Will Elon Musk revolutionize transit with little autonomous buses?

bus of the future
© Hamit Kanuni Kuralkan/ Is this what the bus of the future might be like?

In his fascinating Master Plan, Part Deux, covered in TreeHugger here, Elon Musk describes the future of transit:

With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal [area occupied] density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses. It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don't have a phone. Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.

bus of the future© Hamit Kanuni Kuralkan
Wow, there is a lot to parse here. First, the design: how do you get in if there is no centre aisle and entryways? Possibly by designing it like Hamit Kanuni Kuralkan proposed a few years ago with little pop-up booths or capsules that give you your own personal space where you need not talk to anyone else. Or like those commuter trains that they used to have in England with continuous benches. The problem with this kind of design is that it can only carry a fixed number of people; you can’t pack them in during rush hour because there is no centre aisle to stand in. So ultimately it carries fewer people, and has lower population density.

But the biggest issue is that famous “last mile problem”, where most transit drops people off at a stop and they have to still get home. Musk’s system “would also take people all the way to their destination.” Musk says he would “shrink the size of buses”. As transportation expert Jarrett Walker notes in his post Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry? this increases the number of vehicles on the road. Walker writes:

The reigning fantasy of Musk’s argument is that we must always “take people all the way to their destination.” To do this we must abolish the need to ever change vehicles — from a train to a bus, from a car to a train, from a bus to a bike — and of course we also abolish walking. This implies a vision in which buses are shrunk into something like taxis, because a vehicle going directly from your exact origin to your exact destination at your chosen time won’t be useful to many people other than you.

That means a lot more smaller vehicles covering a lot more road.

There may well be a place for Musk’s vision: the suburbs, which are difficult to serve well with conventional buses or transit because the density is so low. Walker notes who could use a service like this:

  • People who live in outer-suburban and rural areas, where space is abundant and high-ridership transit isn’t viable.
  • The top 20% or so of urban residents, who can afford to use relatively expensive services that would never scale to the entire population of the city.

If you are in one of these categories, your most urgent task is to remember that most people aren’t like you, and that cities are impossible if everyone lives according to your personal tastes. As Edward Glaser said, “one’s own tastes are rarely a sound basis for public policy.”

There are other problems with Musk drawing visions like this: People read into them what they want. Years ago the cyberspace technodream was PRT, or autonomous vehicles on rails; Cartoonist Ken Avidor noted that it was used as a way of distracting people and killing transit plans with glorious visions of the future:

road kill bill© Ken Avidor/ Road Kill Bill

The idea of autonomous vehicles (AVs) replacing buses or trains is being bandied about by many politicians who dislike investment in today’s public transit; In Beverly Hills, the Mayor is proposing AVs instead of transit as a way of connecting people to the new subway coming through. He writes in Streetsblog: “, autonomous vehicle technology could provide an ideal solution to the “first and last mile challenge,” increasing usage of new and pre-existing rail trunk lines and making public transportation a more effective and convenient option for many residents.”

In Toronto, a city councillor actually suggested that Vision Zero was not necessary because AVs are less likely to hit pedestrians. I wonder how long it will be before politicians are suggesting that investment in mass transit right now is a mistake because we have to wait for Tesla Transit.

Will Elon Musk revolutionize transit with little autonomous buses?
In his Master Plan, Part Deux, he describes a new kind of transit system. Can it work?

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