Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Behold the train-ferry for car commuters, and one of the craziest transit ideas we've ever seen.
Anwar Farooq has some out-there ideas, the product of his background as an electrical engineer, before he ever became a high school math teacher in Los Angeles. He’s invented what he thinks is a better mechanical pencil sharpener, a kind of turbo bike, and a remote-controlled camcorder (this last design sounded more innovative when he first thought of it in the 1980s).
His most recent patented invention, though, tops them all in eyebrow-raising ambition. Farooq has been designing his own transit system, a scheme that looks both futuristic and antiquated, one that would try to eliminate traffic congestion from our highways while still accommodating the car. He has invented, in essence, a train-ferry. For car commuters.
The Rapid Commute system, as he calls it, would enable long-distance car commuters to hop aboard a train instead – while still bringing their personal vehicles with them. Drivers already similarly use ferries to cross waterways. So why not deploy the same concept, Farooq figures, to traverse miles of landlocked exurbia?
His idea answers a couple of questions you may not have realized many people were asking. For instance: Who wishes they had use of a car when they get to the other end of their morning commute? And isn’t the point of transit to replace vehicles, not to cater to them? But with the earnestness of a part-time inventor, Farooq sounds certain his concept could aid the 40-mile commuter in Southern California (like himself), as well as developing countries on the verge of repeating America’s missteps with highway congestion.
“I 100 percent believe that this is a possible solution,” he says. “Not the only solution, not the ultimate solution. But it is a possible solution that can truly make a difference worldwide in reducing traffic congestion on freeways.”
His idea is a transportation fantasy born out of the more practical admission that cars won’t go away any time soon. “It will take at least a hundred years for us to get rid of our dependence on cars,” Farooq predicts. “If we can use this to transition to one of those days when we will be completely car-free, then this would be a painless way of transitioning. It would be a more humane, more decent way of transitioning.”
Last week, Farooq took several days off of teaching to travel to Washington, D.C., and present his idea to an innovative public transport committee at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting. From there, he’s hoping the concept will get a serious look from government officials and academics. The idea is actually not as wild as it seems on first blush. Amtrak offers a similar service on one line from Virginia to Florida, presumably for snowbirds who want to take their cars south for the winter.
Farooq’s primary innovation is to design on- and off-loading systems that would make Amtrak’s concept feasible for a daily commute. Amtrak requires passengers transporting their cars to turn them over at least an hour before departure (two hours for over-sized vehicles). But that delay renders the idea unworkable in morning rush hour. Farooq has designed two different systems to solve the problem, which he has animated in these videos (he's anticipating 10-30 vehicles per boxcar, depending on the design, capable of transporting from 2,000 to 36,000 vehicles in the span of a five-hour rush period):
Amtrak transports cars and passengers in separate compartments. But Farooq’s system envisions that you’d commute just as you do on a ferry, riding inside your car (as it rides the train). You’d then arrive at the end of the line and drive yourself off, feeling infinitely more refreshed than you would exiting 40 miles of congested freeway. Farooq sees the Rapid Commute’s contributions as two-fold: The system would take cars off the highway (and emissions out of the atmosphere), while enabling a more productive workforce to get started on conference calls and paperwork while in transit.
Until now, Farooq was only missing a sober audience. “I got this idea, I patented it, I made a website, I did all the animations,” he says. “But there was no response. And I’m just a high school teacher, and I have no connection to anyone."
Then last year, he reached out to researchers at the Center for Environmental Research and Technology at the University of California at Riverside. They helped connect him to the TRB conference. And every Monday night for weeks last fall, assistant researcher Guoyuan Wu sat with Farooq helping him hone an application for TRB’s Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis program. In November, they applied for a $100,000, one-year grant to study the feasibility of Rapid Commute, with a verdict likely to come in March (this is, for the sake of context, a relatively small research grant).
"The thing is that we still need to cover the last mile at the end of those transit routes," Wu says. He and Farooq don’t believe that hordes of people necessarily want to have their cars at work, but that existing transit doesn’t get many of them close enough to their jobs. In Southern California, that "last mile" problem is really a question of five miles or more. Farooq lives in Montclair, California. Even if he took a commuter rail into Los Angeles, he says, it would still leave him 10 miles from his school.
If his idea were to work anywhere, it probably wouldn’t be in New York City or Washington, D.C., urban centers with strong existing transit networks. But even in a city like Los Angeles, the idea has a sizable hitch: What happens when the Rapid Commute suddenly unloads hundreds of cars on an urban street network?
“If a commuter travels from San Bernardino to Los Angeles, we cannot have the vehicles be discharged in the downtown area,” Wu says. “That makes a shock of a lot of vehicles just swarming to that area, and it would totally destroy the whole system.” So this is one detail he and Farooq are still working on.
The financial model behind the system is also an open question. Amtrak charges about $300 to transport cars on the 835-mile trip from Lorton, Virginia, to Sanford, Florida, at about 37 cents a mile. Using that price as a starting point, Farooq estimates that his system might cost about $15 for a one-way 40-mile trip. For a daily commuter, that quickly adds up to about $600 a month, which would mean that many people regularly using the service would wind up paying more to transport their cars than it costs to own them.
Surely it would be better to build more traditional transit to serve these people, to allow a guy like Farooq to catch a local train for his last 10 miles to work?
The greatest benefit of his idea may also wind up undermining it. “If we can make the commute completely painless – not only painless but productive on top of it – then it doesn’t matter how far away you live,” Farooq says. And he doesn’t mean this in a bad way. To urban planners, though, that promise sounds like an invitation to sprawling development at the exact moment when most other transportation innovations are trying to support denser, more compact living.
Farooq, to his credit, is eager to hear from his skeptics. “They have a right to ask questions,” he says, “and if I don’t have answers, then I don’t have a solution.” And if his solution doesn’t catch on? “If people don’t want it, that’s fine, I completely understand if nobody wants it,” he says. “But at least we can present an option to the world.”