FUTURE TRENDS: What if rail commuting is already out of steam?

The balance of public and private transport is subject to technological change

Gareth Parker    The West Australian   23 March 2017

Western Australia has just completed our third election campaign in a row in which big public transport promises took centre stage.

In 2008, it was the Ellenbrook rail line at issue, promised by Alan Carpenter and matched by Colin Barnett.

In 2013, it was Labor’s Metronet versus the Barnett government’s airport rail plus MAX light rail.

In 2017’s straitened financial times, it was a refined Metronet v2.0 up against a government promise to build a Thornlie to Cockburn line.

The capital price tag for the “winner” exceeds $2.5 billion. And the operating costs will be hundreds of millions more over the coming decades.

Labor has promised to build stage one of the system for $2.95 billion. 

But what if the era of rail commuter transport is just about done? And what if the whole concept of public transport as we know it is about to become obsolete?

It seems a strange notion given the dominant view of planning experts who highlight the benefits of public transport over cars.

And while car-dominant Perth has been slow to catch on, the fact that politicians think there are votes in public transport projects reflects the evolution of citizens’ thinking on the merits of public versus private transport.

But there is increasing speculation that we’re on the cusp of a revolution.

Like most other things, the revolution is technological.

Driverless and automated vehicles, on-demand hailing, customised point-to-point transport solutions and bespoke buses are all said to be the future.

So it’s fair to ask if a massive multibillion-dollar expansion of the heavy rail network, as proposed by Labor via Metronet, is the best use of taxpayers’ dollars.

In dense New York City, a recent study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and McKinsey and Co estimated that driverless taxi cabs could slash commuting costs to the Australian dollar equivalent of 54¢ a kilometre — less than a quarter of current taxi costs.

At that level, journeys would be potentially cheaper than buses or subways.

In Helsinki, a network of driverless buses was tested for three years. The trial showed promising results but was canned after it was found not to be economic. While riders enjoyed the experience, with 15 buses in the fleet, it was estimated that the real benefits of scale and flexibility would not kick in fully until more than 100 buses were operational — an investment that proved too dear.

Volkswagen has unveiled its new hi-tech self-driving concept car at the Geneva Auto Show.

But all that proves is that, like full-scale generation of electricity from renewable sources, the economics don’t stack up — yet.

A paper released by the University of South Florida’s National Centre for Transit Research in November found the increasing prevalence of technology-led, lower-cost travel options would increase competition with traditional public sector mass transit as travellers chose automated vehicles over public transport.

“(Automated vehicles at) equivalent cost could undermine transit ridership, particularly in markets in which transit service is not time-competitive, transit trip circuity is greater, or the share of the transit travel time that could not be used productively (boarding and alighting vehicles, transferring, standing v seated, etc.) is greater for transit travel than for automated vehicle travel,” the paper found.

The result could be that traditional public transport ridership is cannibalised, putting a further dent in the balance sheet of governments that run these services, sending their viability into a classic downward spiral.

“Additionally, as the constituency for public transportation potentially shrinks, particularly if it loses politically active, more influential customers, it risks undermining political support for public transportation spending,” the USF paper warned.

Given about 70 percent of the cost of each trip on the Transperth network is subsidised by government, this is no trivial matter.

It’s not just overseas. Much closer to home, NSW Transport and Infrastructure Minister Andrew Constance told the Australian Financial Review this week that autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence meant governments would cease to provide commuter transport services altogether.

In Constance’s future, ride-sharing will be amplified by driverless vehicles and privately run buses and trains.

“They will all be private,” Constance told the AFR. “In 10 to 15 years time government will not be in the provision of transport services, it will all be on-demand, private sector driven, underpinned by innovation in technology.”

This is not Silicon Valley, but Sydney. It’s quite a claim.

NSW has announced a trial of scrapping timetables on some routes in favour of on-demand buses that turn up when and where they are needed based on real-time demand and data.

Expressions of interest closed at the end of February and pilot programs are expected by the end of the year.

The former Barnett government’s Perth & Peel @ 3.5 million transport plan touched on an automated future, and the RAC is currently running a trial of a driverless bus in partnership with government in South Perth. But the report concluded that at present it was impossible to predict how long it would take for driverless vehicles to achieve critical mass to achieve the full benefits.

In an interview yesterday, new Transport Minister Rita Saffioti — whose job it is to implement Metronet — said that while every government needed to be mindful of technological developments when shaping policy, she predicted Perth would always need a mass transit system.

“The idea that everyone will jump into a driverless vehicle only works if you’ve got infinite capacity on the existing infrastructure,” she said. “There’s no doubt technology like driverless vehicles allows you to increase your efficiency and capacity on existing infrastructure, but everything has a limit.

“So I think mass transit systems like heavy rail lines in particular will have an increased use. What you’ll probably see in the future is increased use of driverless and its interaction with train stations and other (hubs).”

In other words, the promise of automated on-demand vehicles might help in the so-called “last mile” problem — of connecting people between their home and a major transport hub, like a rail station, with trains doing the heavy lifting of connecting big numbers of people from A to B.

Saffioti predicts this will have major impacts on designing station precincts, which for instance in most new Perth stations are surrounded by big areas of parking that may not be necessary in future — with the land turned over to more productive uses.

The last-mile utility of on-demand transport is already the subject of experiment in some car-dependent American cities, where rather than provide expensive, under-patronised bus routes to service major transit hubs, city transport authorities have begun to subsidise passengers’ Uber rides — because it’s cheaper than the alternative.

– Gareth Parker presents the Morning Show on Radio 6PR from 8.30am on weekdays

Original article here

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s