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Brittany Holloway-Brown

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Fixing the American Commute

We blame cars for transportation woes, but can new technology turn them into saviors?

Few commuters today would describe the experience of traveling underneath the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York as exceptional. But that’s exactly how newspaper writers of the day described a then-miraculous train trip in 1909. This system of iron-clad tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, a progressive transit project finished during the first decade of the 20th century and overseen by builders, engineers, and statesman such as William Gibbs McAdoo, was "one of the greatest railroad achievements in the history of the world," transforming an often frigid 10-minute journey across the water on ferries into a three-minute, climate-controlled run. Passengers arrived at the original Pennsylvania Station, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece that was greeted with "exclamations of wonder" when it opened in 1910, and observers from London were awed by the superior transport system. The Holland Tunnel, devised by master tunneler Ole Singstad, was opened in 1927 by President Coolidge in an elaborate ceremony using the same ornate golden key that played a role in the opening of the Panama Canal. Summing up all of the infrastructure built during that period to connect the island of Manhattan to the burgeoning populations of Brooklyn and New Jersey, the New York Times asked the rhetorical question, "How much better off are the young men of this hour than their fathers?"

Today’s travelers have, to put it lightly, lost that sense of awe, and likely envy the commutes of previous generations. The subterranean journey has become an existential slog, with semi-regular power outages plaguing train riders and traffic jams clogging the Holland Tunnel.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has said that replacing these routes was the nation’s top rail priority. But after Governor Chris Christie axed plans to construct the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project—which would have added two additional tunnels to the system of underground river crossings in 2010—on the grounds that the $12.4 billion plan would be too expensive, the price tag for new tunnels has risen to $20 billion, and those tunnels may not be finished until 2030.

These tunnels and rail systems, a chokepoint in a vital circulation system, now stand not as monuments to American accomplishment but as symbols of decline. The most recent Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers said the country would need to spend $3.6 trillion to repair our country’s crumbling roads, rails, pipes, power grids. For comparison, the entire 2015 federal budget was $3.8 trillion.

The New York entrance of the Holland Tunnel the day it opened.
The New York entrance of the Holland Tunnel the day it opened in 1927.
Photo by Harry Warnecke/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

"It’s an embarrassment," says Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering at Duke and author of The Road Taken, a history of the country’s infrastructure system. "The best we have is the Acela train, which is chronically delayed and has accidents. And there isn’t much hope in the current presidential candidates' plans. At least they pronounce 'infrastructure' correctly. I haven’t heard them say anything that makes me overly optimistic."

Taking a trip from New Jersey to New York today shows the dire straits of America’s daily commute, which relies on a system that’s aged, technologically inept, and in need of repair. Investment in rail systems and mass transit in the first half of the 20th century, when these trains and tunnels could be described as cutting-edge technology and the envy of the world, gave way to car-centric development, endless road construction, congestion, and pollution.

The nation’s largest rail systems, all chronically underfunded, face a $102 billion repair backlog, and the Washington Metro that services the nation’s capital may be shut down for months due to aging equipment and electrical lines. In March, the Twitter account for Bay Area Rapid Transit responded to riders complaining of delays with unvarnished truth: "BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality."

According to John Olivieri, 21st century transportation campaign director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, that reality is the result of regular budget decisions favoring expanding roadways over maintaining mass transit. The United States spends 55 percent of available transportation funding expanding one percent of the system, and 45 percent maintaining the other 99 percent.

Traffic into the Holland Tunnel in New York City, 1929.
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

With such a huge gap in investment, our transportation tangles may have only one possible fix: a new type of car, set up as a quasi-public utility via a ridesharing system. While these services, known as transportation network companies, have had their share of public relations and labor issues, even mass transit advocates have lined up behind the idea. A recent report by the American Public Transportation Association, "Shared Mobility and the Transformation of Public Transit," found that ridesharing can increase mass transit ridership and decrease the amount of money riders spend on transportation. And with driverless vehicle technology on the horizon, our view of cars may quickly shift from a necessary transportation evil to the harbinger of the efficient, effortless commute envisioned in science fiction.

"How do we improve the infrastructure if we can’t invest in it?" says Nadine Lee, Deputy Chief Innovation Officer at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "We find ways to use what we have more efficiently."

A new stretch of Interstate 10 connects downtown Houston with fast-growing western suburbs such as Katy. Twenty-three lanes of asphalt stretch across this highway, the highlight of a $2.8 billion expansion project completed in 2012 and meant to address one of the worst bottlenecks in the nation. Looking at certain statistics, the solution seemed elementary: vehicle ownership in Houston has jumped 172 percent in the last 40 years, while highway space has only grown by 19 percent.

But as cities across the country have seen, this kind of math only generates exponential growth in traffic. After a respectable reduction in congestion immediately following the opening, traffic on the highway quickly met and then exceeded pre-construction levels: by 2014, travel times were 51 percent higher than they were in 2011. According to a recent analysis by the Texas A&M Transport Institute, annual congestion costs for the road exceed $59 million, and without additional action, traffic will only get worse; Houston’s population is expected to double by 2050.

Nearly every city has tried to build its way out of traffic congestion, but the approach hasn’t yet worked. Even Houston’s new mayor, Sylvester Turner, who calls for more light rail and mass transit spending, called out the Katy extension in a speech where he said these kind of building solutions are "exacerbating our congestion problems." According to Olivieri, this build-first mentality is built into our system for funding transportation.

"State transportation departments that do much of the highway building across the country see themselves as highway builders," says Olivieri. "They’re removed from city transit organizations. They believe there are economic benefits to building roads. They’re not bad people. They’re just living in a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and ignore a host of negative externalities such as pollution and congestion. Politics lag behind policy in this case."

Vintage 1958 postcard showing a 10-lane highway and a view of the Houston skyline.
Photo by Lake County Museum/Getty Images

That world, according to Olivieri and other analysts, is the 1950s, when urban planners focused on connecting growing suburban areas with urban centers using roads instead of rails. Decades later, these mostly poorly maintained roadways are more crowded than ever—Americans spend 5.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic—yet national spending priorities haven’t shifted.

"It’s not that we’re spending too much," he says. "We’re spending it on expansion, not repairs. We need a fundamental rethink of how we’re allocating money and spending it."

Olivieri says that President Obama actually provided a blueprint for funding a more progressive transportation system earlier this year, proposing a $10-a-barrel oil tax to invest in transportation, research, electric vehicles, and mass transit. But with gas prices serving as a barometer of economic health, a proposal funded by an additional tax on filling America’s tanks was dead on arrival. Contrast that with the recently passed FAST Act, which sets transportation spending priorities for the next five years. A largely status-quo bill, it devotes roughly 80 percent to roadways, 20 percent to transit, and a few percentage points to biking and walking. The federal gas tax, the prime source for transportation funding, hasn’t budged since it was set at 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993 (and wasn’t indexed for inflation).

"This is really a problem, because they aren’t glamorous issues," says Petroski. "We have so much catching up to do."

Petroski points to other signs that the situation may get worse. Our legacy roadways, built to midcentury standards, weren’t designed to handle today’s heavier trucks. Road repairs and funding are tied to existing gas taxes, and with increasing fuel efficiency standards, less money per driver will be coming right when we need more repairs.

"The gap between revenue and need is widening," he says. "The solution some areas have proposed, such as Washington D.C., is public-private partnerships, where private companies operate express lanes and collect a toll to pay for building and maintenance. But the problem with those is that if money isn’t coming in, investors demand that they raise the tolls, which then causes less people to use the roads, and reduces income. It’s a lose-lose situation."

For many advocates and planners, the impracticality of making a complete break from car-centric transportation means shifting toward a multi-modal solution. This interlocking system of transportation, including bikes, mass transit, and cars, creates a more efficient and environmentally sound means of getting from point A to B.

For a certain segment of the urban population, biking offers both a practical and pollution-free path toward a better transportation plan, and a bottom-up answer to decades of poor highway planning and roadbuilding. But a look at a cycling success story, Minneapolis, shows the limits of this solution.

Years of investment have made Minnesota’s biggest city a somewhat unlikely biking mecca. Boasting a 51-mile ring of bike-only freeways that encircle the city—the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway—and progressive policies such as requiring office buildings to have bike storage, the city was an early proponent of bike-sharing (the regionally appropriate Nice Ride system), and has made it easy for recent transplants to feel comfortable riding to work.

"Other people look cool on bikes, and I don’t," says Erin Meister, a worker at a Minneapolis coffee importer who bikes every day from her home in the Elliot Park neighborhood through an industrial area near downtown. "Guess I’m just that person riding a magenta bike around Prince’s hometown."

The Grand Rounds Scenic Byway in Minneapolis.
Tony Webster/Flickr

Meister, who moved to Minnesota from New York City a year ago, leaves her place around 7:30 every morning, taking a route over the Mississippi River and down a street with lots of truck traffic, making her feel alive by the time she gets to the office. She’s one of the 4.3 percent of city residents who bike to work every day, a staggeringly high number considering the city’s punishing winter climate.

"There are lots of people here without cars, including me," says Meister. "It was a mild winter, so it wasn’t too bad. But even when it’s dumping snow, people are out there. I don’t know how they move with so many layers."

While the popularity of cycling to work is growing, jumping 62 percent from 2000 to 2013, it’s still only used by a fraction of a fraction of U.S. commuters, 0.6 percent, compared to the 5 percent who use public transportation and 86.2 percent majority who drive. These numbers might make cycling seem like a healthy, environmentally sound, and incredibly niche mode of transportation, a footnote in America’s transportation story.

But the emergence of more and more bike-friendly cities like Minneapolis, and increases in cycling and bicycle-share programs, shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum. It’s part of the larger puzzle of multi-modal transportation.

"Many cities see this as a means to reduce congestion and reduce pollution," says Nicole Freedman, President of the North American Bike Share Association. "Half of the calls we get don’t even mention bikes. It’s about increasing transportation options."

Bike share systems, such as CitiBike in New York or Divvy in Chicago, can now be found in more than 90 municipalities across the country, says Freedman. That's tremendous growth that "sees no sign of leveling off." This sharing economy addition to the transportation system is offering more flexibility to navigate denser urban areas. Freedman sees rapid growth ahead, both in terms of numbers and technology: electric bicycles to expand ranges, smartphone-based ordering and payment, links with carshare and scooter systems, and systems untethered to fixed stations should all come online in the next five years.

The Grand Rounds Scenic Byway in Minneapolis.
Doug Kerr/Flickr

Christy Kwan, of the Bike-Walk Alliance, sees cities doing a much better job of building out infrastructure, bike share system or not. Local governments are getting more proactive, and advocates are widening their focus, campaigning not just for bike lanes and access, but for extending infrastructure into underserved areas, and even building out options for families and children.

"You’re really seeing a shift towards viewing bicycling as a regular means to get to work or run errands," she says. "More people are asking for this type of infrastructure, and cities are being more proactive."

Kwan points to Atlanta, traditionally considered a sprawling city of neighborhoods, as a great example. Local advocates in the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition have built community support for investment in cycling infrastructure, and the Atlanta Streets Alive festival, which turns major thoroughfares into pedestrian- and cyclist-only open streets, has become a major community event. Last year, the city even hired its first Chief Bicycle Officer.

"They’re doing a great job of building out the infrastructure," she says. "It’s pretty amazing for a car-centric city."

Bicycles offer numerous social goods, as far as road use, public health, and the environment are concerned. A series of photos famous in transport advocacy circles show the space taken up by a crowd of people on bikes, on a bus, and in cars. Bikes and buses, obviously, out-perform cars in terms of efficiency and the amount of space they occupy. But scaling up bicycle use isn’t really an option, especially those with longer and longer commutes.

Increasingly, the best option for conveying high numbers of commuters in a significantly smaller number of vehicles is high-tech carpooling, an option that’s only recently become available, facilitated by newer services such as Uber and Lyft. By sharing rides and taking advantage of pre-existing infrastructure and vehicles, it accomplishes many of the sought-after goals of public transit advocates, with none of the massive (and politically unfeasible) investments in new transport infrastructure needed to scale up mass transit. These services, which were only introduced in San Francisco a year and a half ago, have already caught the imagination of city officials and transit planners around the world, with uberPOOL operating in more than 30 municipalities.

Timothy Papandreou, director of the Office of Innovation at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, firmly believes cities should view these services as a complement to the existing transportation grid.

"Public transportation agencies have ignored private transportation for years," he says. "That’s background noise. Uber and Lyft discovered how to get this entire group of people from point A to B with a peer system, using an existing fleet. We have been focused on the public budget, and ignoring the private budget. But when you combine those two, there’s a lot of money to move people around."

Every day during rush hours, Christian Perea witnesses a human drama playing out in the backseats of his Prius C. A driver for Uber and Lyft in San Francisco, Perea often picks up customers using the new carpooling services UberPool and Lyft Line, which bundle riders together to increase efficiency and lower costs. In the morning, groggy riders sit mostly to themselves, scrolling through Facebook. After work, they’re a bit more awake, game to talk about their neighborhoods or what they do for a living. In perhaps a signature San Francisco moment, an Airbnb employee riding in Perea’s backseat chatted up a fellow rider who worked at another startup a few blocks away. By the time they got back to the neighborhood where they both lived, they had bonded over work war stories enough to decide to go rock climbing together that evening.

Perea, who helps run The Rideshare Guy blog, is constantly talking to other drivers, and has seen the pros and cons of the explosive growth of this service, which was first introduced in San Francisco a year and a half ago and has now racked up more than 100 million rides worldwide.

"For the most part, people are starting to default towards those services in San Francisco," he says. "They’ll call the regular services when there’s a time crunch."

MCity, an autonomous vehicle testing facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Courtesy of University of Michigan

From the driver’s seat, Perea has seen issues with these services, including low pay per mile for drivers, a lack of training ("that’s the reason the blog exists, Uber and Lyft are so terrible"), and added headaches that come with triangulating pickups and dropoffs for multiple passengers. But he has seen some positives.

"I do see this used quite a lot for last-mile kind of transport, especially people getting on or off Caltrain or BART," he says, referring to the regional rail systems. "As a driver, it’s cool to chain up these last-mile stops. As much as I can be critical, it makes sense for drivers to chain up a lot of rides coming to and from stations."

Perea’s observation about the transit potential of this smartphone-enabled extension of the transportation system parallels the strategy of both these transportation network companies (TNCs) and an increasing number of local officials and transportation planners. In fact, local governments and the ridesharing companies, which have had shaky, and in some cases antagonistic, relationships, have now found a reason to collaborate in the name of changing transportation.

"There’s a nice alignment with what we’re trying to do and what transportation groups want," says Andrew Salzberg, the company’s Global Mobility Policy Lead. "Pool is the latest in a long line of advancements that have gotten more people around in less cars. People in the public realm have long wanted that to happen. There’s an impact on pollution and congestion; it’s the continued evolution of using vehicle miles traveled more effectively."

The Pool service, which Salzberg says represents about half of the company’s trips in San Francisco, was initially subsidized by the company, a "testament to where Uber has prioritized this service. Whereas the classic Uber service ostensibly added another cab to the road, this functions as very small-scale public transportation. The company claims in its first eight months operating in Los Angeles, the service cut miles traveled by 7.9 million.

Even a few trips a week, going from, say, rail to rideshare, or bike to rail to rideshare, begins to radically change the transportation system. Uber, which has created an API to allow third-parties such as public transit organizations to plug into its system, is already running pilot tests with cities in New Jersey and Altamonte, Florida, where the municipality is discounting rides for customers getting on or off at a light rail stop, and testing new variations on ridesharing, such as uberHOP in Seattle and uberCOMMUTE in Chicago.

"We see this as a huge part of the future," says Salzberg. "We’re looking at a lot of new opportunities, including partnerships with other public transit agencies. The real challenge is going to be figuring out how to make this work in less-dense cities."

With rail and buses as the backbone, fleets of uberPOOL or Lyft Line drivers can take care of last-mile trips, help reach into underserved areas, and, by connecting people to the larger network, potentially increase mass transit ridership. Transit could become a utility, billed like a phone data plan.

But "if we make that jump from a non-integrated system, we can’t leave out the consumer discussion," Papandreou cautions. "There are a few important questions riders are going to have to answer. Are they willing to share a ride with a stranger they don’t demographically align with? Are they ready to have all their plans linked to and tracked within this system, and will they truly want to use it all the time?"

Before TNCs become too enmeshed in public transportation plans, significant regulatory issues need to be resolved. For Perea, the TNCs need to provide better training, especially around issues such as handling riders with disabilities, and create a steady cost structure without surge pricing ("drivers need a higher price to be able to afford to stay on the road"). Salzberg says drivers are provided with video training, and the feedback and user reviews show no performance difference between uberPOOL and regular Uber rides.

Papandreou says services and cities will also have to focus on labor issues before partnerships can grow enough to deliver on the promise of real pollution and congestion reduction.

"Background checks, regulation, and the real cost of these services needs to be figured out," he says. "Ultimately, we have to decide as a government what’s fair to pay drivers to move people and goods around whether it's in a car, taxi, van, truck, bus or train. We have to also decide what's fair to charge people to be moved around the city and have their goods delivered too while making the system available for all people. These are big questions, and it concerns me a lot, because it affects how we can manage our transport system and how much of it is accessed by the broadest number of people. The question with companies like Uber and Lyft is they're evolving and growing quickly. When they get more mature, will they start focusing more on safety and accessibility, and start really delivering on the promises of less pollution, waste and noise?" We need to see the data, guide the process and state what we want as a society to ensure the answer is yes".

Sebastian, a mechanized pedestrian at MCity.
Courtesy of University of Michigan

While the growth of these services suggest there will be more debate over labor issues, technological advances may, in the foreseeable future, make that a moot point. At MCity, an autonomous vehicle testing facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, helping to usher in the driverless future, even the pedestrians are robots. On an average day, Sebastian, a mechanized pedestrian created to represent the 97th percentile of human height and weight, will be providing real-world challenges to developing guidance systems. Programmed to replicate pedestrian activity to test out the sensors on driverless automobiles, he is, in effect, a robot helping bring about the robotic driver revolution.

The 26-acre site, which opened last year under the auspices of the University of Michigan, provides a safe, and easily replicable, testing ground for tomorrow’s driverless cars, automated vehicles, and V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) technology. The faux city, a cross between a ghost town and an unfinished Hollywood set, can be customized to test specific scenarios for robot drivers, down to the grade of the street, the level of tree cover, and the orientation of lanes, signs, and storefronts.

"Every morning, we figure out what city we want it to be," says Carrie Morton, deputy director of the university’s Mobility Transformation Center, which runs MCity. "People ask me about the city of the future, when it’ll look like MCity. Well, MCity was designed to look like the city of the present, but the future is coming very soon. We want to learn how we can optimize these future cities."

In the minds of many transportation analysts and academics, autonomous vehicles are a matter of when, not if. The carefree, techno-utopian ideal of an efficient fleet of cars, steered by computers and sensors, which would bring back the pleasure of driving and reduce pollution and congestion, is nearly upon us, based on the hype from tech companies such as Google.

Courtesy of University of Michigan

While limited autonomous functioning is available in vehicles already on public roads, such as Tesla’s autopilot function or the Citymobil 2 series of prototype driverless buses, experts expect a gradual evolution of technologies over the next few decades, with differing degrees of autonomy. While transportation planners are racing to catch up and create contingency plans for the disruptive technology, and companies like Uber are viewing these vehicles as part of the next stage of their evolution, researchers are divided on the technology’s likely impact on the wider transportation system.

Dr. Daniel Fagnant, a transportation researcher at the University of Utah helping to develop and test an on-campus system of driverless vehicles, has been studying the transportation implications of these technologies and how fleet operators can control and organize large numbers of autonomous vehicles. He believes this technology can create a more decentralized, and right-sized, transit system: instead of one size of buses, municipalities could run different size shuttles as part of a more efficient network that reacts to neighborhood-by-neighborhood demand. But he’s not totally sold on the idea that they’ll reduce congestion.

"The idea that you can replace the 10 trips with one autonomous car and travel less distance, that’s the biggest misconception," says Fagnant. "You can get rid of vehicles, but not vehicle miles traveled. Without ridesharing, there's an 8 to 10 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled based on simulations we've run in Austin. You’re not replacing trips, you’re spreading them out, and the vehicle has to bounce between locations, and relocate to where it’s needed. Those in-between miles will create a lot of extra travel."

MIT professor Carlo Ratti sees a swifter, more efficient future for the technology. His team’s mock-up of a free-flowing intersection for autonomous vehicles, sans stoplights, suggests sensors and technology will lead to a much faster transport system.

"I see it reducing the level of vehicles, and if you’re looking further down the line, it’s about cars that aren’t stopping at traffic lights, and cars that are taking less time to get from place to place," he says. "It’s a convergence of the digital and physical world. Ten years ago, people thought that you only switched transportation modes at a station. Now we have a transportation web that allows you to see your options in real time."

These futuristic visions of what our commute could be like are appealing, but they leave out a big part of why autonomous vehicles will potentially be so disruptive: the loss of jobs related to transportation. The widely touted future of transportation may in fact replace the human factor in ways that aren’t beneficial to society.

"Vehicle automation is going to be a tremendous disrupter of jobs," says Fagnant. "We’re going to need a safety net for people who lose their jobs. We have a degree of time until it hits, but we need to start thinking about this from a public policy standpoint. We need to give people a place to land before it all comes crashing down."

Editor: Sara Polsky
Illustrator: Brittany Holloway-Brown


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