On 1 May, citizens of Nashville, Tennessee will vote on a new transit deal. The city is proposing to build a new public transit system by 2032, with five light rail lines, four rapid bus lines, frequent services and better local connections to the suburbs. With the city projecting population growth of one million by 2040, it says it needs a big transport overhaul now to prevent future gridlock on its roads.
Not all agree. The campaign group No Tax 4 Tracks is urging residents to vote “no” to the plan in a few weeks time. They are pointing to the expected cost — the deal will require $8.95 billion in capital investment, maintenance and operations — funded partly by sales and business tax hikes.
But the campaigners are also looking to the future. Within 15-20 years, the time it will take to build the transit system, they claim new technology — including ride-hailing services like Uber, geolocation services which allow fast, on-the-go route-planning and, most importantly, self-driving cars — will have already made it obsolete.
Nashville’s referendum is just one battle in a larger public policy war over the future of transport in the US. On the one side sit advocates for new investment in public transportation. On the other are those who say that emerging driverless technology will make any investment in mass transit a wasted one.
In a 2014 plebiscite in Pinellas County, Florida, voters rejected a similar mass transit plan. In 2016, there were nearly 400 separate votes to update transport systems in US cities, including LA, New Jersey and Atlanta.
The stakes are high: five of the 10 most congested cities in the world are in the US. Fumes from queuing cars shorten many thousands of lives, while road crash fatalities continue to account for thousands more. If America can’t resolve this quandary, it could choke its cities — both literally and economically.
Breaking the gridlock
Fleets of driverless cars, ferrying commuters from door to door at whatever time they please, are often posed as the solution to mobility problems in US cities. They could reduce numbers of separate single-occupancy cars by driving one customer to one spot, then immediately picking another for a separate journey.
The electric car company Tesla is investing is self-driving technology. In the company’s “Master Plan, Part Deux”, published in 2016, CEO Elon Musk wrote: “With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager.” He has talked up the inconvenience of existing mass public transport systems in comparison to lower occupancy, on demand travel enabled by self-driving technology. “Getting in a car will be like getting in an elevator,” he said at the World Government Summit in 2017.
Car ownership remains for many in the US a symbol of individual freedom, and public transport a form of welfare for those who can’t afford this. US cities tend to sprawl more than their more densely built European counterparts, encouraging car ownership.
And self-driving vehicles are safer than traditional cars: over 90% of road accidents are caused by human error, and most research shows that automated driving is more reliable; the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration finds that the vehicles can see more and faster to avoid accidents than human drivers.
Adela Spulber, a Transportation Systems Analyst at the Centre for Automotive Research, spoke to these benefits. “The main advantage is definitely improving traffic safety,” she said. “The fact that we could either eliminate some crashes, or make others less severe is the number one benefit. The second benefit would be mitigating congestion, making travel more efficient than today.”
The capacity problem
However, driverless cars still face a critical challenge: capacity. Mass public transit is able to move far more people in any given time than individual cars, even when those operate in fleets. While cities’ buses or rails can move 10,000-20,000 people an hour, private motor vehicles move just 600-1600.
If brought in on a private ownership basis, self-driving cars could even exacerbate the problem. “Because we will make travel less tiresome, we will provide people with the opportunity to do something else while driving; that could also be a source of induced demand,” said Spulber. “In that scenario, the congestion mitigation benefits might be negated, or even reversed.”
The worry for many is that fixation on new technology will detract attention from public transit or even allow networks to deliberately decline. Public transit ridership across the US is falling: 31 out of 35 major metropolitan areas have seen a drop in transit ridership, which worsens a downward trend lasting over a decade.
“Public transport systems outside of the biggest cities in the US have seen comparatively little investment”
Seattle, Houston and Phoenix, cities which saw growth in ridership during this time, all expanded their transit systems or updated their networks. But in many other places advocates detect a lack of investment. “Public transport systems outside of the biggest cities in the US have seen comparatively little investment relative to other similarly sized cities around the world,” said Zak Accuardi, Senior Program Associate at TransitCenter, an urban mobility foundation based in New York City. “It’s really been de-emphasised in our political system,” he added.
Advocacy for driverless cars, many public transport advocates claim, is often driven by politics. “When somebody says, ‘we shouldn’t be investing in public transport’, what they really mean is that the government shouldn’t be investing in anything,” Accuardi said. “There’s usually a fundamental ideological divide there.”
Bridging the divide
In the short term, the two visions for the future of American mobility will not be easily reconciled. But there is some room for compromise. Even the most fervent advocates of transit see a role for self-driving cars in cities. “In lower density settings, more suburban, more rural, I can imagine autonomous vehicles playing a bigger role, and certainly the safety benefits of driverless cars are the biggest promise,” said Accuardi.
What they argue is that if they are to work, automated vehicles need to be managed. “Because public transport is a network, it needs to fit together as a network,” said Jarrett Walker, author of the book Human Transit and a transport consultant who has worked on public transit system redesigns in Houston and Seattle. “That is only possible if there is sufficient government control over transport,” he said.
But he believes that, above all, what we need is to keep a level head and focus most of our attention on what we know is needed now, rather than predictions for the (distant) future. “I’m always emphasising the need to not panic,” he said, “and to not make grand assumptions about the obsolescence of public transport, based on numbers that are always going up and down anyway.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Bernard Spragg. NZ)