Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Coming Up in 2017


I'm pleased to pass along another piece written by a friend and colleague. This one is by physicist and rail advocate Dr. Yuri Popov, in which he has collected information about rail projects scheduled to come into service in 2017. Here it is...

Dear urbanrailers,

Following the two major openings in the first days of 2017 - four new subway stations in New York City on January 1st and two new light rail stations in Houston today - more openings are coming this year. Below you can find a (possibly incomplete) list of urban and suburban rail projects opening for service this year in the U.S. and Canada. The list does NOT include reconstructions and rehabilitations of existing facilities; it includes new infrastructure only. If you have any additions or corrections, please voice them! If you could clarify the expected opening dates/months in the second part of the list, this would be greatly appreciated as well.

  • January - Arthur Kill SIR station (New York)
  • Winter - Warm Springs/South Fremont BART station (San Francisco)
  • Spring - streetcar Q line (Detroit)
  • May - Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (San Francisco)
  • May - Loop Trolley (St. Louis)
  • Summer - Brightline regional rail (Miami - West Palm Beach)
  • August - Northeast extension of the light rail Blue line (Charlotte)
  • Fall - Milpitas and Berryessa BART stations (San Francisco)
  • Late 2017 - 6-station TTC (subway) extension to Vaughan Centre (Toronto)
  • Late 2017 - Downsview Park transfer station between TTC and GO (Toronto)

Some time in 2017:

  • Line G (Denver) Line R (Denver)
  • Washington/Wabash CTA station (Chicago)
  • Bob Hope Airport/Hollywood Way Metrolink station (Los Angeles)
  • San Bernardino Transit Center Metrolink station (Los Angeles)
  • Potomac Shores VRE station (Washington [D.C.])

And while we are at it, there will be a number of Amtrak / intercity rail projects (mostly funded by Obama's 2010 stimulus package) coming to fruition this year:

  • Marks, MS, new station
  • Roanoke, VA, new station and service extension (Fall)
  • Lincoln corridor major upgrade
  • Piedmont corridor major upgrade (Fall)
  • Cascades corridor major upgrade (Fall)
  • Wolverine corridor major upgrade (November)

Please feel free to correct this list, add to it, or report delays.

Thanks, Yuri - helpful and encouraging!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Rx for the RTA - Part 1

The period of shock and disappointment many of us felt after November 8, 2016, should be behind us by now. Sure, many of us are still not happy, but it's time to look to the future.

Transit funding in Southeast Michigan failed that day, but only by less than 1% of the overall vote. What can we and the RTA do for the future? We - the transit advocacy community - have many and differing ideas, but we each need to throw our ideas into the pool and let the best ones float to the top.

I have lots of ideas, based on my interaction with the RTA over the last few years and my contacts with people in the Washtenaw County area. We'll see if any of them float. I'll give you the first few today, and put the rest up bit by bit.

Prescription 1: Do not take the "defeated" pill

Time is actually on the side of transit. First, because transit funding gurus have found that the best predictor of success on a transit ballot issue is failure on the previous attempt. And more fundamentally, people don't like to vote for an agency they have no acquaintance with. AAATA and SMART both won recent funding requests with over two-thirds majorities. People know them, see their buses on the street, and some even ride them. That can't be said for the RTA. But neither advocates nor RTA staff and board should let their heads hang down. Megan Owens struck exactly the right note Monday night (January 30) at the Transportation Riders United  (TRU) Annual Meeting, where she maintained that 2016 was an "excellent" year for transit in Southeast Michigan, and pointed to numerous advances.

So my first prescription for the RTA is to cheerfully do as much as possible, as openly and publicly as possible, and get back on the ballot as soon as possible - that's November, 2018.

Prescription 2: Swallow and digest the election results

Where did the vote go in favor of the RTA? Where did it go against? Talk with the anti-transit communities and find out what they want. Talk with the areas where the vote went in favor - find out what they liked, and what RTA could do better.

Don't allow past mistakes to be repeated. Specifically, don't air messages that could be interpreted as negative to SMART, DDOT, AAATA, or the People Mover. Don't allow a public relations firm to take charge if they have no experience with transit initiatives. Probably no single firm has the expertise needed: knowledge of Southeast Michigan, and a track record of success with transit proposals. Probably a team of two firms would be the best solution.
To be continued...

Monday, January 23, 2017

Commuting by Train - One Man's Story

As Washtenaw County and its neighbors  consider funding commuter rail service, I realized that most Michigan residents don't have a good idea of what it looks like to live with passenger trains as a commuting option. I prevailed on my friend Hugh Gurney of Howell to give us a picture of how commuter trains fit into his life in the Boston area. As you'll see if you read this, Hugh is an accomplished writer and has painted an interesting word-picture for us.
"I did commute by train for nine years, 1975-1984, when I was working for the National Park Service in Boston, Massachusetts.

"When I accepted the position in Boston, the office was located in a building adjacent to the North Station and many of the employees were commuting by train.
As my wife and I began thinking about where we would want to live, we began looking at communities which had commuter train service into Boston.  After looking at a number of communities, we purchased a house in Ipswich, a community on the North Shore about 30 miles from downtown Boston.  
MBTA commuter routes shown in purple; subways and light rail shown in other colors.
I've circled North Station and Ipswich in red. Note that service on the Ipswich line now extends to Newburyport - LK

"In part, our reason for selecting Ipswich was that it had frequent train service.  Inbound, there were trains at 6:20 a.m., 6:59 a.m., 7:20 a.m., then 9:20 a.m. and every two hours afterward throughout the day.  Outbound, there were trains at 4:20 p.m., 5:05 p.m., 5:35 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and then every two hours until 11:00 p.m.  About 15 miles south, from Beverly, there were additional trains, including an outbound at 11:59 p.m.  At that time, the last trains out of Boston on all lines were at 11:59 p.m. and all MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, locally referred to as "the T"] service shut down.

"As a general rule, I took the 6:59 a.m. train each morning.  Ipswich was at the end of the line at that time, so seating was no problem.  We lived about a mile from the train station, so I generally drove into the town center, parked in the free municipal parking lot, purchased a cup of coffee at a little restaurant across the street from the train stop, then boarded the train. If it was snowing or if snow was predicted, I would walk to the station because we lived near the top of a steep hill which was hard to get up in heavy snow.  

"The train always departed on time and always arrived in Boston at the scheduled time of 7:50 a.m.  After a year or so, the National Park Service purchased a ten story office building along the Freedom Trail in downtown Boston for both a Visitor Center and headquarters for the North Atlantic Region.   It was probably about a mile from the North Station, but I was young and healthy and could easily get to the office by 8:00 a.m., even with a stop at a little hole in the wall coffee shop across the street from my office.  Even though most regular train riders bought a monthly pass that permitted them to ride on all the Boston subways and buses, and there were two subway stations adjacent to the train station, most train riders walked the mile or so into downtown Boston except if it were pouring rain, snowing or bitter cold.

"On the inbound trip, I generally reviewed material that had been accumulating in my inbox throughout the previous day, signed off on reports, etc.  When really under the gun, I could write a full report longhand (no laptops in those days) and hand it to my secretary to type as soon as I got to the office.  For the most part, this was an hour with no interruptions, phone calls, etc.  This was the major reason I took the train in lieu of a harrowing ride down U.S. 1 and across the Tobin Bridge,  even though I could have parked for free at the Navy Yard and taken the Park Service van to the downtown office.  I would have missed a very useful hour of work on the train.

"Of course, there were other people riding the train including some from my church who might want to discuss church business, other Park Service people who might have something they wanted to discuss with me and colleagues from related agencies such as the Boston Redevelopment Authority (we shared responsibility for the Navy Yard) who had something to bounce off me.   Some people became friends.  So the hour on the train in the morning was very well used. 

"Occasionally, I would schedule an early dental appointment, then take the 9:20 a.m. train to Boston and be able to work the better part of a full day.

"I generally took the 5:35 p.m. train home, arriving back in Ipswich around 6:30 p.m.  Unless there was pressing work to be done, I would read the newspaper.  Occasionally, I fell asleep.  Since Ipswich was the last stop, I had no fear of sleeping through my stop, though the train staff knew just about everyone on the train and would wake them up if need be.

"The Boards of Trustees at the various historic sites along the Freedom Trail often had their monthly board meetings in the late afternoon.  If I were attending one of these, I usually could catch the 6:30 p.m. train home, arriving around 7:30 p.m.  If I missed the 6:30 p.m. train, I would usually call my wife to come to Beverly and pick me up there.  The Gloucester branch trains ran on the mid day hours and evening hours that the Ipswich train did not run.  The Gloucester branch followed the same route as the Ipswich (officially the Portland East Line) between Boston and Beverly, then branched off to Gloucester and Rockport.

"There were three options for paying one’s fare.  You could pay cash to the conductor, buy a twelve ride booklet at the North Station or buy a monthly pass at the North Station.  I almost always purchased the monthly pass, which cost around $48.00 at that time.  When the conductor came through the train, I simply showed mine] as he walked by.  The pass also was valid for all buses, streetcars and rapid transit trains in Boston and for all commuter trains within Zone 5, the zone Ipswich was in.  So in the course of the day, if I needed to go anywhere in the Boston area, I simply either showed or swiped my pass.

"On weekends, my pass was good for two adults on the train (still just one for other MBTA transit) and my daughter rode for free because she was under six, so we sometimes took the train to events like the circus, baseball game, etc. in Boston.  The Boston Garden, somewhat the worst for wear, was directly [above] the North Station, so the circus was a natural.  Trains generally ran every two hours on the weekend, so we would have time for a bite before or after at the Iron Horse restaurant within the station or at fast food restaurants in the immediate vicinity.  The Boston Garden is gone now, but replaced by a new combination North Station and venue for hockey and basketball called the TD Center.

"If we were going to Fenway Park, we would take the Green Line from its North Station stop downtown, then transfer to a Green Line train going to within a block of so of the ball park.  Or we could take the Orange Line train that went downtown if that was our final destination. 

"When the commuter train schedule was inconvenient, we could drive closer into Boston, park at the Oak Grove station on the Orange Line and take the Orange Line into Boston Proper.  At different stations, the Orange Line connected with the Green Line, the Blue Line and the Red Line, the other rapid transit lines in the city.  This worked well if we were going to a play or other evening event.  Again, I just swiped my pass, though my wife would have to pay the required fare.
Boston & Maine rail diesel cars, designed and manufactured by the Budd corporation of Philadelphia.
Photo from the unofficial Boston & Maine Historical Society. - LK
 "Several years prior to my arrival in Boston, the MBTA had purchased the tracks and passenger equipment from the Boston & Maine Railroad, but the Boston & Maine continued to operate the trains and though it was a MBTA pass, we made out our check each month to the Boston & Maine Corporation.  The train crews were all employed by the Boston & Maine.  The equipment was all self propelled rail diesel cars we referred to as Budd cars.  They were really on their last legs, and a blizzard in 1978 finished off any pretense of being self propelled.  The blizzard hit on a Monday and by order of the Governor, we were totally grounded for the remainder of the week.  One day during that week, we walked into the center of town and found National Guard troops at the railroad crossing turning anyone in a motor vehicle back.

Current MBTA commuter rail equipment
Photo by Tracy Levin - LK
"During that week, the Boston and Maine hauled out some of their faded blue freight locomotives out of mothballs and hooked them to a string of four or five Budd cars to make push-pull trains, which were in service for the remainder of my tenure in Boston.  The motors on the Budd cars remained in service for lights and heat.  Only rarely did one find a car where the air conditioning actually worked.  The cars were very heavy and the seats were cushioned, so the ride was quite comfortable.  But both summer and winter, the cars were hot and stuffy.  However, the trains ran on time and were always full.  At night, these trains were put on sidings about ½ mile south of Ipswich and left running, summer or winter.  I don’t recall them ever not running because of weather, except for the Blizzard of 1978.  

"Commuter rail worked for me during my time in Boston.  The fact that the MBTA was a totally integrated transit system where my commuter rail pass was good on all forms of public transportation was a plus."

-- Hugh
January 15, 2017

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Whither Michigan's Economy?

Today I ran across an article in Bridge Magazine that kicked me into getting back on the blog. It's a great, data-based article by Mike Wilkinson, titled "Michigan's Economic Axis Tilts Away from Detroit". (As before, all links are at the end of this blog entry.)To whet your appetite, here are some quotes that set the scene:
Plentiful jobs and rising wages have been the byproduct of a dynamic, growing economy in the Grand Rapids region, making it the strongest economy in Michigan and one of the faster growing metropolitan areas in the country...
Meanwhile, the hardest-hit and slowest to recover has been the tri-city bay area: Bay City, Midland, and Saginaw. Why? The economy depends heavily on chemical and automotive business, and though both have stabilized, they've stabilized at a much lower level of output that before the Great Recession.
The [Saginaw] region's leaders are hoping to lure more educated workers, more people with doctorates who might invent the next great thing that the region's workers could build.
A glance at education statistics show how important a college degree can be to the local economy: those counties with the highest percentage of workers with a bachelor's degree or better were in the regions doing the best.
In Washtenaw County, part of the Ann Arbor metropolitan area, 55 percent of adults have a college degree; In Oakland (part of the Detroit region), 44 percent have degrees; Kalamazoo County, 39 percent, and Kent County, 34 percent.
This business about the value of education is certainly not news! But with an incoming administration that has made far-reaching promises about restoring good working-class jobs, it bears a lot of repeating: good-paying, low-skill jobs will continue to get fewer and farther between.

How do we stack up against the rest of the country? the world?

Wilkinson did a great job comparing Michigan regions with each other. But what about the rest of the country and the world? Again, our incoming administration has promised prosperity by raising tariff walls and physical walls to cut us off from foreign competition.
This brings to mind the oft-repeated image of the ostrich hiding its head in the sand. It doesn't work for the ostrich, and it won't work for us.
Let's face facts and compare our Michigan economy with the rest of the country and the world. Let's learn what's going on, take the best of it, give it a Michigan twist, and soar with it.

To learn more:

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hey, Wake Up Washtenaw, have you been sleeping?

Has Wake Up Washtenaw has been dozing for the last couple of years? No updates to the main Web site? No updates to Facebook? No new materials?
True, the on-line presence has been neglected! Events of 2016 have made it clear that Wake Up Washtenaw needs to wake itself up online again. Share more. Talk more. Be more graphic.

What's been happening?

While things have been quiet online, a number of efforts have been going forward. They have involved working as a member of the Ann Arbor Transportation Area Board of Directors, the Ypsilanti Township Planning Commission, the Michigan Association of Railway Passengers Executive Committee, and the National Association of Railway Passengers Council. Several trips to Japan, learning about railway and transit operations there. Working behind the scenes and publicly to move the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan forward. Collaborating with Transport Action Canada to improve cross-boarder passenger rail connections. Listening to what people are saying about transportation, about our communities, about the past, and about the future.

But now...

Donald Trump will lead our nation in a very different direction - without winning the popular vote. The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan lost its bid for funding by less than 1%.
Our nation and our region are deeply divided. We need to listen to one another, respect one another's opinions, and try to understand one another. We need to work together to forge solutions for the very real problems our region and nation face.

But how?

Through this Web site (and perhaps others), through social media, and by listening and talking. By continuing to support private investment in sustainable transportation and land use.

And where?

Wake Up Washtenaw - myself and friends - will be working to improve transportation and land use in Washtenaw County, Southeast Michigan, throughout the Midwest, and North America.
Washtenaw County: improve service quality and routes of AAATA "TheRide"
Southeast Michigan: improve Washtenaw's transportation to Livingston, Wayne, and Oakland Counties - specifically with Wally (North-South commuter rail), A2D (commuter rail service Detroit to Ann Arbor and beyond), improved and innovative transportation service to peripheral areas of the RTA district, and improved public relations for the RTA.
Midwest: help promote Detroit-Holland rail service, Traverse City to Ann Arbor rail service, better bus connections to northern Michigan.
North America: seamless passenger rail service throughout the Milwaukee - Chicago - Detroit - Toronto - Ottawa - Montréal - Québec corridor, leading to true high speed rail service; learning and sharing about best practices in public transportation and passenger rail service around North America and the world.

Transportation Advances

Wake Up Washtenaw has been calling for better public transportation for nearly ten years now. During that time, some interesting new transportation modes have emerged: the rise of "ride-hailing" services (such as Uber and Lyft), bike-sharing, advances in autonomous vehicle technology. How will these change how people move around? Is the concept of public transportation in large vehicles becoming obsolete?
I believe we have a lot to learn about the "ecosystem" surrounding the new technologies: economic costs and impacts, traffic congestion effects, how land use would change under various scenarios. What attempts have been made to study and simulate changes to individual life-styles and communities? What software tools are available to simulate these changes? What are the possible utopian, dystopian, and realistic outcomes of the technological advances on the horizon?
All these questions must be explored in order for us to decide where to put our energy and our resources to bring about the best, realistic outcomes. That's what Wake Up Washtenaw will be working on for the foreseeable future.

Organizational Note

"Wake Up Washtenaw" is a registered trademark in Michigan. It is not incorporated. A few years ago, I weighed the options and decided that incorporating as a non-profit would be more of a burden than a help. The balance may change in the future, but for now, incorporation is not "on the table".
At he present time, I am the only person working "for" Wake Up Washtenaw, but I have been very fortunate to have employed some very talented people in the last few years. I'd like to thank these associates who have helped Wake Up Washtenaw in so many ways: Carolyn Lusch, Joel Batterman, Martha Váladez, Adriana Jordan, and Marina Takeuchi. All have moved on to other endeavors, but I believe we each remain committed to the practical implementation of sustainable communities, each in his or her own way.
I have been fortunate to be able to self-fund Wake Up Washtenaw. That has avoided having to solicit funds and account for them officially, which would also make it necessary to incorporate for tax purposes. I will continue to operate in that manner, as long as Wake Up Washtenaw remains primarily focused on education and exploration. In the future, other options may recommend themselves or become necessary. In the meantime, I am very thankful to be able to avoid those complications

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Paying Our "Fare Share"

One of the biggest obstacles to using public transportation is the need to figure out how to pay your fare. Each system has a different method. If it's cash, usually exact change is required, or your change is encoded on a card which can only be used on the transit system that issues it.

Lots of metro areas in the US have their own regional fare-card which can be used on multiple systems in the region, like Chicago's Ventra card. Some of these are good only on transit; others are also debit cards that can be used like other bank debit cards. Again, Chicago's Ventra is an example.

(BTW, Ventra has a very
poor reputation in Chicagoland, due to the way in which it was rolled out to replace the "Chicago Card". That may be due to the management company that handles system; I've heard that the San Francisco Bay Area's Clipper Card, managed by the same company, is not rated highly either. I'm not aware of similar cards in other areas having such a poor reputation.)

What's in it for me?

For the transit user, there are a number of advantages: the cards are quick and easy to use, often just requiring a quick touch on a reader at the station or as you board a bus; they can be used on many regional transit providers; and if you aren't eligible for credit (or choose not to "live on credit") you can add cash to your card at a station, convenience store or online. Some have a smartphone version that can be used instead of a card. Many Chambers of Commerce encourage conference hosts to provide their registered guests with a regional transit card, pre-loaded with a certain amount of cash to make it easy for visitors to hop on and off the bus, light rail, subway, or commuter train. A great way to welcome visitors to your city! I've received transit cards at conventions in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

Today in Japan

That's in the US. Right now, I'm in Japan. I received a Suica card when I registered for the Highspeed Rail conference in July 2015, issued by the major Tokyo rail transit provider East Japan Railway Company ("JR East"). The cards were specially printed with photos of JR East's newest high speed trains, but internally they're just like any other Suica card.

Suica is JR East subsidiary, and I understand this is a source of both savings and revenue for the company. Savings, because electronic transactions are far quicker and more cost-effective than cash. Both require "point of sale" (POS) devices, and recognizing a card electronically is much simpler than recognizing the wide variety of bills and coins people are likely to try to put into a farebox.

The system has great revenue advantages for the transit provider as well: each card, to be valid, must be pre-loaded with money - usually a certain minimum amount ($5-10 is common in the US). That money sits in the transit provider's bank account for an indefinite amount of time, depending on how often the individual rider actually uses the train or bus. Money in the bank earns interest and can be used for capital projects as well.

The Suica card is accepted on JR affiliates, of course; but also on all most transportation providers in the region. And not only in the region: Suica is interchangeable with any of a wide variety of other farecards throughout of Japan. As a transit card,there are limits, of course: they can't be used on high speed trains, and when crossing on a train from one region to another, you have to get off, go through the ticket gate and re-enter, possibly having to wait for the next train. And they're not valid for services that require a surcharge, like business class or express trains. They are basically intended as transit cards, not all-purpose tickets to get you everywhere in the country.

Still, they've almost reached the "holy grail" of fare payment systems: Any provider, any city, nationwide. Here's a map of the transit systems with which Suica is interchangeable:
Can we have one in the US too? Please??? I can't wait!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Driverless Cars - the Next Big Thing?

Autonomous cars have been talked about a lot in recent months. This is an especially hot topic in Ann Arbor, where three thousand or so  vehicles equipped with experimental control or assistance devices have been driving around for the last several years along with everybody else.. And where the University of Michigan this summer opened a test facility known as "M City" to provide a life-size, outdoor laboratory for testing more advanced control systems.

Here's a thought-provoking conclusion to an article in The Michigan Engineer, a University of Michigan publication for alumni of the School of Engineering:

Opinions vary widely on when large numbers of driverless vehicles will hit the streets. But most experts agree on one thing: Driverless is coming. And its going to change everything. The goal of safe, commercially viable driverless technology seems closer than ever.

But is the adoption of driverless technology the end of the story or the beginning? Many transportation experts see it as just another piece of a still-evolving, 21st-century transportation puzzle, one that includes not just new ways to get around, but a radical rethinking of what we put into transportation, what we get out of it and how we want it to fit into our lives.

In that sense, driverless technology is more than just a new way to schlep your kid to soccer practice. It's a catalyst for change. And it's already sparking conversa­tions and raising questions in a way that oil embargoes, the electric car, light rail, and countless other Next Big Things all failed to do. Finding answers won't be quick, or easy. But it could be our biggest opportunity to rethink transportation in 100 years. And if we want to keep up with the technology, we'd better get rolling.

--The Michigan Engineer, Fall, 2015
Research on driverless cars is being done in several countries, by big car manufacturers, universities, and futurists with deep pockets, like Google. I confess to having quite a few doubts about whether automating road vehicles is going to solve more problems than it creates.

A while back, I listed all the problems that automobile-dependence cause; let's go back and take a look at those and think about what driverless car implementation does.
  1. Personal health. People who go from place to place primarily by car tend to be less healthy than those who walk, bike, or even walk only as far as the nearest station or bus stop.
    Much of that is due to physical exercise, which will not be helped by driverless cars. But another cause of ill-health is the stress of driving on congested roads and highways. Driverless cars should relieve of of some of that stress...but probably not stress caused to slow travel due to congestion.
  2. Mass. Automobiles are fairly heavy and bulky. If we continue to use them primarily for individual travel, rather than group travel, their mass will add up to a lot. This is a problem for a number of reasons. The energy required to move objects is proportional to their mass. Even as motors become more efficient, this fundamental law of physics will not change. More energy will always be required to propel a heavier vehicle than a lighter one. And the production of large numbers of vehicles for individual travelers requires more natural resources than production of smaller numbers of vehicles required for mass transportation.
    I believe driverless cars will eventually be able to lose a lot of their weight for a couple of reasons. First is the general progress being made in lighter, stronger materials. Second, much of the bulk of today's vehicles is an attempt to cocoon the occupants to protect them when crashes occur. As the safety of driverless vehicles becomes the norm, rather than the exception, this will no longer be perceived as a necessary safety feature.
    But the same will be true for mass transit vehicles: improved motive efficiency and lighter, stronger materials, will lower their mass and their energy requirements as well.
    (And by the way, autonomous trains have been operating for years. Vancouver's "SkyTrain" [below] is one of several.)
  3. Congestion. The primary appeal of automobiles - whether manually or autonomously controlled - is their ability to take us wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go. No need to wait for anyone else, no need to go to a station or pick-up point. Just jump in the car and go. It's a highly effective mode of transportation.
    The problem comes with events that bring large numbers of people to the same place at the same time. Inconveniences like work, and conveniences like sporting matches. If people continue to use automobiles for transporting only one or two people at a time, automating them will do little to relieve the congestion issues. There will still be relatively large masses of vehicles transporting relatively small numbers of people.
    If we want to move people efficiently, it will have to be with a lower ratio of vehicle mass to people, and that can only be done with (no pun intended!) mass transit.
  4. Land area. Automobiles, unless they are incredibly tiny, still require more space than public transportation vehicles, because so many more of them are needed to transport the same number of people. There's an interesting possibility offered by autonomous vehicles: to use them more like a huge fleet of taxis (or Uber or Lyft cars). Theoretically, the cost of running a fleet of autonomous vehicles will be much more affordable than running the same size fleet of vehicles with drivers, right? So as the market works autonomous vehicle technology into its business models, it should become unnecessary to own one of your own. You should be able to order one, or reserve one in advance, jump in, and walk away without a backward glance when you reach your destination. No need to park it either at home, at work, or at the store. This will reduce the need for city parking, parking lots for stores, and garages for houses, making possible greater density and more effective, efficient use of land.
    But the vehicles will still need to park somewhere when they're not in use, and that will still require more space than public transit vehicles. Vehicles leaving a large city at the end of morning rush to go park, or returning to the city at the beginning of evening rush, will create secondary rush hours in the opposite direction, and will require potentially significant amounts of energy to propel them as they run in and out empty.
There are also a lot of unanswered questions about autonomous vehicles.
  • How much will it cost - and who will pay - for the public infrastructure to make their autonomous operation reliable? As far as I know, fully autonomous vehicles require a new, supportive infrastructure of radio and possibly visible communication devices. The cost of installing this on hundreds of thousands of miles of public roadways could add up.
  • How will insurance work? Will it be covered, as some have suggested, by the manufacturers?
  • How much will individual autonomous vehicles cost to own? Even if the technology is inexpensive when mass-produced, will the vehicle owners need to pay up-front or periodically for their share of the autonomous vehicle infrastructure?
  • How many American automobile owners will be willing to give up owning a personal vehicle and use autonomous cars as rental or taxi vehicles? This will depend on the business model the evolves for shared autonomous vehicle use. It will also depend on willingness to give up the car as a symbol of personal identity, and a place to leave the extra junk that people don't have anyplace else for. (Admit it - we all use our cars that way!)
Until we know the answers, we won't know whether driverless cars are a catalyst for true change, or just the "Next Big Thing".