Technology and Public Transit

I have noticed a trend in tech media in the last few years: people assert that new technology is about to make public transportation and the walkable urbanism that underlies it obsolete, and therefore it’s a waste of time to invest in the latter. The top examples of this are ride-hailing apps and autonomous cars, but electric cars are also a common excuse not to build urban rail. In addition, there are knock-on effects, causing transit agencies to neglect core functions like good service in favor of tech gimmicks, like Andrew Cuomo’s genius challenge.

In contrast, I’d like to present two much-anticipated technological changes that have the opposite effect: they should make the case for public transit easier. In no case is this directly about public transportation. Rather, it’s about making it easier to design cities for the exclusive use of pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit riders. One of these changes is still in the proof-of-concept stage; the other is already happening, and it’s on cities to capitalize on it.

Drone delivery

There is ongoing experimentation about using aerial drones to deliver goods. The examples Wikipedia has are high-value, low-weight, such as passports and drugs. The current state of technology is such that delivering such goods by drone is feasible, though not yet at commercial scale, but there is research into bigger drones.

The impact of drone delivery is on how cities are built for freight movement. All freight transportation in cities today is done by truck, except for the occasional low-end bike delivery. Rail freight is completely infeasible: it operates at long ranges – in fact, two papers, one by Vassallo-Fagan and one by Furtado, find that 45% of the difference in rail freight modal share between the US and Europe is an artifact of longer distance for inland transportation in the US. Moreover, whatever rail freight exists is of low value – in the US, rail had 4% of the total value of goods shipped and 47% of ton-km in 2002. The stuff drones can plausibly carry goes by truck at any distance today.

So the potential is there for drones to take some of the most critical goods away from trucks, reducing city truck traffic, and with it, the demand for car-friendly street design. The socioeconomic class most opposed to giving public transit higher priority (at least in New York), the shopkeepers, cites deliveries as the primary reason to maintain curbside access.

Of note, drone delivery is also useful for rural areas with bad roads – it makes goods more easily available there. The likely effect of widespread drone delivery on urbanity has two components: reducing the consumption amenities of cities, since a more efficient transportation network makes it easier to ship goods to remote areas; and increasing the production amenities of cities, since it’s easier to design cities for maximum transportation efficiency of people, not to mention the office jobs created by the need to maintain drone software (the latter point also made by Masahita Fujita re new economic geography).

Automation of manufacturing

The increase in automation of manufacturing means that manufacturing employment is trending down. This is not an artifact of offshoring: Dani Rodrik’s paper about premature deindustrialization finds that the share of manufacturing in total employment is trending down in a large variety of poor and middle-income countries, and even in South Korea the manufacturing share peaked in 1989. Rather, there is a shift in the nature of low- and medium-skill work away from industry and toward services.

This is good for any attempt to get people to commute by public transit. Factories have not been conducive to public transportation for a hundred years. Electrification has encouraged single-story atria with plenty of space, replacing cramped multistory buildings like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Moreover, the rise of trucking has meant that the best site for a factory is one with very good highway access. The industrial site of the last few generations is not walkable, and any worker who earns enough to drive will. Serving such a site by transit is in theory possible, but employment is so spread out that the bus or train would underperform.

But today, manufacturing is increasingly irrelevant to commuting. Working-class employment concentrates in areas that are part of the middle class’s regular travel routine: hotels, casinos, and airports are destinations for middle-class travelers, shopping centers are destinations for middle-class consumers, hospitals and universities are large employers across all social classes from professors down to unskilled workers. With the exception of airports, these destinations are already fairly walkable or at least can be built this way, and in some cases, like that of the French Riviera, this could lead to public transit serving the working class better than the middle class.

In most of the top transit cities in the developed world, this process has already run its course. There is practically no industry left in New York, London, and Paris. But it does matter to some cities, such as Singapore, with its vast port with no passenger rail service. Los Angeles is not a transit city and it’s not because it has relatively high industrial employment for an American city, but the high manufacturing concentration does not help. Understanding that these jobs are slowly disappearing, not from one country but from the world, will help cities plan accordingly, especially in lower- and middle-income countries.


  1. hsrac

    I’m glad you mentioned driverless cars in this post. Christian Wolmar’s short boom on the subject brought to light the issues with the current level of technology and the massive infrastructure upgrades necessary to facilitate so-called “autonomous vehicles”. Where do you see the breaking point for this?

  2. James Sinclair

    Drone delivery and flying cars will never be a thing.

    Simple reason is they are incredibly loud. When a drone is out, you know it. Helicopters? Horrific. Flying cars are just smaller helicopters.

    As far as I know, that noise is a matter of physics, not technology, so it’s not going away. That means it can’t scale in an urban area. The three tourist helicopters in Manhattan are bad enough. Imagine 1,000 drones.

    • chris t.

      Hmm. I know I’m kind of losing the linguistic war here, but I think it’s totally reasonable to refer to autonomous wheeled vehicles as drones, in which case this week’s Amazon Scout is precisely the sort of drone delivery we’re talking about.

      Furthermore, there are plenty of flying drones that aren’t copters — Festo makes some fascinating ones, although I’m not sure how practical they’d be for outdoor delivery. And of course people still call military UAVs drones, and most of those are fixed-wing. Some of those are apparently quite stealthy.

  3. Michael James

    Yes, alas one cannot argue that it is happening. Depressingly it is probably irrelevant to argue the merits but on drones it is almost entirely malign. With drones, not only is it consuming much more energy per kg delivered, and displacing employment, but it is reinforcing the horrible trend of people being immobile, and reducing choice (contrary to what some might like to claim). Ordering stuff from their couches–soon they will have an app on their phone that allows them to open the front door so the drone can deliver direct to their couchside coffee table! As the Australian Open tennis approaches its business end, we are bombarded with advertisements for UberEats, with what must be a really expensive ad campaign showing top players (Nadal, Wozniaki, Kyrgios etc) ordering their food from courtside (and Nadal being time-penalised as he takes delivery as he prepares to serve!).

    Incidentally, already underway is the displacement of the individual restaurants this originally began with. That is, instead of a la carte menu from various individual restaurants, it is being centralised and simplified and industrialised in a few non-retail (ie. non-restaurant) kitchens preparing stuff in quantity. While UberEats may have started out as a supplementary boon to regular restaurants, it is going to turn into a terrible competitor. As a consequence more real restaurants will get fewer customers and custom (as UberEats shifts to their own or speciality industrial kitchens, little different to the factories that prepare tv-dinners for supermarkets) and will close down.

    Just this month Limebikes have been authorised and invaded my (inner-city fringe) suburb. The hipsters and wannabee hipsters have latched onto them and I reckon they are mostly displacing walking not driving or transit (the distances are such). It is too slow to notice but as sure as night follows day, we are creating the next-gen of obesity and the physiologically poorly-mobile. Which means blowing up our healthcare costs etc etc.

    Label me a Luddite but I see nothing beneficial in these trends, and can only hope that France remains a hold-out. I hope Paris persists with its ban on drones. Yes, the paradox because the biggest domestic-use drone maker in the world until recently was French (Made in China of course and doubtless the biggest in the world is now the Chinese factory that made those French drones). Well, in France, supermarkets didn’t kill food street markets nor did MacDonalds kill real restaurants, nor Starbucks (40 in Paris!) kill real cafes, but it all adds up. Technology is inexorably leading us to a future exactly as described by Orwell and Huxley.

    • Michael James

      What should appear in today’s The Conversation:
      Limes not lemons: lessons from Australia’s first e-scooter sharing trial
      Benjamin Kaufman, Matthew Burke, 23 Jan 2019

      One of the pics shows a Lime scooter on the pedestrian bridge with the caption: “For only a few dollars, an e-scooter can get you from Brisbane CBD to South Bank in a matter of minutes.” Yet, this is a very popular pedestrian route, and it only takes minutes, perhaps 10-15 minutes, because it is a very nice stroll through the old city botanic gardens, across the river and thru Southbank Parklands (a university & arts & restaurant district along the river). Sure, a scooter will allow you to do it quicker but not to any particular advantage. I suppose you could argue that it will encourage more people to do it by scooter but then again what is the point? It’s not good if it persuades walkers to convert to scooters (the obesity argument), and if a lot more take up scooters then this pedestrian route is going to get less comfortable for pedestrians …. which brings me to another odd statement by the authors:

      The decision to choose 25km/h seems appropriate at present. Restricting speeds to 10km/h, as previous laws did in Queensland, would be nonsensical.

      As many commenters pointed out, the authors completely ignore the curious fact that Queensland is the only state that permits bicycles to be ridden on pedestrian footpaths (everywhere), and sure enough this is overwhelmingly where the Limes are being ridden–even where there is a cycle-path (because they are only white painted lanes, incomplete routes, mostly useless and dangerous). This is why the 10km/h limit (about double walking speed) makes sense. Allowing them to go at 25km/h is what is nonsensical, especially as it seems a lot of the riders I see are not very good at it; I suspect a lot of these younger people (and over-representation of heavy people) have never mastered a bicycle but are willing to give these hip scooters a shot. I rest my case …

    • Eric

      Online deliveries are great because 1) there is much larger selection and more competition than in physical stores, so you can often make better purchases 2) they reduce congestion caused by people who’d otherwise need to travel to dense central areas to shop.

      Electric scooters are great because they can replace cars (and in some cases, overcrowded transit) at minimal environmental cost. Even the 10-15 minute “nice stroll” you talk about can be very unpleasant on a hot or rainy day, or when carrying loads. And many trips would make 30-45 minute walks with transit being no faster – for these an electric scooter is a real alternative to a car. Unlike a bicycle, the scooter can be folded and stored easily upon arriving at an office.

      • Michael James

        Eric, 2019/01/23 – 11:37
        Online deliveries are great because 1) there is much larger selection and more competition than in physical stores, so you can often make better purchases

        Except as I explained, it is rapidly transitioning to a centralised kitchen, mass-industrial food model. It was inevitable if you think about it. Any argument about consumers driving choice and quality can be thrown on the rubbish heap of American dining in general, and especially the fast-food industry which is what this will come most to resemble (if not actually run by the same companies, which also makes inevitable economic sense).

        But anyway, you are arguing from an American p.o.v. and that’s fine. Most of us have given up on the US. You and Donald (burgers & fries at the WH last week!) can make your own country as trashy as your heart desires. My main interest is to protect the good bits of the remaining world from this disease. Your arguments about scooters fall into the same category, and I’d almost agree except that what I see–and again it is kind of logical–is that the thing it mostly displaces is walking (and an additional insult, it is trying to takeover the space currently reserved for pedestrians). As I’ve said before on this blog, I am not sure I would use Velib or Lime-scooters if I lived in Paris because it only fills a gap that for me was, and always will be, filled by walking. I might have a long time ago, but I’ve since equilibrated to approx. 3km as being a reasonable walk –only beyond that do I look for transit (or in poor weather). And I don’t wish to ever live in any less walkable environs again. By definition a walkable environ is also a pleasant place to walk and observe the world, but on a scooter you’ll be concentrating on balance and on avoiding other road/space users etc esp. if you’re trying for 25km/h!
        BTW, carrying a load on a scooter that is heavier or bigger than you can manage as a pedestrian is a recipe for disaster for most people; indeed a lot of people I see riding these things can barely manage with their own body weight, so carrying something makes the centre of gravity even worse. Oh, and at 25km/h, on space shared with cars and trucks? In hot weather or rainy/snowy weather a pedestrian can walk with an umbrella (or wear hat & big trenchcoat) but not on a scooter (though no doubt we’ll see them try …). For a total of about a decade, half in sunny Oz and half in rainy UK, I rode a bicycle but today I wonder how I tolerated it because I hate getting hot and sweaty, wearing a helmet (mandatory in Oz though not in my student days) and most of all, putting on, and taking off, wet-weather gear. Hate it!
        So under these conditions the people using e-scooters will simply turn to taxis, unaccustomed as they are to walking.

        • Eric

          Your food snobbishness is bizarre. Tastiness of food is not a transportation issue. And I actually live outside the US.

          It’s pretty arrogant to assume everyone should do the same 3km walks you like to. Some are not physically capable of this. Some simply have busier schedules than you, and cannot spare the extra 20 minutes walking compared to a scooter or driving. And scooters are both cheaper and better for the environment than taxis.

          • Michael James

            My food snobbishness has nothing to do with the transport but with the obvious trend towards industrialisation it is creating. It’s the industrialisation I object to. I don’t object to take-out though it is true I resort to it less and less. But delivery puts it at yet another remove from whoever is producing it. Why do you think Americans have such an unhealthy relationship to “food”? Unless you don’t agree?

            I mentioned that I am willing to walk up to 3km but not that I expect anyone else to. However you do realise it is only 30 minutes or slightly less–and no car driver is saving 20m on such a trip! But 1km is a mere 10 minute walk for anyone. Anyone not able to do that is not a candidate for scooters. And over these distances the difference between walking and driving is less than you think (we’re talking inner-city, you must find parking; it would be the same in any walkable neighbourhood). Over 1km, especially on shared footpaths, the difference between walking and scooters is even less, with probably a max 5m “saving”. The real cost is accumulating bit by bit over their lives as they become less and less mobile (use it or lose it, is an immutable biological law).

            In today’s City Lab:

            America’s Most Dangerous Roads for Pedestrians
            In the U.S., pedestrian fatalities have climbed 35 percent since 2008. And federal traffic safety regulators aren’t at work, thanks to the government shutdown.
            Laura Bliss, 23 Jan 2019.
            The status quo in American road design is claiming more and more lives, according to some transportation safety advocates. The 2019 edition of Dangerous by Design, a recurring report by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition, finds that the number of people struck and killed while walking has grown a startling 35 percent since 2008.
            There are multiple factors behind this, but the report emphasizes one in particular: overly wide arterials that give too much space to cars and too little to humans. High-speed, multi-lane avenues that underpin sprawling urban growth, as opposed to slower, narrower streets that support walkable neighborhoods, are “consistently linked … to higher rates of both traffic-related deaths for people walking and traffic-related deaths overall,” it states.

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t know, is food industrializing? In the US the trend is increasingly away from fast food and toward more differentiated production – lots of casual dining and lots of fast casual.

          • Michael James

            Alon, it is true that MacDonalds is in slow decline but I don’t think that means the end of industrialisation of food. Increasingly the whole food chain is getting taken over by the process. Apparently it is happening in restaurants in Paris (ie. bought-in frozen sauces, pre-cooked veges etc). It’s partly just “modernisation” but especially spread by American Big Food and culture. I saw a doco on Okinawa and they are the only Japanese population suffering all the usual, obesity, hypertension, CVD etc ie. compared to mainland Japanese. No wonder they want to expel the US base.
            Michael Pollan may exaggerate a bit but overall it’s true, the culture is destroying the food we eat. One of the problems is that once the preparation of a meal is divorced physically, geographically from its consumers then all sorts of stuff has to be added, or precautions taken (overcooked, preservatives, additives and too much salt and of course sugar, a very American thing they are trying to poison themselves and the world with) and inevitably cheaper ingredients substituted (palm oil etc) to reduce costs. I think it was Pollan who noted that in Macdonald’s porridge (their attempt at “healthy”) there were 17 ingredients, and all but 4 were quite unnecessary.

            Of course the US is a big place and the kind of thing you are thinking of may be happening in hipster enclaves in SF and Austin, but not in Dallas and Phoenix etc.

          • adirondacker12800

            Feel free to find a patch of dirt you can subsistence farm.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy, 2019/01/24 – 15:14
            Wait, doesn’t Okinawa also have Japan’s highest life expectancy?

            Even more reason to worry about the evident American influence! BTW, these things aren’t necessarily incompatible. After all, though the American diet and lifestyle is particularly awful (and longevity is actually declining for the first time ever in an advanced nation), and it puts the US at the bottom of the average lifespan of the OECD, they still live to almost 80y (identical to Cuba). Which a lot of them don’t deserve to!
            And yes, you know who is at the top? Australia, of course (av. of both sexes is shared with Japan; Australian male lifespan is longest), even though I can’t believe its largely American lifestyle won’t catch up with them too.

            A colleague at my French institute in the 90s began the world’s first genetic study of centenarians, in fact super-centenarians. It included Arlesienne Jeanne Clement, contemporary of Van Gogh, who still holds the world record for documented longest lived human in history. She was 122y164d. The Japanese bloke who died last week at 113y was a youngster! (And he was from Hokkaido, northern Japan.)
            Also BTW, those genetic studies identified the handful of genes that determine Americanism, and my own lab is in the process of correcting the guilty variants with CRISPR … First true humans devoid of all Americanisms will be born within the year … Nah, just joking. Unfortunately, a bit more complicated. I am sure we could identify genes associated with good urbanism but likely to be a hundred or hundreds of genes. Nurture is more important and luckily more amenable to manipulation to produce better outcomes, even if it has to fight the American phenotype:-)

  4. Eric

    Shouldn’t it be possible to simply make streets transit-only between 7am and midnight? There is plenty of time for deliveries before 7am, and not much transit demand.

    • Alon Levy

      That works if transit takes the same lane as the delivery would; it’s harder if you want your bus lanes to be physically separated.

  5. Michael Whelan

    The craziest thing about the meme that self-driving cars will obviate public transit is that public transit is much easier to make self-driving than any car. You already see this with systems like the Docklands Light Railway, which is able to run fantastic frequencies all day long since the marginal cost of each trip is practically zero.

    • Jhonny

      Or Nuremberg where they run half length trains at rush hour in the automated metro line but at (almost) double the frequency compared to the driver operated line

  6. Jhonny

    I think the tendency for many deliveries will actually be that there’ll be pickup centers to which deliveries are made with an app or something notifying customers that their delivery has arrived.

    As those centers get bigger, some sort of (urban) rail to fill them might start to pencil out…

        • adirondacker12800

          Which would have made it cheaper to lay rail and staff it. They didn’t. The server coordinating all of this can dispatch the self driving delivery cart to arrive when you specify. On roads that already exist.

          • Jhonny

            The last mile is the most expensive part of any delivery.

            Back then it was economical to have somebody carry it that last mile. Paying living wages (which is inevitable in the long run either through regulation or unions) you cannot deliver to every house for the prices they currently charge.

            But you can notify each customer that their delivery is at a pickup station five kilometers away for basically no cost and deliver everything there with – in big cities – the existing light rail system. Of course at first they’ll use trucks anyway.

          • Jhonny

            Because at the moment they can still party delivery drivers a pittance. That won’t last forever.

          • adirondacker12800

            No they don’t and most of the people with packages in their hands think it’s a great job. At least that is impression I got from my coworkers.

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