A tow truck operator hooks up a damaged bus in 2011 in New York.
Don't worry—it's fixable. Louis Lanzano/AP

Many predict that new technology will doom public transportation. They’re wrong.  

A transit professional can’t open a browser these days without encountering prophets of doom. “New technology is changing everything,” we’re told. “Everything you do is obsolete!” “You represent tired, old thinking.” “You are going to be left behind.” We are bombarded by messages that transit as we know it will soon be swept away by various kinds of mobility “innovation.” Often this is coupled with the notion that the private sector will now break “transit monopolies.”

For a sample of this popular genre, here’s Paul Comfort, a former CEO of Baltimore’s transit agency, in the newsletter of the American Public Transportation Association. The piece is called “Left Behind: The Wave of Disruptive Technology.”

Within a few years, the era of a monopolistic, taxpayer subsidized, utility-style public transit agency providing all the public transportation in a city/region will be over.

These technology-driven, largely private-sector innovations to mobility will challenge our traditional model of public transportation and allow consumers a real choice for the first time. Have these coming realities sunk into the decision-making matrixes of our public transit industry?

If we don’t want to be overtaken by these new and disruptive technologies, we need to put up our sails and catch the winds of change that are blowing.

There is some truth here. Few transit professionals would deny that U.S. transit agencies can be bureaucratic and that they have some intrinsic features that make them resistant to change. In the area of network design, I’ve worked on those issues as a consultant for 25 years. Transit agencies must always be challenged (and supported) to be more nimble, and any impulse can be helpful for this.

But we must also hear, in Comfort’s words, the eternal language of marketing. If you are trying to sell a new technology product, of course you imply that everyone who doesn’t use it is a dinosaur. And while technology is certainly bringing great new opportunities for urban transportation, that doesn’t change the fundamental skepticism that people must bring to what is obviously the language of sales.

Salespeople have always played on our fear of being “left behind,” and the phrase has long been an effective way to intimidate local governments: “You must build freeways through your city, or you will be left behind.” “You must spend taxpayer dollars to build us a stadium, or you will be left behind.” “You must go easy on environmental and civil rights regulation, or you will be left behind.” And now: “You must get ready for disruptive technology, or you will be left behind.”

Technology is a tool, not a goal. The job of local government—including transit agencies—is to serve the goals and aspirations of citizens. That, not fear of technological change, should be the foundation of their decisions.

The tone of Comfort’s piece, and of so much writing in this topic right now, is that transit agencies are at risk of being “swept away.” The assumption is that transit agencies are like IBM’s PC business facing the challenge of Apple, or GM facing the challenge of Toyota. Claiming that transit agencies are monopolies deepens this impression, since everyone wants to break a monopoly, except those who profit from it.

But transit agencies are not businesses. They are not monopolizing a profitable business and preventing others from entering. They are running an unprofitable service for reasons unrelated to profit: the functioning of a dense city, the liberty of its citizens, and connecting disadvantaged people to opportunity. Nobody has proposed a way for the private sector to deliver, profitably, on all of those goals.

Private firms are muscling-in on the elite end of the business. Uber and Lyft may be responsible for about a 6 percent shift in ridership away from transit. But they are also unprofitable, which means they may be unsustainable, even while charging fares that most citizens could not afford for routine travel. To argue that these firms should replace transit is to argue that everyone who can’t afford those fares should be “left behind,” even if our cities had room for the resulting explosion in car traffic. Not even Lyft and Uber make this argument.  Both are eager to partner with transit agencies rather than replace them.

Once we have wide uptake of full automation—sometime between 2020 and 2100 (or never), depending on who you ask—labor cost goes away and driverless taxi fares theoretically get cheaper. But labor cost of fixed transit also goes away. Labor is the dominant element of transit’s operating cost, so driverless buses and trains could be vastly more abundant. Driverless rail has already proven this point. Do you want a train every 4 minutes, even at midnight on a Tuesday? Vancouver’s driverless rapid transit system has been doing this for over 30 years.

So when making comparisons between private and public sectors around automation, you must assume automation on both sides. At that point, the most important issue becomes the efficient use of space: More people in fewer vehicles—high capacity transit—will always be the key to using limited space to liberate the lives of great numbers of people.

In this future, government, including the transit authority, must still have a crucial role: So long as transit isn’t profitable—just as roads aren’t profitable—government ensures that the services all fit together as an efficient network, even if pieces of the service are purchased from private sector operating companies.

The alternatives have been tried. British privatization of bus service in the 1980s was based on the notion that if Joe’s Red Buses and Jim’s Blue Buses both run down the same street, an empowered customer will be able to choose between them, fostering competition. But as it turned out, the customer wants to get on whichever bus actually comes. Who knew? So Joe and Jim just divided up the turf and each became a monopoly.

As a transit consultant, I’ve worked on untangling some of the crazily wasteful networks that resulted. In 2011, the city of Auckland in New Zealand had essentially no crosstown service but way too many quarter-full buses trying to enter the center city at the same time. And if there’s one thing worse than a monopoly answerable to the voters, it’s one over which they have no control, as many customers of cable providers and utilities can attest.

Much of the expertise about how to design great transit lies inside the transit agencies that the tech industry so reviles, and in the network of consultants like me who work with them, so dismissing us all as dinosaurs may not be a good idea.

Like all bureaucracies, transit agencies can be inefficient and slow to change. By all means, let’s look at ways to improve these things. Some U.S. agencies (Austin, New Orleans) are now contracting with the private sector for all their operations. Some are merged with city or county governments, which gives them better potential to coordinate with land use and street design. Many are looking at network redesign to get more useful service out of the same dollar.

Meanwhile, U.S. agencies suffer from some of the lowest funding levels in the developed world, with per capita service quantity often around half what it is in comparable Canadian cities. Practically no U.S. transit agencies are able to grow their service even at the rate of population growth, let alone get ahead of that growth, as densifying cities require.

This is a problem, because in dense cities where space is scarce, and where huge numbers of people are moving in generally the same direction, there is no alternative to the fixed route bus or train.  Nothing else fits in the limited space.

A general message of “technology changes everything” has become one of the most powerful arguments for letting fixed transit wither, even though this means worse traffic and higher transportation costs for cost-sensitive people.  In this context, transit agencies’ first priority should be a robust defense of their basic product and of the need to invest in improving it.  The last thing we need is more voices telling transit agencies to panic about being “left behind.” Because when we panic, we don’t think clearly.

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