Transportation headlines, Wednesday, June 24

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Photo: "The best view in the house" via Metro Instagram regram from @jeanneheo

Photo from Metro Instagram re-gram via @jeanneheo

Will autonomous cars change the the role and value of public transportation (Transport Politic)

Accepting that a future with autonomous cars are inevitable, this article dives into the many questions about what that future will look like. It’s a long read, but a thought-provoking one.

For example, will the driverless vehicles be individually owned or will they function more as Uber, Lyft or taxi cabs do now but without the driver? And how will the roll of public transit evolve in the autonomous future?

On that question, the author talked to Robin Chase, the co-founder of Zipcar, to provide some speculation. Chase believes that even though public transit is still the more affordable option for day-to-day compared to ridesharing, once the cost of drivers are out of the equation, prices could become comparable. At some point she believes that government will switch from subsidizing operation costs to providing vouchers for autonomous vehicle services. Only more questions arise. Excerpt:

It’s an interesting point, but it would require a very significant public role through subsidies if we’re to maintain mobility for low-income people who do not have access to their own automobiles. Are American cities ready to provide direct transportation subsidies for poor people to use self-driving cars? How would those subsidies work, and would people have access to unlimited trips and travel distances?

There are other possibilities in the future world of autonomous vehicles, including how it could change the urban landscape (less parking required but possible decentralization), whether driverless automobile technology could be transferred to transit buses (the trade-off being less jobs) and if the government’s role will diminish in transit planning and operations as private transportation companies fill in public transit gaps.

So many questions and no real answers yet. But the topic does make for good discussion.

Yet more evidence for the social cost of driving: road noise (CityLab)

An interesting study out of London, even if it is a little unconvincing. Researchers in London used health data and decibel readings from neighborhoods near major thoroughfares to attempt to draw correlation between health and noise levels. What they found:

Adults in areas where the daytime traffic noise exceeded 60 decibels were more likely to be admitted to a hospital for stroke, compared with areas where sound didn’t hit 55. Among the elderly, daytime road noise was also linked with admissions related to cardiovascular disease, and night noise was related to stroke admissions.

Meantime, in all London adults, daytime road noise was associated with an increase in all mortality causes in areas over 60 decibels, compared with places under 55. Adjusting for air pollution had only “minor effects” on the findings.

The researchers accounted for other variables that could affect the health of individuals in the study areas, including air pollution, which is a frequently studied correlation. If we’re on noise and health though, suggesting that driving alone is the biggest contributor is a stretch — buses, trains and even people walking on the street contribute to urban traffic noise, too.

I’m reminded of the 2004 film “Noise” where a a middle-aged man has a nervous breakdown and turns vigilante urban noise enforcer:

P.S. Metro does not condone such actions (unless maybe it’s an old gas pump).

Google’s new urban innovation incubator just made its first investment, to bring public Wi-Fi to cities (Fast Company)

In quasi-transit related news, Sidewalk Labs, Google’s tech-oriented urban problem-solving start-up will be converting the city’s old phone booths into Wi-Fi hot spots with USB charging stations and transit way-finding stations. The article quotes a blog post from Google co-founder Larry Page, that best describes the approach the start-up company will use to identify and solve urban issues:

...a lot of urban challenges are interrelated—for example, availability of transportation affects where people choose to live, which affects housing prices, which affects quality of life. So it helps to start from first principles and get a big-picture view of the many factors that affect city life. Then, you can develop the technologies and partnerships you need to make a difference.

Flowers make me think of El Salvador (Zocalo Public Square)

Angela Rodriguez. Photo by Zocalo Public Square.

Angela Rodriguez. Photo by Zocalo Public Square.

The latest in the Zocalo rider series.

Jaydancing in downtown L.A.

Over the weekend a group of pedestrians took to the streets to bring more awareness to pedestrian activity in downtown L.A. The event was held just before a motion is to be presented to the L.A. City Council today, directing the LAPD to report on their jaywalking citation practices in one of L.A.’s most walkable neighborhoods. The motion was spearheaded by Metro Board Member and L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin and seconded by Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose district includes downtown.

You can find Joe on Twitter @joseph_lem.

8 replies

  1. “whether driverless automobile technology could be transferred to transit buses (the trade-off being less jobs)”

    The other perspective is that improvement of technologies has always existed since the dawn of man. There will always be loss of a certain job as new technologies emerges. We don’t see these people these days, for example:

    Milkmen
    http://i363.photobucket.com/albums/oo79/john_dxx/Album%202/obsolete299.jpg

    Switchboard operators
    http://www.stpetebootcamp.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/switchboard.jpg

    Travelling salesmen
    http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2012/3/14/1331740856253/Madam-could-I-sell-you-a–007.jpg

    What comes with progress has their consequences and there will always be a trade off (job loss). And throughout the course of human history, once jobs disappear through new technologies, a new job or new social responsibilities arises.

    If driverless technology gets applied to Uber, Lyft, or even public transit buses, perhaps even big rigs, there will be less need for drivers. What there will be however, you still need tech people to maintain those driverless computers and a lot more demand for maintenance. If people who are working as drivers today, it would be feasible for them to start taking up new skills. Not my problem if they think drivers will forever be needed, sit on their butts and do nothing until they lose their job. If some former encyclopedia salesman lost his job and became homeless and whines and complains that Wikipedia stole his job, I really am not going to feel sorry for him. He could’ve gone into sales in another sector or start learning computer programming at a community college.

    OTOH, one can look at it on the bright side of the; less labor costs means transit operators will be able to drastically reduce their overhead costs, and end result is pricings being better for the consumer. Might also finally get rid of the need of costly labor unions. That in itself will be a huge plus to taxpayers. Why pay pensions and benefits to a human driver when a computer can do the same job?

    • “If people who are working as drivers today, it would be feasible for them to start taking up new skills. Not my problem if they think drivers will forever be needed, sit on their butts and do nothing until they lose their job.”

      I can think of one way Metro can do this. If and when Metro decides to switch their buses to driverless technology in the near future, at the same time, they can also be creating new jobs too – security.

      Former Metro bus drivers can become Metro bus security guards. Metro wouldn’t have to use the excuse “we have no money to provide for security onboard the bus” anymore because now they can get replace bus drivers, let the machines do the driving and use the labor instead to focus on security onboard Metro.

      Metro can work together with private security training firms like LA Security Academy (http://lasecurityacademy.com/) and provide training to bus drivers who are interested.

      If Metro doesn’t have the money to hire human bus drivers and human security guards, the next best thing is to let computers do the bus driving and start hiring human security guards instead. Security guard jobs can’t be replaced with computers or robots just yet. We haven’t reached the age of Robocop and that’s still way ahead in the future.

  2. “If we’re on noise and health though, suggesting that driving alone is the biggest contributor is a stretch — buses, trains and even people walking on the street contribute to urban traffic noise, too.”

    Agreed. I call BS to this study and can be refuted easily with these statistics:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy

    Places like Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, all countries with high densities (therefore, subject to more urban noise) far outrank life expectancy rates than the US.

    Sure, there maybe other reasons behind it such as being in better health as they are a more transit oriented society or they have a better nationalized healthcare system or that they don’t have so many bad cholesterol foods or whatever, but “too much noise” being a health hazard hardly is a concrete evidence based on the fact that many Asians, many of them who predominately live and work in noisy urban landscapes live longer than most Americans.

  3. IMO, there are two bigger questions here.

    The first one is will mass transit still continue to exist?

    My guess is yes, there is still the need for mass transit. Self autonomous Uber, Lyft and taxi cabs sounds good, but if one were to look at this in a longer term perspective, there are negatives here from the operator’s side that in very populated areas such as LA County, you can’t expect 10 million vehicles to be on the road all the time catering to every 10 million individuals’ needs. If one were to be in Uber, Lyft, or taxi cab companies’ shoes, that’s 10 million vehicles to maintain and that’s very costly. They may negate the need for human drivers, but maintenance costs then becomes an issue.

    If competition drives down costs to out-beat the other to gain market share, it would make sense for operators to look toward larger vehicles that can hold more passengers and instead of picking up passengers at the front of the door, but go along a certain route and have passengers board from a dedicated location. The cost to maintain one bus that holds 100 passengers is cheaper than the cost to maintain 100 autonomous vehicles.

    What best fits that description is mass transit, meaning, buses, light rail, trains. So yes, mass transit will continue to exist.

    But the second question is will it be mass transit as you know it? Will mass transit still be under government control, or will the market change where private mass transit operators start taking over the function of what government used to do? Will mass transit revert back to the private sector, as it used to be back in the 1920s and 1930s, just with a different technological approach?

    Well, in many ways we already see that happening today. Uber and Lyft have started offering services like UberPool and Lyft Line which are very similar to sharing an Uber or Lyft ride with total strangers with apps picking up passengers along the way.

    We also have startups like Leap, Loup, Chariot, and Night School forming in the Bay Area. They definitely do qualify as “private mass transit” which are out to compete head on with traditional public transit services.

    And while some of them have been shut down by the California Public Utilities Commission, if I were in the public transit sector, I wouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief as progress continues to be made on all levels to open the doors to more open competition.

    For one, these new ideas are constantly being backed by venture capitalists who continues to fund new ideas and provide advice to new ventures providing input on what went wrong the last time. Leap maybe out of the picture today (http://sfist.com/2015/06/15/bus_startup_leap_auctioning_fleet.php), but the way things are going, it doesn’t seem there’s that much love for over-regulation either (http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/night-school-failed-because-it-followed-law) and corruption is being exposed at the CPUC which isn’t going well for the people in CA (http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Furor-over-250-a-head-fundraiser-honoring-6076084.php).

    Additonally, the major supporters for these new startups are the Millennials who will be leading the way of politics soon, if not already. Millennials shun car ownership, they embrace mass transit, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own gripes about poorly run municipal transit services either. They are very open to alternatives like Uber, Lyft, Leap, Loup, Chariot, etc. etc. Politicians should be very wary of over-regulating these new emerging markets because too much means they’ll be losing the Millennial voters. We already have seen the DAs of LA and SF start backing down on putting too much restrictions on Uber and Lyft.

    And if one were to look across the Pacific, you already see private mass transit running things. It seems to me the way things are going, we’re heading to that direction too, albeit with a different approach.

    • This is a very good analysis.

      It is likely correct in the long term, shared ride services cannot sustain itself by making smaller, personal sized vehicles as a commodity, even if driverless technologies are implemented. Fleet maintenance costs are a big overhead expense in itself. Currently, such maintenance expenses are the car owners’ (Uber and Lyft drivers’) responsibility.

      Shift the drivers away to driverless technology, it does absolve Uber and Lyft from current issues like bad drivers hurting their reputation and coming under scrutiny of government regulations such as drivers must need background checks, health checks, hold a commercial license, or government telling them that their drivers are employees rather than contractors. Furthermore, Uber and Lyft already are facing pressure from their drivers about possible unionization (http://www.fastcompany.com/3037371/the-teamsters-of-the-21st-century-how-uber-lyft-and-facebook-drivers-are-organizing) so not needing drivers anymore will solve that issue for them. So that’s a plus.

      But that plus will be negated by Uber and Lyft becoming fleet operators of autonomous vehicles. Becoming a fleet operator will also mean shifting the responsibility of many overhead expenses to Uber and Lyft themselves, most notably, maintenance costs. Someone has to keep those autonomous vehicles’ batteries, hoses, tires, fluids, oil, brakes, etc. etc. in check. And unless by the time driverless vehicles are around, cars have evolved to the point of being self-charging like the iRobot Roomba, someone still needs to fill up gasoline/CNG natural gas/electric juice/ or whatever for these autonomous vehicles.

      And having hundreds and thousands of vehicles will ultimately undermine the maintenance costs that will be needed to keep those autonomous vehicles in operation.

      However, I can see that in the long term, Uber and Lyft may become a fleet operator of driverless vans, shuttles, and buses. It’s not like they can’t buy buses on their own; Leap bought 4 of them and were in operation for about a month. They have billions in venture capital funding to purchase a fleet of buses if they wish to do so. And they already have the same venture capitalists and advisors who backed Leap that can give them insight on what went wrong with Leap and Night School so that they can avoid doing the same mistakes they did. That’s how VCs work: they give money to new ideas, when it fails, they use the experience of what went wrong and learn from their mistakes. They’re not afraid of failure or mistakes, that’s how they continue to grow and evolve.

  4. “In quasi-transit related news, Sidewalk Labs, Google’s tech-oriented urban problem-solving start-up will be converting the city’s old phone booths into Wi-Fi hot spots with USB charging stations and transit way-finding stations. ”

    WTH? What city has ‘old phone booths’? Besides competition from cell phones, most were ‘encouraged’ to go away as they became ad-hoc urinals. The random ones left are independently owned ‘pay phone wind wings’ with no shelves to even open a non-existant phone book on.

    Seriously Google, back off on the lunchtime ‘medical marijuana’.

    Good idea on replacing bus drivers with security guards, but be careful what you ask for. We could end up with arrogant, power mad, unionized gov’t employees who can’t be disciplined or fired. Security outfits tend to attract some dangerous personality types. Some of my cop friends are nodding their heads in agreement.

    • The old phone booths maybe gone, but the copper wires and electrical wires are still there. Pay phones were installed in the era where they needed to physically bring the wire to that payphone; payphones didn’t run wirelessly themselves, something had to be hooked up to them to work. Even if the pay phone is dead or none existent or have been removed, the copper wires are still there. They haven’t dug up the cement or removed those wires, only the end product itself (payphones) was removed.

      For example, look at this stock photo of an old phone booth.
      http://www.marinnostalgia.org/wp-content/gallery/taqueria-de-marin/old-pay-phone.jpg

      Do you see the two steel tubes sticking out at the top of the phone booth heading towards the ceiling? Those are copper and electrical wires and they still work. If they still work, all Google has to do is remove the phone booth and stick something else instead, like a WiFi router or an USB charger.

  5. Reading through the article, it almost had me convinced that public transit was going on the way out and being replaced with self driving cars.

    But afterwards, I read through the comments here and they’ve hit on areas where the analyst failed to consider: maintenance costs. That is right, how exactly are these self driving cars going to be maintained? Who’s going to fill up their gas? Who’s going to check the brakes work? I doubt we’ve reached the point of autonomous vehicles filling up the tank or changing the brakes themselves on their own. Someone has to do those jobs.

    Uber and Lyft can’t run away from that responsibility just by purchasing a fleet of autonomous vehicles and mass deploying them throughout the city. If they start operating a fleet, they take up on the burden of maintenance just as any other cab, bus, or trucking company.

    And that’s absolutely right that Uber and Lyft will see that having a fleet of millions of cars for a market like LA will be a detriment to their maintenance costs. Uber and Lyft cannot serve the LA market with just a few hundred of self autonomous vehicles; it takes 4000 buses on Metro to serve the needs of the public transit ridership here and even then that’s not enough to cover all of LA’s needs, and surely not nearly enough if all 10 million in LA started to ditch their cars and take the bus one day.

    Analysts need to take into account of all the issues and what-if scenarios before jumping to conclusions and judgments in predicting how the future might be.

    Autonomous cars will be just a gap-fill. But, as stated above, autonomous cars can also lead to autonomous buses and as the article even hinted upon, autonomous rail lines. If that’s the case, yes, mass transit will still be there but whether it’ll be called “public” mass transit or “private” mass transit is anyone’s guess.