Are driverless cars a game changer?

A common observation by many historians I’ve read goes like this: “they failed to understand just how important such-and-such was going to be in the future”. In many cases, “such-and-such” is a decisive technology that went unrecognized until it ended up completely changing the game.

Well, I think one technology that’s being grossly under-estimated today is Driverless Cars (DCs). If they could deliver fully on their promise, they’d have an enormous impact and bring a triple bottom line improvement to our cities – more efficient, more equitable and better for the environment.

There’s plenty of commentary around on driverless cars and I wrote at length on their potential as recently as May 31, in Are driverless cars coming?  In that piece, I discussed the current state of the technology and some of the formidable technical, social and legal obstacles to a driverless car fleet.

However as we know from the history of electricity, public sanitation, the car, the computer, inoculation, the pill and many other innovations, it’s very hard to deny an irresistible idea. Given enough time – say the 30 year horizon typical of current planning strategies – it’s possible the sheer weight of benefits DCs promise our cities will provide the motive force to overcome these obstacles.

The key potential benefits are:

  • Expansion in the effective capacity of the road system – at least double and perhaps eight times as much, with consequent savings in infrastructure provision
  • Time savings from faster journeys – technology can manage vehicle interactions and speeds more efficiently than human drivers (although there might be a trade-off with capacity here)
  • Almost complete elimination of serious injuries and fatalities associated with accidents
  • More productive use of in-vehicle journey time compared to conventional cars
  • Greater mobility for those who cannot drive e.g. the unlicensed, disabled, drunk

These are potentially enormous private and social benefits. In addition, the warrant for owning a private vehicle would be greatly reduced in a world of DCs. If a total or substantial shift to DC-sharing were achieved, the size of the urban car fleet would be reduced by an order of magnitude. There would be many benefits:

  • Lower environmental impact because many fewer vehicles would need to be manufactured
  • Less public and private space devoted to parking – this could greatly enhance the quality of public spaces and even residential streetscapes
  • Better matching of vehicle type to need, resulting in lower resource and environmental costs e.g. many DCs could be single seaters
  • Lower cost of travel due to eliminating need for vehicle ownership and removing the “status” component
  • Reduced noise, pollution, emissions and energy consumption by virtue of having a more efficient “standard” set of vehicles
  • The opportunity to rationalise the way travel is paid for by introducing a new pricing ‘paradigm’ – all standing and variable costs, including externalities, could be incorporated in a distance-related tariff (this isn’t intrinsic to DCs, but the changeover to a new paradigm provides the opportunity)

There are other potential strategic benefits too. Driverless cars could greatly reduce (though not eliminate) the need for public transport. This would offer a number of potential advantages:

  • Faster, safer and more private travel for those who currently use public transport – many travellers would enjoy very significant time savings
  • A higher proportion of the total cost of providing transport in the city could be borne directly by DC users rather than, as at present, by taxpayers

DCs aren’t just a replacement for the car, they’re a potential game-changer for the entire urban transport task. Read the rest of this entry »


Is The Age providing fair comment on transport issues?

Prospective corridors for road tunnel (Eddington Report)

I take an agnostic view of freeway proposals – I don’t assume apriori that they’re all bad or all good. I prefer to look at the evidence first before deciding if a proposal has merit or is a poor idea. But it seems there are some who will overlook evidence to the contrary if it undermines their ideological view.

Like Kenneth Davidson in his column in The Age on Monday, Why the east-west road tunnel is a stinker, I have some misgivings about the tunnel proposed to connect Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway with the Western Ring Road. The Victorian Government has just submitted a proposal to Infrastructure Australia, seeking funding to develop the tunnel idea further.

My key concern is the anaemic benefit-cost ratio. But Mr Davidson, who’s a senior columnist at The Age, goes further. He reckons the proposed tunnel recommended in 2008 in the Eddington Report is a “stinker” and a “confidence trick”.

That’s because an earlier study undertaken for the Bracks government in 2004, the Northern Central City Corridor strategy (NCCC), found most of the traffic coming off the Eastern Freeway heads into central Melbourne. It found only 15% is bound for the northern or western suburbs. “In other words”, Mr Davidson says:

the public justification for the east-west link – that it would take traffic away from the central business district – was a confidence trick……The first question (Eddington) should have asked was where did the 2004 study go wrong.

I don’t think anyone disputes the NCCC study was negative about the case for the tunnel. Nor is Mr Davidson the first to raise this objection. The “gotcha” Mr Davidson seizes on with such alacrity is that Sir Rod Eddington apparently ignored the NCCC study’s key finding.

But it seems it’s Mr Davidson who’s doing the ignoring. The Eddington Report actually does consider the NCCC study. Moreover it deals with it in a way that is prominent and impossible to miss by anyone with their eyes open (read it – Chapter 5, page 129).

The Report argues it’s a myth that nearly all Eastern Freeway traffic is destined for the inner city. It says the NCCC produced diagrams that present “a distorted view of traffic distribution (and further NCCC modelling for a future link would have identified and addressed this issue)”.

In a section titled, ‘Myth 2: nearly all the Eastern Freeway traffic is destined for the inner city’, It argues the NCCC study didn’t look beyond the capacity of existing roads or the ultimate destination of traffic once it left the NCCC study area.

First, given the roads in question, the traffic distribution (identified in the NCCC study) is not surprising: at the end of the freeway, there are ten freeway standard traffic lanes (five each way). By the time traffic reaches Macarthur Avenue in Royal Park, the corresponding ‘connection’ is a two-lane road (one lane each way). The traffic distribution is as much a function of the roads available, which progressively reduce in capacity towards the west, as it is a reflection of the demand for a particular direction of travel.

Secondly, when the (Eddington) Study Team analysed how traffic from the Eastern Freeway is distributed (with the analysis closely matching the NCCC distribution), it revealed that around 40 per cent of the daily traffic from the freeway travels beyond the central city area – to the south and the west. That is the case with the current network: in the future, EastLink will add a new dimension.

The Eddington Report also argues (page 137) the NCCC study focussed on Eastern Freeway traffic and didn’t fully consider traffic using adjacent streets instead. Moreover, it didn’t recommend against the tunnel because insufficient vehicles would use it, but rather because the high cost of construction yielded an inadequate benefit-cost ratio. Read the rest of this entry »


Are we set to commute even further?

Change in average journey-to-work travel distance by region (km). Data from BITRE

The Age says jobs in Melbourne are losing pace with sprawl – it cites a new study by BITRE which predicts “an increase in the average commuting distance” by 2026 and a rise in journeys to work involving a road distance of more than 30 kilometres.

If a rigorous, hard-nosed body like the Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics is saying things are going to get worse in the future, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice, right? It’s true BITRE does say that, but it’s also true the media tends to err toward a sensational rather than a sober interpretation of any given facts. In this instance the story is a bit of a beat-up.

For a start, it’s hardly news that commuting distances could “increase” over a period of 15 years given the spectacular growth in population projected for Melbourne. What matters is the size of any increase – if it’s only a 1% increase over the entire period, that’s an infinitesimal 0.06% p.a. However if it’s (say) 15%, i.e. 1% p.a., that’s worth taking note of. However The Age is silent on this score.

BITRE doesn’t say anything about the size of the predicted increase either. There’s a good reason for that. BITRE’s study isn’t an authoritative prediction of future commute distances as implied by The Age’s story. It doesn’t make forecasts based on the latest data, using innovative modelling techniques and complex algorithms as one might expect. In fact the report isn’t even about the future! – it’s actually about historical population, employment and commuting patterns in Melbourne up to 2006.

The Age relies on what is in effect an ill-advised throwaway line by BITRE. The report states (p 333) that if the Victorian Government’s spatial projections of population and employment through to 2026 are realised, the likely commuting implications include….”an increase in journeys to work involving a road distance of more than 30 kilometres and an increase in the average commuting distance”. There’s no analysis or supporting information behind this assertion, so too much shouldn’t be made of it. The prominence given to it by The Age suggests BITRE should’ve thought a bit harder before including it in a report about the past and the present.

However what BITRE actually has analysed in-depth is the historical change in travel distances – and here the picture is if anything somewhat mixed. The report looks first at what’s happened over 2001-06 (see exhibit). That isn’t necessarily a guide to what will happen in 2026, but it shows how current patterns are trending. The picture it reveals isn’t one of rampant increases in commute distances but rather one of relative stability.

BITRE found the average commute in Melbourne increased from 14.7 to 14.8 km, or by just 100 metres over five years. That’s a 0.7% increase, or a miniscule 0.1% p.a. Surprisingly, the average commute increased proportionally less in the outer suburbs than in the inner city – in fact as the exhibit shows, the average commute shortened in absolute terms in the Outer South, Outer East and the Outer West.

This is the real news! It’s important because commute distances have historically increased significantly, while commute times have remained relatively stable. So reliable evidence that commute distances have stabilised, even for five years, is noteworthy. Read the rest of this entry »


Should scooters and motor cycles have a bigger role in cities?

John Adams - On the transmigration of souls (Tribute for 9/11)

I’ve argued before that scooters and motorcycles should play a much bigger part in meeting our future transport needs if the cost of motoring increases dramatically in real terms (here and here). That’s because Two Wheel Motorised Vehicles (2WMVs) are cheap to buy, they’re economical to run and they offer many of the advantages of a car, including on-demand convenience and speed. Moreover they’re easy to park and can be threaded through traffic.

We know 2WMVs are very popular in countries like Vietnam where vehicle purchase and running costs are very high relative to incomes, yet they don’t have a high profile in discussions within Australia about how to deal with peak oil and climate change. Because of their low fuel use, small 2WMVs with efficient, clean engines should garner greater attention as a more sustainable transport option.

A new study published earlier this year, The unpredicted rise of motor cycles: a cost-benefit analysis, might help to give more prominence to the two wheel powered option. It shows use of 2WMVs grew strongly in Paris from the start of the new century, when real oil prices began to rise.

Pierre Kopp from the Pantheon-Sorbonne University (Paris-1) found the number of passenger kilometres travelled by 2WMVs increased 36% in Paris between 2000 and 2007*. This was much higher than other modes – rail grew 12% and bus and car fell 21% and 24% respectively. By 2007, 2WMVs accounted for 16% of all road passenger kms in Paris (up from circa 10% in 2000), more than double the share of buses.

The growth in 2WMV use was primarily at the expense of public transport. Of the 380 million additional passenger kms attributable to 2WMVs, a fifth were generated by existing riders travelling more and 27% by travellers transferring from cars. However more than half (53%) came at the expense of public transport.

This is not surprising given the evidence the author presents for the point-to-point time savings offered by 2WMVs over all other modes. Within Paris, they are 46% faster than cars and 50% faster than the Metro. Within the suburbs of the metropolis, they are 39% faster than cars and 34% faster than the RER.

The author calculates the switch from cars to 2WMVs generated an annual travel time saving worth €93 million. He subtracts higher accident, pollution and other costs, giving a net benefit of €102 million. The net benefit from those who switched to 2WMVs from public transport is €62 million. In contrast, the share of the additional 2WMV travel generated by existing riders has a net cost of €3.7 million (mostly reflecting the absence of the sort of dramatic time savings obtained by those who switched from relatively slow cars, trains and buses).

Parisians who switch to 2WMVs are motivated primarily by time savings rather than fuel costs. On the other hand, the main deterrent is safety (interestingly, the big cost component by far is minor accidents rather than serious ones or fatalities). The importance of safety is illustrated by the fact that all the value of the extra trips taken by existing riders was cancelled out by higher accident costs.

The total €160 million net benefit from increased 2WMV travel over the period was achieved with little official support, according to the author. For example, parking for 2WMVs is limited and the number of parking fines doubled over the last seven years. The author contrasts the relatively high level of expenditure on infrastructure aimed at making cycling safer with the paucity of expenditure on 2WMVs, even though, he says, cycling accounts for a mere 0.8% of all road travel (and 6 deaths p.a.) in Paris whereas 2WMVs account for 16% (and 21 deaths p.a.).

I think it’s unfortunate that bicycles and 2WMVs are cast in competing roles for funding, but it’s nevertheless puzzling why small capacity 2WMVs (I exclude big motor bikes) have such a low profile in public policy as a relatively sustainable transport option. This seems as true in Australia as it apparently is in Paris.

It’s puzzling because 2WMVs have many advantages. Compared to bicycles they can travel longer distances, are harder to steal, are more accessible to those who are infirm, can carry a passenger and goods, and riders don’t need to take a shower. Compared to public transport they’re faster point-to-point, they’re private, most of the financial cost is borne by the owner, and they offer on-demand availability. And compared to cars they use less fuel and can handle congested conditions better. Read the rest of this entry »


Do public transport and road pricing go together?

Animation of US expansion from 1700-1900 - post office openings

It surprises me who’s still lukewarm about congestion pricing of roads. I’d have thought the focus on the carbon tax over the last year would’ve heightened understanding of the role of the price mechanism in managing resources better. Obviously governments find it too hard politically but even organisations like The Greens and the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) offer only heavily qualified support for congestion pricing.

The PTUA doesn’t support congestion pricing in the absence of alternatives, arguing that it would be unlikely to win community support and would be socially inequitable. It’s position is public transport must first be improved to a competitive level. The Greens take a similar view. Senator Scott Ludlum says the party believes a congestion tax “would be an unfair impost unless significant improvements to public transport and other non-driving modes of commuting, such as walking and cycling facilities, are made at the same time”.

What this means in practice is neither organisation has much to say in favour of congestion pricing – neither could be regarded as a staunch advocate of this potential reform. I think that’s a real pity because congestion pricing and improvements in public transport go hand-in-hand. They are the veritable horse and carriage – you won’t get one without the other.

Cars are a very attractive transport option, especially in our dispersed cities. But even the streets of a dense city like Manhattan are full of cars. We could wait generations in the hope that land use changes will make Melbourne so dense that cars will necessarily become a minority mode. Or we could ignore the probability that motorists will shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles or to ones powered by alternative fuels and instead bet that higher fuel prices will drive cars off  Melbourne’s roads.

But waiting and hoping aren’t a good basis for policy. Realistically, we can’t expect Australians will forego the private benefits of a car unless they’re forced to. The only reason most CBD workers don’t drive is because they can’t – traffic congestion and high parking charges rule driving out. Even so, around a quarter of CBD workers in Melbourne still drive and that proportion rises pretty rapidly to 50% and higher once you move even a few hundred metres away from the city rail loop. It would be a bit hard to argue they make this choice because public transport isn’t good enough.

Investing in public transport without simultaneously constraining the car will only achieve a modest increase in public transport’s existing 15% share of all motorised travel in Melbourne. Consider that Melbourne’s train, tram and bus system would cost an unthinkable amount if we had to build it from scratch today – hundreds of billions of dollars – yet 85% of motorised trips are still made by car. It should be obvious that simply providing the infrastructure isn’t enough.

Congestion pricing is the only way to reduce the considerable competitive advantage cars have over public transport (in most situations) within a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost. It’s therefore the only way to significantly increase public transport’s share of motorised trips. Of course good public transport has to be in place at the time congestion pricing is introduced. But what The Greens and the PTUA are missing is that you have to positively and enthusiastically embrace both.

The efficiency case for pricing is very strong and rejected by few. It’s the only practical way to manage traffic congestion. Its great virtue is that it prioritises travellers according to the value of their trip purpose. It also reduces accidents, as well as transport-related emissions and pollution.

The key concern of those with misgivings is the equity implications of congestion pricing. I don’t think it can be doubted that richer people will be better placed to buy road space. But I think there are a number of other issues that also need to be considered here. Read the rest of this entry »


Should replacing level crossings be given higher priority?

Hot wheels metropolis (1200 cars, but no trains)

The Committee for Melbourne has called for a $17.2 billion program to remove all Melbourne’s level crossings over the next 20 years.

The Committee says just two separations of road and rail were constructed by the Kennett government and two by the Bracks/Brumby government. While Melbourne has 172 level crossings, Sydney tackled the issue years ago and now has only eight.

However the Baillieu government has given an undertaking to grade-separate ten crossings at an estimated cost, on average, of around $100 million each. The Committee reckons the private sector could pay a big chunk of the $17.2 billion cost in return for the commercial rights to each site, although the Herald-Sun warns such a move would very likely “be fiercely opposed by anti-development groups”.

There’s a lot to be said for giving a higher priority in the transport capital works program to eliminating level crossings, as they present a number of problems. One is they slow traffic, including buses and trucks. According to the RACV’s public policy manager, Brian Negus, crossings along the Dandenong line are closed for 30-40 minutes an hour during the peak, exacerbating traffic congestion. This is likely to become a bigger problem as the share of public transport trips carried by buses increases. The interaction between crossings and nearby signalled junctions is a major barrier to the efficient performance of the transport network.

Level crossings also impose a limit on the frequency of train services. There are only so many trains that can realistically be sent down a line given each service entails stopping traffic in both directions for well in excess of one minute (in Newcastle, crossings are closed on average for passenger and freight trains for between three and seven minutes!). Some crossings are forecast to carry nearly 40 trains per hour in the peak by 2021.  Another issue is traffic queuing across rail lines — as well as the occasional car/train incident — limits the efficiency of the network. Further, level crossings are a safety hazard for pedestrians and give parents a reason to discourage children from walking to school.

While I’ve not seen an analysis for Melbourne, there’s little doubt the benefit-cost ratio of level crossing elimination would be very high. I expect it would be well ahead of some other much larger transport projects, such as the Avalon, Doncaster or Rowville rail proposals.

There are nevertheless a number of issues raised by this proposal. One is the need to prioritise works – some crossings are relatively minor and simply don’t warrant expenditure in the forseeable future. Probably 80% of the benefits will come from grade separating 20% of crossings. Back in 2009, the Public Transport Users Association argued these ten crossing should be given the highest priority, given their impact on road-based public transport:

  • Bell Street and Munro Street, Coburg (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Springvale Road, Springvale (Smartbus 888/889)
  • Bell Street, Cramer Street and Murray Road, Preston (one project) (Smartbus 903)
  • Glen Huntly Road and Neerim Road, Glenhuntly (one project) (Tram 67, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Balcombe Road, Mentone (Smartbus 903)
  • Buckley Street, Essendon (Smartbus 903)
  • Clayton Road, Clayton (Smartbus 703)
  • Burke Road, Gardiner (Tram 72, and trains subject to speed restrictions)
  • Camp Road, Campbellfield (crossing elimination and new station) (proposed Smartbus 902)
  • Glenferrie Road, Kooyong (Tram 16, and trains subject to speed restrictions)

That’s a particular perspective, yet it matches some of the RACV’s priorities. Last year the RACV said the four worst crossings in Melbourne are in High Street near Reservoir station, on Burke Road near Gardiner station in Glen Iris, on Clayton Road next to Clayton station, and Murrumbeena Road near the station. The Dandenong rail corridor also figures high in the RACV’s priorities.

I’m not sure there is as much value in development rights as the Committee for Melbourne imagines. Many level crossings, perhaps most, may not have enough suitable land available for development after meeting grade separation and operational needs. The most promising opportunities are probably where the rail line rather than the road has been lowered, but this can be expensive. Many of those that do have land available may be in locations considered unsuitable for development by planners. And let’s be clear that development in air space over railway lines is a fantasy – it’s simply too expensive in all but an extremely small number of cases. For practical purposes, development in air space is not an option. Read the rest of this entry »


Are Toyota Prius drivers wankers?

The unique body shape of the Toyota Prius

Educated elites often show distaste for the sort of conspicuous consumption exemplified by McMansions, but it seems almost everyone likes to show off, even greenies.

Two US researchers, Steven Sexton and Alison Sexton (they’re twins), have coined the term “conspicuous conservation” to describe people who spend up big to signal their green status. The standard conventions of conspicuous consumption still apply – like German cars and appliances – but now esteem can also be bought through demonstrations of austerity.

The authors set out the issue in this paper, Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides:

Amid heightened concern about environmental damage and global climate change, costly private contributions to environmental protection increasingly confer status once afforded only through ostentatious displays of wastefulness. Consumers may, therefore, undertake costly actions in order to signal their type as environmentally friendly or “green.” The status conferred upon demonstration of environmental friendliness is sufficiently prized that homeowners are known to install solar panels on the shaded sides of houses so that their costly investments are visible from the street.

They examine the sorts of people who buy hybrid cars in Washington (State) and Colorado, focussing on areas with a green demographic where sales of hybrid cars are high and where ‘signalling’ green credentials therefore ought to work. They attempt to isolate the “green halo” effect by comparing sales of the market-leading Toyota Prius – which has a distinctive and unique body shape – against those of comparable hybrids like the Honda Civic. Like all of the other 23 hybrid models on the US market (excepting the Prius), the Civic is virtually indistinguishable from the bigger-selling petrol powered variants of the same car. It is only identified by a small badge and hence, unlike the Prius, fails to signal its environmental credentials.

Anyone who’s watched Larry David tootling around LA in his Prius with uncurbed enthusiasm will get the picture – “we’re Prius drivers….we’re a special breed”. As Dan Becker, the head of the global warming program at the Sierra Club says, “the Prius allowed you to make a green statement with a car for the first time ever”.

The authors cite a market research company’s finding that 57% of Prius buyers say their main reason for choosing the Prius is because “it makes a statement about me”. They refer to another study where most of the individuals interviewed had only a basic understanding of environmental issues or the ecological benefits of hybrid cars but purchased “a symbol they could incorporate into a narrative of who they are or who they wish to be”.

The authors conclude that the conspicuous conservation effect accounts on average for 33% of the Prius’s market share in Colorado and 10% in Washington. No wonder it’s come to be known as the Toyota Pious. Read the rest of this entry »