I write to you with the hope that an alternative solution might be considered into the conversation to address this issue in middle Tennessee.
Defining the Problem
Solutions proposed over the past 150 years are now as inadequate as our definition of the problem is outdated. Webster defines mass as “to form or collect into a large group,” and transit as “the conveyance of persons from one place to another.” This definition of mass transit, as simply gathering persons together in one location and moving them (en masse) to another locale, describes how transit has evolved in the last century from moving a handful of people (horse & buggies, taxies, street cars and trollies) to moving many people (trains, trams, subways, buses and monorails). This mass transit concept, however, poorly expresses the capabilities of our modern age, in which technology has reshaped our lives in ways even our parents could not have imagined. Mass transit continues to use outdated technology and infrastructure, suffers from lack of resources and planning, and has created gridlock in most of our cities.
Atlanta is a prime example. City leaders realized too late in 1990 that the city needed light rail and expanded bus service to alleviate the gridlock of its exploding population. It took another 15 years to outline the solution, pass legislation to raise the capital funding, complete the financing structure, and finally, begin construction. In that time, Atlanta more than doubled in size and population, rendering the original mass transit plans not nearly capable of handling the city’s needs. And Atlanta now finds itself in the same situation, quite possibly worse, than it found itself in 1990.
If Nashville were to plan, fund and construct a light rail system in the Middle Tennessee region, our city’s debt would increase by 2 to 3 billion dollars or more. A mass transit system that extends north, south, east and west from the city’s core for perhaps 40 miles would deposit the masses in the city’s center and thereby create the need for an additional inner city system (monorail) which would add an additional billion or so dollars to the investment. Anyone living between the compass points would still have to commute to the train station via car, bike or foot.
Traditional parking lots at each station would need to be constructed, thereby reducing available land for use as public space or residential/commercial development. Additionally, for every mile of light rail track constructed, land would need to be purchased and incorporated into the new system, eliminating those lands from being part of any walk, hike, bike space, green space, or new opportunities for affordable housing space.
Cost aside, the system will be completely outdated from the moment it begins operation, following the 10-15 years or more such an undertaking would require. By the time studies are done, legislation is passed, funding is secured, land is purchased and a light rail system is built, Nashville will have doubled in size and population and our communities will have lost thousands of useful acres of land to an outdated mass transit solution.
The mass transit systems already utilized in high density urban cities across America will likely remain an efficient means of transit in the midterm future. But in regions like Nashville; Austin, TX; Charlotte, NC; and the Tampa Bay, FL area, the massive undertaking of light rail or subway/monorail construction is either too cost prohibitive or geographically impossible. And putting more buses on the grid will only cause further gridlock.
Identifying a Solution
First, I propose a paradigm shift in our terminology from mass transit to human transit—a minor change in terminology with major implications. Think in terms of moving a human, not a mass of humans. I propose that we, collectively and individually, begin to re-think what mass transit really means.
Second, I propose leveraging efficient transit technology, namely the autonomous vehicle (AV) to 1) realize huge governmental cost savings through public-private partnerships, 2) increase traffic efficiency, and 3) create freedom of movement not dependent upon any socioeconomic status.
Third, I propose proactive planning, rather than reactive devising, which is generally the delayed response of city planners who implement a mass transit option that is already obsolete.
I respectfully submit to you that in 2015 Nashville, the “IT” city in America, faces the same situation as Atlanta faced in 1990. We expect our geographical size and population density to double within the next 10 to 15 years. If we instigate traditional outdated mass transit options such as light rail, dedicated bus lanes, or monorail, by the time Metro Council requests the requisite studies done, passes appropriate legislation, acquires the financing/bond structure, purchases the land and necessary right of ways, and actually constructs the transit option, we will have spent billions of taxpayer dollars for a mass transit solution that will already be outdated by the time anyone could actually use it.
To avoid this quandary, we must think not towards the future, but in the future. We must implement strategies that change things now, not in 10 years. We must think in terms of shared human transit, in lieu of mass congestion-causing transit. We must begin to procure and embrace technologies that even as little as 10 years ago would have been scoffed at as science fiction. Much like our current smart phones. As little as 20 years ago, a cell phone barely fit into a briefcase, and now you wear it on your wrist. It talks to you, instructs you how to get to your destination, monitors your heart rate, and suggests your evening dining experience on demand.
I propose that AV technology, while perhaps not currently as advanced as our smart phones, is a mere 2 to 5 years away from being on your wrist, and a viable solution to dealing with the age-old problems of mass transit. Moving many humans in and along one fixed route can shift, through technology innovations, towards moving one, from door to door, effectively, efficiently and with equal social access.
The speed at which Autonomous Vehicles have developed is quite remarkable. According to Jeff Miller, an associate professor at the University of Southern California who works on autonomous driving, “The speed at which the technology has reached this point is stunning. Today, most of the world’s major automakers are working on autonomous technology, with Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Volvo leading the pack. Google may be more advanced than anyone: The tech giant says its self-driving cars are so far along, they can recognize and respond to hand signals from a cop directing traffic.”
Delphi, a 100 year old automotive supplier company, just drove (rode in) its new autonomously equipped Audi, an incredible 3,400 miles from San Francisco to New York City. The vehicle did 99% of the driving completely on its own. Google recently stated that it has logged over 2 million miles in the testing and development of its own AVs. In a press release this past Friday, auto giant Toyota announced it was investing 1 billion dollars in AV technology in the next five years. These achievements and commitments to the future are happening now, not 20 years from now.
Likewise, our commitment to Nashville’s human transit future must be implemented now, beginning with understanding the technical elements, safety concerns, political and legislative roadblocks, economic impacts and environmental issues that the paradigm shift from mass transit to human transit encompasses.
Understanding the Technology
A Level 5 Autonomous Vehicle (one that will drive itself with no outside intervention), is technically closer to a computer on wheels than a traditional car with Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and automated car-parking capabilities. Today’s companies are essentially developing ultra-safe “pods” loaded with technologies originally designed for military fighter jet use. No gauges, no steering wheel, no console, no shifter, no accelerator or brake pedals, and, perhaps, no windshield or side glass.
Software giants and global automotive manufacturers have incorporated RADAR (which uses sound waves), LIDAR (which uses light waves or lasers), 3D cameras, ultrasonic sensors and very sophisticated GPS to accurately determine not only where the vehicle is at any given nanosecond, but far more importantly, to “see” everything around it at all times. In some cases, current AVs contain 9 or more of these systems, all working in tandem, providing far more information than a human driver could ever expect to interpret and at far greater speeds (10 times per second).
The real advantage behind AVs transitioning mass transit into human transit is not the technology associated with any single AV on the road, but rather Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication among thousands of vehicles. Collision Avoidance Software (CAS), which is available in quite a few traditional vehicles today, is far more advanced in AVs. Most CAS today can recognize any number of potential safety issues (bridges, tunnels, railroad crossings, a child running into street) and calculate complex decisions that until now were thought to only be achieved with the human brain. Combined with Vehicle-To-Vehicle communication applications, AVs throughout a city can actually talk to one another, share real-time traffic information, congestion data, and flow patterns much like a hive of bees interacts. What one knows, all know. In this manner, a fleet of AVs can navigate a city or suburb far more efficiently than a human driver receiving traffic tips from the radio or a smartphone app. With the addition of street mapping, which Goggle is currently implementing in most American cities, this same fleet of AVs can interpret the quickest, most efficient route between any two points at any time. If traffic light synchronization were incorporated into the information stream shared with AVs, or (perhaps eventually) allow AVs to automatically control certain intersection lighting, AV efficiency increases even more.
Enhancing Public Safety
One of the largest concerns of AVs, both perceptually and practically, is safety, which is hugely alleviated in removing steering wheels, floor pedals, consoles, glass and the like from AVs. These innovations, along with carbon fiber and other high tech composites, create a far safer transit environment. Lighter, stronger, and far safer than steel or aluminum, these “pods” surround a passenger in a much more protective enclosure than a typical automobile and create a more protective environment outside the enclosure for pedestrians.
Aside from technology innovations that increase safety standards, the real safety feature of AVs is the removal of the human driver, who is susceptible to fatigue, boredom, stress, distraction, and impairment behind the wheel. Issues that have no effect on an autonomous vehicle. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 32,000 traffic fatalities occur every year in America, with 1.2 million deaths worldwide. It is estimated that 90% of those fatalities are due to human error. While replacing every vehicle with AVs will not necessarily save 28,800 lives in the US each year, a sophisticated AV system will drastically decrease annual vehicle fatalities.
The amount of data a typical human driver experiences in a daily commute to and from work each day is staggering. With the advanced AI software currently in development, an AV will be able to process in real time even more data input than the human brain is capable of processing, and do so without the distractions of spilled coffee, ringing cell phones, persons in the backseat and the like, further reducing countless gridlock-inducing non-life-threatening accidents and saving considerable time in each of our average daily commutes.
Maximizing our Resource Usage
Instead of waking each morning, walking/biking/driving to the train/bus stop, boarding this traditional means of mass transit, arriving at a common departure point and walking to our workplace, we can simply engage an app on our smartphone and minutes later be picked up at our front door. During our commute, we can read the morning paper, talk on the phone, watch TV, or simply nap. Upon arrival, we can enjoy curbside delivery, forgoing the search for parking while the AV goes on to pick up its next on-call customer.
The inherently shared nature of AVs means that they do not sit in a parking lot or garage 90% of the time. Rather, they are utilized 90% of each and every day by multiple citizens. This revolutionizes the way in which all of us will commute and live. Florida State Senator Jeff Brandes, in discussing the GreenLight Pinellas project in St. Petersburg-Tampa Bay area, puts it this way: “Technology is going to transform mass transit in a way that very few people can see. AVs will reduce congestion, lower parking demands, increase rider safety by reducing wait times, and in the case of public systems, provide universal access.” (link)
In a recent interview, retired long time New Jersey Transit planner Jerome Lutin put it simply: “The transit industry needs to promote shared-use autonomous cars as a replacement for transit on many bus routes and for services to persons with disabilities. ... If you can’t get 10 people on a bus, or 5 people on a bus, then why bother running it? We’re wasting diesel fuel!” While buses and AVs can exist in harmony, with buses handling the transit needs of extremely high density corridors, AVs will win out over other forms of public mass transit in multitude of other ways.
According to Paul Godsmark, contrary to the common perception that AV usage will put more vehicles on the road, “A review of research shows that one car-share vehicle can be seen to remove between nine and thirteen other vehicles from the roads.” Countless studies shows that with if AVs were to be utilized in a mass transit environment, they would be functionally used 80- 90% of the time — far greater than a private vehicle, utilized on average a mere 10% of the time.
With everything being automated, an AV will never need rest, other than to re-charge, will never need to find a parking space in a crowded urban space, and will never simply sit in a garage not being utilized. This shift in the inherent nature of transit changes the way in which all of us will commute, and live in the future.
Preparing for the Political and Legislative Implications
With vehicle automation, we are now, as Executive Director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford Sven Beiker, says, “at the point where personal mobility and public transportation come together.” And it is at this point in history that we must prepare for the ensuing political and legislative implications. Removing human drivers from the human transit equation will require new legislation, on the Federal, State and local levels.
As AVs are predominantly electric, considerable pushback will occur from a host of industries including petroleum, taxi unions, railroads, bus companies, Uber/Lyft, ride sharing companies, auto retailers and manufacturers, insurance companies, and a host of other auto industry and transportation related groups. In the same manner that horse drawn carriage makers were up in arms when the first cars were introduced in the early 1900’s, so will an uprising begin as the AV system draws closer to today’s reality rather than tomorrow’s fantasy.
Another political concern of existing mass transit systems is equality. Robin Chase, co-founder of ZipCar recently posed this question: “Would you prefer what we have today, where only poor people use most transit systems, ... or would you rather the poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?”7 While this statement is rather blunt, I agree with the socio- economic point she is making. AVs offer the same benefit and opportunity to every human regardless of their socioeconomic status. With the cost of AV transit being very close to (or less than) current mass transit options, existing users of MTA will most likely utilize the same autonomous services as the middle and upper classes, thereby promoting equality in a manner never before conceived. What is good for one, will be good for many.
As opposed to the massive financial and time investments of completing a traditional mass transit system, implementing an Autonomous Vehicle system simply requires our existing infrastructure to continue operating. No additional land purchases. No tracks laid. No parking lots paved. No increased fuel emissions. No billion dollar bond-funded indebtedness or taxpayer funding. AVs operate on the same roads we currently utilize, drive their occupants according to the same traffic regulations that we currently follow, and, because they are lighter than a traditional vehicle, cause far less damage to our current roadway infrastructure.
The mounting evidence demonstrates that AVs are far more economical, efficient, and environmentally friendly than any traditional mass transit solution. The evidence demands that we, as fiscally responsible representatives of the constituents we serve, take a serious look into leveraging technological innovation to increase our city’s financial gains, improve its quality of life, and enhance its citizens’ disposable income.
To Increase Financial Gains
Though several billion dollars would need to be raised and spent on a mass transit system before the first rider steps on board, with an AV human transit system, we can literally have several thousand AVs operating within a 100 mile radius around the city core for less than $50 million — or for little to no cost to taxpayers if Nashville entertained a public-private partnership. In a real- world Metro Budget example, rather than spending over $54 Million on our Metro Transit Authority in 2015 ($70 million in total expense less $16 million in charges and commissions), Nashville could create a new revenue income stream from the utilization of AVs through a negotiated fee structure with the private entity operating such a system in cooperation with MTA. This is an opportunity that taxpayers in Davidson, Williamson, Rutherford, Cheatham, Wilson and other surrounding counties would likely more than welcome. Providing a socioeconomically equal transit solution for their communities while generating new revenues for their county and/or city at the same time, all while increasing available land for affordable housing appears to be a win-win-win scenario.
To Improve Quality of Life
Nashville area’s taxpayers would also enjoy an additional financial windfall and increased quality of life from the raw land resources that an AV human transit system would make available for new development and/or public green space usage. Over one quarter of the land in every city in the US is currently utilized for parking lots, acreage that could be sold for residential and commercial development, repurposed into public space, or utilized for affordable housing with an AV human transit system. Further, AVs are capable of driving on narrower lanes as they “see” the road much more effectively than human drivers. Where we have 2 lanes of traffic currently, we could have three lanes with narrower AVs and more efficient driving, further increasing the usefulness of our finite supply of useable land globally.
To Enhance Nashvillians’ Disposable Income
Aside from the financial and environmental gains in the repurposing of land currently utilized for parking, the single largest savings to our constituents is a huge reduction in labor. An average taxi rider pays approximately 57% of the fare to the driver. Private ride sharing companies like Uber or Lyft compensate their labor forces with up to half of the fare. AVs have none of these expenses. This cost is directly passed on to each and every user of the human transit solution, adding disposable income to each and every family’s bottom line. While a concern that drivers will be left looking for alternative means of income will emerge, our communities, and these drivers, will be far better off in the bigger picture that is our future.
I believe that the time has come for a change. The elements of mass transit that we, as a society, have been utilizing for decades are outdated. Society has outgrown the technologies of history. The use of Autonomous Vehicles in a Human Transit solution offers massive economic and environmental advantages, but will require concessions on a number of issues.
I call upon the legislators throughout our government, from the Federal level down to Nashville’s Metro Council, of which I am a proud member, to recognize that:
(1) change is inevitable, and
(2) redefining our future in a fiscally responsible and environmentally cognizant manner will have a far greater positive impact than maintaining the current status quo.
We as legislatures must be on the front end of this paradigm shift in the societal understanding of transit, so that when that change is understood and accepted, Nashville can take full advantage of the revolution that AV technology promises. Let us refocus our collective minds on moving one, independently and equally, rather than forcing the many to live and move en masse.
I humbly request your consideration in implementing AVs into the conversation when discussing mass transit solutions in the Middle Tennessee region. I realize there are a multitude of choices in this conversation, but ask that you consider HUMAN TRANSIT within these proposed solutions carefully before committing our city’s (and State’s) resources to what will be a defining decision in Nashville’s history.
Robert Swope is one of the new council members elected in the most recent election and represents the fourth district in the Metro Council. I commend him for this thoughtful essay which he sent as a letter to all of his colleagues on the Council and other interested parties. We need more of this type of "thinking outside the box," rather than simply doing things the same old way we have always done them and simply throwing money at a problem. I hope the administration and his colleagues and planners involved in transit planning receive this with an open mind. The highlighting in the above essay is mine. Rod