Moving Parts

Moving Parts

High costs of transit infrastructure and accelerating technology have cities and visionaries rethinking how to take us from Point A to Point B.

London and Paris have them. So do New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia: They’re the big, bold signs put up decades ago by urban transit agencies that diagram subway, bus, and streetcar routes in red, silver, yellow, and fuchsia. “This is how we’ve decided you’ll get from Point A to Point B,” they declare. A present-day sign would look and feel different. First of all, it would be a touch screen or downloadable app. And it would contain not only the transit diagram but a patchwork of options—public and private—that connect commuters, tourists, or business travelers to Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, car2go Smart coupes, bike sharing, taxis, and minivans. More important, it would need frequent updating.

Urban transportation is in the midst of an upheaval, caused by growing congestion, the cost of building and maintaining traditional mass-transit systems, world-wide concern about pollution from private vehicles, and Web-based communication that is rapidly altering urban life. From the spread of light rail and streetcar systems in Denver, Charlotte, N.C., San Diego, and Washington, to dedicated rapid bus lanes in Bogotá, Colombia, the hill-climbing Mexicable-Ecatepec cable car system in the state of México, and the schedule-bending Magic Bus being road-tested in Nairobi, Kenya, cities are trying a variety of ways to move their growing populations. The arrival of driverless vehicles a decade from now, coupled with a proliferation of traffic-monitoring sensors, promises still more change.

The time is ripe. More than half the world’s population lives in cities, up from 34 percent in 1960, and the number of urban dwellers will grow 1.4 percent or more annually between now and 2030, the United Nations estimates. Traffic congestion wastes time, saps economic growth, and pollutes the air, with private cars and trucks accounting for a fifth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Spurring a shift away from private cars, some cities continue to invest in massive transportation engineering projects that rival those that reached their zenith in the 20th century. Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, is currently putting in 176 kilometers of rail and 85 kilometers of bus rapid transit at a cost upwards of $23.5 billion, and by the end of this year New York should have opened the first, $4.4 billion segment of its long-planned Second Avenue subway, with three new stations on the Upper East Side.

“I don’t think the light rail lines and the metros and fixed-route, fixed-schedule buses are dead, because there are still markets where they make sense,” says Samuel L. Zimmerman, a Cornell-trained civil engineer and World Bank consultant with 40 years in urban transportation planning. “I think the idea that today, the 21st century, with a change in the nature of the markets, a change in the cities, as much as we’d like them to go back to resembling 19th-century cities—that’s not going to happen. There’s a lot of travel markets that lend themselves to—let’s call it ‘collective mobility.’ We need to do something to provide a decent option for that.”

But fixed subway and rail infrastructure is prohibitively expensive for all except the largest jurisdictions. Maintenance is also costly, as the well-publicized troubles of the Washington Metro demonstrate: It built 117 miles of subway without securing sufficient funding to maintain them, an oversight for which current passengers are paying with disruptive line closures for emergency repairs. On the opposite side of Manhattan from the Second Avenue subway, the 110-year-old tunnels under the Hudson River—linking New York’s Penn Station to the south and west—need replacing. “You can’t expect these things to last forever!” says John M. “Jack” Reilly, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (alma mater of Alexander Cassatt, who oversaw the tunnel construction as president of the Pennsylvania Railroad). But where the required $24 billion will come from has not been worked out.

New Streetcar Technology

The most visible change in public transit in the past four decades has been the spread of light rail and streetcar systems, fueled largely by federal financing. From Norfolk, Va., to Dallas and Seattle, both types of transit are alive and growing. The Transportation Research Board—part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—held its first National Light Rail and Streetcar Conference in 1975; at the time, it counted only eight of the old streetcar systems left in the United States and Canada. Forty years later, by its 13th meeting, an additional 20 light rail and 10 streetcar systems had been completed. The technology has advanced, too: New streetcars in Dallas and Seattle do away with overhead wires and rely on onboard energy storage instead.
Have light rail and streetcars been oversold? Although they’re cheaper than commuter rail, and therefore more attractive to politicians and voters, they work only if people use them. One engineer turned urban planner, Oxford University’s Bent Flyvbjerg, has made a career out of demonstrating urban rail’s history of cost overruns and overoptimistic predictions about usage. In a paper this year Flyvbjerg took on China, questioning assumptions about the effectiveness of infrastructure investment there.

In Honolulu, Panos Prevouros, a traffic specialist and chair of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, has taken his fight against a new rail transit project to the people in mayoral elections with the slogan “Elect an Engineer, Not a Politician.” So far he’s lost, but when the line opens in 2018 it will stop at Aloha Stadium; funding to extend it into the city center is in doubt. Eight years ago, Prevouros says, the cost of the line was put at $4.6 billion; now it’s $8.6 billion.

In countries less attached to the automobile than the United States, bus rapid transit has made significant inroads. Reilly, who returned to teach at RPI after holding a top management position with the transit authority that serves the Albany metro area, points to Bogotá, Colombia, as a good example. The city pioneered fast bus rapid transit in dedicated lanes in highway medians (you can see them on YouTube). “They’re very well thought out: high-level platform, long distances between stops, high-capacity buses, offboard fare collection,” says Reilly. Scott Rutherford, a former chair of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Sustainable Transportation Program at the University of Washington, likens the system to a “four-way busway”—one bus can pass another instead of creaking along behind it, stopping at every stop, or getting hung up in the curb lane behind a UPS truck. Rutherford’s also impressed by bus rapid transit in Brisbane, Australia. “A bus can go off the busway to the university to pick up people and come back on. Light rail can’t do that.” The problem in this country? “You’ve got to take lanes, and that’s a hard thing to do.”

From Home to Station

The bane of public transportation is the so-called first-mile, last-mile problem—an acknowledgment that while metro lines are great at whisking you from one station to another, they don’t address the difficulty of getting to the station from home or from a downtown terminal to the workplace. The solution for many suburbanites is to give up and drive the whole distance, but some municipalities are looking at meeting the traveling public’s needs with a mixture of public transportation and private enterprise. Lone Tree, Colo., currently runs shuttle buses on loops between the nearest light rail and some local employers, but it’s looking for a tech partner that can rethink the whole premise. “Our big idea is to try to figure out how to make that a more dynamic, demand-based system,” City Manager Seth Hoffman told the Washington Post. He’s looking for a system where the buses “go where the people are and then take them where they need to go at that moment.” Right next door, Centennial, Colo. is running a pilot project offering free Lyft rides to the light rail.

Then there are the visionaries questioning why we need our own vehicles in the first place, especially in an age of driverless cars. One of them is Carlo Ratti, an architect and engineer by training who directs the Senseable City Lab at MIT. He and his colleagues have analyzed the demand for mobility in Singapore (a “pioneer in intelligent mobility,” according to Ratti—it started testing driverless taxis in August, a month before Uber introduced self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh). “We found the city’s mobility demand could be met in theory with 30 percent of the vehicles currently in circulation,” says Ratti. “Furthermore, this number could be cut by another 40 percent if passengers traveling similar routes at the same time were willing to share a vehicle. … Theoretically you could run a city with 20 percent of the existing vehicles.”

In America, wouldn’t that fly in the face of a long tradition of vehicle ownership, even by people who live in cities? Ratti rebuts that by quoting Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper: “If you think personal cars will survive as status symbols, remember that horses were once status symbols.” And don’t forget that Ford Motor Company now refers to itself an “automotive and mobility company.”

Driverless Public Transit?

In theory, driverless technology could be incorporated in bus rapid transit systems. That’s where Rutherford wants to see action. Thirty years ago, with some experience of highway automation, he went to a conference at University of California, Davis. “They piled all of us into this university van and went into the parking lot. We screeched off towards this Dumpster, but it stopped. It had radar brakes.”

Norway is moving in that direction. An industrial park in the city of Stavanger has ordered two 12-passenger driverless minibuses that may be in use next year.

Fully autonomous vehicles are certainly coming, Rutherford says. “I would wish that it would happen first in the public transit area.” Despite some well-publicized accidents, he’s convinced of their eventual safety. “What do we kill on the highways every year, 35,000?” he asks.

MIT’s Ratti also has thought about using driverless vehicles in public transit, and he has some provocative ideas. “Autonomous vehicles can blur the boundary between different modes of transportation—public and private, individual and collective,” he says. “A new category of larger vehicles could emerge and be developed to facilitate sharing or public transit. A few years down the line, the following could be a familiar scenario for many of us: ‘Your’ autonomous car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family—or to anyone else in the neighborhood.”

Outside the developed world, what World Bank consultant Zimmerman calls the “informal sector” is the norm: minibus-taxis. “They stop anywhere, they’re dispatched when they’re full from the terminals—and they make money,” he says. “Maybe we don’t have to run fixed-route, fixed-schedule buses once every hour—which is terrible service. Maybe what we do is use the private sector to provide that and facilitate fare payment through technology.”

And that’s where apps offer flexibility that could blow away assumptions that have guided local transit for years. In August, a team from Earlham College in Indiana won the $1 million Hult Prize for social entrepreneurship with a free app called Magic Bus, a tech platform to help commuters in 11 countries get to and from work by making better use of public buses. Road-tested in Nairobi, Kenya, it breaks down the reliance on fixed schedules that hamstrings local transit systems by supplying real-time information to drivers about demand, enabling them to adjust supply (if people are waiting at the bus stop, why sit at the terminal?).

Urban mass transit is still dominated by fixed-route systems, and there are powerful dynamics in place to keep it that way—money already spent for one, labor unions for another. But while some metro areas extend light rail farther into the suburbs or spend a fortune linking their airports to downtown (which turns out not to be where most airport passengers want to go), there are others with innovative ideas. Medellín, Colombia, built aerial tramways to link its barrios, clustered on the steep hillsides that surround the city, whisking the city’s poorer workers from home to work. Last year, Portland, Ore., opened Tilikum Crossing (the “Bridge of the People”), which carries light rail, buses, streetcars, bicyclists, and pedestrians across the Willamette River but bans private cars and trucks.

Add in new technology, and Ratti believes the urban fabric could be transformed without the need for new, heavy infrastructure. “Think about Airbnb and similar initiatives based on the sharing economy,” says Ratti. “Airbnb has been able to create the world’s greatest hotel chain, almost without building a single room. Going back to traffic, we could say that today’s issues can be addressed more effectively with silicon than with asphalt.”


By Peter Meredith

Peter Meredith is a freelance writer and editor in Severna Park, Md.
Design by Nicola Nittoli