Talkin’ Transit: Future

Photo courtesy of
’31/395 – Daunting Entrance’
courtesy of ‘andrew.cohen’

In the mass transit world it always seems like it’s “us vs. them”. The drivers, with their greedy, self-centered, insistence that they have to drive everywhere vs. the saintly public transit lovers who are sure that you’ll love it if you tried it. Or, another way, the drivers, with their need to drive into their jobs from far away vs. the hippies who have no idea what it takes to get into work in the morning.

Yes, those are slightly exaggerated caricatures. And, yes, there haven’t been any pitched battles (yet). But the reality is that each side in the transit game is deeply entrenched. Car owners are loathto give them up, even when they have a transit option; transit lovers want, through increasing expense, to drive more people to public transportation. For many, it’s a binary situation, good vs. evil, black and white, ones and zeros.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There’s no sane way to remove all (most, or even a sizable small fraction) of the cars from the road. For one thing, the infrastructure isn’t there: Metro and all of the regional transit agencies together couldn’t handle the load. Metrorail is averaging about 735,000 rides a day on weekdays (over the last 14 weekdays), and system capacity is roughly a million rides. And that capacity is only when the system is running 8-car trains in automatic mode.

Photo courtesy of
‘commuting in a storm’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99′

So, while reducing car traffic is probably good policy for many reasons (pollution, congestion, sprawl), we’re at a bit of a standoff. You can only take so many cars out of the system before public transport becomes untenable (some would say Metro is already there). To increase Metro’s capacity (or, even, just to bring it to its full design limits) will cost a large fortune.

In addition, this country, for better or for worse, was designed around the car. We can lament that all we want, but it seems that what a large number of people want are large stores with deep discounts, and they don’t fit into small walkable neighborhoods (Costco at Pentagon Center might be the exception, but walking in that neighborhood isn’t exactly easy). Unless you live in a small neighborhood and have access to grocery stores and other daily shopping needs, you’re going to have to use a car at some point.

And that’s not going to change in the suburbs for decades or longer. Automotive technology also seems not to be moving fast enough for the introduction of a flying family car soon, and science seems to be damn slow in getting those teleporters to work. We’re going to have to live with the car for a very long time.

I think our governments (not just the feds, but large states like California and New York, too) should push car manufacturers to much higher standards of efficiency. Sixty or more MPG should be doable given a mandate. We should also look to fund and agree on a standard system of automated control for cars. If cars can talk to each other, the roadway, GPS, and their owner, we could look at a future where certain highways (or lanes, if we’re going to be pragmatic) are only open to these automated cars. And those cars could be lighter and smaller. “Commuter bubbles” that will get you to work efficiently and quickly, while still allowing you to wander the side streets under your control to pick up the groceries from Wegmans.

Photo courtesy of
‘Side Mirror’
courtesy of ‘macmoov’

Once this is a reality, perhaps cities can convert their main thoroughfares into automated roadways, allowing for wide scale deployment of these vehicles. ZipCar and others like them (possibly even municipalities) could have fleets of these automatic cars which might be cheaper to rent and more convenient than most forms of current public transport. Dedicated lanes with cars moving along or parked nearby, press a button, insert your credit card or SmarTrip, and the robot car shows up.

The robocars could have two flavors: drivable and fully automatic. The automated ones will take you to your stop, just like a bus would, using dedicated lanes. They’d be small enough (pods of two seaters, maybe) that they could overtake, making them very quick. The drivable ones would cost more to rent and would require a driver’s license associated with your SmarTrip (or other service).

Yes, all this seems pie-in-the-sky and very long term. It is. We need current needs met, but where do we put our balance of resources? Forcing more efficient cars seems to be the lowest-cost, greatest impact on environmental concerns, but how do we deal with capacity issues (congestion on the roads and in the Metro)? What are your ideas for helping reduce congestion, increase capacity, and making commuting less of a headache?

Born in Lebanon, Samer moved to DC to go to college. A lot of good that did him. Twenty-two years later, he still lives in the area. When he’s not writing for a blog or tweeting incessantly, he wanders the streets (and the globe) photographing whatever gets in his way.

4 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: Future

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Talkin’ Transit: Future » We Love DC -- Topsy.com

  2. “Smart” traffic lights that can use real-time data to manage traffic, and wider highways (i.e. 66).

    More people might use public transit if it were faster, so implement “express” lines that don’t stop between the suburbs and downtown. The orange line, for instance, fills up at Vienna through Falls Church–so why not take those full cars straight to DC rather than forcing those folks to stop 12 times before they get there?

    I’m an environmentalist who drives to work. I could take metro, but it’s more expensive, it takes over an hour (vs. 22 minute drive), and I get sick (both from germy people and motion) more often. I also don’t feel safe. For me it turned out to be a quality of life issue, though my car does average 34 mpg for my commute.

  3. I think we should designate one day a month “Take No Transit To Work Day” and just shut down Metro (rail and bus). Something tells me it wouldn’t be long before drivers were *begging* to throw more money at WMATA.

  4. I’ll note that passing a carbon tax or cap and trade would force urban planners and the auto industry to innovate. You can make the auto companies produce a fleet that gets a nominal 60mpg under the CAFE rules, but without putting a price on carbon, you will not get Americans to buy smaller cars. As driving gets more expensive, we’ll gradually get more efficient and smaller cars and more smart growth.