Will self driving cars save Austin from itself?

If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

There has been a lot written recently about (semi) Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs) aka Self driving cars. Especially yesterday following the Tesla announcement, see also this NPR report.

Self driving cars have long been held out as a solution. They arrive when you need them, they take you to your destination at regulated speeds, they can adjust to traffic congestion, and collisions, road work etc. Once you’ve arrived, they disappear not requiring a parking space either in a building, or on the street. Nirvana.

Proposing self driving cars as a solution to traffic congestion, where the congestion is caused by constraints is simply a nonsense. They are a first world solution, to a first world problem. “Why can’t I text/read/sleep while I’m stuck in traffic?”

There has long been discussion among the urban transportation advocates, while they promise to reduce accidents and better manage traffic density and improve capacity through stable and reduced “headway” (the distance between cars). Anyone who proposes they can solve traffic congestion without understanding the constraints and capacity issues, just doesn’t understand the challenge. This Forbes article screams “Self-Driving Cars Would Slash Traffic, End Street Parking” yet aside from the obvious nod to headway and predictability doesn’t address the problem. This Qoura discussion covers many of the points

Here is a response I wrote yesterday on the issue to the #ATXRail mailing list. It refers to an earlier post that discussed in some technical detail the problems of scheduling and capacity.

Again, I find myself being the naysayer, Roger Cauvin made some extremely salient and possibly too technical points about any transit system design, but especially as it relates to individual transit options such as autonomous cars. The problem that most simply don’t understand is the scheduling and availability of these cars at scale.

First, whats scale? How many would be needed to make a real difference? Scale certainly isn’t a hundred, it’s not a thousand, it’s probably 10,000 maybe more. Second, lets assume these are free movement vehicles, they don’t run on track or are constrained by guide rails. Third, lets assume that they are capable of transporting 2-3 max. but the assumed capacity is one passenger. Fourth, lets also assume these are not individually owned vehicles, or at least if they are, they are available ala Uber/Lyft for other people to book. Fifth, lets assume they are electric and capable of driving themselves to charging stations where they either connect or are connected to a recharge point.

Now we have the basics of your capacity based system and you can start working on its constraints. What you don’t have is any real clue about the usage patterns, how they’ll be used, who by, for what, at what time and so on. Until you can produce even a first pass for this you cannot make any assumption that autonomous vehicles can solve anything except perhaps more consistent traffic flow, and improved emissions. Anyone who claims autonomous cars can solve anything without this data is simply blowing smoke and must be pushed back on.

They are great for private vehicle journeys. I have a Mercedes that will already follow a GPS journey, has variable cruise control that will slow down and speed up the car based on the MAX speed of the vehicle a set distance in front and will bring the car to a stop based on either breaking vehicles or an obstruction in front; it pretty much does everything except steer, but it vibrates the steering column to let you know when to turn and when you’ve are moving out of a lane etc. This type of vehicle which we’ll see for all new vehicles in the next 5-7 years, if not before, will much better regulate driving.

They’ll minimize the concertina effect of drivers speeding up, jumping lanes and breaking too hard which will make congested roads flow much more smoothly. In practice they can also stop people jumping traffic lights, travelling faster than the legal speed limit and other traffic law infringements.

This begs question will drivers allow this to happen, and can insurance companies be convinced to drive the adoption of it?

So assuming all that gets done, autonomous vehicles will become totally acceptable and usable. And then we’ll have the scheduling issues that Roger alluded to. They are real.

Having self driving parks valet park themselves is cool, the question is where? At scale, say 5,000, you need at least say 2,000 spaces, and over night, probably 4,000. Lets those spaces also need to be charging points. Someone has to invest in building and powering those points. The “free” market will(really?). Then all you have to go is schedule cars between where they are, the users, the users destinations, and the parking spaces. When the primary destination is still downtown Austin, you have some massive constraints, not magical relief.

Although I don’t work in that area now, I work on computer systems scheduling for 15-years, specializing on at-scale systems. These were airline, banking and transaction systems. That had very similar constraints in so much as they all used run one one or two mainframe systems. I was the lead architect for a system we spent more than 2-years modelling an internet banking system that eventually successfully supported 900,000 concurrent users on two servers. I helped fixed the design and scheduling for a single system that supported 23,000 concurrent users, a record at the time. Before you all say but yeah cloud computing has changed all that, it really hasn’t.

The design and use pattern considerations Roger discussed are key. If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

It’s true, as automated cars become standard features of our cities, it will be easier and easier to write the scheduling rules to make them work within the unique constraints each city has. Austin will have more than many cities constraints because of the sprawl, because of the access road problems, and especially if we have not viable alternatives.

On the “self driving” Mercedes observation, I had never thought of trying this.

Update: 1:23 added in Qoura link.

Farewell to “alms”

I wrote to the Austin Chronicle a couple of weeks back to follow-up on their quote of the week, from departing Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

“It is important to remember that there are over 860,000 people living in Austin. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep this in mind when you’re facing 200 loud voices in the Council Chamber.”

My observation, from being one of those 200 8-10x during Leffingwells tenancy, and addressing the dais probably 3-4 times, was

So, our rail or fail Mayor Leffingwell reminds us that there are some 860,000 people in Austin, and it’s hard to remember that when confronted by 200 loud voices in the chamber [“Quote of the Week,” News, Jan. 9].
Perhaps if he’d been more of a leader, less confrontational, and paid more attention to the issues of those various 200 people, he’d have been elected in 2012 by more than a paltry 10% of Austin voters.
Voter apathy in Austin is legend, and you get what you vote for.

Fellow Austin rail advocate, Andrew Clements followed up my letter aka “piled on” in a follow-up letter, it’s a much better summary of the Leffingwell era, or “legacy” .

DVT and the American Way

As we approach the holiday season, I am reminded to check the American Way magazine to see if they’ve updated their advice about Deep Vein Thrombosis, aka DVT. My legs are sore from Sundays race, so better safe than sorry.

Looks like I’m still in with a chance to win the 100,000 award miles for my letter to the editor last month, after all they have not changed the advice. Here is what I wrote:

I’m in 22a of AA 1149, I’ve been here for about 3.5 hours since boarding. The guy in the exit row seat in front, despite a polite request, refuses to put his seat upright.

The space left between us is so small, I can only use my laptop as an oversize MP3 player, lid closed. I’ve read American Way cover to cover and it’s a great issue.

I did though find the diagrams for avoiding DVT hilarious. I can barely do the ankle rotations in the space I have, knee/chest lifts even knee lifts are simply not possibly. Perhaps you could update the diagrams?

Yours, 3-million miler(almost) 6ft triathlete with a 35 inch waist…

and yes, the following illustration is still there in the December 2014 issue.

See page 106
See page 106

After all, you wouldn’t want find out that you needed seat savers in order to prevent a real problem.seat

Austin Traffic: Poor planning

So prop-1 failed, no bad rail, no gloating from me. We still have a major commuting problem. Repeat after me though, we don’t have a traffic problem.

One of the problems we have, that comes from growth is so many places are having infrastructure work. Google are all over south Austin laying underground conduit for fiber optic cables, mostly though they are not the problem, apart from a half day here or there where the close off a lane.

The RapidBus dedicated lanes have caused some problems downtown, but slowly people have got used to not using the bus lanes, although you still see the occasional complete screw-up with cars stuck in the bus lane, usually turning into the lane too quickly to make a left or right turn, and then along comes the bus.

However, at least as noted before, what we have downtown is a really poor  planning and implementation of the infrastructure work. As I said in this post back in January, This is another example of small city planning, big city desires. Lavaca St a core south/north route has now been effectively reduced to one lane for the most part of 18-months.

Google maps unfortunately has some gaps, but streetview shows last year, with a picture from this morning. I wrote to city planning today, but I’m guessing there will be some plausible reason.

The city needs to take control, there needs to be better coordination, less adhoc, private work, traffic lane planning and so on. I’d even have the city coordinate through the special events office to make sure that even temporary closure of roads to move cranes, scaffolding and other large construction materials in and out are coordinated. Finally, I’d implement a series of fines for companies that over run on repairs, irrespective of whom they are working for, or what the reason was.

Congestion has a very real financial impact, if Austin really wants to be a big city, it has to start acting like one.

Austin Traffic: Congestion

Irrespective of f the rail bond passes today, this is where I’d be spending money in the next few years, make a serious attempt of creating an inclusive, flexible work hours business environment and it won’t cost $1.4 billion.

So, Austin traffic is terrible, lots of reports hightlight Austin as having the 4th worst traffic in America, especially those advocating for the road/rail on being voted on today.

Austin traffic among worst in hemisphere, study shows

However, if you sit down and do the numbers, what you’ll see is apart from I35, which I’ll come back to in a later post, almost none of the roads are at or near capacity. What Austin has, in a commuter traffic problem. This matches exactly my anecdotal experiences.

Traffic on S 1st
Traffic on S 1st

I took this picture this morning after my run. The traffic wasn’t there at 7:15 a.m. an it was gone a 9:15 a.m. South 1st was blocked all the way from City Hall, to up past W Oltorf. I’m sure the same would have been true on North and South Lamar; South Congress, Mopac, I35, East Riverside et al.

This is key when it comes to today’s vote on the rail and road bond. If you vote for the bond, what you are in essence be approving is a route that is a hail mary pass where we have to see significant growth to give the trains any real passengers outside of commute time. Even at commute time it’s not entirely clear that the ridership will meet the targets that Project Connect have claimed will be achieved.

This is why route selection is vital. On Sunday I was cycling up on Parmer Lane. I had to stop where the Red Line aka Metrorail crosses Parmer just west of R620. As the train passed, I strained to see the passengers, there were none. Even if the current proposal passes, this is likely to be a regular scene, since for the most part, apart from the medical buildings, the train doesn’t go where anyone will want to go during the day, unless the growth comes with the train.

If the route doesn’t get the riders, isn’t seen as a viable benefit to the city for the cost, it is highly unlikely that other bonds will be approved off the back of what will be seen as another expensive rail project.

The route isn’t going to reduce congestion at commute time, it will simply encourage more growth and more sprawl. Julio Gonzalez Altamirano has a great summary of all the issues, but even he, along with both the proponents and  critics have not discussed or talked about is the cultural issue of commuting at the same time.

Austin, Texas embodies an almost macho, work at all costs, be in early culture. It may not represent Texas, but it’s much worse here than almost anywhere else that I’ve worked(London, New York, Moscow, Berlin, Beijing). We are in the middle of the country, so we have timezone drift from both the east coast and the west coast. It’s not unusual to have calls at 7 a.m., meetings regularly start at 8 a.m. That has a massive impact on families, getting kids to school, getting to work.

Lately I’ve been tracking my commute times. I live in the central downtown and work in Round Rock, a 20-mile drive. I try to work at home Fridays, and every now and again I bike home from work and then the next day, bike back.

automaticOver the past month, whenever I can I’ve been leaving my drive to work until after 9:30 a.m. I have been using the AUTOMATIC driving app for a year or so, it makes it easy to look at your driving, trips, times and speed etc.

Trying to get out of my road anytime after 7:30 a.m. gets difficult, the traffic is streaming 2-lanes north towards downtown. It stays that way until 9 a.m. or so. The reverse is true in the evening.

Getting through downtown, a distance of just 2-miles can add 8-minutes to my commute time. However, if I leave outside the peak commute times, I can easily make it to work in less than 30-minutes, because apart from the downtown commute there really isn’t any traffic, even on I35, unless you are coming south from Pfllugerville, Round Rock and further afield.

It would seem to me, tackling this wouldn’t be free, but encouraging flexible working would be a great start. Sure, lots of businesses like schools, restaurants and other service based organizations need to have set hours staffed, and can’t have everyone show up at 9:15, but even they can be more flexible at setting roster times.

Flexible working has a large number of direct benefits, but also avoids the roads becoming clogged up all the time, with the noise, smell and cost associated with that. Even if you could extend the commute by just 45-minutes it would significantly reduce the actual congestion.

For the individual, it comes with a load of benefits, with flexible work schedules, employers also get a significant benefit. But when it come down to it, flexible working is about trust. Are Austin businesses ready to trust and encourage employees? And are Austinites prepared to shift their schedules?

Irrespective of f the rail bond passes today, this is where I’d be spending money in the next few years, make a serious attempt of creating an inclusive, flexible work hours business environment and it won’t cost $1.4 billion.

Austin doesn’t have a traffic problem

Tomorrow is voting day for Texas and Austin, there is some excitement over the new 10 district system in Austin among the political classes, but not much among the voters. One of the big issues, at least for me and the general media has been the traffic, and more specifically congestion. Up for vote is Prop-1. a mixed rail and roads bond with a cost of $1.4 billion. It has become a total political football, although either way it is a win/win for the urbanists who either get rail and can pursue density; or don’t get rail and can use that to drive calls for faster and more density.

I’ve posted numerous times on the rail topic, but just lately I’ve been tracking my commute times. I live in the central downtown and work in Round Rock, a 20-mile drive. I try to work at home Fridays, and every now and again I bike home from work and then the next day, bike back.

What at least for me has become obvious over the last month, is that yes, Austin has heavy traffic from time to time, but really it doesn’t have a traffic problem, it has a commute problem.

I’ll tackle this topic in more detail in a number of short(er) follow on posts, which address both the problems but also some of my view how we could deal with the problem. They are in summary

Why Nations Fail, does this apply to Texas?

Why Nations Fail is a fascinating book, by Acemoglu of MIT and political scientist, James Robinson. They posit that economies that have abundant natural resources can be easily captured by groups that become politically powerful. The authors view is that an abundance of natural resources, which may seem like a blessing, often turns out to be a blessing for a select few and, for the rest of a country’s citizens, a curse. It’s called the natural-resource curse.

east-texas-oil-field[1]The natural-resource curse is well understood economic equation, there are a number of papers on it, this one by Sachs and Warner, the show that countries with great natural resource wealth tend nevertheless to grow more slowly than resource-poor countries. Resource-abundant countries tended to be high-price economies and, benefited by the few.

With the media here in Texas, and especially Austin, currently focused, on prices, the tax burden; the impact of the thousands of people moving  Texas;  and John Stewart Daily lampooning Texas, from inside Austin itself; and an increasing sense of conflict among ordinary people, I wonder if Texas, through it’s natural abundance of land, oil, shale oil isn’t in fact setting itself up to fail?

Certainly ahead of next weeks mid-term elections, the 10/1 Austin City Council election, the vote on Prop-1. all the signs are there. While the abundance of natural-resources has lulled people into a false sense of security, allowing various groups to drive conflict in order to gain control of the State Institutions. Classic theory in practice.

While this would normally be something you’d expect in 3rd world countries such as Sierra Leone, Angola, Venezuela and Nigeria, is it so impossible that it could happen here?

The signs are that it is. Texas is increasingly dropping in national ranking, and internationally worse still. Despite the abundant wealth garnered from the Oil boom, and the more recent Gas/Shale boom, the bulk of that money resides indeed in the hands of the few. Texas has

Oxfam has a solution paper to the natural-resource curse. It starts by saying “get your hands on the money”. In this case, I think rather than get our hands on the money, it would be better to follow Norways lead and create a world leading Sovereign Wealth fund and use that to improve the State, and services that Texas itself has. What are we currently doing?  Raiding the rainy day fund to improve the roads, the rainy day fund aka The Economic Stabilization Fund, or the Texas version of a sovereign Wealth Fund, nice.