The vaunted Pioneer Institute, that of free marketry and good government, has a contest out which solicits plans to “move people and goods forward.” (Your fearless blogger is preparing an entry.) They encourage many people to apply, and say
If you are a rider, driver, transit employee, or simply an observer, we invite you to share how you would improve your commute, from immediate issues around parking, communication, safety, and station repair and design, to big ideas that will reduce congestion, advance bus rapid transit, and double the number of commuter rail riders.
So imagine my surprise when a Pioneer acolyte, Charlie Chieppo (along with a professor at D’Amore-McKim … which I’ll abbreviate as “Dim” because that’s my impression of the intellect of anyone associated with this article), goes into the pages of the Globe to argue that, no, we don’t need Commuter Rail, because it will be replaced by self-driving cars in no time. Also, come on, Boston Globe, you’re above this. (Oh, wait, except for Jeff Jacoby, he of amazing Twitter ratios. The man has no shame, so that’s something.)
As for the article: where to start? This basically hits every trope of the “cars are going to save us” argument that people make without even the faintest clue of how self driving cars are (or aren’t) working, and thinking about, you know, what you do with cars when people get out of them. But this is so chock-full of nonsense it makes sense to critique it line-by-line. Grab a beverage and hang on, because here we go. (Original in plain text indented, my comments in italics)
Self-driving cars could make commuter rail obsolete
The could. Anything could. Unicorns and puppies could. Let’s see if you can make a cogent argument. I’m ready to put on my surprised hat.
The rise of shared electric self-driving cars and the transition from a world of ownership to one of consumers purchasing transportation as a service holds the promise of significant economic, environmental, and quality-of-life benefits.
Wait, this is being written in present tense? Because outside of a few very few minor prototypes, there are literally no self-driving electric cars. Certainly not operating on roads. Maybe they mean Teslas, which are electric, but are pretty far from self-driving, although they do have a tendency to self-drive their drivers in to stationary objects. Waymo, which is way ahead of Tesla on the tech front, has a CEO pointing out that not only are self-driving cars decades away, they may never be able to fully drive themselves. So let’s not pretend that this is something that is a couple of years away. Because it’s been a couple of years away for a few years now. So, maybe, use the future tense here.
But it will also pose an existential threat to public transportation in general and to commuter rail in particular.
Because … let’s see. Commuter Rail has been the least-affected by Uber and Lyft, which are basically self-driving cars with drivers. They have the same utility, and Commuter Rail ridership has gone up in the past few years (more on this in a moment). But, sure, go on.
The first recommendation in the December report from Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation is “Prioritize investment in public transit as the foundation for a robust, reliable, clean, and efficient transportation system.” In broad terms, the commission is right. But maximizing potential benefits from the unprecedented disruption of surface transportation that lies ahead will also require fundamental change at the MBTA and a hard look at which transit modes are positioned to compete in a brave new world.
Do we have any idea of what this brave new world holds? No, we do not. And why not? Because fifteen years ago Segways were the future. Three years ago we were all going to be riding hover boards. No one knows the future. Sure, we should probably think about contingencies. But we should also invest in what we have now that, you know, exists.
The commission’s charge was to look at the Commonwealth’s needs and challenges over the next 20 years. But if that horizon is extended to 40 years,
But it’s not. It’s 20 years. Why? Maybe because no one can predict the future in 40 years. In 1890, would anyone have predicted the coming of the car by 1930? In 1930—when biplanes ruled the day—would anyone have foreseen the 747 in 1970? In 1970, when gas cost a quarter a gallon, would anyone have seen $4 gas and global warming, but no flying cars or Jetsons highways? The only constant from 1970 is that cars cause traffic and traffic sucks. And you’re proposing more cars. Go on.
station-to-station service to the suburbs is unlikely to be very attractive in a world where shared electric self-driving cars will offer much faster door-to-door service at a price that won’t be much higher.
Where to begin with this word-salad. Station-to-station works because it’s a nice straight line from the city to the suburbs. Door-to-door sounds good, especially if it’s much faster, but this relies on the completely fallible assumption that somehow cars are going to solve traffic. In a region which now has the worst traffic in the country. Self-driving cars are likely to increase vehicle miles traveled (just as Uber and Lyft have), and thus congestion. The reason people take the train is that it is faster than driving (as well as cheaper than parking). And don’t show me some perfect model, because the Occam’s Razor is “you put a lot more cars on the road and you’ll get more congestion.”
Drivers are normally the largest expense for any transportation business. It currently costs about 55 cents a mile to operate a vehicle with a single occupant. But it’s estimated that the cost could fall to 15 cents a mile for autonomous vehicles carrying two or three passengers, which would significantly reduce public transit’s price advantage.
Again, the cost of driving is generally not the only reason people take Commuter Rail. The time also is. And, yes, maybe the cars will make this faster. But the jury is long out on that. Also, should we not invest in Commuter Rail, which is much more efficient at moving people than cars, for 40 years with the hope that maybe cars will somewhat get more efficient even though they haven’t—space-wise—uh, ever? That doesn’t sound like planning for the future. Also, according to this, most of the efficiency of a car comes from sharing, since 45¢ split three ways is 15¢, so not much off of 55¢. And, hey, slugging works … in a couple of dense markets with very specific conditions, most notably carpool lanes which can bypass traffic (again, time ≥ money). Those aren’t a bad idea, but can’t really replace Commuter Rail. Also, many people want to be matched with three people, not two, for safety in numbers. This is a feature of slugging, but makes the matching harder and the trips take longer. Also, if you have door-to-door service, you necessarily have a portion of the trip with two people. This isn’t terribly easy to do.
Connected vehicles will also dramatically reduce human error, resulting in big increases in throughput thanks to variables like higher travel speeds, less space between vehicles and less frequent braking in response to accidents and other travel events.
Oh, here’s the second BINGO square they’re checking off. This is nonsense. First of all, connected vehicles will leave more space between cars than people do today, because drivers today generally follow too close. Second, they may deal with some of human reaction time, which is solvable. The problem is that at highway speeds, this accounts for about 15% of braking time. The other 85% is physics. That’s a little harder to solve.
In the future, agencies like the MBTA will probably subsidize trips that are currently taken on commuter rail rather than operate them. Even with the transportation transformation in its infancy, Florida’s Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which serves the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, eliminated some bus routes further from the urban core, after it experienced an 11 percent overall drop in ridership, and replaced them with subsidies for Uber and Lyft rides. Since then, over 25 US communities have established similar partnerships — and the disruption caused by ride-hailing services is minuscule compared with what is to come.
Ah, yes, the transit mecca of … Tampa-St. Petersburg? Which has 57% the population of Boston and 3% of the transit ridership? (NTD data here and here) That seems like a great comparison. We should aspire to be the same Tampa-St. Pete which is well known as the strip club capital of the world? World class city, indeed!
No. It hasn’t. This is based off a Pioneer Institute study which selectively chooses a start and end to argue that Commuter Rail ridership is down. But this is based on data which basically useless, the T has all but admitted that outside of a ridership report in 2012, they really have no idea how many people are taking Commuter Rail. So the authors could have pled ignorance last month. Except that a couple of weeks ago, a new report came out, an actual rider count, and the numbers are pretty clear: Commuter Rail ridership is up. Way up. Up on every line. Up 20% in six years. Up nearly 50% on the Worcester Line. So this is just false. I can’t wait until Pioneer comes out a report that argues that the sky is green, the Pope is most decidedly not Catholic, bears defecate anywhere but the woods, and Commuter Rail ridership is down.
Nonetheless, it will remain with us for the next couple of decades. It still needs to be improved, but massive investments in new lines like South Coast Rail or, even worse, Springfield, would be a fool’s errand.
It’s been with us since 1834, so yes, that’s probably true. And we can debate the intelligence of extensions to Commonwealth’s 3rd, 6th and 10th largest cities (and I’d suggest there are certainly better ways to do so for South Coast Rail and that service to Springfield is probably more of a political issue than anything else). But let’s not pretend that people going to Springfield are going to want to get in to a car with two or three strangers for a two hour ride to Springfield. If you sit next to a smelly UberPool passenger on your way across town, you can hold your nose. If you sit next to a smelly person on the train, you can switch seats. If you’re on your way to Springfield, once you’re on the Pike, you’re on the Pike. Whoops.
The biggest challenge for the future will be making transit work in congested downtown areas. One Boston traffic simulation model showed that while shared autonomous vehicles would reduce travel times and the number of vehicles on the road even as total miles traveled rose by 16 percent overall, downtown travel times would be 5.5 percent longer because the vehicles would substitute for transit use.
Correct. Although actually this is usually the type of relationship where congestion goes up faster than vehicle miles traveled. But, correct. Something about stopped clocks and blind squirrels.
Rising to this challenge will require focusing more investment in the urban core. But success will require something more: changing the MBTA’s top priority from providing jobs and pensions to serving its riders.
During a three-year exemption from the Commonwealth’s costly anti-privatization law, the T dramatically improved performance in areas such as cash collection and reconciliation and warehousing and logistics, and saved millions. Despite this success, there was nary a peep about extending the exemption or making it permanent.
Can’t be from Pioneer if you don’t have a non-sequitur about privatization. What that has to do with focusing on the urban core is beyond me. Also, where do you think the destination of most Commuter Rail ridership is? Also, isn’t Commuter Rail privatized? My head is spinning.
Few would argue that the MBTA is skilled at putting customers first.
Well, a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The question is whether — in the face of an existential threat to public transit and with far less margin of error — political leaders, bureaucrats, and unions can change the authority’s culture and begin to lay the groundwork that will allow the T to perform the way we’ll desperately need it to in the future.
We’re back to Commuter Rail. Is this about privatization or Commuter Rail? Was the first two thirds of the article about Commuter Rail so we could segue to an argument for privatizing something which is already privatized? I’m really confused. Also: does the Globe have editors?
Part of that culture change will be recognizing that commuter rail is poorly positioned to compete over the long-term.
This article has offered exactly zero evidence to support this claim. None.
When the Patriots win the 2060 Super Bowl, stories about a suburban rail network overwhelmed with riders are likely to generate the same reaction as when we tell our kids about having to get up and walk to the television to change the channel.
First of all, Tom Brady will be 82 when the 2060 Super Bowl takes place. Also, football may not be a sport we recognize. And the Patriots, without Brady or Belichick, will be like any of the other 32 teams, giving them a 3.1% chance of winning Super Bowl XCIV. So there’s a 3.1% chance that the Patriots win the 2060 Super Bowl. And, I’d say, a 3.1% chance we don’t have a Commuter Rail network then, either.
Here’s the rub: Commuter Rail (and transit in general) is really quite good at moving many people in to a small space. Cars are singularly bad at this. A lane of cars carries about 1600 people per hour, even with two or three people in each, it may be able to handle 4000. Commuter Rail, as it runs today, carries more than this, but Commuter Rail, as it’s run today, is woefully inefficient. Electrified rail service with level boarding platforms (relatively small investments, compared to the cost of building the rights-of-way which already exist) can increase this five-fold. A well-functioning Commuter Rail line should be able to carry 10,000 passengers per hour, more than a roadway can, no matter who’s driving (unless there’s a bus lane with a bus terminal at the end).
As Jarrett Walker likes to point out: transit is a question of geometry. You can make all the taxi-summoning apps you want, but cars still take up a lot of space. (Remember, at rush hour, Commuter Rail brings in about as many people to Boston as highways do.) Get rid of Commuter Rail, even if everyone carpools (and people who don’t take Commuter Rail already probably won’t want to) and you’ll increase cars coming in to the city by a lot. And then where do those cars go? In to garages? Not enough garages. (No, they won’t go back out to the suburbs to fetch more people; rush hour is over by then.) They’ll probably do what Ubers and Lyfts do: drive more miles without passengers. Congratulations, you’ve traded parking in the city for parking outside the city and more vehicle miles traveled.
But, yes, Commuter Rail is going away.