Public sector transit unions are a potent force in setting transit agendas in American cities – more so than in Europe and Asia.

With Google priming Nevada to be the first state to allow driverless cars on its roads, transit fans could be forgiven for asking: Where are the driverless trains?

The technology is relatively simple and has been around for decades. Unlike cars, which are autonomous and proceed on sight alone, railways must be centrally controlled to prevent collisions. So while a driverless car is limited by how far its sensors can "see," the central computer that directs driverless trains is fully aware of all trains on its tracks, removing much of the guesswork.

The United States doesn't yet have any fully automated trains outside of a few airport shuttles and small-scale "people movers," but Europe and Asia have adopted the technology quite readily. European firms like Italy's AnsaldoBreda and France's Matra (now owned by Siemens) pioneered the technology, and which operates on six continents. Africa's first system, in Algiers, opened in November of last year.

The obvious advantage of driverless trains over their manned counterparts is that transit agencies don't have to pay drivers. Upgrading to driverless requires a large upfront investment, and still requires humans to act as engineers, maintenance workers, janitors, and station managers. But after the investment is made, eliminating the driver position offers agencies flexibility and riders much more frequent service.

During rush hour, the main impediment to more service is the number of trains an agency owns, and in some cases tracks that simply can't handle any more traffic. But during off-peak hours, it's the cost of putting drivers on each train that determines how often the trains come.

Driverless service eliminates these costs, "break[ing] the connection between frequency and labor costs," as transit consultant Jarrett Walker put it. Vancouver's driverless SkyTrain network, for example, has off-peak headways that would make Americans drool with envy. Riders on the Expo and Millennium trunk line never have to wait more than 5 minutes for a train, even late at night – a frequency that would be prohibitively expensive without driverless trains.

While pouring money saved on labor costs into better service is a boon for riders, it's anathema to transit unions. When London Mayor Boris Johnson proposed a driverless Tube within a decade, he sought to preemptively counter criticism from what he termed "hardline union barons," going so far as to request changes to labor laws to prevent some strikes. (ASLEF, the Tube drivers' union, did not disappoint. "How many votes are a young child's life worth?" the union's general secretary asked of Johnson's proposal.)

Explaining the benefits of Johnson's plan, Daniel Moylan, former deputy chairman of Transport for London, downplays the reduction in wages. "You save a bit of money," he tells The Atlantic Cities, "but not a lot." The real savings, he says, come from eliminating staffing inefficiencies.

Managing people as opposed to computers comes with "additional and unpredictable factors," with Moylan citing occasional sickness and lateness as examples. "Add to that the perfectly understandable need for drivers to have agreed work schedules, meal breaks, and respites to go to the lavatory," he write over email, and scheduling drivers becomes "as large a logistical exercise, almost, as timetabling trains."

"All this would be true in a non-unionized environment," Moylan added, "though unionization often adds further inflexibility."

Don't hold your breath for driverless trains in the United States. While America generally lags behind peer nations in transit, the prospects for driverless trains are especially slim.

The Washington, D.C. Metro is one of the best candidates for retrofitting, but the system's deplorable state makes such an upgrade unlikely in the foreseeable future. Even Metro's automatic train operation system (ATO) – a halfway step to fully driverless operation, where a computer drives the train while the operator still usually opens and closes the doors – was turned off after the fatal Fort Totten crash three years ago.

Being forced to switch off an ATO system for years may be a first in the world of automated trains, but systems across the U.S. face similar challenges of underinvestment and mismanagement. Driverless trains save money in the long-run, but they require upfront capital upgrades and ongoing careful maintenance that most American transit agencies simply cannot provide.

And New York? Fuggedaboutit. Upgrades to Paris's Métro have proven that retrofitting century-old subways for driverless operation is possible (and arguably safety-enhancing, with platform screen doors installed at stations that restrict access to the tracks until a train is safely docked and aligned), and Glasgow's subway, which predates New York's by almost a decade, is only five years away from driverless capabilities.

New York's subway, on the other hand, hasn't even advanced to the 20th century in terms of labor-saving efficiencies, never mind the 21st. Almost all of the subway's trains have two paid employees on board at all times, long after other rapid transit systems around the country folded driving and door operation into one job. The city has slowly been winning concessions from its drivers union toward so-called "one-person train operation" and other efficiency measures, but it's starting from a low base.

New York is an outlier in labor intransigence, but public sector transit unions are a potent force in setting transit agendas in American cities – more so than in Europe and Asia, where high ridership creates a large and wealthy rider constituency to demand efficiency and counteract the political power of transit unions.

Off-peak ridership is growing in America's healthiest urban places, though, and with budgets strained and necessary repairs and expansions going unfunded, it's only a matter of time before driverless technology comes to our cities. The only question is, will riders demand it in time to actually improve service, or will transit agencies hold out until they're forced to use it to save existing service from cuts?

Top image: A train conductor looks out of Germany's first driverless underground railway in Nuremberg in 2008. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A photo of a mural in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

    Stop Complaining About Your Rent and Move to Tulsa, Suggests Tulsa

    In an effort to beef up the city’s tech workforce, the George Kaiser Family Foundation is offering $10,000, free rent, and other perks to remote workers who move to Tulsa for a year.

  3. Equity

    Housing Can’t Be Both Affordable and a Good Investment

    The two pillars of American housing policy are fundamentally at odds.

  4. A photo of protesters carrying anti-Amazon posters during a rally and press conference in NYC.
    Amazon HQ2

    Amazon’s HQ2 Decision Was Always About Transit

    In the end, New York’s MTA and D.C.’s Metro were the only transportation networks capable of handling such an influx of new residents. But both cities will have some work to do.

  5. A man wears a mask with the likeness of French president Emmanuel Macron as people take part in the nationwide "Yellow Vest" demonstrations, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher fuel prices, in Haulchin, France.

    Why Drivers Are Leading a Protest Movement Across France

    The rapidly developing “Yellow Vest” movement took over streets and highways to oppose rising gas and diesel taxes. It might also be a proxy for frustrations about rising costs and falling living standards.