On the same day that the Antiplanner debated rail transit with Vukan Vuchic, the Las Vegas Sun announced that transit planners there are once again studying light rail. Las Vegas is the nation’s third-largest urban area not to have spent large amounts of money on rail transit: Detroit has a people mover and is building a streetcar line; Tampa has a streetcar; and Las Vegas has a monorail connecting casinos, but none of these were megaprojects (and all should be considered failures).
Rather than pat themselves on the back for avoiding the cost headaches that come with light rail, the city’s Regional Transportation Commission is considering an $800 million light-rail line vs. a $350-million bus-rapid transit line. Officials should look at Denver, where the bus-rapid transit line provides faster service than any of the region’s rail lines; is the only line that didn’t have huge cost overruns and did greatly exceed ridership projections; and whose buses share space with cars so the line relieves congestion for everyone, not just a handful of train riders.
Professor Vuchic maintains that light rail is somehow essential for urban livability. Cities that built light rail, he said, created pedestrian friendly streets. On one hand, light rail kills three times as many pedestrians as buses, per billion passenger miles carried, so I don’t consider that very friendly. On the other hand, any actions that can be taken to create a pedestrian-friendly environment are completely independent of what kind of transit is provided.
In past debates, I’ve noticed that rail advocates tend to focus on fuzzy terms like “livability” and “sustainability” rather than hard facts. But I expected more from a transportation engineering professor with several books on his resume. Instead, he repeatedly harped on a claim that anyone who opposed rail transit must want to return cities to the evil 1960s when there were too many cars and too many parking lots.
Since most forms of rail transit were developed in the 1890s, anyone with a 1960s view would have to be considered a progressive. But I tried to present a 2020s view of cities increasingly dominated by driverless cars that, incidentally, probably wouldn’t need a lot of parking lots.
Regardless of what transportation planners (including my friend MSetty who frequently comments here) would like to believe, driverless cars are coming, and the only real question is who will be first to bring them to market. The state of California has issued autonomous vehicle permits to 34 different companies, and I can think of at least two–Continental and Volvo–that aren’t on the list, indicating they are doing their experimentation elsewhere.
Last August, Ford CEO Mark Fields promised that his company would have completely driverless cars in mass production by 2021–and he got fired in May because Wall Street worried he wasn’t moving the company fast enough. His replacement, Jim Hackett, had formed and been head of Ford’s autonomous car division.
All of the billions of dollars being spent on driverless cars should give transit agency managers pause. Will transit be able to use this technology? Will it be able to reinvent itself as the new technology disrupts the transportation market?
A few transit managers I talked to in Philadelphia think so. Most didn’t seem to want to think about it at all, being more worried about keeping the ancient technologies they have now going for another year, or week. In the face of this uncertainty, the Antiplanner continues to insist that it is foolish for cities such as Las Vegas to give any consideration at all to building any new rail lines.