Thursday 23 October 2014

Transport tech fantasies vs existing cycling solutions

Summary: Self-driving cars, hyperloops, personal rapid transit and the myriad other high-technology solutions that are proffered as revolutionising future city transport are actually fantasies that will never be realised for mass, personal transport due to fundamental issues and constraints. However, the genuine interest in many of them is revealing of unmet needs or preferences, particularly from the perspective of people who wouldn't currently cycle for transport. This post identifies those unmet needs most relevant to cycling and advises of existing cycling solutions that enable individuals to obtain these benefits.

Wall-E movie (Pixar)

Related Posts:
> See the politics and transport futures category of this blog.
> See the commuting category of this blog.

1. Why skepticism about high-tech fixes to transport problems is justified
- I don't propose to spend a lot of time discussing the issues, obstacles and empty promises of each high-tech transport proposal. Instead I'll simply collate articles that do take a hard-headed, practical perspective on these technology-driven initiatives.

> New Republic: Self-Driving Cars Are Still Cars - Which Means They Won't Improve Your Commute
> NY Times: Opinionator - Driving Sideways (Allison Arieff)
Business Insider: Google's Self-Driving Car May Only Be A Pipe Dream
> Indefinitely Wild: ​Why Google's Self-Driving Car Will Fail
> Human Transit: Driverless cars and the limitations of the "complete imagined future"
Transitized: Why Driverless/Self-Driving Cars Aren’t the Future and Aren’t Good for Us
> Greater Greater Washington: Musk's Hyperloop math doesn't add up
But Google, to use a technology cliché, has chosen the wrong platform. If the company wants to revolutionize mobility, it shouldn't waste its time with cars. They're intractably inefficient uses of energy and space, and building our communities around them has failed... Driving is a miserable experience inflicted upon 86 percent of us every morning and every afternoon, five days a week. Much of this misery is due to the presence of other people’s cars—speeding alone through an evergreen forest is an advertising fantasy. Real transportation innovation has to solve the problem of space. There’s never enough of it where you want to drive, when you want to drive there... Our car-centric cities are a problem that needs to be solved, not a status quo that merely needs tweaking. Cars stifle, rather than promote, free, individual movement. They inhibit incredibly valuable, often spontaneous social interaction. They tend to entrench rather than blur class barriers. Walking in a pedestrian-friendly city isn’t just more enjoyable than driving. It's also a minor form of economic stimulus.
Google says it began its self-driving car project with a “blank sheet of paper,” and yet, all it created was a slightly different variation of our current transportation problem. This isn't "disruption"; it's tinkering. Rather than find a truly transformative solution, the company has acquiesced to the basic failings of suburbia with an innovation so incremental that it epitomizes our national short-sightedness, and failure of imagination, when it comes to improving mobility in America.
New Republic: Self-Driving Cars Are Still Cars - Which Means They Won't Improve Your Commute
But what Google is working on may instead result in the automotive equivalent of the Apple Newton, what one Web commenter called a "timid, skittish robot car whose inferior level of intelligence becomes a daily annoyance." To be able to handle the everyday stresses and strains of the real driving world, the Google car will require a computer with a level of intelligence that machines won't have for many years, if ever... Perhaps one day tech enthusiasts will be able to visit a Museum of the Future That Never Was, where the Jetsons’ hover car and the Google super-robo car will sit side-by-side as showcase exhibits. Expect long lines for both, because the demos will be sensational.
Business Insider: Google's Self-Driving Car May Only Be A Pipe Dream

2. Cycling for transport already has the potential to be far superior in terms of cost, total time/effort expended, reliability, convenience and health
- For city trips between 2-15km, these major advantages over all other forms of transport can be obtained and optimised by able-bodied adults through simply implementing best practice guidance that suits your needs and circumstances. Most of these practical solutions are covered on this blog (e.g. minimising costs through smarter bike/equipment decisions; reducing time/effort needed for issues like clothing or parking; using puncture-proof tyres and low maintenance bikes to optimise reliability). Simply, review the posts in the relevant category of this blog.

- Most of the high-tech transport solutions also try to address some of the well-known deficiencies of existing public transport systems. However, cycling doesn't suffer from these issues and already provides robust solutions. See: Why public transport hell persists and why only cycling can free you from it

3. Subjective safety concerns are still a major issue preventing cycling being considered as a realistic alternative but there are personal solutions
- Google's self-driving car appeals to commuters precisely because it is still a solid, enclosed metal vehicle that feels safe. Using traditional bicycles in car-centric cities, where the road must be shared with cars, doesn't feel safe to most people. This still remains barrier number one.

- However, in objective terms, utility cycling in most cities is actually very safe even when the city's infrastructure and policies haven't been significantly geared toward facilitating cycling. Hence, the real gap is in subjective safety - how safe cycling feels compared to driving or public transport. While politicians and city planners are ultimately responsible, individuals can take control of how safe they feel cycling by developing their cycling skills, starting with the safest/easiest trips, investigating available routes that feel safest and optimising the safety of their bike and gear. See the safety and health category of this blog.

4. Protection from the weather is a legitimate concern but there are practical solutions
- Firstly start off as a "fair weather" cyclist for trips in the most favourable and pleasant seasons. Most people who use the weather as an excuse never cycle for transport even when the weather is perfect. Once you're actually enjoying the benefits of getting around by bike you may naturally want to extend your use to less favourable weather conditions. You can get fenders, wear protective/optimised clothing, change clothes/shoes at your destination, use weather apps to pick when to ride and fall back on public transport, taxis or friend's cars if necessary. See the comfort category of this blog.

5. Cycling effort (free exercise) is a feature not a bug but there are ways to make it easier if/when necessary
- Many people attracted to futuristic transport solutions, who don't consider cycling as an option, simply think it's too much effort. However, the free exercise involved is one of the biggest benefits of cycling for transport and almost all regular utility cyclists quickly come to appreciate it. There are also many ways individuals can control the extent of their effort via lifestyle choices, trip decisions, the pace they ride at, strategies to avoid hills and smart bike choices (including electric-assist).

Built-in exercise is a major benefit of cycling for transport
How to maximise your cycling when faced with hills

6. Cycling actually saves time overall for city trips under 10km and there are ways to extend its range and your urban freedom
- Another common excuse for fantasizing about futuristic transport solutions is that non-cyclists just don't understand how much time cycling can save for most of their city trips between 2 and 10km. The freedom from congestion, small size, agility, abundant parking and literal door-to-destination use are existing features of cycling that other transport modes simply will never compete with. Instead they are limited to fanciful ideas like "whistlecars" - apparently in the future you'll just whistle (or the smartphone equivalent) and a robocar will materialise in seconds to whisk you to your destination. See the saving time category of this blog.

- Cycling-related fears about constraining your urban freedom and access to jobs, opportunities, people and destinations are also misplaced. With smart choices, cycling has the potential to unlock more opportunities and access for city residents. See the access and urban freedom category of this blog.

7. Cycling's existing solutions are already superior to the empty promises of transport tech fixes (e.g. self-driving cars)
- There are many promised benefits of self-driving cars and other futuristic transport solutions but none of these will be realised simply by their improved technology. Below are my brief responses to these promises/hopes from the perspective of a transport cyclist:

Promised transport tech benefitTransport cyclist response
Self-driving cars (or equivalents) will provide on-demand access- Bikes already do and are cheaper and more reliable
- Have you heard of a taxi? Robotaxis will simply be more expensive and slower.
Self-driving cars will eliminate many deaths and injuries- Only removing most people from driving cars and cars from dominating cities will eliminate these car-related deaths and injuries. In what year can we ban private cars that aren't self-driving? 2020? 2050? Bring it on!
Automation will mean you'll have free time for work or leisure while you ride- Bikes save hundreds of hours annually overall which can be used much more productively and enjoyably outside of vehicles.
Automation will mean lengthier car/pod commutes will be feasible- Longer commutes, urban sprawl and urban areas without services/opportunities are the things we should be escaping
Automation will significantly reduce congestion- Only human-sized, agile, efficient, flexible machines can reduce congestion. They're called bikes.
Self-driving cars will avoid parking constraints- They'll be no better than existing taxis and if privately owned will still park somewhere.
Self-driving cars will take other cars off the road- Just like existing taxis do? If anything, the expense, limited usage and driverless nature will simply add cars/vehicles on the road and public spaces.
Self-driving cars will aid the expansion of electric vehicles- The best thing for the environment is less new vehicles being manufactured and driven. Real sustainability means cycling or public transport only.
Self-driving cars will be lighter, smaller and softer- Only when there are no other heavy, large and hard metal vehicles on the same roads. Drivers opt for SUVs for a reason and this won't change.
- Conversely bikes are already light, small and non-lethal.
Self-driving cars will have top speeds of 40km/hr within cities to make them safer- So they'll be even slower than bikes for trips of 2 to 15km?
Self-driving cars will allow you to reconfigure vehicles for living. E.g. Talk to passengers face to face- Most people want to escape being trapped in enclosed vehicles in unpleasant circumstances (i.e. highways, traffic). Bikes offer that escape.
Cities will be more pleasant when built around self-driving cars and automated personal transport- The biggest issues are things like the space taken by roads/parking, noise, pollution, pedestrian/cycling danger, poor health, constrained human interaction, sprawl, etc.
- These are all caused by cars and only reduced by cycling, walking and transit

Further Info:
The Atlantic CityLab: The Future of Transportation series
The Future of Transportation Is Not All Flying Cars
Will a World of Driverless Cars Be Heaven or Hell?

The Guardian: Google's self-driving car: How does it work and when can we drive one?

Treehugger: More thoughts on Google's self-driving car

The Telegraph: Ten ways that driverless cars will change the world

The Guardian: Will Google's self-driving pods spell the end of the road for car ownership?

NY Times: Google’s Next Phase in Driverless Cars: No Steering Wheel or Brake Pedals

The Economist: The driverless road ahead

The Atlantic: Driverless cars would reshape automobiles and the transit system

TED: Bill Ford - A future beyond traffic gridlock

Fast Co.Exist
This Is What Mobility Will Look Like In 15 Years
The 9 Most Moving Transportation Stories Of 2014
In 2050, You Might Want To Be Living In Helsinki

IDEO: Automobility

Human Transit
> No, autonomous cars will not "abolish transit" in dense cities

Electric roads to the Hyperloop: Our Jetsons future starts now