Giant fleet of small scheduling nightmares

In tenuous link between my recent posts on automation, here and especially here, where back in November I discussed autonomous vehicles and their impact on employment. I also said:

While many cities are salivating over the ability of self-driving, autonomous vehicles to fix their broken road and transport infrastructure, that’s missing the point.

Sometime between then and last weekend I became a weekend subscriber to the (Boulder) Daily Camera, a great local paper for the Boulder/Denver metro area. Right on queue, my first Sunday paper was laying in the snow on the drive this weekend and I opened it up and parsed it during the day. One item that particularly caught my eye was Dave Kriegers main editorial entitled “Imagine a giant fleet of tiny buses“.

serveimageI grabbed a pen, marked the editorial up, scribbled in the margins and sat down on Monday morning and wrote an open forum letter. It didn’t get published, I have no idea if it’s policy not to publish corrections on staff written op-ed pieces, or they just didn’t think it interesting enough to include?

Since a big fuss has blown up about an Uber self driving car today, running a red light yesterday(in full transparency, Uber self driving development has a big office here in Louisville that is a build-up from the Uber acquisition of Microsofts Bing mapping service.) I thought I’d turn Mondays open forum letter into a blog post.

This also lets me correct one misstatement. Self-driving cars will help with congestion theoretically. In heavy traffic, they will drive at a regulation speed, a safe distance from the vehicle in front, thus avoid the hard braking and the impact that can have on several miles of traffic.

It is hard to respond to Dave Kriegers editorial imaging “a giant fleet of tiny buses” in 300-words, but I’d like to have a try.

First, I completely agree with his sentiment that if you keep trying the same old thing, you’ll keep failing. However, when it comes to his “giant fleet of small buses” he falls into the same trap most transport ‘imagineers’ do when the come to self-driving vehicles. For the sake of brevity, let’s assume they’ll be electric; let’s assume they can dock themselves; let’s assume they have a slightly better range than current electric cars.

Dave jumps to the conclusion that less space will be needed for parking. Sort of, except the cars have to be charged somewhere. But yes, they could be charged in either fields or reclaimed parking garages outfitted with self-docking chargers. Dave then makes the confusing jump to the conclusion that “[they] could reduce congestion because fewer cars would serve more people”.

Anyone that’s given any serious thought to scheduling and transportation would understand implicitly that that isn’t true. It’s implied because it fits the paradigm of autonomous vehicles. If 20,000 people want to get into Boulder today between 7:15am and 9:00am in their own unshared transportation, and the demand is the same in the era of self-driving cars, then, you’ll have the same number of journeys. Add in the recharging trips, the fact that using Daves logic, there will be less self-driving cars, then some of those cars will have to drive in and out and back into Boulder, actually increasing the number of journeys and therefore contributing to the congestion.

If we take Daves “less parking space” claim at face value, then what will the space formerly used by parking garages be used for? Green space… err no, more offices/accommodation, with the potential to further increase the number of journeys and congestion.

Don’t get me wrong, self-driving cars are great, but until we have flying cars they will only help indirectly with congestion won’t help with congestion. The only way is shared transport. Bus Rapid Transport isn’t it either. Trams, street cars, metro-rail are the only real fix.

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

Drive my car

Beep beep’m beep, beep yeah. Having driven a couple of hundred miles back in the UK, it’s remarkable to compare the experience to my now normal Texas drives. I rented a Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer, manual shift, of course. Overall a pretty decent car although not comparable to my normal drive, at least a decent size car.

First of there is the whole Petrol and refueling thing. You can’t pay at the pump. This makes no sense at all. Second, the pumps have no auto-fill setting, which mean you have to stand and hold it, breathing in the fumes. 3.When you go inside to pay the cashier, you almost always have to wait. 4. They always ask if you need a vat receipt(yes, I know why, its still weird). 5. Sticker shock. I paid 87.20 UK pounds to fill the Insignia with diesel. Thats a whopping $142 for approx. 18 US Gallons. That makes the price $7.88 per gallon. Compare that to $3.45 average currently in Austin for premium gas/petrol, and $3.25 for desiel.

There are some benefits though. 1. Compared to my current US (premium gas/petrol) ride which has averaged 21MPG over 15,000 miles, the Insignia (2.0 manual 6-speed desiel) does 60MPG. Taking the price per mile

  • $7.88/50MPG = 16c per mile in the UK, desiel.
  • $3.45/21MPG = 16c per mile in the USA, petrol
  • $3.25/42MPG = 8c per mile in the USA, diesel(hypothetical, see below)

The price per gallon, and the miles per gallon for the UK figures are both divided by 1.20095 due to the smaller size of a US Gallon.

Now, its late, nearly 2 a.m. so it’s quite possible I’ve made a mistake. But that seems counter intuitive, especially as the UK Price includes a huge amount of tax. Tax/VAT is included in both price per gallons. Yes, I know I drive a big car in the US, but the MPG is actually not bad for a US sized engine. Taking a similar GM diesel car, the Chevy Cruise with a similar GM 2.0 diesel engine, the EPA combined estimate is 42MPG, which based on the EPA estimated MPG is half the price per mile, still sticker shock then.

Other advantages in the UK include much clearer signs, although way too many on many junctions. Driving on the A361 towards Trowbridge, I lost count at 26 signs facing me as I drove towards the traffic circle/roundabout at Cepen. The signs are more reflective, and more descriptive, also more prescriptive.

The best thing though was being able to set the cruise control to 78MPH, and then driving 80-miles on the M42, M5, M4 and not having to worry about getting stopped for exceeding the speed limit. The limit is nationally 70MPH on motorways/Interstate roads in the UK. Compare that to the confusing 50/60/65/70 MPH speed limits on Mopac and I35 in Austin. Yes, I was speeding in the UK, but for the most part you wouldn’t get stopped unless you were going faster than 80MPH, and yes, you get passed by people doing 90MPH+ – I’ve had 5-tickets over 7-years since living in Austin, all of them on either Mopac or Instate roads, only one was for exceeding 75MPH on I10.

Despite their inherent narrow traffic lanes, the higher volume of vehciles, and especially commercial trucks, and the fact most motorway/Interstate have fewer lanes than the US, the UK lane discipline, level of driver skill, and overall driving experience is better. Much of this is down to the no passing on the slower, inside lanes law, some to the fact that where there are more than 2-lanes, trucks are NEVER allowed in the fast lane.

Baby you can drive my car
Yes I’m gonna be a star
Baby you can drive my car
And maybe I’ll love you