Redefining Transit: What Works, What Doesn’t?

Driverless cars and advanced ride-sharing technologies could completely change what we conceive of as transit; beware the "sunk costs" of today's "solutions."

Redefining Transit: What Works, What Doesn’t?
Driverless cars could have a major impact on transit usage and traffic congestion but that may depend on how often they carry multiple passengers at once, during peak travel hours. Photo: Alan.

Public transit like light rail and bus lines are often promoted as ways to address traffic congestion in major metro regions including greater Seattle. But some transportation experts say no matter how much money is spent expanding transit infrastructure it won’t get cars off the road. Instead, they argue what works could likely involve new automotive technology such as driverless cars for solo passengers and especially, ride-sharers.

“When you try to make transit do things it can’t do, it fails and it fails badly,” said Tom Rubin during a speech Thursday at the Solutions Summit staged by the Washington Policy Center (WPC) in Bellevue.

Rubin is an Oakland-based mass transit consultant and formerly served as controller-treasurer of the Southern California Rapid Transit District. He’s also written numerous papers on transportation issues for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

One 2013 Reason study he co-authored analyzed the 74 largest urbanized areas in the U.S. over a 26-year period. It found that increased transit did not lead to reduced traffic congestion. Nor was there any correlation between fewer transit options and worse traffic conditions.

One simple explanation is for this is that transit “just doesn’t work for very many people,” said Rubin. “Don’t try to make it do what it can’t do.”

Transit Travel Times To Many Jobs Are Too Long

Transit can provide lower-income people with transportation options, he said. The problem is they are the least likely to benefit from the current transit infrastructure in both the Puget Sound region as well as the nation as a whole. Rubin said that’s because transit doesn’t get them where they need to go within a reasonable time.

A 2011 Brookings Institute study found that only one-third of Seattle region jobs were accessible to metro residents within 90 minutes through transit although 85 percent of working-age residents live near a transit stop.

The 2011 study also found that nationally it’s much the same, including “potentially large accessibility problems” to jobs via transit “for workers in growing low-income suburban communities.”

Rubin said trying to add more transit just leads to “very expensive solutions that turn out not to work and cost too much.”

It’s a charge some critics have leveled against Sound Transit’s proposed ST3 package. If approved it would include 58 miles of light rail and 39 new stations at an estimated total cost of $50 billion over 25 years. However, some are worried that taxpayers won’t get anything for certain except a tax increase.

Transit ridership trends across the country show scant annual average growth over the last two decades, from the macro-level view. Between 1993 and 2014, transit increased from 3.7 percent to 5.85 percent of the total daily passenger miles traveled in the country, according to Rubin.

Expanded Capacity Via Ride-Shares In Driverless Cars?

Rather than adding more transit, some transportation experts like Steve Marshall hope driverless cars will make better use of the current transportation infrastructure.

Marshall, who also spoke at WPC’s Thursday summit, is the executive director of the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions (CATES). It’s a Washington state-based research and development organization.

One of the benefits of driverless cars is that they respond to traffic conditions better than humans, he said. This could mean fewer accidents and consequently fewer traffic jams. Driverless cars might triple existing road capacity through more efficient use, said Rubin. Another possibility is more efficient use of parking space.

Bellevue real estate developer Kemper Freeman is also a proponent of self-driving cars as a private sector solution to transportation. Freeman is the CEO of Kemper Development Company, which operates Bellevue Square mall in downtown Bellevue.

He told Lens that self-driving Ubers and rideshares could do more than just improve road capacity. The convenience of using them might also eliminate the need for many people to even own a car at all. And unlike transit projects the benefits won’t require shaking down taxpayers, Freeman added.

New Road Usage Charges Could Further Incentivize Ride-Sharing

Still, there’s no silver bullet to improving transportation, said Rubin. A comprehensive approach is needed that relies on a variety of other tools such as a road user charge (RUC) fee. That’s a milage-based charging framework.

According to a 2014 report to the Washington state legislature’s transportation committee chairpersons, 10 western and inland states are coordinating early planning on cross-boundary cooperation around RUCs in the future. The states are Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Texas.

Washington has also been investigating an RUC approach in a series of legislatively-funded reports to the state’s transportation commission.

Depending how the approach is implemented by legislators, the increasingly ineffective gas tax could be phased out, and financial incentives baked into a state’s RUC framework could make ride-sharing even more attractive in urban regions.

Marshall advocates public-private ridesharing partnerships that target the most congested hours during the day. States like Washington can also encourage companies developing driverless technology to conduct research and testing in their regions. It’s an idea Marshall advocated at a Wednesday meeting with the state Transportation Commission.

While transit can’t replace the road system, Rubin said it will be hard to tell if driverless cars will bring the road benefits they hope.

We’re going off into uncharted territory, he said.

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