WASHINGTON – The ongoing buzz about “driverless cars” is frankly bizarre. A great deal of money and effort is devoted to perfecting this futuristic technology. We know that Google and other high-tech companies are involved in this research. The latest news is that General Motors has entered a $ 500 million partnership with Lyft to produce a robot vehicle that will drive itself. Eventually it will be used for ride-sharing.
To some extent, I see the point of getting into a car that can safely take you anywhere. Instead of focusing on driving, while in the car, you are just a passenger. You can do work, you can safely make phone calls, or rest.
I can also understand how older or disabled people who can no longer drive but need to go places would find a self-driving vehicle to be the perfect solution to their daily mobility needs.
You are still stuck in traffic
That said, this is not a very good way to invest precious funds. And here is why. Suppose we get there. Suppose that there is some kind of breakthrough. Consumers will soon be able to buy an affordable, safe, intelligent car that they do not need to drive. Fine.
Now imagine yourself in your new vehicle that drives you. You are in the middle of Los Angeles, or Cairo, or Paris, or Nairobi, at rush hour. Guess what, the car may drive you, but both the futuristic car and you are still stuck in horrible traffic. Sure, you are not as stressed as you used to be by bumper to bumper congestion, because the car does the driving. But you are still stuck in an endless traffic jam. Your daily commute still last hours. Your driverless car cannot fix any of that.
So, here is my point. All this focus on making cars smart is a poor allocation of scarce resources. The problem is not that cars are not smart enough.
The problem is that there are just too many cars on the road, in most large urban areas around the world.
As simple as that: just too many cars.
The car is a bad solution to mobility needs
The fact is that we are way past the point of diminishing returns when it comes to the usefulness of the automobile in all large urban areas, anywhere in the world. In most settings the car is the wrong answer to our need to move around at leisure, in comfort, and reasonably fast. There are just too many people with too many cars.
The answer to epic traffic jams and slow-moving traffic, often 24/7, is not to make the cars more intelligent. The answer is to get rid of cars in large urban settings and opt for smart mass transit solutions. (Obviously there are significant exceptions to this general rule that is aimed at large cities. People living in rural areas, in isolated communities, or remote farms need cars. And, of course, cars are necessary for road trips, long and short).
Bus Rapid Transit systems
While there may be several options available, at the moment the most cost-effective solution seems to be Bus Rapid Transit, BRT, systems.
“Come again? We are working on high-tech, intelligent cars and you are proposing buses?” Yes, I recognize that this does not sound terribly sophisticated. And in fact it is not. And, yes, in the roll-out phase this option can be very disruptive.
Dedicated lanes, fast buses
In most large cities, in order to create a BRT system you have to ban or at least restrict private cars. The new bus network becomes fast and efficient only if buses can have complete right of way via dedicated lanes not shared with other vehicles. And this means large areas where cars cannot travel.
Once we know that buses will be able to move freely without being stuck in traffic created by private vehicles, then BRT planners will be able to create the network with bus stops that become interchanges working just like subway stations. Passengers will buy their tickets before boarding. They will ride on a bus, exit at a stop that will also be an interchange, quickly board another bus if they need to, and get to their destination.
Just like a subway, minus the construction cost
in other words, you get all the advantages of an underground subway system, in terms of easy access and speed, minus the cost of digging tunnels and building stations. In most countries, these costs are prohibitive. And this is why most cities do not have subways systems. Or, if they have them, they are not large enough to serve the entire population. Hence the continued dominance of private cars.
So, the humble bus can take care of all urban transportation needs? Yes, it can. But this assumes vision on the part of municipal leaders. They have to be able to sell to their citizens the vision of people moving around quickly and efficiently using surface public transportation that works exactly as a subway system. They have to convince them that it will be user-friendly, and efficient.
Well, does this work? Has it been tried before? The answer is yes. And it works. It all started back in 1974 in the city of Curitiba, Brazil. The very first BRT system was the result of years of experimentation by urban planners. And then the model spread throughout Latin America. in 2000 Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, launched its own TransMilenio BRT system.
And now you have similar solutions in Brisbane, Australia; Stockholm, Sweden; Cape Town, South Africa; Ottawa, Canada; and many more cities around the world.
The only reason why BRT systems have not be adopted more widely by other large cities is that municipal leaders do not want to deal with the unavoidable skepticism and probable resistance of millions of drivers who may not believe that the new BRT system will work as advertised.
So, this is mostly a political rather than a technical impediment. Meanwhile, however, millions of people spend hours and hours in traffic jams created by the shared, but totally mistaken, belief that the private vehicle is still the most cost-effective and most efficient way to address personal mobility needs.
Getting there, fast
So, back to driverless cars. Would you rather have a high-tech car that drives you, but can do nothing to avoid traffic congestion and an endless daily commute, or would you rather get where you need to go by low tech bus that gets you there fast, thanks to a seamless and efficient network?