Transit Versus Other Transportation Alternatives

Where is private rapid transit? Private companies built the London Underground, the els in New York, the Chicago L, the first line of the Tokyo subway. Construction costs are up since then, but so are ridership (in the second half of 1905, London’s Central line carried 23 million people; today, its annual ridership is 289 million, a sixfold increase) and people’s ability to afford higher fares. In most cities transportation works as an interconnected complex system with little room for a private upstart, but this is not universal. In particular, in San Francisco, a subway under Geary wouldn’t need to interface much with BART or Muni. So how come none of the tech companies in California, which have invested in many different kinds of transportation and haven’t shied from reinventing the wheel, seems interested?

Only in the last week, talking to people at the ecomodernism conference I discussed last post, did I fully understand the answer. It’s sobering: investing in transit isn’t going to let a private company dominate the world. The companies that operate trains around the world by contract, like the MTR and Veolia, make money, but much of that is government subsidies for which they have to compete on level field, and even then their margins are low by the standards of Airbnb, let alone older tech firms like Facebook and Google. With good cost control it’s possible to get a positive return on investment, but it’s on the order of 3%*, which is not what a venture capital fund is looking for. It’s looking for ten different ideas, of which eight will flop, one will tread water, and one will make a windfall. Committing billions upfront to something for low returns with extensive regulatory risk is not really on its radar.

Instead of transit, the business world, by which I mean the constellation of VC, tech, tech media, business media, and new investors, is looking at things that can start small. Uber paved the way, making dirty travel by taxi much easier; more recently, companies have imitated the model for green transportation, first dockless bikes and now e-scooters. A tech press that in 2014 was replete with “Uber, but for ___” turned to dockless by 2017 and scooters this year.

The reaction of most of my green transportation Twitter feed to the newer trends is positive. To the extent people express skepticism, it’s almost always rooted in a leftist disdain for private businesses. The only other criticism I’ve heard, from Eric Goldwyn, is that transportation revolutions require dedicated right-of-way, such as car-dominated roads, grade-separated rapid transit, BRT lanes, separate bike lanes, or the extensive corrals of docked bikes. But even this line recognizes the synergy between dockless bikes or scooters and public transit.

However, synergy does not imply similarity. That rail networks can use bikes to extend their station access radii outside urban cores does not imply that transit is like other green transportation, and certainly does not imply that bikes (let alone scooters) are a substitute for transit. They work at completely different scales.

Transit works at a large scale. I know of a small handful of transit cities below 2 million people, like Karlsruhe, Geneva, and Strasbourg, none of which has the per capita rail ridership of Paris. In the 2 million area, transit cities exist, but rely on total systemwide integration, sometimes (e.g. in Zurich) extending to the open national railway network. There exist some edge cases where a single line can be profitable, like Geary in San Francisco, but the single line is not massively profitable. A 3% return is great for a government that sets its own regulations and can borrow at sovereign rates; for a private business facing regulatory risk, this return is too low to bother with.

Everything else works at a small scale. Cars are self-evidently like that: they’re great at getting people to places where few people want to go or at times when few people travel. At midnight, taxis will handily beat the RER on travel time. At midday, they are slower than a delayed Washington Metro train or a local New York City Subway line. The startup costs are low, too: grading and paving a two-lane road supporting 70-80 km/h (less in rough terrain) is cheap. It will have grade crossings, but outside urban areas, stop signs and road hierarchies are good enough.

However, this is equally true of bikes and scooters. This isn’t as obvious as with cars, since bikes are too slow to work in rural areas less dense than Holland. But the same speed limitation ensures bikes are only useful in relatively small cities. The Netherlands is somewhat unique in having compact cities with sharp boundaries, and even there, people mostly use bikes when they can live close to work (the average urban bike speed is 12.4 km/h). At intercity scale, the train and car dominate.

Bikes clearly scale up to dense cities; Amsterdam’s urban typology is mid-rise, dense enough for the purposes of this question. Scooters most likely are the same – their speeds and total amount of space consumed are similar to those of bikes. Their scaling problem is about distance more than capacity. 12.4 km/h is too slow. Buses in New York are almost as fast, and the average bus trip in the city is 3.5 km, with riders typically using the bus to transfer to the subway.

The problem with the American and Chinese business world’s convergence on dockless bikes and scooters as the next big thing is then that, like New York buses, their main use case is to extend a faster mode of transportation, that is, the train. Without the train, they are not worth much. Ofo is realizing this as it pulls out of the US, Israel, and Australia, focusing on its core market of large Chinese cities and only maintaining an international foothold in a few transit cities like Paris and Singapore.

In contrast, the train without the dockless bike or scooter works quite well. Paris had a perfectly functional transit system in 2017, before dockless came in, and even in 2006, before Velib. This means that the train needs to come first in a city that wishes to reduce its car use and shift trips to eco-friendly modes of transportation. Private businesses won’t build it, unless it’s to extend a preexisting system that they already own (as is the case for the private railroads in Japan).

There is no alternative to a functioning state. To a functioning state, a few billion dollars or euros for a metro line is a serious expense, but one that it can take if the ridership projections are adequate. To a functioning state, VCs that talk about changing the world through scooters are a nuisance to be ignored. The scooters can play a role and the regulations on them shouldn’t be too onerous, but their role is secondary, and the predominant effort in planning should go to fixed routes.

*Assume $2 billion to tunnel under Geary from Union Square to the VA Hospital. This is a little more than $200 million per km, which is normal for a developed country that’s not the United States; figure that better cost control than the average cancels out with abnormally high market wages in San Francisco. Operating costs cluster in the $4-7/car-km; BART is at $5.36 as of 2016 with long cars, and a driverless operation could do somewhat better, so figure 150-meter trains at $30/train-km, or $300 for a one-way run. At 18 base tph, 30 peak tph, annual operating costs are in the $80-90 million/year range. Bus ridership on and parallel to Geary is 110,000/weekday today; without making any assumptions on development, 250,000/weekday, or 75 million/year, is reasonable. Muni is full of transfers, so getting clean revenue/trip data is hard, but the subway in New York charges around $2 per trip, and the Richmond District could probably function without free transfers to Muni without taking too much of a hit to revenue, making $150 million/year in revenue reasonable. (150,000,000-90,000,000)/2,000,000,000 = 3%.


  1. Jacob

    In Silicon Valley, the problem space really is dictated by the funding structure. To be funded in a traditional VC deal, you have to (a) have a small chance of generating large returns AND (b) be able to show significant growth within 1-2 years. This rules out more than just transit.

    The good news is that the ecosystem has pretty comprehensively explored the search space of things that fit this description with current technology (ad-supported internet businesses and SaaS mainly) and so it’s possible that VC funding will work very differently 10 years from now.

    This is not to say that tech companies will or should build subways, but it’s possible that tech companies will at least work on subway-adjacent technological problems even if they have longer timelines and a dfferent risk profile.

    • Nathanael

      Good point.

      I should also ask how the third classic source of funding might apply. The three sources of funding are:
      (1) governments, backed by taxation
      (2) private for-profit businesses, backed by dreams of avarice
      (3) not-for-profit foundations, backed by a mission statement

      There’s surprisingly little run by category three.

  2. colinvparker

    Where scooters might have some value is in non-transit, non-dense cities. Here we face more than just high costs, there’s probably not justification for building out a complete rail network anyway, and even upgrading the less popular buses to 15 minutes off-peak is unlikely to spur much new ridership. Of course, you will say to build denser near transit, but scooters could really broaden what it means to be “near transit”, particularly if the fares were integrated with rail/bus (which is a big ask I know). A lot of US cities are in a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with regard to density and transit, and (I hope) scooters could break us out.

    • IAN Mitchell

      Austin is a pretty good example. 15-minute bus frequencies seem to be working within a downtown core set of routes, and there’s sorta kinda a train, but the dockless solutions are astonishingly popular.

  3. James

    Somewhat compensating for bicycles’ low speed is that they are (close to) point-to-point, which may not save much time in a city where employers are clustered together in a classic central business district, but which could be a bigger factor in a more decentralized city (or when traveling for some other purpose besides work). In other words sometimes the tradeoff will be “slow mode that gets me directly to my destination” vs. “faster mode that requires a nonnegligible walk at one or both ends, or switching trains.”

    I don’t think this really affects your conclusion, it’s just something to bear in mind when, for instance, comparing the speed of a bicycle to the speed of a bus.

    • Alon Levy

      To both your point and Colin’s: in decentralized low-density cities like Atlanta, there aren’t enough bike paths or even sidewalks for non-motorized (or barely motorized, for scooters) transportation.

  4. Eric

    Transit does not allow for exponential growth into a huge market. But it should allow for a fixed but real profit. Large established companies should be happy to execute such projects, even if startups can’t.

    The problem is that a transit line is dependent on government approval at many stages, starting with eminent domain for the ROW. That injects a vast amount of uncertainty, to the extent that you don’t even know if you’ll be able to finish a line you have started building. So otherwise profitable projects become too risky.

    This is similar to the economic issues of nuclear power, incidentally.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, people mentioned regulatory risk to me at Breakthrough for both nuclear energy and transit, but they’re evidently still trying with the former. I did mention the idea of government-built projects to them – the person who led the nuclear energy discussion had written a report about construction costs of plants that praised South Korea’s low-and-falling costs, and in South Korea per the report the government builds all plants – and they brushed it off. One said “it’s unlikely to happen in America” in a tone that screamed “I’m not going to consider any public option because it sounds like socialism/won’t make me money personally,” can’t tell which of the two options.

  5. Rob

    I can’t imagine a private business pushing the Geary subway to completion, nor even getting to the point of starting construction. Politics here is emotional and reactionary to an extreme, and the prospect of a private corporation building tunnels under Our Streets and closing down Our Roads for station construction would set off a firestorm of extreme opposition. Even Motivate has to scrap proposed Ford GoBike docking stations because residents get so angry seeing the Ford name attached to a project that would take up street space (never mind the Ford, Toyota, etc. cars that are already taking up that same street space and much, much more…)

    But maybe it was this same reactionary politics that saved San Francisco from the American urban highway glut, so I’ll keep my complaining in check.

  6. Diego Beghin

    What’s frustrating to me is when bikes/scooters could work but very little is done to support them. City centres are an obvious example: even if you live at the edge of Paris intra muros, a good chunk of it is accessible to you if you’re willing to make a 5 km bike ride (make it 8 km if you have an e-bike). I’m sure if there was safe infra, cycling numbers would explode.

    But the CERN area at the Swiss/French border near Geneva would also be very bikeable if only there was a good cycle path network. There are a bunch of commuter towns and work sites, all contained within a 9 km-diameter circle. CERN is a scientific organisation, so the workforce skews young (lots of PhD students and post-docs around). Many haven’t owned a car yet and would happily cycle around if it was safe. As it happens, there is a very patchy cycle network, but even if 90% of your journey is on a cycle path, the remaining 10% will be on a 70 or 80 km/h départementale with no shoulder… No thanks.

    Oh, and the CERN area is hard to serve by transit, since the housing and working areas are very nonlinearly distributed, and travel volumes aren’t high. A reasonably fast cyclist would actually beat the CERN shuttle from Meyrin to Cessy (~10 km) because the shuttle meanders so much (it’s scheduled to take 44 min).

    • Diego Beghin

      Ok TBF re: Paris, Hidalgo is building a lot of cycle infra right now. So at least policy is going in the right direction.

          • Alon Levy

            More or less, yeah – they removed the bikes over the last few months of 2017. They’re reinstalling them (supposedly they’re back up to 10,000 bikes), but full deployment of 20,000 bikes is not expected until late 2019.

        • Michael James

          Well, Hidalgo is not without blame, that is for sure. But it took a whole series of mess-ups to create this farago. It is still quite hard to exactly understand and I encourage you to write a proper analysis of it at some time. It is hard to understand what is happening. Is Smovengo still going ahead? I understood they had until September to fix it, and would guess they haven’t .

          We can see that Smovengo carries a lot of blame for overselling something they had not fully developed. It is not like they don’t have experience: Smoovengo (“oo”) have schemes similar to Velib’ in many cities. Obviously there was ridiculous, but entirely typical in this world determined by ‘digital’ hipsters, that they tried to make it into some cool digital device, as well as simultaneously introduce e-bike versions (30% of stock). Kind of fair enough, except that they all forgot the motto KISS, and especially, that such things need comprehensive testing in the field before you roll it out in the western world’s biggest cycle scheme! And especially before physically ripping out the existing functioning system (though I suppose one understands that the same real-estate has to be used by the new system). There is a strong element and wisdom in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

          Another perhaps big factor is that they tendered out the replacement of Velib’ (fair enough I suppose) but then accepted Smovengo’s lowest bid, along with its untested vaporware. Of course the tender probably became a fix, in that Smovengo is a Franco-Spanish affair (child of Spanish company Smoovengo) a startup with minimal staff operating out of Montpellier. Even that might be fair enough. But somewhere along this transition, it seems management completely lost control and/or politicians lost oversight. I am sure there is a story there (part of which I’d be checking out if the CEO is not some inserted political flunky).
          And possibly in why JCDecaux lost out. Perhaps they were not interested in continuing the contract (has Velib’ ever made them money? probably not; vandalism and constant bike relocation & maintenance remain undesirable realities) and typically there may have been unresolvable differences with the client (Hidalgo & Paris admin?).

          Though I give Hidalgo some credit for some of the good things done to Paris. IIRC she was responsible for Velib’ under Mayor Bertrand Delanöe, ie. when she was deputy mayor. She is starting to rack up a series of poor decisions (the most recent being the Urinoir debacle). It will be awful if this means handing the city back to the Rightards who today seem even more determined to ape the dumb American Right, indeed they might scrap a lot of the green schemes (eg. Voie Pompidou closure), maybe even Velib’/Velib’-Métropole, that their car-driving suburbanistas froth about (yes, even in Paris).
          To continue the theme of that last post of mine (on ‘Trust’), it comes down to a “sure hand” in politics which Macron appears to have while it seems to have deserted Hidalgo. Speaking of, I came across this in Politico:

          Two key Macron allies, government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux and Digital Minister Mounir Mahjoubi, are rumored to be angling for the mayoral post. [If LREM win in 2020.]

          I’ve read about Mahjoubi. He’s a prototypical digital hipster, very young, immigrant background, with hipster hair & beard and social-media savvy. OMG, as if that is appropriate experience to running a city like Paris!

        • Michael James

          Alon Levy, 2018/10/07 – 14:31
          If only she didn’t completely botch the new Velib rollout…

          As I wrote earlier, I don’t have enough of the history to say either way, but there is this (below) in the Politico article that suggests the new scheme might be more the responsibility of the suburban Right (I assume because the scheme now encompasses more territory outside than inside Paris, and because this is the “new normal” of Grand Paris Metropole where the Socialists are in the minority?). At the same time, it seems Hidalgo doesn’t have the ability to explain or persuade the people. A serious deficiency and comparison to Macron.

          But also, despite the cockup, maybe it is an over-reaction in the same way the first year of Velib’ had enormous problems around vandalism and bike distribution. Persistence overcame the obstacles.

          Zachary Young, 7 August 2018.

          That year, Autolib’ Vélib’ Métropole — a collection of municipal officials from the Greater Paris region who oversee the scheme and choose who runs it — put the contract out to tender, this time for 15 years.

      • Michael James

        Diego Beghin, 2018/10/07 – 13:15

        Ok TBF re: Paris, Hidalgo is building a lot of cycle infra right now.

        Cycle infrastructure in Paris has its modern incarnation beginning in 1996 and thereafter, ie. as a consequence of the exceptionally long transit strike of that year. It is when more Parisians began cycling as an option and some continued the habit, and the city reacted to support it. It is why Velib’ took off so quickly in 2007, because there was already enough infrastructure, such as exclusive bus-lanes on major boulevardes (and these were designated for buses, taxis and bikes, and of course, more important these users were trained to give way to cyclists, backed up with enforcement). As well as the police campaign in the 6 months prior to Velib’, to tame Paris car drivers (which incredibly worked; I happened to visiting Paris the month after Velib’ was introduced, Aug 2007, and hardly believed what I saw).

        When I lived in Paris (much earlier) I tried cycling to work (about 5km) but soon gave it up, mostly because it definitely didn’t feel safe on the major roads (car drivers were fast and aggressive, and some roads squeeze in too many car lanes leaving little room for evasion etc) and those big roundabouts like Place d’Italie, Nation etc., and finally those treacherous pavé (which at the tiniest wet turn worse than treacherous).

        • Diego Beghin

          Maybe a few lanes started to be painted in 1996 or so, but there has been a huge jump in the quantity and quality of bike lanes under Hidalgo. It’s not just on-street painted lanes, but fully separate cycle paths where anyone can actually feel safe. And a coherent network of such paths is starting to emerge.

          Otherwise, I have indeed noticed that Parisian drivers are more aggressive than the ones in Brussels. I wonder why, traffic jams are pretty nasty here as well. Maybe the large number of Flemish drivers who cycle around their own suburbs?

          • Michael James

            OK, but I just detected a whiff of rewritten history. What is happening re cycle lanes etc today is after a very long gestation whose origins lie in 1996 (though by then I was only a visitor and can’t really fix events so clearly). Then I’d say the turning point happened under Delanöe (with perhaps a significant catalysis by Hidalgo in his administration–I don’t know the real history versus the political biogs) with the shared bus lanes on major boulevardes (providing in principle a cross-city network for cyclists in relative safety for the first time; I suppose we could go all the way back and thank the Baron since exclusive bus lanes can only be created on his wide streets). That was a big battle against the car lobby who had to lose tarmac and parking space. Then Velib’. (Many journos get this arse-backwards as if Velib’ promoted what actually came before–this is relevant to other cities, esp. in the Anglosphere, of how to create such a thing in a modern car-dominated city. As we have seen in several Australian cities it is not to jump in and create a Velib’ without some basic cycling infrastructure and official resetting of drivers expectations of their ‘rights’. Even leaving aside the mandatory helmet issue.)

            Re today’s Parisian car drivers, I will have to defer to those on the ground (if that is you), but I reckon they are much more disciplined than pre-Velib’ where there was the unwritten, but very firm, rule that cars owned the streets.
            I don’t care for most city comparisons, especially when a little city like Brussels is compared to Paris. No sense in that. Just like I repeatedly say to bike proselytisers, please don’t use Copenhagen or Amsterdam as “models” for the big cities in the Anglosphere. Use Paris because if it can do it, with its (once) super-aggressive drivers, tight street network and fabulous Metro, then it can be done anywhere (well, it of course has its unique features, primarily density). I also distinguish between the (once) aggressiveness of Parisian drivers and other notorious cities like in Italy or Spain; I always found the French to be both disciplined (to a particular unwritten rulebook) and technically good drivers, neither of which I would claim for those others (nor the British since I lived there in the 80s–it is an utter myth that the Brits are courteous and rule-obeying drivers when they are actually appalling and also technically incompetent, the worst of all worlds).

          • Alon Levy

            But then Paris doesn’t have Amsterdam’s bike use. It’s not even close. Here bikes are used for short trips, but commuting is done by transit. INSEE lumps in bikes and motorcycles together in its mode share data, but within Paris intra muros the mode shares go 5.3% no transport (hi), 9.7% walking, 8.4% bike + motorcycle, 12.3% car, 64.3% transit. And Paris is (as you’d expect) the highest in France for bike/motorcycle, followed by Hauts-de-Seine at 7% (by the way: it’s not the highest for walk, against what I expected – Hautes-Alpes is 12.6% walk).

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy, 2018/10/08 – 22:24
            But then Paris doesn’t have Amsterdam’s bike use. It’s not even close. Here bikes are used for short trips, but commuting is done by transit.

            Exactly. But you continue to attempt to make comparisons between cities that are fundamentally different. I mean does anyone serious, seriously think long-distance commuting in Paris is going to happen by bicycle? It is certainly not the reason why Velib’ was created nor why it was successful. It is simply impossible to extrapolate from Amsterdam as if it could ever apply to Paris. A fairer comparison would be to determine the mode share across the whole Randstad (still only 50% of urbanised area and 75% population of Greater Paris).
            OTOH, as all transport planners have known for a long time, a huge number of trips are local and could easily be done by walking or cycling, instead of driving or even any motorised transport (bus, Metro etc). Frankly, I don’t know if I would be a regular Velib’ user in Paris because if the trip is less than 3km I would walk (takes me about 25mins which is probably not materially different to cycling via Velib where you have to get a bit lucky with availability at both ends and of course proximity to your start/end points). Any longer and I suspect I would stick to Metro. In rain I would either walk with umbrella or take the Metro, definitely not cycle since I hate getting into and out of cycle rainwear. Having said that I would not go back to using my own bicycle because of the tedium of security in a city like Paris (though Oxford was far worse!).

            On those stats, you know that 5% of Paris is not so far off 50% of Amsterdam? And worldwide (ok, this excludes private bikes which are close to 100% of Amsterdam):

            As of 2014, Vélib’ was the world’s 12th-largest bikesharing program by the number of bicycles in circulation; the rest of the top 18 are in Chinese cities.[6] As of July 2013, Velib’ had the highest market penetration with 1 bike per 97 inhabitants, followed by Vélo’v in Lyon with 1 bike per 121 residents, and Hangzhou in China with 1 per 145.[7]

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t want to compare Ile-de-France with Randstad, because Randstad is polycentric in ways Ile-de-France isn’t. Bike commuting numbers are pretty high not just in Amsterdam but also Utrecht, the Hague, etc., but that’s because the commute ties across the region aren’t as tightly integrated as within the built-up area of Paris.

            By the way, your last quote, from Wikipedia, is from 2014, i.e. before dockless. The situation is completely different now and even Paris is a footnote compared with Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, etc.

          • Michael James

            Reply to: Alon Levy, 2018/10/08 – 23:46

            I agree that even the Randstad is not comparable to Paris. So, as I said, Paris is the better more appropriate model for the likes of London, NYC, Melbourne, Sydney, Chicago, Boston, SFBA, ….

            The date was given in the citation! As for everything being so different, not really. Those Chinese cities were all well ahead of Paris back then and sure, one expects Chinese cities eventually will displace any western city on almost any statistic. But I don’t think statistics of today mean much as the situation re dockless is too immature (as evidenced by Gobee’s bankruptcy) and I doubt they can survive in the west, maybe not even in China (though their incredible surveillance state may force compliance … and keep vandalism low enough).

          • Diego Beghin

            Shared bus lanes aren’t cycle infrastructure, they’re bad for both buses and cyclists. Especially in Paris, where there’s always a bus coming every 3-5 min. Luckily, Parisian boulevards are wide enough that you can have both bus lanes and cycle lanes.

            And sure, a city the size of Paris is never gonna get the bike commute share of Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but it’s still far from hitting the ceiling on bicycle use. There aren’t that many car trips to substitute, but you could free up space on the metro. As long as you’re taking lanes away from cars it’s all good.

          • Michael James

            Diego Beghin, 2018/10/09 – 09:46
            Shared bus lanes aren’t cycle infrastructure, they’re bad for both buses and cyclists.

            Of course, in a perfect world. But even a single bike lane takes a whole car lane. Your point is also not necessarily true in places like inner Paris, or any CBD or fringe region, because average speeds of buses and traffic barely exceeds cycle speed. Drivers always froth but studies show a “slow” cyclist in front of them makes almost no difference. What they really hate is that under such conditions, cyclists often progress faster than they do.

  7. dr2chase

    The difficulty I have imagining any sort of “scaling up” with rental bicycles and scooters for commuting has to do with rebalancing and the size of the commuting “slosh”. Without rebalancing, the bikes (roughly) follow commuters; they might as well be personal bicycles, and the company doing the renting would only see about two trips per bike per day. Rebalancing means that each bike gets more trips, but rebalancing is costly. This seems like something where scooters win simply because they are smaller — more units carried per rebalancing trip means lower cost per unit.

    Maybe transportation is much more random than it seems so rebalancing is not as necessary as I imagine, but it’s hard for me to reconcile the relatively low cost of bike rental with the apparent need and cost of rebalancing.

    And with rebalanced rental bikes, you lose one of the advantages of biking to work, the ability to leave whenever you want, without regard to traffic. With fewer bikes than users, if there are none nearby, then you have to wait.

    • Alon Levy

      This is the trick of dockless: little to no rebalancing, but the cost per bike is so much lower than for traditional docked systems (esp. the old Velib, which cost 4,000 euros per bike per year to maintain) that it’s feasible to just flood the city with bikes. Evidently this does scale up in Beijing and Shanghai, it’s just secondary to their metro systems.

      • Michael James

        Yes, Velib’ costs too much, mostly because of the vandalism.
        But I remain seriously sceptical of claims of lower costs by the dockless fans. These companies are running on venture capital and already several have pulled out of markets like Melbourne & Paris when the authorities finally and correctly pulled the plug on their wanton abuse of the commons. Hasn’t Gobee gone bankrupt even in China? The business model for all these schemes looks extremely shaky to me. I remain firmly a fan of the city controlling the scheme (like Velib’) and don’t see how dockless can ever work.
        Also, is your concept about dockless “solving” the rebalancing problem simply flooding the city? Sounds like a problem more than a solution, and it will also provoke even more vandalism. The mind boggles to think just how many bikes/scooters you’d have to have to truly avoid rebalancing, not to mention the subsequent economics (plus full cost-accounting will have to take into account the street pollution aspect, which is what has destroyed dockless so far).

        • IAN Mitchell

          “finally and correctly pulled the plug on their wanton abuse of the commons”

          If there’s a single government-owned parking space that is free one minute out of the year in either city, it wasn’t the correct decision, it was the pro-car decision.

          • Michael James

            IAN Mitchell, 2018/10/23 – 14:58
            “finally and correctly pulled the plug on their wanton abuse of the commons”
            If there’s a single government-owned parking space that is free one minute out of the year in either city, it wasn’t the correct decision, it was the pro-car decision.

            First, I guess you have never tried to find a parking spot in (intramuros) Paris! And my advice: don’t try this experiment yourself …. (but mostly because of point 4 below).

            Second, “government” doesn’t own anything. The commons belongs to us all. And we can choose who or what has access to it and at what charge. Your vacuous Reganism prescription is a recipe for chaos and exploitation exactly as I implied: Tragedy of the Commons.

            Third, it is precisely your counter-factual assertion of private and commercial rights over the commons that leads citizens to get enraged over for-profit companies cluttering their public spaces of their city with trash (bikes, scooters, etc). I have read that the rate of vandalism of such bikes is much higher in Paris (I don’t know, and the same behaviour has led to several bikeshare companies quitting Melbourne and Australia, so it is probably exaggerated as a Parisian thing). However I believe it is the Parisians’, and French in general, concepts of their ownership of the commons and willingness to go to the barricades over it, that is the difference. By comparison Americans have a completely inverted sense (just like you, speaking of “government owned” as if it is not you who determines what your government is, but then in the last mid-terms only 28% of you voted; did you vote and will you vote?); if a single car park is “free” then it should be given (literally) to some commercial entity, while elsewhere fighting government at every possible way to block public transit. Braindead Reaganism. A grotesque example this past week is the misuse of education funds by Beverly Hills High School to challenge building a tunnel under it for the Purple Line. Or the entirely specious nonstop attempts to block CAHSR (it won’t work but it will cause unnecessary expense and delay for no discernible purpose).

            Fourth, Paris is in the process of actually removing roads (eg. closure of 3km of Voie Pompidou, the riverside expressway) and cars, so your vandal suggestion is moot. But I guess you still grieve over the loss of the Embarcadero Expressway, and those long-ago days of Reagan as governor of CA?

            Fifth, sincerely Get Lost. What I mean is, there are a number of “experiments” on-going in big cities around the world on this issue. You are not obliged to visit Paris and I prefer you don’t try to spread your infection (laissez-faire gangster-capitalism) although the city and culture is pretty well inoculated against such craziness. As it happens Paris started this thing with Velib a decade ago and it may be that the city will work out the best compromise on the next evolution of it, that will have to work for the city and its citizens not just a tiny handful of get-rich-quick merchants somewhere else in the world. Or even for a minority of users who are too lazy to not litter the public space with these things.

          • Michael James

            IAN Mitchell, 2018/10/23 – 14:58
            …. it was the pro-car decision.

            You mean like this:

            Paris Gets to Keep Its Car Ban
            Mayor Anne Hidalgo shifted her defense of the pedestrianization plan, winning with an argument that a car ban protects the city’s heritage and tourism.
            Feargus O’Sullivan, 25 Oct 2018.

            In Paris, the Seine Quays can stay closed to cars after all. That’s the verdict today from Paris’s Administrative Court, which has ruled that the city’s pedestrianization of the roads along its central river can remain in place.
            The pedestrianization plan, a flagship policy of Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s green overhaul of France’s capital, has been in jeopardy for months after opponents, who included motorists’ groups and representatives of suburban districts surrounding the city, got a court to agree in February that the closure had been based on inaccurate evidence about pollution and traffic reduction.

            Like with the closure of SF’s Embarcadero Expressway, when the car lobby predicted carmageddon if it were closed, this thesis has proven wrong, as previously reported by Feargus O’S: “What makes the ruling’s timing especially sharp is that new statistics this week showed that road traffic on the streets adjacent to the quayside had actually fallen.” Of course it took an earthquake to prove the point in San Francisco while it was people-power in Paris.

            I must admit that even I wondered about what would happen with all that traffic. And a difference with Embarcadero is that it was just an entry/exit ramp of the main freeway over the Bay Bridge, while Voie Pompidou was the main, indeed sole, east-west thru-route in Paris. But it just goes to show that, like with particle-physics, intuition about roads and traffic is never enough.

  8. Ikram

    The reseau expresse metropolitain (REM — a lrt) is being built with private money on build-operate- transfer- model. Pension fund money.

    The theory is that pension funds want assets that have three qualities: returns less correlated with returns of market assets; a premium because of their illiquidity ; a long duration that matches pension fund liabilities.
    They seem to be ok with returns of five to six percent.

    Pensions funds own airports and highways in Europe and North America. Transit is a similar asset to an airport or a highway.

    • Richard L Layman

      the proposed light rail in Montreal is also to be funded by a pension fund. People are up in arms, even though it is Quebec based, because they see it as not being publicly planned, but a deal between big institutions. What I don’t understand is the winter snows. The beauty of the subway being 100% underground is 100% uptime.

      • Alon Levy

        Montreal’s rubber fetish means the Metro doesn’t work in the snow. Steel-wheeled trains work fine in the snow, and above-ground rapid transit lines are reliable even in cold, snowy places, like Chicago, Stockholm, and Moscow.

        • Michael James

          Alon Levy, 2018/10/17 – 11:26
          Montreal’s rubber fetish means the Metro doesn’t work in the snow.

          These are the same trains as on 5 Paris Metro lines, including #6 which is elevated. They have both steel wheels/rails and rubber wheels so, if anything they probably perform better in snowy weather. Certainly I am not aware of any systemic problems with line 6 in winter. Though Paris rarely gets serious snow and I guess it is easy enough to keep the tracks clear. In fact the system has been adopted in several places that do have serious winter such as Lausanne and Sapporo! According to Wiki:

          The success of Montreal “did much to accelerate the international subway boom” of the 1960s/1970s and “assure the preeminence of the French in the process.[38] Rubber-tired systems were adopted in Mexico City, Santiago, Lausanne, Turin, Singapore and other cities. The Japanese adopted rubber-tired metros (with their own technology and manufacturing firms) to systems in Kobe, Sapporo, and parts of Tokyo.

        • Michael James

          But Alon, I still don’t understand. The Montreal system is entirely underground so presumably is fully protected from weather effects? I once visited Montreal in winter and was amazed at the amount of snow that gets piled up at the edge of roads and sidewalks building into a towering mountain by mid-winter (I think it was late January) so I can understand why they built it all underground.

          Rubber tires on the Montreal Metro transmit minimal vibration and help the cars go uphill more easily and negotiate turns at high speeds. However, the advantages of rubber tires are offset by noise levels generated by traction motors which are noisier than the typical North American subway car. Trains can climb grades of up to 6.5% and economize the most energy when following a humped-station profile (track profiles that descend to accelerate after leaving a station and climb before entering the station). Steel-wheel train technology has undergone significant advances and can better round tight curves, and climb and descend similar grades and slopes but despite these advances, steel-wheel trains still cannot operate at high speeds (45 mph or 72 km/h) on the same steep or tightly curved track profiles as a train equipped with rubber tires.

          One can note that the two most recent Paris metro lines, M14 and M1 (both fully driverless), have used the dual rubber + steel wheel format. I think the steel and rubber wheels are on the same axel, and I presume it is fixed like all metros (ie. wheels are not free to rotate, not with bearings?). Presumably this means traction is through all these wheels, thus in principle a lot better than steel alone.
          But anyway isn’t the most weather-susceptible thing the third-rail? Wasn’t that a factor in the RER being left with a catenary system even though it meant bigger tunnels? (Of course 95% of the RER is above ground).

          Re Paris winter. True that it doesn’t often snow enough to build up on the surface, but there have been some severe events in the past decade or so, perhaps short-term, but still one might expect some effect on M6, ie. if there was going to be any. In fact, for that reason, the city is less prepared for such events than more northerly European cities or most American cities. Only once in my time was it enough to negatively affect the city. There was black ice around and I was in a bus that was in a slow-motion collision with a car that slid across one of those roundabouts (Place d’Italie IIRC).

          • Alon Levy

            Catenary is more winter-proof than third rail, yes – this is why the Blue Line in Boston uses catenary above ground and third rail underground. But evidently Chicago manages to make third rail work above ground in winter.

            Montreal has a 100% underground metro precisely because its system doesn’t work well in the snow (or didn’t when built). Rubber tires increase acceleration rates, but the most recent steel-wheel trains achieve the same initial acceleration (around 1.3 m/s^2); the hump stations may look futuristic in Montreal or in London (where they began appearing on the Victoria line), but New York’s had them since day one, which is why at some stations the express tracks are noticeably lower than the locals.

            6.5% grades are not recommended for steel-wheeled trains, but are perfectly possible at today’s acceleration rates. On light rail the American standards say 7% is the maximum, though it should be used for short stretches like grade separations and not long stretches like mountain passes.

        • Rico

          As I understand it REM will be typical steel wheel light metro (automated) vehicles but with overhead catenary.

  9. Rico

    I should also noe the REM proposal is not really a ‘private’ project so much as an unsolicited proposal akin to the Canada line P3 in Vancouver. It also relies heavily on using an existing well used rail tunnel. Ant6n has some interesting reading about it on his blog

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