Transit Troubles — again

In the January 27, 2016 issue of the Los Angeles Times, the front page headline was: Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation in Southern California This reminded me of the growing transit troubles dilemma: despite government spending billions (by now trillions) of dollars on mass transit projects in the United States there’s little to show for it. But first a little history.

Personal Rapid Transit

From 1969-1972 one of the program areas I was working on at The Aerospace Corporation was called Civil Systems. Its purpose  was to see how we could apply space technology to the real world. One of the key projects in that area was the development of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). The idea was that, since people generally resist using mass transit because of its inflexibility and security issues, among other reasons, why not develop a system that provides flexibility and security at low cost to the customer?

Our plans focused on a version of PRT that involved a network of overhead monorails and autonomous vehicles holding up to eight passengers. That way we wouldn’t have to tear up any roads to make it work. The network would be designed such that no-one would have to walk more than a quarter mile to get to a PRT station. Once there she could punch in a destination address and, within minutes, a PRT vehicle would roll up, check her reservation ID, and once she was aboard, would ride directly to her destination nonstop. We even developed a model PRT vehicle, complete with maglev (magnetic levitation) suspension running on a track outside the company headquarters. Our estimate was that a system covering a substantial part of Los Angeles might cost as much as 2 billion (1971) dollars!

Our PRT program never got past that early demonstration phase because it was considered to be way too expensive!!!

To repeat, our reasoning was: people want to have more control over their travel in terms of time, cost and security. Most mass transit systems at the time did not provide an acceptable level of time flexibility and/or security at an acceptable cost. The rule was that you can have a transit system that is inexpensive, fast, convenient, timely and secure; pick two. We wanted to use niftier technology to increase the options.

The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff

Starting in 1970 I began to think about an even stranger set of options based on: why are we taking those trips in the first place? The origin-destination studies we did as part of the PRT program showed that a good part of urban travel was work-related, specifically commuting to and from work. So, getting back to basics, what do we do when we get to work and could we somehow bring the work to the worker without a lot of transportation turmoil?

It turned out that about half of the work being performed in the US at that time revolved around information: the creating, manipulating, processing and dissemination of information. So if we could use another transportation mode — telecommunications (and computers) — we might save a whole bunch of time, energy and money over the way we were doing things then by using (or not) mass transit and private cars. We could send the work to the workers. We could telecommute or, for longer distances, telework. By the way, the current US workforce comprises about 60% information workers; about 40% of the workforce has teleworkable jobs.

The problem was that PRT was perceived as costing too much and teleworking can involve serious culture shock. Both options sounded scary to the business-as-usual folks.

The Transit Troubles

Jump ahead 45 years or so and we have business-as-usual. Still. Mass transit ridership is dipping in Los Angeles, as well as in many other cities. Here are examples from the LA Times article:

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region’s largest carrier, lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating. Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.

. . . . Public transportation use in many U.S. cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C., has slumped in the last few years. But the question takes on new significance in Los Angeles County, where politicians and transportation officials are considering whether to seek another half-cent sales tax increase in November that could raise $120 billion for major transportation projects, including several new rail lines.

Are we having fun yet? We’re spending ever more billions on options that don’t meet their expenses, and certainly not their promises. PRT might come about, without government sponsorship, in the form of automated cars. The government doesn’t spend a dime on research to improve teleworking and make it even more attractive to commuters and their employers, not to mention its energy and environmental savings. Is it better to spend it on mass transit?

As Albert Einstein said: Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.

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