More Obsolete Than Ever

Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic tracker Inrix, argues in the Seattle Times that proposed new light-rail lines will be “obsolete before they are built.” Specifically, he says, automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles–which he abbreviates as ACES–are already changing how people travel, and those changes are accelerating.

Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail. This, Mistele points out, is more than twice the cost of the Panama Canal expansion, yet isn’t likely to produce any significant benefits.

A rail advocate named Joe responds in the Seattle Weekly by calling self-driving cars “snake oil” similar to predictions in the 1950s that supposedly said everyone would be flying around in helicopters. Joe betrays ignorance about traffic, suggesting that a freeway that is congested with stop-and-go traffic could not possibly support any more cars even if they were self-driving. In fact, a road with stop-and-go traffic can move only half as many cars per hour as one with free-flowing traffic, and free-flowing traffic spaces cars six or seven car-lengths apart. Self-driving cars could easily beat that.

More important, Joe seems to think that light rail can move a lot of people. In fact, its capacity is far lower than busways or subways and not much more than a single freeway lane. In fact, only one light-rail line in the country carries as many people as half a freeway lane.

In the other Washington, the Post asks, “Is the Silver Line to Blame for All of Metro’s Woes?” The DC region was certainly foolish to build the Silver Line, which drew resources away from maintaining the rest of the system, reduced the capacity of the at-capacity Blue Line, and will add to the system’s maintenance woes in the future.

The article accurately points out that the funds for the Silver Line came from different sources than are available for maintenance and that the push for the Silver Line came from Virginia politicians, not Metro. But this merely illustrates what’s wrong with our transportation funding process. As the article quotes the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Tom Rubin, “We can get money to expand, but we can’t get money to maintain.” Just because regions can get that money doesn’t mean they should take it, and they especially shouldn’t take it if they can’t maintain what they already have.

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14 thoughts on “More Obsolete Than Ever

  1. Henry Porter

    “The DC region was certainly foolish to build the Silver Line, which drew resources away from maintaining the rest of the system, reduced the capacity of the at-capacity Blue Line, and will add to the system’s maintenance woes in the future.”?

    The Antiplanner and others have become sloppy with their use of the term “capacity”. Capacity doesn’t change with usage. Highway capacity doesn’t change with fluctuations in traffic. The capacity of a gallon jug doesn’t change with the amount of liquid in it and the jug cannot contain more than gallon.

    Drawing resources away from maintaining the rest of the Metro system might have reduced the “usage” or the “ridership” on the Blue Line but it didn’t reduce the “capacity” of the Blue Line.

    This sounds picky but it leads to idiot statements like this, taken from a multimillion dollar passenger rail feasibility study: “traffic volumes exceed roadway capacity by more than 25 percent.”

  2. OFP2003

    The Blue Line uses the same tracks as the Silver LIne. They had to reduce the number of Blue Line trains that were running in order to accommodate the Silver Line trains.
    THEREFORE
    They reduced the capacity of the Blue Line. Less Trains = Less Capacity.

  3. Frank

    “Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail.”

    This reminds me that it’s time to see the Space Needle one last time—in the rear view mirror.

  4. NoDakNative

    “Henry Porter

    Capacity doesn’t change with usage. Highway capacity doesn’t change with fluctuations in traffic. The capacity of a gallon jug doesn’t change with the amount of liquid in it and the jug cannot contain more than gallon.”

    You have made what is known as a “Catagory Mistake”. The capacity of a freeway is like that of a pipeline, it is measured in rate of flow and consists of both volume and time. A gallon is a static unit of volume with no time component. Thus your comparison fails.

    The capacity of a pipeline changes depending on what you are pumping through it. Light Sweet crude flows at a diffrent rate than Heavy Sour crude, which flows at a different rate than diesel or natural gas.

    Likewise, a freeway where cars drive 60mph 5 car lengths apart has a diffrent capacity than one where cars drive 60mph 1 car length apart.

  5. NoDakNative

    As someone who likes the history of technology, it seems to me that the only reason people can support this foolishness is because they either profit from it in some way or are ignorant of why they did things the way they did back then.

    The reason people started building rail transport was because the power sources of the time sucked. The only way to move larger loads was to use the power they did have more efficiently. That method was by reducing rolling resistance by using rails made of wood, iron topped wood, and finally iron.

    Even back then building railroads was fiendishly expensive. Iron itself was an expencive commodity for much of the 19th century. Then figure in all the resources to grade the route and construct the track.

    The benefit of this was that once you were done you could move large loads over long distances with locomotives that put out less horsepower than a modern pickup. It was still only really ecenomical to haul loads that took up an entire train car or train. Loading, unloading, sorting, switching, coupling, and decoupling smaller loads took lots of time and resources than full car or full train loads. It was always a very expensive and inflexible for that.

    Once internal combustion engine technology improved enough, things changed. With better power sources, vehicles didn’t need rails. Roads are much easier and much cheaper to build and maintain than rail, especially when using concrete and asphalt. Routing no longer requires train yards and dispatchers. Signaling is greatly simplified.

    Rail continues to excel at what it is good at, moving whole train loads over long distances while loads it was poorly suited to, passengers and smaller loads, are taken by truck and car.

    Rail over short distances for passengers makes no ecenomic sense, as frequent starts and stops consume any energy savings the lower rolling resistance might get you. On top of that you still have the inflexibility and high construction and maintenance costs of rail vs roads.

  6. msetty

    So we’re supposed to rearrange our cities and societies so the technological fetish of some for self-driving cars can be fulfilled, regardless of the actual needs of people. Ha!

    http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/01/opinions/tesla-self-driving-car-fatality-rushkoff/index.html

    As the linked article points out, current thinking about automobiles is along the lines of the naive thinking behind the obsolete technologies discussed here and here. Unlike a century ago, enough people now aren’t so dazzled by technology so a dishonest PR campaign comparable to “Jay Walking” stands much less chance of success now (I suppose someone will argue Internet and smart phones, but those truly revolutionary technologies are not in the same context as shoe leather, concrete (invented originally by the Romans) and railroad tracks) .

    And in contrast to the United States and its one-off experiment with auto-based suburbia, rail and rail transit is not going extinct any time soon, particularly if you look at places like India, China, Japan and Europe.

  7. msetty

    And if anyone thinks “solar powered light rail” isn’t plausible, these links:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_farm

    http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/wmg/research/hvmcatapult/research/rail/vlr/ (full self-contained electrification a minor technical issue dependent on improved batteries and super-capacitors).

    http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/First-Grid-Scale-Rail-Energy-Storage-Project-Gets-Environmental-Approval-Fr “Obsolete” (sic) railroad technology makes renewable energy technologically, and more importantly, economically feasible at all times of day, not just when the wind blows or the sun shines.

  8. metrosucks

    What a surprise! Despite the constant embarrassments and failures of rail transit, msetty is never afraid to (bravely) stand up for a boondoggle!

  9. Not Sure

    “So we’re supposed to rearrange our cities and societies so the technological fetish of some for self-driving cars can be fulfilled, regardless of the actual needs of people.”

    As opposed to rearranging our cities and societies so last century’s technological fetish for little choo-choo trains can be fulfilled, regardless of the actual needs of people? Is that about right?

  10. CapitalistRoader

    …but those truly revolutionary technologies are not in the same context as shoe leather, concrete (invented originally by the Romans) and railroad tracks) .

    I don’t think the tracks were the revolutionary technology, rather it was the external combustion engine. And an argument can be made that the internal combustion engine was equally revolutionary because it brought economical power to the individual.

  11. Henry Porter

    “The Blue Line uses the same tracks as the Silver LIne.”

    I did not know that. Thanks for the clarification.

    My apologies to the Antiplanner.

  12. Henry Porter

    “You have made what is known as a ‘Catagory Mistake’.”

    I made an analogy. An analogy is meant to simplify, not complicate. Using the flow of different materials in a pipe would have just confused the point–which is what you did.

    The point is that neither a pipe nor a train nor a road nor a jug can carry more than its capacity. If it does, it suggests the “capacity” needs to be increased.

    (P. S., You made what’s known as a spelling mistake.)

  13. prk166

    “And if anyone thinks “solar powered light rail” isn’t plausible” ~msetty

    When the leader in solar has solar name plate capacity to produce around 61% of the country’s electricty and it only produces 4% of the electricity in the country, solar powered light rail is not plausible. In fact, it’s about as likely to happen as bean stalk growing into the sky for Jack to climb.

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