Reason #10 to Stop Subsidizing Transit
Driverless Cars Will Soon Replace It

“Ford is going to be mass-producing vehicles with full autonomy” by 2021, Ford CEO Mark Fields vowed last August. “That means there’s going to be no steering wheel, there’s not going to be a gas pedal, there’s not going to be a brake pedal, and of course, a driver is not going to be required.” These vehicles will not be for sale, at least immediately, but will be used “in a ride hailing or ride sharing service.”

And that means the end of mass transit, especially if–as RethinkX projects–shared driverless car services will cost far less than owning a car (meaning far less than 40 cents a mile, which is what Americans currently spend buying, operating, maintaining, and insuring cars). It also means an end to most congestion, even for people in human-driven cars, as new research finds that congestion will begin to decline when as few as 5 percent of cars on the road are autonomous.

Ford is far from the only company planning to provide such service–Waymo, Uber, and General Moters-Lyft are a few others–so shared, driverless cars are likely to rapidly spread across the country. Transit fares currently average about 28 cents a passenger mile, so if shared driverless cars are much less costly than 40 cents a mile, even subsidized transit will not be able to compete. Transit will survive only in places where population and/or job densities are too great to be easily served by driverless cars, which pretty much is limited to New York City and perhaps services to big-city downtowns with more than 200,000 jobs–namely Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington.

Despite this, transit agencies are furiously lobbying Congress to keep spending billions of dollars a year subsidizing the construction of streetcars, light rail, and other urban white elephants. Instead of spending more money on transit infrastructure they can’t afford to maintain, they need to start thinking about how they are going to phase themselves out of existence.

For example, too many transit agencies have huge unfunded pension and health-care liabilities. It will be hard for them to fulfill these obligations when they are no longer providing transit services. Rather than build expensive transit projects, their goal for the immediate future should be to fund those programs.

To the extent that transit agencies do build new infrastructure, it should be infrastructure that can also be used by driverless cars. That means new pavement for high-occupancy/toll lanes such as Denver’s Flatiron Flyer might make sense, but new rail transit absolutely does not. Nor do elaborate bus transit centers, which seem to be a way for smaller cities to spend federal transit pork.

Transit as we know it today will cease to exist within a decade or so. It is time to stop subsidizing an obsolete, backwards industry.

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19 thoughts on “Reason #10 to Stop Subsidizing Transit
Driverless Cars Will Soon Replace It

  1. LazyReader

    It seems ironic the auto industry is pushing ahead with a technology that may actually deter and reduce per capita auto ownership rates in the US. That may be a disaster waiting to happen. In the meantime you can pry my steering wheel from my cold dead HANDS!

  2. CapitalistRoader

    Just a guess: Automobile unit production probably won’t change much when cars are piloted by a computers instead of people. Ride sharing will reduce the quantity of cars demanded but that will be counteracted by an increase in demand due greatly reduced cost per mile. People will live further away from their jobs. The two hours per day spent commuting will become part of the workday instead o/f the dead time it is now for most people.

    From the U of IL article:

    “This latest research suggests that even the related technology available now – such as adaptive cruise control – has the power to improve traffic even before there are large numbers of autonomous vehicles on the road. ”

    Maybe that’s how AVs will reach acceptance, with intermediate steps in autonomy, like this Honda. And insurance companies will have the most influence over how much and how fast autonomous features are accepted. My insurance company recently sent me a device that I’m supposed to connect via Bluetooth to an app on my phone, ostensibly to reduce my insurance costs by proving that I drive less than 7500 miles/year. Certainly insurance companies will collect massive amounts of data with that device and they’ll analyze those data to figure out the risks associated with different driving conditions, charging drivers different premiums based on their individual risk profiles. An intermediate step for AV acceptance might be as simple as the percent of time a driver uses adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist, like in that Honda video. That is, the more you drive the car yourself, the higher your insurance premiums.

    In that case no one will be prying anyone’s hands off their steering wheels, at least initially. Rather, it will become prohibitively expensive to drive the car yourself.

  3. Frank

    msh!tty:

    “Antiplanner’s religious beliefs”
    “utter fantasy”
    “Ford chairman has been smoking” weed
    “others more thoughtful than The Antiplanner”
    “such bullshit”

    Another quality contribution from the vi@ gra swallowing troll.

    You think Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith’s (aka Susan Webber) MMT bullship don’t stink? What a dope. What are YOU smoking?

  4. Maddog

    I wrote this over at my blog”

    http://www.maddogslair.com/blog/the-antiplanner-has-an-ongoing-series-on-reasons-to-stop-subsidizing-transit

    There can be no doubt any longer that the self drive car will eliminate transit as we know it today outside of a few big cities, and there it will become an integrated part of the commute.

    Like the shift from the rural horse drawn carriage/urban streetcar to the auto nearly everything will change with this single alteration in technology. Prior to 1850 cities had to be tightly compact because there was very little public transportation. After 1850, rail, streetcars, and other public transportation sprang up, allowing the city to spread out, and become less dense, and less dangerous.

    This shift saw nearly everyone living in rural areas owning a horse, but nearly no one living in cities owning one. The problem is the horse has to eat every day, the stall must be cleaned, and the manure removed, regardless of whether ridden or not. Then there is the undesirable smell, and other problems.

    Today, the city is full of cars, where there once was highly limited access to personal transportation. The result has been the steady erosion of public transit as a way of moving people outside of New York.

    The Antiplanner leaves aside the fact that the current transition from the Industrial Age to the Technology Age will also cause dramatic changes to the way, and places we live and work. This is how all economic transition periods work. The transition from the Agriculture Age to the Industrial Age shifted us from an employment model where nearly everyone was an “independent contractor” mainly working for themselves as farmers, to a new system where a large portion of the population became (for the first time in history) wage earners. Cities sprung up to marry factories, with large pools of workers, this also allowed workers much greater access to a variety of employers, and better workers were able to command much greater wages than they ever could have as a farmer.

    These changes drove us to the economic situation we find ourselves in today. It also drove the need for ever increasing productivity, which just means the ability for workers to produce more in an hour than they could previously. This is where all of our wealth comes from.

    As the Antiplanner notes change is difficult, humans are highly resistant to change, and they are unwilling to accept that it is inevitable even when it is staring them in the face. So, we continue to have government bureaucrats lobbying for seriously misguided ideas long after they are obviously outdated. Transit has reached its sell by date, but the industry is not willing to understand this, and make sure that the transition is smooth, and beneficial, especially for the pensioned employees. This is a serious mistake, and in the case of the unions, probable a breach of the unions fiduciary duties to its members. Expect extensive litigation of this issue in the next decade as more, and more unions pension, and benefit plans enter bankruptcy.

    At the Antiplanner’s site MSetty most represents this inability to accept, or understand change, MSetty says, “We’re supposed to take The Antiplanner’s religious beliefs seriously, and totally rearrange our cities and transportation policies in pursuit of utter fantasy?”

    What an odd thought, cities are an organic entity, or at least were until recently when planners like MSetty began attempting to drive the shape, size, and configuration of the city as a planned entity. This has worked so poorly that cities have stopped growing here in the US, and are beginning to contract, some quite seriously, and even the “good cities” like Portland, Oregon, are at, or near, zero population growth. All the growth is in the suburbs, and exurbs. And as I have discussed here, often, the Millennials are not interested in living in the cities, except for a few short years after college, and before family, and then only a relatively small cohort of Millennials want this.

    Just as cities changed after the advent of the auto, and went from no one owning a horse in the city, to nearly everyone owning an auto, so this new iteration of the gold standard in human transportation will alter our cities yet again. Combine this with the changes coming to employment, the gig economy, the independent contractor economy, and the fact that in the next one hundred years we will see our largest corporations lose +90% of their employees, and, yes, our cities will change, dramatically. Just as they did with the auto. The real shock would be if humans could undergo such a significant shift as the self drive car, and have no follow on changes in the socio-economic model.

    While I think the deeply conservative streak in humans helps us ensure that the changes we engage in are desirable, it is also clear that there is a period where it is destructive. We have reached that period with the progressive economic model. Our schools are now a force for impoverishment in the inner cities, it is impossible to believe this is a benefit. The same can be said for our policies on welfare, drugs, and many others. Our resistance to accepting, and undertaking real change in transportation/transit suffers the same problems. Many of the retired workers will be greatly impoverished because the agencies are unwilling to make the necessary changes, and shift monies today from expansion of the inane to full funding of pension, and benefit plans.

    It would appear the only way out is through the collapse, beware the collateral damage. If you have a pension from a public entity, no matter what the entity, you should take the time no matter how significant, to make sure all of the pension, and benefit programs are fully funded. This will be a desperate issue for many over the next 2 decades.

    Mark Sherman

  5. Dave Brough

    If you don’t already have an 11th reason, try “Because they kill!”. Buses over 15,000 lbs have no crashworthiness standards (see below), and if you do get hit by one, they are a moving brick wall, hence your chances of dying being quite high.
    But the big factor is that many or most people walking our streets (and intersections) do so only because they are footing-it to or from (or are waiting at) transit stops.
    Resolved: If transit were replaced with something door-to-door – driverless or otherwise, but preferably DL – pedestrian mayhem would drop significantly.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa_bus-train_crash

  6. NoDakNative

    “If shared driverless car services will cost far less than owning a car (meaning far less than 40 cents a mile, which is what Americans currently spend buying, operating, maintaining, and insuring cars).”

    I just don’t see this happening. Driverless cars will have similar costs, in addition to the overhead required to operate the rental service as well as the profit that needs to be earned.

    People will use driverless cars to replace taxis and rental vehicles, but I doubt much else. Only in concentration camps like New York and elsewhere where parking is expensive would there be any possibility of such a thing.

  7. CapitalistRoader

    NoDakNative: “Driverless cars will have similar costs, in addition to the overhead required to operate the rental service as well as the profit that needs to be earned.”

    Well, except that AVs won’t have to pay a driver to drive the car, right? What fraction of an Uber ride or a taxi ride cost is the driver? Surly at least 25%.

  8. CapitalistRoader

    MSetty, I read the Naked Capitalism link. It was interesting. But don’t you think Voltaire is relevant here, in that “The perfect is the enemy of the good”? Specifically, Mr./Ms. Lambert’s quote of Dr. Mary Cummings of Duke U,, who sounds like a very smart lady:

    The majority of the promises and benefits will likely only be realized when all cars are equipped with these advanced technologies, enabling NHTSA’s Level 4 [SEA’s Level 5] of fully autonomous driving.

    Note the term “the majority.” What if SAE’s Level 2–available now in low priced, production cars–ends up reducing automobile accident fatalities by some not insignificant number, say, five percent, or roughly 1,750 lives per year in the US? Wouldn’t it be worth it? Further, what if SAE Level 3 saved ten percent? If that were the case, wouldn’t it beneficial to society to encourage incremental automation of automobiles?

    I’m trying to think of another process that was automated and that both posed increased risk and reduced risk. One obvious process is autopilot on commercial aircraft. My guess is that autopilot saves thousands of lives per year. Personally I sleep well on trans-Pacific flights knowing that the pilots on my aircraft are comfortable and not saddled with the mundane tasks of flying the airplane over ten hours of boring, uneventful flight. But I realize that sh** happens and I could end up in the bottom of the ocean in the event of a failure of the autopilot. I guess I realize the risk of failure is so low as to be immeasurable. Why shouldn’t I feel the same way about automated automobile travel?

  9. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    It also means an end to most congestion, even for people in human-driven cars, as new research finds that congestion will begin to decline when as few as 5 percent of cars on the road are autonomous.

    I counsel caution when it comes to the congestion relief benefits of self-driving cars. Not because I object to or disagree with the research you cited above, but because we just do not know what the impacts on the highway system might be, especially at the macro scale (statewide or regionwide).

    I am also somewhat skeptical of congestion relief benefits for a different reason – promoters of rail transit have long claimed that building rail transit provides highway congestion relief, claims that have not been substantiated for various reasons.

    Transit as we know it today will cease to exist within a decade or so. It is time to stop subsidizing an obsolete, backwards industry.

    I agree that self-driving motor vehicles (probably including self-driving transit buses) will have a significant and disruptive impact on the transportation system. Definitely including transit providers.

    However, I am not sure that transit as we know it will go away, for reasons you are familiar with, notably how effective transit lobbyists are at getting tax dollars to subsidize operation of transit, and more tax dollars to perform heavy maintenance and repair on transit vehicles.

    There’s also the matter of those federal subsidies to build transit projects, especially rail. If I recall correctly, the Federal Transit Administration can demand repayment if a rail line that was funded at least in part with federal dollars is abandoned. Not sure of the details (nor am I aware of any “new era” rail transit line – probably starting with the San Francisco Bay Area BART system in the early 1970’s) that has abandoned service.

    Instead of spending more money on transit infrastructure they can’t afford to maintain, they need to start thinking about how they are going to phase themselves out of existence.

    Will transit worker be like the railroad firemen of the 1940’s and 1950’s and 1960’s, continuing to be employed by the railroads for years after steam locomotives were displaced by GM/EMD (and other builders) Diesel-electric units, where there was no coal to be shoveled?

  10. NoDakNative

    CapitalistRoader

    “Well, except that AVs won’t have to pay a driver to drive the car, right? What fraction of an Uber ride or a taxi ride cost is the driver? Surly at least 25%.”

    That’s irrelevant to the point I was making; That most people won’t give up owning cars when driverless cars become widespread.

  11. The Antiplanner Post author

    Msetty,

    What are you talking about? Since when have I advocated that we “totally rearrange our cities”? It’s the rail transit people who advocate that. I only advocate letting people choose where they want to live for themselves, and not be controlled by urban-growth boundaries and zoning restrictions.

    I do agree we need to change transportation policies that have led the country to spend a trillion dollars since 1970 propping up a dying industry.

  12. CapitalistRoader

    NoDakNative: “That’s irrelevant to the point I was making; That most people won’t give up owning cars when driverless cars become widespread.”

    You could be right. I think it will come down to economics. According to the Antiplanner people pay 40¢/mile on their cars, which at 15,000 miles/year average means they’re spending $6000/year on a car. It remains to be seen if people will give up their owned cars if AV car service will cost them half that amount, saving them $3000/year.

  13. JOHN1000

    The 40 cents a mile assumes 15,000 miles a year.

    Many people in urban areas own cars but drive much less, so the initial cost of the car, insurance, garaging, etc. make it much more expensive than 40 cents a mile. Those are the people who will switch to the sharing services more than who drive large amounts of miles.

  14. CapitalistRoader

    It is insisted in the argument that automobiles are to be classed with ferocious animals, and that the law relating to the duty of the owners of such animals is to be applied. It is not the ferocity of automobiles that is to be feared but the ferocity of those who drive them. Until human agency intervenes, they are usually harmless.
    The Law of Automobiles (1909)

  15. the highwayman

    You teahadi’s want to make humanity obsolete. There’s no need for someone to get into? a robotic car to go to some sort of non existent job.

    You do something for something, not something for nothing. :$

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