Does public transit have a future and, if so, what is in the post-Covid-19 world? Those were a couple of the questions debated at the 2nd Zoom-Tank zoominar on May 18th, 2020. Like episode one, the questions and side dialogue both within the Zoom channel and the YouTube livestream provided interesting insight and questions to complement the vigorous discussion.
The following provides highlights from @Viodi’s live Twitter-feed of the event. Jump to the end to view the entire presentation.
The Opening Round in the Zoom Tank #
- The @antiplanner (Randal O’Toole) starts the debate by suggesting that there is no future in transit. Ridership is going to get much worse. Work from home is going to grow from 5 to 15%. Covid-19 will result in a 20% decline in transit ridership. People/jobs will move to lower density areas. Autos and highways are much more resilient than urban transit. He believes that the use autos and highways will rise over the long-term.
- @humantransit (Jarrett Walker) counters that we are in a black swan event and that we have to be careful about predictions right now. What we are sure about is that there is not much space in cities and that we need to learn to share space. All equitable solutions involve sharing. Micro mobility and large transit vehicles allow for the sharing of space for both living and movement. He indicates that the conversation needs to be about values and how to achieve the resulting goals.
- @antiplanner suggests we should be looking at microprojects and innovation. Transit has an ancient business model. End subsidies and have private companies compete to achieve the goals of public transit. He cites England as an example of a successful transition from public to private operation of bus lines.
- @humantransit points to the Sidewalk Labs/Toronto project as an example of how the private sector does not deliver on public values. It is important to consider all of the external costs of vehicles when evaluating their total impact.
The Sharks Jump In #
And now, the Sharks are jumping in on the topic. Jerome Lutin asks the @antiplanner what can be done about people who cannot afford mobility?
- @antiplanner suggests low-interest loans to those who cannot afford a car. Individual vehicles are a safer way to stay physically distant. Fund private ridesharing options for others who can’t drive.
- Michael Sena weighs sees the value in both approaches of individual driving and public transit.
- @humantransit expresses concern that the economic outlook is an argument against the @antiplanner’s idea about getting vehicles in the hands of people who need them. Characterizes the @antiplanner’s approach as not practical. Also, safety is a concern, and @humantransit says, not everyone should be driving. He admits that he is a self-aware, bad driver. The problem is most people are not self-aware about their driving ability.
- @antiplanner argues that cars have gotten safer but need to be safer still. Cars give people more access to economic opportunities than public transit. Vehicles are the best way to get people out of poverty because it provides access to more jobs. Only 4% of American workers live in homes without cars.
- @bradtem states that many of the assumptions behind driverless cars change the equation regarding the optimum vehicle size. Removing the driver allows smaller vehicles. Moving empty seats on large buses is not efficient. 10 to 15 seat vehicles in rush hour is optimum. Vehicles with 1 to 2 seats are optimum for non-rush hour travel. The vehicle cost can be much lower when designing a 1 to 2-person car. He suggests it is easier to separate people and sanitize smaller vehicles as compared to larger public transit vehicles. It could be cost and energy-efficient than public transit. “If you want to use giant [empty] buses, then you hate the earth.”
- Alain Kornhauser suggests that a 6-person vehicle is the optimum size vehicle. “Transit is mobility provided by a service provider.” according to Kornhauser. There are two types of mobility – driving by ourselves and when someone else drives us. The opportunity of COVID-19 is to take a deep breath and figure out how to make driverless compete better with driving by yourself.
Public Values & The Best Way to Achieve Them #
- @humantransit believes we have a “values” problem. There is too much planning around an imminent technology instead of planning around values. He is concerned about when driverless will be ready and that technologists are suggesting streets should be redesigned for it today.
- @antiplanner is not certain that public transit will survive long enough to see #driverless. He recommends that governments stop subsidizing public transit and that private operators will take up the slack if public transit goes away.
- Kara Kockelman of UT Austin asks about the idea of public transit agencies contracting with private ridesharing providers. Smaller vehicles, sharing, road pricing & more are going to be important, she states.
- Michael Sena points out that in Sweden that even private operators of public transit are subsidized to the tune of 50%.
- Alain Kornhauser points out that there is no public transit agency that has shown how they integrate driverless into their operations.
- Jerome Lutin says that geographic barriers inhibit single occupancy vehicle transportation (e.g. bridges, tunnels, urban cores). Bus transit fleets are sized for peak demand, which results in lots of empty seats in off-peak hours. There are thin routes that transit should eliminate. It would be better to subsidize ridesharing on those routes.
- @bradtem says it is not possible to plan for 2030 based on what we know in 2020. The solution is to make infrastructure as simple as possible and to allow the virtualization of new solutions. He thinks that technology can help solve some of the issues of congestion pricing.
- @antiplanner supports congestion pricing but suggests that New York and London have cordon, not congestion, pricing.
- Richard Mudge suggests that land-use is a big part of the problem.
- Alain Kornhauser laments that city transportation plans do not incorporate innovation, even though they are supposed to be looking 30 and 40 years out. He argues that public transit provides poor quality service as it has low-frequency operation and often covers a limited area.
- Low-density development is brittle in terms of transit delivery according to @humantransit.
- @antiplanner low-income people have not been using transit. The highest growth has come from people with incomes of >$75k per year. He argues that only 8% of trips in Portland are provided by public transit.
- @humantransit indicates that ridesharing service drivers do not receive the same training as public transit drivers. This makes it difficult for transit agencies to subcontract to third parties. He recommends the book, Strong Towns from the organization of the same name.
One area of common ground is that the panel seems to agree that megaprojects are not the right approach to transit in the current environment.