Future Transit Technologies


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Jun 20, 2010
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I‘m not confident that this merits its own thread and I was going to just post it in Crazy Pitches, but I figured it was unrelated enough to go on its own. If I’m wrong, the mods can merge this in where they see fit.

Anyway, when we discuss various proposals, the sheer inertia of our region means that any major project takes quite a long time to actually see through to completion. The classic example, of course, is GLX, which was mandated back in 1990. Bare minimum, that is a three decade time table, and thats for a relatively easy project. Our technology is very different from 1990, and if we think about any other future projects with even remotely similar time tables, we might have advances that could dramatically impact what sort of transit systems we might build.

Which technologies might those be? Assume we’re looking 30 years out, so 2050. By then, what technologies might we realistically count on taking advantage of for transit (of any sort: highways, intercity rail, regional rail, subways, whatever) by that year? As a follow up, how might we best take advantage of them for transit purposes?
I would say CAVs (connected autonomous vehicles) will have a big positive impact on traffic congestion and parking. Self-driving vehicles connected to a traffic management system will maximize efficient use of traffic lanes and greatly reduce the need for on-street parking, parking lots, and garage parking.

Another reducer of congestion will be virtual offices and teleworking, which will increase as the technology advances. Research is underway on developing virtual offices which make it seem you are actually there with co-workers, as they would have the same experience as well.

I'd say those two developments are on the cusp of being fully developed and implementable, and will transform urban travel.
I'm much more skeptical of how iminent the widespread implementation of AV connectivity. It would require high levels of very transparent cooperation between [unknown corporation] and a variety of municipal, state, and federal governments.
Yea I doubt I'll see CAV in my lifetime (another 40-50 years). It will be hard to implement without 100% utilization and that's going to require very unpopular political action at the federal level.
I want my simple, near-silent, emission-free low-speed, fixed-route, autonmous transit running on mode-separated, multi-use paths on routes of about 2 miles (10 minutes) to/from transit hubs, but doing so on high frequency (every 5 minutes)

Running 25mph (max) driverless Navettes on multiuse paths, assuming an average speed of 12mph (bike speed) would be HUGE, and would avoid a lot of the "AVs can't do mixed traffic" and "AVs can't do complex or higher speed tasks" too.

Picture Navettes (8 to 12 passengers each) (that's french for shuttles, folks) faning out from Alewife on upgraded multiuse paths to:

- Arlington Center & Heights via a widened minuteman
- Belmont & Waverly & Waltham via Fitchburg/Mass Central ROWs
- Watertown via the Watertown
- To Brighton St via the Fitchburg Cutoff

Also picture it places where you'd want an infill station but have the space for a 10' wide ROW (maybe with passing sidings the navettes know about)
- Trackside Wellington to Malden Center
- Prototyping GLX to Porter
- Along the Rose Kenney Greenway NS to SS
- Along the path from future GLX Magoun, to Davis, to Alewife

Also as a take-a-lane project on inner DCR parkways
Even if autonomous vehicles don't become a major factor for personal transportation, they'll almost certainly be great for commercial transportation. Trucks will likely be automated long before cars. And that alone will change plenty for transportation. For example, take your typical garbage truck. Its slow moving and runs on a relatively regular route. You've usually got 3 people on it, two guys picking up the garbage and one driving the truck. Now, you can eliminate the driver position, but you've still got the others that can tell the truck when to start and stop. Pretty much every commercial vehicle that has more than one person employed operating it, the driver can be redundant.

Any cool train technologies?
I'm much more skeptical of how iminent the widespread implementation of AV connectivity. It would require high levels of very transparent cooperation between [unknown corporation] and a variety of municipal, state, and federal governments.
I tend to agree with you. I have a daughter who's been involved with development of the technology, so I get on the cheerleader bandwagon a bit. But it will be a long legal and political string of events taking decades.
Yea I doubt I'll see CAV in my lifetime (another 40-50 years). It will be hard to implement without 100% utilization and that's going to require very unpopular political action at the federal level.

Was thinking about this a bit. This could certainly start with congestion zone reservation systems and autonomous vehicles. Or in ten years maybe you need to be autonomous and connected with a reservation to use the left travel lane.

I don't think you need to have the entire system suddenly switch over, but those two use cases could make sense. Autonomous makes sense for safety in downtown areas and tighter spacing perhaps and less chance of accidents for higher speed travel on the highway.
Transportation in urban areas is mostly a geometry problem. There aren't really any technological innovations that will affect the geometry of human beings or their cities. Maybe telecommuting can have some impact, but it hasn't yet and I don't know why it would anytime soon.

I think the most impactful technology that will change the face of transportation in cities is red paint. By that, I mean reallocating automobile space to buses. Operator labor costs should be expected to continue to rise. Speeding up buses wrings more frequency out of the fixed operator cost. The higher the labor cost, the greater incentive to speed up the buses with red paint, TSP, and the like. This can be achieved by municipalities and transit agencies with little to no state or federal funding, also greatly increasing its probability.

I also think buses are prime candidates to be early adopters of automation and coordination, long before personal automobiles. In a sense, TSP is already a form of coordination. Again, this requires mostly just municipalities' and transit agencies' buy-in and doesn't need the whole world to get on board. When operator costs are eliminated by automation, there will be little barrier to greatly expanding bus hours of operation. The cost of frequency will be shifted from being mostly labor to being mostly the cost of buses and the electricity to run them. Perhaps that will be the incentive to purchase Arlington's Navette concept instead of full-sized buses, but I don't think so. You built your infrastructure to support peak demand and off-peak service (usually) follows from that very cheaply. I don't see why you would want a secondary fleet of 12 passenger vans for off peak hours when you'll definitely need a fleet of 40 or 60 footers to support the peak anyway.
I'd like to see the peak met with crazy high frequencies in a swarm of small vehicles--which are cost prohibative if you've got a human driver, but more feasible with a CAV.

And yes, more reserved ROW. Part of what "looks underused" --and politically resented --about most Bus lanes is how infrequent the vehicles are (the high % of the time that the red paint is the only tech you see, because bus headways are too far apart). A steady flow of buses makes for a good "immune system" that clears away interloping SOVs. If the buses are too far apart, SOVs are tempted to think "nobody cares" or "nobody's looking" and they fill the vacuum.

Going Bus-and-Bike is politically helpful because the bikes make the bus lanes look busy in a way that buses sometimes don't.
Going Bus-and-Bike is politically helpful because the bikes make the bus lanes look busy in a way that buses sometimes don't.
To me, the bus/bike protected lane congruence is more about compatibility. Yes, it does make the lanes look more heavily used (as most drivers don't see usage per person but as a per vehicle measure), but that can backfire politically. People will ask why they were forced to give up parking for a glorified bike lane if they mostly only see bikes in the lane. My dream is that 10-15 years from now, there are so many more bikes and buses, that it will no longer work to share the lane.
Good article on Hyperloop technology:

If by "good" you mean "fact-free press release"...yeah sure, whatever.

Hyperloop isn't an evolving technology; it's an evolving grift to divert gov't study grants from real-world transit modes for vapid PR.

The one limitation that was alarming, cited in the article, was the 10% maximum grade limitation, and even that can only be climbed at full speed.

Remember...it could always be worse.

Unfortunately probably headed for the same Euroland antitrust quagmire as the rejected Alstom-Siemens rail merger of last year because the product line duplications (esp. in LRV's) are nearly untenable, but this is a magnitude 7 earthquake in the rolling stock market. And also the probable end of the very last remaining North American-controlled manufacturer of any size.
Is there still a trial of Autonomous Vehicles in the Seaport?

There's been one in Providence that's now about half done. Small, like a fixed-route jitney, but it has stops like a bus:

Fact sheet: http://www.dot.ri.gov/projects/trip/docs/Little_Roady_Fact_Sheet.pdf

Transit nerds will appreciate that it runs back and forth between PVD Amtrak and the old ALCO Locomotive Works. They have a nice section of FAQs too. I plan to ride Saturday with my son in the 2:20p to 3p window.

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Optimus Ride operates out of the seaport (they actually use the same base vehicle as May) but I don't think they have any Boston routes open to the public. They do run 3-4 other open to the public locations (in NYC, in Virginia, etc) but I think the cars you see moving around in Boston are just R+D.
Trip Report on Little Roady:

Disappointing: Human operator has a t-bar control (the bar is visible at lower left in the first photo below. Not seen: about a dozen buttons that the safety operator uses to train the system on "when a human would think it safe to go" including that the safety driver has to push a "it is safe" button at (1) all left turns and (2) right turns out of a parking lot. Operator also has to engage and release the hand brake at each stop.


Photo: from Kayana Szymczak, New York Times, Despite High Hopes, Self-Driving Cars Are ‘Way in the Future’ July 2019

Nerd Cred: While giving alliterative vehicle names is an old Zipcar thing, naming a vehicle "Majel" is a sly reference to Majel Barret, who voiced the computer(s) on Star Trek (particularly The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine)

Interesting: People are still learning that the system is fare-free. So while the pilot was paid by the RI Atty Gen'l (It seems like there were two good reasons: to understand the legal implications and to cure the fact that RIPTA underserves the Olneyville neighborhood). There are about 170 users per day, who seem mostly commuters going to/from the PVD train station.

Cool: 5 passenger seats ("shotgun", 2 rear-facing + 2 forward facing. The vehicles have learned how to do 4 way stops. Really great looking control screen (about 3 x HD screens as seen above)

Seattle Times Infographic on Little Roady:

Are self-driving cars a solution for Bellevue? An East Coast test shows their promise and challenges

Article above is from January 19th, 2020 and focuses on Providence.
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