francisco have joined as NACTO members, which has otherwise traditionally been seen as member organization for city Departments of Transportation. This trend of working more closely with City DOTs will hopefully continue into 2017 to improve the experience for transit riders and improve operations at the same time.

We’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions for topics you’d like to learn about. Please email us at team@remix.com

Excerpt from Our Self-Flying Car Future, on Medium, by Tony Aube.
The Ehang 184, unveiled at CES2016, is among the most exciting prototypes.

If driverless tech was the key to making flying cars safe, drone tech is the key to making them affordable and ready for mass-production.

Beyond looking silly, strapping plane wings to a car was a flawed idea in many ways. Wings mean the vehicle has to take off horizontally, which is dangerous, cumbersome and requires a lot of space. By switching to vertical thrusters, the vehicle can achieve a high altitude much faster, which saves a lot of energy. With such a design, you can strip the vehicle of it’s most dangerous, movables parts, such as the wings, the tail, and elevators. The resulting design is simpler, safer and easier to mass produce.

Another key part of the design is the electric motor. Beyond this being great for the environment, electricity is the most logical option for VTOLs. Because they don’t require as many moving parts, electric motors are much easier to produce than combustion engines. They are also way more energy efficient, easier to maintain, less likely to break down mid-flight and can’t explode in case of impact. Electric motors also facilitate having multiple asyncronised thrusters. If one thruster fail, the others can instantly adjust to compensate and land safely. Finally, electricity has the huge benefit of being silent. This is a big distinguishing factor between VTOLs and helicopters. In their paper, Uber estimates that, during take-off, the VTOL’s noise will be comparable to the city’s background noise. During flight, it will be barely audible.

…traffic wastes about $124 billion annually. One of the biggest causes of traffic is the lack of infrastructure. Our highways were never designed to sustain today’s amount of commuters. With VTOLs, that won’t be a problem anymore. Their mainstream adoption would massively reduce the need for roads, rails, bridges and tunnels. In addition to being great news for the environment, this would mean hundreds of billions of dollars in potential infrastructure savings.

Furthermore, not being bound to infrastructure also means saving a lot of time. Trains, buses, and cars can only go from A to B in limited and sometimes inefficient ways. Roads are constantly exposed to interruptions, such as car crashes or construction work. Flying, on the other hand, means being able to travel in a straight line, which is the shortest distance between you and your destination. In addition, being able to take off and land vertically is a huge advantage over current aircrafts because you aren’t dependent on airports and runways anymore. Just take off from home, and land straight at your destination. Again, less infrastructure required, more time saved.

Source: Uber Elevate

In their paper, Uber estimates long-distance commute as the best initial use-case for VTOLS. Ultimately, with mass production, they believe VTOLs could be cheaper than owning a car. For example, a 2h12 drive from San Francisco to San Jose could eventually be a 15-minutes, $20 ride in VTOL. Pretty good.

The Road Ahead

Flying cars still have a long way to go. In their white paper, Uber underlines the major challenges needed to make them a reality. For starters, even if they don’t require any pilots, new flying vehicles need to comply with FAA regulations, which will likely take a long time. Furthermore, there are still concerns about costs, safety, and the battery technology isn’t quite there yet. In their white paper, Uber present how they plan to address those concerns and achieve public adoption of VTOLs within 10 years.

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel present the controversial idea that we don’t live in an innovative world anymore. He argues that, while the industrial revolution saw massive innovations such as electricity, home appliances, skyscrapers, cars, airplanes, etc, today’s innovation is mostly confined to IT and communication. As Thiel puts it, our smartphones distract us from the fact that our lifestyle has remained strangely unchanged since the 1950s.

I would propose that it is not the case anymore. At least, not in transportations. Recent projects such as the self-driving car, the Hyperloop, and reusable rockets prove that innovation is alive and well. And now, on-demand shared flying cars promise to democratize air travel the same way the car once democratized ground transportation. Ultimately, this means better, faster, cheaper, safer and environmentally friendlier mobility for all.

Flying cars might still have a long road ahead of them, but it doesn’t matter. Because Marty, where we’re going, we don’t need roads.