Out with LRT, in with AV

Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been some push-back from my last post on the Smart Cities grant which went to Columbus. I called it the Columbus, Ohio Grant Program and -Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won.

Not to incite “technology wars” between different transportation modes, but in a world of trade-offs, this is what is getting DOT grants in Columbus, Ohio; a stark contrast to most of Columbus’ peer cities, which get grants for light rail (LRT) or streetcar.

bus-on-street_2For the record, the grant is an incredible win. Columbus bested 6 other finalists including Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver, Portland, San Fran, and Austin. Not a bad city there. Furthermore, the grant will do good things like augment technologies on the Cleveland Avenue C-MAX. I admittedly didn’t realize Smart Cities had a component to that, but I also didn’t realize the original Small Starts grant didn’t actually include costs for signal prioritization, which is normally standard for even BRT-lite.

However, there is no denying that the autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot project is the calling card of Columbus’ winning application. It’s the meat and the potatoes, and everything else (the universal transit card) is the garnish.

And none of these are bad things. For one, I would never turn down $40 million in federal grants – then again, I would never want to do anything to jeopardize $200 million in Hardest Hit Funds, or turn down $400 million in FTA funding for 3C Rail. Leaving these kinds of opportunities on the table is painful for a state that desperately needs resources for everything – housing, transit, workforce development, you name it.

starter-routeSometimes, however, the decision has been made and you just have to walk away. Such is the case with rail in Columbus. It’s done, it’s over, and it will never happen. I myself am the eternal optimist to a fault, especially when it comes to cities, and I know how the well springs eternal for a strong vision around which to build a city. Columbus will continue to grow, but it probably won’t be growing around fixed-guideway transit, such as the previously proposed $100 million streetcar that city council defeated. Moving forward, I’m not actually sure what place-based opportunities there will be in Columbus, especially if this becomes ground zero for testing AV in an urbanized built environment.

Columbus Underground, another eternally optimistic news/commentary outlet, has also come to this realization. The site itself is home to many authors and bloggers who have kept alive the hope for rail transit. And then there is this choice quote in today’s CU article, from the CEO of the Columbus Partnership:

“I don’t think it’s about one mode versus another, it’s about what the options are going to look like in the future,” says Alex Fischer, Columbus Partnership President and CEO. “Some decades ago, the community at any number of levels made its decision as it relates to rail,” he added.

So there we have it.

I’m also not alone in asserting that autonomous vehicle pilots do not make transit. Shortly after my post last Friday, CU also editorialized that “Driverless Cars Could Usher in a New Era of Suburban Sprawl.” Ya think?

As did Slate.

As did Fast Company.

As did Nature.org.

As did the Wall Street Journal.

And also Bloomberg.

The suburbs are going nowhere anytime soon, driverless cars to the rescue. And it will be okay, as we will find a way to adapt. This post is just to serve as realistic notice of the impact that autonomous vehicles will soon have on our cities, which will be an urban form not unlike this:

As for the glimmer of hope that remains for light rail enthusiasts and advocated in Central Ohio, the odds just grow all the more with this AV pilot. They need to find a way to make the community want rail, which they simply do not at this point in time.

Columbus is an ideal city to try something new with transit: It’s growing, it’s already walkable, it’s very linear, and it has legitimate transportation needs. There is also a culture that is enthusiastically excited about the local culture, or as the excellent former mayor Michael Coleman would say “our swagger,” which is one reason for the exuberant fanfare given to the Smart Cities victory.

William Murdock, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) Executive Director, may be among those keeping the glimmer of hope alive for rail. At least it appears that way in the Columbus Underground article on new technology’s impact for LRT:

“Rail is a time-tested transportation mode for moving lots of people and goods in an efficient way,” says William Murdock, MORPC Executive Director. “It’s possible that the new autonomous technology when combined with shared models (i.e. Uber, Lyft, Car2Go) might replace some of the service traditional light or commuter rail might have provided…but it might also open up new opportunities to focus on a few high-capacity corridors with bus rapid transit, light rail, or something new.”

Perhaps that “something new” could be an elevated transit vehicle that glides over traffic, either on tires or rails (gasp!) as depicted below:

While expensive, the above solves many of the issues that Columbus has with transit, specifically that the transit vehicles aren’t in the way of drivers and that it is undeniably cool.

I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of “cool.” Here in the first world, where we still have challenges, we can make available miraculous amounts of resources for solutions that we think are cool. We tend to ignore the problems and solutions that aren’t sexy (like infrastructure). Here in Columbus, I am friends with a great many of developers, just from hanging around planning and development functions – knowing these guys, I know they just aren’t interested in transit. They know that the young professionals occupying their cool Short North condos and lofts are just going to uber everywhere, like Madeintyo. AV is even better because it’s an uber that won’t try to make small talk.

duvallgraphTo the point about the infrastructure problems that we tend to ignore, that makes AV all the more easy to do now, and foolish to invest in for the long term. Given our infrastructure backlog, it’s hard to see the sense or the cents in investing in an AV model that will further deplete revenue in the Highway Trust Fund. The graph to the left assumes normal trends including: A) refusal to raise any taxes; B) vehicles that become more and more fuel-efficient; and C) driving habits of Americans continuing to wane. It does not take into account “AV subscriptions and/or memberships” becoming the next foreseeable transportation wave.

I used to think that autonomous vehicle technology was crazy. I still think it is (I am someone who loves observing my surroundings, which this will divorce people further from), but that is not keeping it from coming to fruition, whether we like it or not. So perhaps something like the above video isn’t crazy either, I don’t know – it probably requires a pilot city that cares about transit as much as Columbus cares about driving. Perhaps that city at that time will also be lauded as “Smart.”

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2 thoughts on “Out with LRT, in with AV

  1. I would encourage you to not be discouraged by the Smart Cities grant. The grant will be used to developed an autonomous fixed-route bus lines, which could translate to autonomous bus rapid transit (far more effective than driverless cars on high-demand corridors). Just because future transit might not be rail-based doesn’t mean it’s over. As for the built environment looking like the video, I don’t think that will happen. City leaders know better than to shut pedestrians and cyclists out of the urban transportation system (at least they do now). If it is tried, that’s something that will need to be fought.

    Let’s keep our heads up and keep working towards better cities and better transportation.

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    • I am still not seeing exactly where these fixed-route bus lines may go. I am very interested in seeing further details, data, and plans.

      The city wouldn’t shut pedestrians and cyclists out of the urban transportation picture because they aren’t actually connecting different neighborhoods in the way that transit would. People park, then walk around the Short North, and that model has broad public appeal and support. A pipeline of connectivity between Merion Village, Short North, Weinland Park, Old North Columbus, etc – that’s very different, and the jury is out.

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