A modest transportation policy proposal

by Richard Arthur

I would like to open a debate on the following resolution: Resolved, that this discussion group supports a major investment of federal resources in the demonstration of Automated Transit.

Now, I realize that adopting such a resolution is an unlikely outcome from this distinguished group. However, I look forward to the debate. Let me begin.

First, an underlying assertion: there is a problem with traffic congestion. I am simply going to assert that there is a problem with traffic congestion. It is well documented and readily available to be experienced by anyone just about anywhere, during the morning and evening commute periods.) If you don't think there's a problem with traffic congestion, please provide some cogent arguments for your denial.

Second, a slightly more problematic assertion. The management of the transportation system involves the utilization of a public good and so there is a legitimate role for government in the management of the transportation network. This is a somewhat debatable point. I welcome contrary views.

If we've gotten this far, we can perhaps begin to address the proposal.

Let's start with a generic definition of Automated Transit.

Automated Transit is a modern transit technology that incorporates the following elements (and I would like to limit discussion to personal rapid transit and group rapid transit technologies and leave dual mode to a separate discussion):

Automated Transit (AT) advocates claim that this technological package can provide a cost-effective array of benefits that fit into the yawning product gap between the spatial inefficiency and high service provided by the single occupancy automobile and the high capacity and low service levels provided by traditional transit.

AT holds the potential to provide a relatively high level of service compared to traditional transit by providing 24 hour on-demand and universal express service to a large number of destinations.

How so? The key is the system design utilizing off-line stations. Off-line stations provide a number of unique and valuable benefits. First when a vehicle arrives at an off-line station, it remains there until a passenger arrives and routes the vehicle elsewhere. So the basic service model is that vehicles wait for passengers instead of passengers waiting for vehicles. I believe that passengers will like this feature. Second, with off-line stations, there is no need to stop until the passengers' destination is reached. This provides high trip speeds. Again, this should add to passenger appeal. Third, with off-line stations, the traditional transit tradeoff between access and speed is broken.

In traditional transit system design, each additional station (increment of access) results in an additional stop (reduction of speed). This zero sum game can be challenged somewhat by mixing in express service with local service but that simply transfers the tradeoff from speed to access to speed to service frequency. The bottom line is that in traditional transit there are three variables: the number of stations, average train speed, and service frequency and increasing any  one of them requires reductions elsewhere. While this tradeoff still exists in some slight degree with the small vehicle/off-line station system design of Automated Transit, it is substantially broken - large numbers of stations can be added with little or no degradation in either service frequency or average vehicle speed.

The net result is that Automated Transit technologies can provide fast, frequent service to large numbers of destinations relative to existing transit technologies. In some congested corridors they can provide faster service albeit to fewer destinations than single occupancy automobiles. This ability to provide high trip speeds should enable AT systems to attract relatively large numbers of passengers.

At the same time that AT backers claim that Automated Transit can provide attractive levels of service (and when I say attractive I mean in comparison with convenience provided by the single occupancy automobile in congested areas), they also claim that AT systems can be built and operated at a substantially reduced subsidy level compared with existing transit systems.

The reasoning is as follows:

On a capital budget basis, the big dollar items in the construction of a new fixed guideway system are the direct guideway construction costs: the steel and concrete required to support the vehicles. These costs tend to increase dramatically with two variables: span length and load. If span lengths can be held constant, the key variable is load. Here AT technologies hold a significant advantage over other transportation modes including highways. For example, traditional transit vehicles weigh between 80,000 and 160,000 pounds while the lightest AT vehicles weigh about 600 pounds and even the heaviest weigh about 7,000 pounds. This order of magnitude reduction in weight results in very significant cost savings relative to existing transit technologies.

Highways also have to be built to support loads of several hundred thousand pounds. When I was at NYSDOT, we did a program of automated weighing of trucks on the highway and many were in the hundred thousand pound range. And the highway has to be built with the assumption that there will be back-to-back fully loaded trucks in all lanes. (Highways collapse occasionally but not as a result of overloading.)

Also, as primarily elevated systems, AT technologies avoid the costly problem of utility relocation. They also reduce the amount of disturbance created during construction by having relatively small foot prints. Many AT systems are designed to operate on the shoulders and medians of existing highways so many of environmental problems associated with the construction of new transportation infrastructure are avoided.

On an operating budget basis, the single greatest expense in operating a transit system is the labor cost of operating the trains and stations. The fundamental design advance presented by Automated Transit is that these costs are entirely eliminated. There are other areas of savings in the operating budget in the realms of vehicle utilization, the ability to more efficiently match service to demand with smaller vehicles, etc. but suffice it to say that all AT technologies claim to be able to achieve significant savings per passenger mile compared to existing transit technologies.

With the relatively greater ridership resulting from the higher quality service and faster trip speeds, increased number of stations, etc, and the possible potential to charge premium fares relative to existing transit modes, AT technologies may not only recover all their operating costs but could possibly contribute to the amortization of capital costs. Some AT backers claim that in well-designed systems, their technologies will generate sufficient revenues to cover all capital costs. I don't believe that the realization of such claims is necessary to justify the proposition that the federal government should invest significant resources in a demonstration of Automated Transit.

Let's not forget that as a closed loop system, the value of any component of the system increases as a function of the growth of the entire system. One of the great things about automobiles is that in addition to being a go anytime system, they are a go anywhere system (actually in really congested areas they are becoming less viable on both counts which is why this discussion is badly needed). Closed loop systems are subject to the network effect in which the value of any particular node is a function of the square (minus one) of the number of nodes. So as systems grow and add stations, the number of origin-destination pairs will increase, thus increasing the value of the entire system at an exponential rate. This is simply a long-winded way of saying that the initial systems will tend to be small and thus less attractive and that any evaluation of their merit should take into consideration that larger systems will tend to be more cost-effective than smaller systems.

The system designs provided by Automated Transit technologies are ideally suited to the transportation requirements of the suburban metropolitan corridors where virtually all job creation has taken place in this country for the last 40 years.

What we all know here is that the modern journey-to-work is much more complex than it was prior to the development of the Interstate Highway system. The modern journey-to-work is spatially and temporally complex. It is spatially complex since residential densities have dropped and employment tends to by located in dense but isolated clusters of individual buildings that lack convenient pedestrian access to one another. This market can not be served by traditional high capacity transit systems because there is no logical place to locate stations. When I say temporally complex, I refer to the fact that the 8-4 or 9-5 workday is pretty much relegated to history. With the rise of two income families, contract labor, temporary labor, and the transition from manufacturing to services as a bulwark of the economy, it is now necessary to provide fast, frequent service for most, if not all, hours of the day. Traditional transit can not provide this level of service efficiently.

Automated transit technologies address both these requirements by providing lots of off-line stations (which can be located adjacent to the front doors of building in office parks or even in the sky lobbies in some cases) and by providing 24-hour a day service.

There are those who would reject the proposed resolution that the group should support a federal investment in Automated Transit on two grounds.

Some would say that even though traffic congestion is a problem, the market is already solving it. The solution is sprawl. This is, in fact, the market response to traffic congestion. As the regional cost of transportation increases (due to increased congestion), the locus of new investment shifts to more remote locations. While there is room to debate whether or not greenfield developers (and their tenants) truly assume all the costs that they incur upon society, sprawl is the civil libertarians' solution to the problem of traffic congestion.

A subset of this argument is the OPAC (Obsolete, Pre-Automotive Cities) discussion, that the urban form created during the street car era is fundamentally flawed and should be allowed to pass into history.

The problem with this argument is that some of the worst congestion takes place in areas such as the Nassau Hub on Long Island and the I-287 Cross Westchester Expressway Corridor north of New York City in Rockland and Westchester Counties. These are regions which were created during the automotive era and they are choking on their traffic. Average arterial speeds in the Nassau Hub are reaching mid-town Manhattan levels of under 7 mph for much of the day.

A policy of sprawl (i.e. planned obsolescence of entire urban forms  including suburban metropolitan counties) may be appropriate policy when there is no viable alternative, but it is neither acceptable nor cost-effective when viable alternatives do potentially exist.

From a public planning/policy point of view it makes no sense to passively accept a policy of active abandonment of once viable urban infrastructure. In the I-287 Cross Westchester Expressway region there is now enough abandoned office space in that corridor to fulfill Westchester's office space requirements for years to come, yet building continues in the greenfield areas in northern Westchester County in the virgin territory around I-684. The abandonment of the office space in the I-287 corridor in the face of rising demand for office space in the broader market represents a colossal failure of the transportation network to meet the practical requirements of the existing market.

Automated Transit backers claim that their technology can significantly relieve traffic congestion in regions such as the I-287 corridor and the Nassau Hub. These claims are too important to be ignored. A research program to verify or reject these claims is warranted by the potential efficiencies that can be realized through the extended life span of existing public infrastructure.

Others would argue that the solution is more roads.

But, as the Texas Transportation Institute's (TTI) Urban Mobility Report points out, for some reason, cities have not been able to keep up with traffic congestion through the construction of more roads. Even those cities with aggressive road building campaigns can only blunt the growth of congestion. One of the problems is that the costs, both political and financial, of adding road capacity in the most crowded regions, increases as a function of the existing crowding. One does not have to agree with the notion presented by the Surface Transportation Policy Project that many, if not most capacity enhancement projects, create more delay during construction than they can ever relieve in operation to realize that the space simply does not exist for the Nassau Hub to solve its transportation problem by building more roads.

AT backers present credible claims that increments of capacity could be more cost-effectively created through the construction of AT systems than through the addition of new auto lane-miles in congested regions.

Some would claim that if AT is as good as it claims to be then it should be able to attract enough private capital to fully demonstrate its effectiveness and thus no government role is necessary. As one who has held extensive discussions with a wide variety of sources of private capital over the past seven years, I can state unequivocally that this assertion is unfounded. There is no private capital available for such a demonstration. Sources of venture capital rise as one when they report that since the government will be the primary customer for AT systems, the government should finance the demonstration of the technology. I will say that there are relatively small amounts of "angel" funds available but these funds are too limited to provide a full scale demonstration.

Others would argue that there is no compelling federal interest here, that these systems will address local transportation bottlenecks and should be financed by state or local governments. This argument fails on two counts. First, traffic congestion is a national problem and since it is arguably the result of the decision of the federal government to create the interstate highway system, it should be addressed by the federal government. Second, the risks of a new transportation technology are too great for any local government to assume especially in the context that the benefits will be shared nationally. Only with federal funding will the risks and the benefits vest in the same organization.

Some would argue that the benefits of Automated Transit are overstated, that no transit technology can make any significant difference, and that therefore no federal investment is justified. This argument is tautological. It is the argument of applied ignorance. If we don't know something, then by not exploring it, we will continue to not know it.

What we do know is that traffic congestion exists; that it is an expensive problem; that there is no known solution; and that there are a bunch of crazy people who claim that they have a potential solution.

Some would argue that the wisdom of the federal government, especially the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is such that if it made sense to invest in a demonstration of Automated Transit then the government would already be doing it.

In fact, the FTA has no budget for research and development beyond funding "incremental improvements in proven technologies". In others, millions for new formulations of graffiti resistant paint but not one nickel for Automated Transit. There is nothing facetious about this reasoning. The FTA acknowledges that it is not in the business of solving transportation problems, it exists merely to serve the needs of its clients defined as local transit agencies and their elected representatives. It is structurally incapable of developing new solutions without a strong external impetus. This organizational inertia is not a function of the value or potential value of the available innovations, it is strictly internal. That is one of the reasons I am promoting this debate here. Somebody needs to give the FTA a good kick in the pants.

Some would argue that the Federal Government has already been down this road with the implementation of the Morgantown system which is an Automated Transit system and that the technology demonstration failed to display any net benefits. This argument is false. Morgantown has a reputation as a failure due to lousy management on the part of the government managers. The major "failure" of Morgantown was that it overshot its budget by about 1000%. This was a problem but it was not a problem attributable to the underlying technology. First, the demonstration project was underfunded to begin with. Second, the project was farmed out to the underemployed group at Boeing that had just lost the SST project and they knew nothing about (a) transit and (b) transit costs. Third, this group of aerospace/defense contractor engineers was given an entirely unreasonable time schedule of about 16 months to design and build the system from scratch. This unreasonable time schedule (designed to produce a ribbon cutting prior to the 1972 election) resulted in construction techniques and practices in which cost became "no object". Amazingly enough, what this project demonstrated was that if you give a defense contractor a difficult task, an impossible time schedule, and an unlimited budget, lots of money will actually be spent. The logic of stopping research into Automated Transit because Morgantown ran over budget would be the equivalent of saying that since we had $400 toilet seats, we shouldn't have an Air Force. In fact, Morgantown is a very successful transit system. It is safe, efficient and reliable.

There are a large number of issues that could be resolved with a demonstration system: there are issues of cost: Can the projected operating and capital budget cost savings be realized?; there are issues of passenger appeal: Will the projected benefits of Automated Transit actually be sufficient to attract a significant number of passengers? How will passengers react to the safety concerns raised by driverless vehicles, especially at night? How will the public respond to elevated guideways in their neighborhood?; there are issues of technology: How will passenger interface issues be addressed? How will empty vehicle management be handled? How will pulse problems be handled (large numbers of passengers either leaving or wanting to travel to a single destination (i.e.at the end of a sporting event or the interface with a high capacity commuter train at an intermodal station); there are issues of finance: how can a financial model be structured to balance costs and benefits to create systems of a size and comprehensiveness sufficient to attract a critical mass of ridership?

A comprehensive federal program would involve a commitment of approximately $1-2billion over a ten year period. This money could be phased in slowly with a number of small demonstrations of different technologies in different applications. Once initial questions of technological performance, cost and customer acceptance have been addressed, one or two larger systems could be built to determine if this technology could become a solution to regional mobility issues.

It is only reasonable that the Federal Government should undertake such a program.

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Last modified: October 11, 2003