New site, new store, same stuff

With the successful completion of my Kickstarter, I’ve bought a new domain, opened a map store, and started cross-posting. This blog will stay open but I’ll stop updating the site after next week.

If you subscribe by email, you’ll need to sign up again. If you subscribe by RSS you’ll want to update your link, too.

While I am excited about the new format and domain – this one is showing its age, and I really hate the ads at the bottom of some posts – what I’m really excited about is the Map Store. While I’ve threatened to print my maps before, this time I’m actually doing it. While I’m mostly focusing on subway-style maps of historical rail networks, I have a few maps for the Marinites, notably the Interurban.

My mapping queue is full for the next few months (DC/Baltimore, then Saint Louis, then Toronto), but I’m starting to think about what comes next. Check the maps you might want to buy for yourself or someone else:

All of these, except for Highway 101, are for the 1921 versions. The Highway 101 strip map will include all service that runs on the freeway from Cloverdale to San Francisco. It would likely be a fold-out pocket map, a nice addition to your GGT transit guide.

It’s been nice getting to know everyone on WordPress, but Squarespace gives me much better commercial integration. See you over there.

Sausalito in a backwards fight against ferries

For years, Sausalito had struggled with its success. Tourists on rental bikes flood the town every summer, creating a logistical and transportation nightmare for the small city.

Recently, attempts by the city council to cope with the challenge have been less about addressing the issue and more about resentment against tourists, cyclists, and the ferries they rely upon. The City Council looks set to vote its opposition to an expanded Golden Gate Ferry facility and has already expressed opposition to a National Park Service ferry to Fort Baker.

Background

Sausalito is part of the natural loop of bike-riding tourists to San Francisco: rent a bike, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, head down to Sausalito, hang out, then take a ferry back. Simple, easy. But downtown Sausalito is a tightly constrained place. Bridgeway, the only road running the full length through downtown, doesn’t have the facilities to handle its bike traffic, and so it spills over onto sidewalks, rankling locals. According to Marinscope, some ferries have to leave for San Francisco half full because of the sheer number of people with bikes.

As far back as 2009 at least, the more colorful described these bike-riding tourists as “locusts.” In 2015, conservative councilmember Linda Pfeifer proposed limiting the number of people on bikes from entering the city.

Sausalito isn’t the only place with tourist problems. Tam Valley has been groaning under the weight of tourist traffic heading to Muir Woods along Shoreline Highway. Sharon Rushton, a political ally of Councilmember Pfeifer, has been fighting the National Park Service’s proposals around the national monument for years, whether it has meant fighting shuttles, parking, or parking management.

Back to Sausalito

To help address the number of people taking the Sausalito Ferry with bicycles, GGBHTD has proposed expanding its Sausalito terminal.

The proposed ferry terminal redesign from the air.

The proposed ferry terminal redesign from the air.

According to planning documents (large PDF) the new terminal would allow a fully-loaded Spaulding ferry, which can accommodate up to 750 passengers with up to 100 bikes, to unload in 3 minutes and load in 6. This is a dramatic improvement over existing conditions, where ferries are reported to sometimes leave half-full.

As well, the new design would allow passengers with bikes to load simultaneously and separately from those without bikes, reducing some of the friction that causes delays in off-loading at San Francisco.

But the proposal has raised hackles with the council. Those opposed to the redesign aren’t happy with the final pier’s distance from shore and the amount of water covered. They’d like GGBHTD to begin regular dredging of the area so ferries could come closer to shore.

The existing ferry terminal.

The existing ferry terminal, as seen from the Yacht Club.

The proposed ferry terminal, as seen from the nearby Yacht Club.

The proposed ferry terminal, as seen from the same angle.

To my eyes, the new design looks only slightly more intrusive than the old; it’s unclear to me why adding an additional and ongoing expense of dredging would be necessary. Perhaps a commenter could enlighten me as to the downside of the new design’s size.

This is not the only ferry project that may happen around Sausalito.

A National Park ferry at Fort Baker?

Two miles south, the National Park Service (NPS) is interested in building a new ferry terminal at Fort Baker. While details are sketchy, the NPS has said the ferry would be operated by the same company that currently operates Alcatraz service. According to Marinscope, the terminal would only be used for “special events” and would not include a parking lot.

According to Brian Aviles, planner for the NPS:

The intent is to complement the programs at Fort Baker and perhaps allow people to visit Fort Baker without having to drive. We felt it prudent to investigate installing a gangway and float. It would function to link the main Alcatraz embarkation point to Fort Baker. (quoted by Marinscope)

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, this is part of a larger project to add ferry service to water-adjacent NPS sites around the Bay, including Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park in Richmond. It would allow NPS to focus tourist traffic towards ferry service rather than the current collection of ferries, shuttles, and parking lots.

While not part of the project’s scope, Sausalito City Manager Adam Politzer finds the idea of NPS shuttles on Sausalito streets frightening:

Having a ferry terminal at Fort Baker, even just for special events, would create traffic on both Alexander Avenue and Highway 101, exacerbating an already intolerable traffic situation… The increased traffic would place strains of vehicle movement and parking. Adding shuttle buses to the mix would also increase congestion on busy Sausalito streets.

Councilmember Pfeifer adds:

It is pretty obvious what the strategic goal is… I can see over time they will be directing the overflow [from Alcatraz] to Fort Baker and shifting those folks to downtown Sausalito.

The concerns expressed by Politzer and Pfeifer echo Rushton’s complaints about the NPS and Muir Woods. Through her organization, Sustainable TamAlmonte, Rushton and others have advocated to limit the absolute number of visitors to Muir Woods per year and has opposed efforts to expand local shuttle service, saying that such ideas amount to commercialization of the monument.

Yet this ferry concept seems to fit perfectly with Sustainable TamAlmonte’s proposed alternative, which is point-of-origin shuttle service. In a 2013 letter to the Board of Supervisors, Rushton writes:

If an Independent Scientific Carrying Capacity Study on visitor load for Muir Woods and related parking & traffic proves the need for a more robust shuttle system, establish a Muir Woods Shuttle System (using small shuttle buses) that picks up and drops off Muir Woods’ visitors at regional points of origin (E.g. San Francisco, East Bay, and North Bay) and NOT within the Tamalpais Area Community Plan area.

Without a parking lot, the Fort Baker ferry terminal could only be a shuttle for tourists from San Francisco and never add to traffic congestion on Sausalito streets. Even under the most intense use of a ferry – the implementation of shuttle service – would likely only add 2 vehicles per hour per direction to Bridgeway, hardly a tipping point. And, by encouraging tourists to forego car rentals entirely, it might actually cut down on the amount of vehicular traffic within Sausalito.

Sausalito’s city council is standing in opposition to transit from two providers that could be vital to reducing congestion in their city and Southern Marin at large. The professed reasons to oppose either project – the scale of the GGBHTD proposal, traffic at the parking-free NPS proposal – don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Thankfully, neither proposal is likely to be seriously affected. GGBHTD may modify their ferry terminal design, but the project will go ahead when the council majority – with which Pfeifer generally does not vote – is satisfied with any changes. And the EIR commissioned by Sausalito on the NPS proposal may shed valuable light on the terminal’s impact and reiterate the baselessness of traffic concerns.

Sausalito and Southern Marin does have a serious tourist traffic problem, but opposing ferries and shuttles won’t help mitigate the problem.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Over the past month, I’ve been working hard on my historic railroad mapping project, which is doing well over on Kickstarter. For sale are also 12×12 to 24×24 prints of the Northwestern Interurban map. If there’s enough demand, when the store opens up in May I’ll also include prints of the Highway 101 Strip Map and, if the project ever finishes, the North Bay Bus Map.

That’s not all I’ve been up to. I married a beautiful linguist, been accepted to graduate school, scrambled to find the money to fund said graduate school, and become involved to some degree in developing world urban policies. (Kinshasa and the Democratic Republic of Congo is an especially fascinating story.)

Of course, this has used up a great deal of time, and so I haven’t been able to update this blog as much as I ought to have. There is no shortage of issues to discuss, from the gorgeous new renderings of Whistlestop’s development proposal to Sausalito’s battle with transit, ferries, and tourists.

On top of all that, there is research out about the multiplier effects of transit-oriented design that I’ve been sitting on since February, a proposal for an on-street bike path from San Rafael to The Hub I’ve been sitting on since last year, and more. There’s so much to cover and so little time.

Marin County is fascinating not simply because of its place as my family home but also because its challenges are the challenges of suburbs around the country writ small. We avoided many of the problems plaguing many of America’s new suburbs but are reticent to tackle our own.

Next month, The Greater Marin will reopen on a new site, theGreaterMarin.org, advertisement-free and integrated with a store to purchase prints of the various mapping projects (the good ones) I’ve done over the years.

TGM has been on an unplanned hiatus, but I’m not going anywhere.

Mapping the derelict lines of the Bay Area

The old railroads that once defined the Bay Area and the country at large are typically just hinted at. Some lines only operate freight; others, overgrown rails, but many are just sinewy lines on a parcel map. While we do have old maps showing where the rails were, these are rail maps, not service maps.

Some years ago, I used old timetables to create a service map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban, which brought to life a system that has been gone for over 70 years. This year, I decided to do the same thing for the whole of the Bay Area, and I’m launching a Kickstarter to fund prints and maps of other regions of the country.

The first map, for the Bay Area, shows every train published in the 1937 Official Guide to the Railways that began within the 9-county Bay Area. After lines leave the Bay Area, the map shows their last convergence points before major hubs like Los Angeles. If you want a print, head on over to the Kickstarter page.

Historic Railways of the Bay Area

Historic Railways of the Bay Area. Click to enlarge.

The maps makes clear how much of a legacy these old rail companies left to the region. BART’s southern East Bay lines largely follow the Western Pacific right-of-way, while Amtrak still follows the Southern Pacific, including the A5/A6 route to San Jose. The map also shows some of the oddities leftover from competition, like the parallel Amtrak and BART lines, sometimes just a few blocks from one another.

To the north, BART’s Bay Point line follows the Sacramento North, while its route to Richmond blends ATSF and Southern Pacific rights-of-way. Caltrain still runs on Southern Pacific track, as does ACE.

I don’t think anything runs on the dinky little Bay Point & Clayton right-of-way, which itself is a fun story.

If you like railroads, and you like cool maps, then you really will want to sponsor. Seriously, $40 is pretty good for a 24×24 poster.

I also have prints of my map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban. Next up is the Washington-Baltimore region. I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m really excited to see what comes out of the mist.

Manipulate the housing market with this one neat trick

Regulations often result in unintended consequences. Money flows to find any crack in the system, after all, and often those cracks are in very odd places. Zoning and building codes are no different, and they can manipulate not just how people do business but how we built our cities.

In Marin, towns regulate density through a few different rules. Most prominent is units per acre, sometimes around 20 to 30 units per acre, but Marin’s various codes use other measures: floor-area ratio, parking minimums, minimum lot sizes, height limits, and minimum amount of open space.

Last month, the blog Urban Kchoze looked at this panoply of regulatory systems to illustrate how they alter the built environment, and found that they often don’t do a very good job of limiting traffic or population density. About Marin’s favorite regulation, units per acre, the author writes:

An interesting point to consider is what happens to the single individuals in North America that seek cheap housing options, since they are largely deprived of the small 1-Bedroom apartments due to regulations restricting the number of units that can be built per area? Well, they share apartments with roommates. Indeed, becoming roommates is the way consumers have devised to go around the excessive parking and density limitations imposed by North American planners. It is not a desirable situation, but when in a pinch, people will do it.

So North American regulations that limit the density of units but are less restrictive on FAR will result in bigger housing units as developers will build big units to maximize profits.

Policies that do the opposite, meaning limit FAR but are favorable to subdividing buildings in many units thanks to a lack of minimum lot size and low or no minimum parking regulation will have the opposite effect: tend to increase housing density but reduce the size of units.

Our current system doesn’t work very well. Rents are spiking, people are aging, traffic is growing, and the poor are crowding into tiny spaces, especially in The Canal.

As Marin continues to wrestle with the future of its town centers, especially in downtown San Rafael, leaders should figure out what exactly they want to limit. If it’s traffic, they should limit parking. If it’s kids for the school system, they should limit height but lift density caps. (Small homes don’t accommodate families well, after all.)

Marin needs to chart a way forward, but the only way to do that is to understand where we want to go, and what tools we need to get there.

SMART’s new shelter designs are even worse than before

SMART may be on the verge of making a serious mistake.

Back in August, 2014, the rail agency released its “65%” plans for stations to decidedly mixed reviews. Stung by the criticism, particularly from San Rafael mayor Gary Phillips who called the designs “ridiculous”, SMART went into a long internal huddle.

Shelter Option 1, from SMART’s “65%” station design

Shelter Option 1, from SMART’s “65%” station design

Last Wednesday, at its Board meeting, SMART offered something new. Focusing mainly on platform shelters, it proposed an alternative to the forest green “Option 1” design included in the 65% station drawings.

The new shelters, inspired by bus stops, use a “standing seam hip roof design” and are being referred to as “Option 2”. They are proposed to be painted black, although SMART staff seems willing to allow cities to paint them any color in the rainbow. Cities will have until March 31st to tell SMART whether they want this new shelter or prefer to stick with Option 1. Based on the feedback from SMART Board members, it appears that cities will be lining up for Option 2.

An inspiration for “Option 2” – Bus shelter in Duluth, MN

An inspiration for “Option 2” – Bus shelter in Duluth, MN

That’s unfortunate. The new Option 2 design has many serious downsides and will likely be viewed with regret once SMART begins its operations. Moreover, switching them out for something totally different later on may not be easy.

SMART is waiting until the shelters are chosen to lay a top slab of concrete on its station platforms. That implies that the details of the top slab (for things like utilities or drainage) are tailored to a specific shelter type. A switch to a different shelter in the future might require demolishing the tops of platforms, which would be costly and time-consuming. Given that, it’s far more critical for SMART get this decision right than it would be for a typical bus operator.

So what’s wrong with Option 2? Several things. A good rail platform shelter should have the following characteristics:

  • A very narrow footprint and open design to avoid getting in the way of customers circulating on the platform.
  • A broad canopy with an appropriate height to maximize weather protection; and
  • A nice aesthetic that is compatible with its surroundings.

Option 2 misses the mark on all of these.

Shelter Footprint

Space on SMART’s platforms will be very limited. It’s “side” platforms will be 15 feet wide, while its “center” platforms (set between two tracks) will be 18 feet wide. Let’s consider the larger of these two.

Center platforms will have two, 24 inch wide, nubby, tactile warning strips; one along each platform edge. That leaves about 14 ft. of room for patrons, or about 7 ft. on each side of the platform. With shelter Option 1, the footprint will extend about 2 ft. out from the platform center line on each side, leaving two, 5 ft. “travel lanes” on each side of the shelter. That’s manageable.

By contrast, the Option 2 shelter is much, much wider. It will extend a full 4½ ft. out on each side of the platform center line, leaving a very narrow 2½ ft. on each side of the shelter. That’s untenable.

A visual simulation on a PowerPoint slide from SMART’s recent Board meeting shows the full horror of this future condition (1:04:47 mark).

Screen capture from SMART PowerPoint – Feb 18, 2015 Board Meeting

Screen capture from SMART PowerPoint – Feb 18, 2015 Board Meeting

To make matters worse, the narrow 2½ ft. width between shelter and warning strip isn’t just a single choke point that customers will have to navigate around. The Option 2 shelters are only open one side, meaning that the “closed” side will present a long, continuous, 2½ ft. channel between platform edge and the solid glass wall of the shelter. SMART is proposing to ultimately add two or three of these monster shelters to each platform.

Suspended four feet in the air, SMART platform’s will be narrow islands, sometimes crowded with people, and far more populated with bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and luggage than a typical bus stop. The Option 2 shelters are going to pose great difficulties to circulating customers when SMART is in operation. While they may not violate the letter of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they certainly violates the spirit of it. Amazingly, only one SMART Director (Russell) raised any concern about space constraints.

The green Option 1 shelters will allow for far more space on the platforms. However, SMART’s 30% station design shelters had a key advantage over both Option 1 and Option 2. They were porous. They did not have a continuous wall of windscreens separating one side of the platform from the other. This openness would allow for more platform space and for customers to freely move from one side of the platform without having to go all the way around a bulky and long shelter.

SMART 30% Station Design

SMART 30% Station Design

Weather Protection

At Wednesday’s meeting, SMART Director Kellner speculated that the Option 2 shelter would offer better weather protection than Option 1. In fact, the opposite is true. The canopies of the Option 1 shelter span 12 ft., while the heavier canopies of the Option 2 shelter only span 10 ft. and provide less coverage.

Moreover, the Option 2 canopies only offer weather protection on one side, according to SMART’s drawings. On the “closed” side of the shelter, the roof only extends a few inches over the wall of long glass, which will offer no weather protection at all.

The one-sided and enclosed nature of these bus stop shelters prevents customers from easily and casually ducking under the canopy on a rainy or hot sunny day. They have to deliberately and consciously move into the enclosure on one side, squeezing through the 2½ ft. wide choke point.

Aesthetics

Much of the politicians’ comfort with Option 2 seems to stem from the look, which avoids garish green paint and offers a more familiar shape. In the words of SMART Director Mouton-Peters, it “fits the cultural ethos” of Marin. The new shelter design was reportedly partly inspired by the shelters at the San Rafael Transit Center.

While beauty is subjective, I doubt most Marinites cherish the Bettini Transit Center’s shelters. Without a doubt, the most beautiful things in Marin County are inherent in the place itself: the green and gold rolling hills, the oak trees, and the historic town centers.

The best thing that a transit shelter can do in this environment is to stay simple and clean and get out of the way. SMART Director Rabbit offered some of this perspective when he wondered if these big, black, bus shelters might end up blocking views of more cherished places and structures near the stations. They will.

Little House on the Platform

A misguided approach on shelter design can begin easily enough. When most people think of a “shelter”, the most comforting image that comes to mind is a house. Then, when people think of an iconic shape for a house, the most classic vernacular is a triangular pitched roof. In fact, SMART staff noted that the new Cotati Depot building also partly served as an inspiration for the Option 2 shelters.

Unfortunately, a triangular roof that drains water into gutters on either side tends to be very heavy. It’s not structurally possible to cantilever the canopy very far. Moreover, the weighty triangular roof can’t be supported easily by narrow support columns in the center. It requires a much wider base, just like a house. That leads to bulk. The problem is that rail platforms are not spacious enough to accommodate a bulky “house” while also serving the increasingly complex function of patron circulation and access.

Lessons from Utah

In the 1990’s, Salt Lake City was part of a wave of light rail development in the United States. Some of the TRAX light rail stations, however, were designed with wide, black, bulky shelters that look remarkably like what SMART is now proposing. The result was difficulties with customer circulation and safety on the platforms. Trolley Station in Downtown Salt Lake City, pictured below, is a textbook example of excessive platform clutter.

Trolley Station – Salt Lake City, UT

Trolley Station – Salt Lake City, UT

Perhaps trying to moving past this mistake, the new shelters proposed for the 2013 North Temple Bridge/Guadalupe Station (which serves both light rail and commuter rail) in Salt Lake City are decidedly different. The design by Hatch, Mott MacDonald, offers some excellent characteristics.

SLC Trolley 2

First, the shelters are narrow at the base to avoid clutter and to allow for easy circulation and safety. They are porous to allow movement from side to side. They have wide spanning canopies for good weather protection. They drain to the center, so that water doesn’t land on passengers’ heads. They allow for some natural light to come through, are simple, and basically get out of the way to allow for views of mountains and cityscape. And lastly, the name of the station is positioned below the canopy where it can be read easily by people on the platform and in the train.

SMART’s Option 2 shelters literally offer none of these important features.

Where to Go Now

For SMART, it’s been a continuous climb down on stations. They began with a professional design led by an architecture/engineering firm with transit experience, not unlike Hatch, Mott, MacDonald.

Then, SMART turned the design of stations over to its construction contractor, Shimmick. Now, they spear to be doing something even worse, taking hail-mary design advice from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority (SCTA), a funding agency with no transit operations, railroading, or architectural experience. It’s the SCTA who suggested the Option 2 bus shelters.

Cities along the rail line should not take the SCTA’s recommendation and should rally around shelter Option 1 for the good of the SMART’s system. While imperfect, it at least avoids the serious problems presented by shelter Option 2. If painted a more neutral color than the proposed forest green, it could be a respectable piece of station furniture.

Of course, while it may be too late, the best long-term outcome for both the riding public and taxpayers would be for SMART to implement a truly professional shelter design that considers the myriad details of the customer experience.

What do driverless cars mean for suburban planning?

Self-driving cars are coming, and boosters of drivable suburbia are hoping they will be a potent weapon against mass transit and cities. But what they mean for towns and suburbs isn’t quite so clear.

For the past 80 years, the US has transformed nearly every place in the country into one that is acceptable and welcoming to the personal automobile. It needs places to park (some estimates have that there are 6 parking spaces for every car), needs enough road space to be able to drive unimpeded, needs sole control over the roads, and so on.

In places built in the past 30 years, this has meant sidewalk-free eight-lane boulevards and massive malls at freeway interchanges. In places built before the car, this has often meant their wholesale destruction. (Santa Clara and Fremont, for example, are now undertaking efforts to “rebuild” their town centers.)

This has not been in service to the car as a vehicle, however, but to the car as a personal mobility tool. Very often, the only seat used in a car is the driver’s, massively enhancing the person’s footprint and leading to all kinds of horrific traffic.

With the advent of the driverless car, the belief is that we will no longer need personal vehicles, and this excess footprint will become unnecessary. Open up an app on a phone, order a car, and a vehicle (possibly with others in it going to roughly where you’re going) will drive by, pick you up, and drop you off near your destination. Along the way it’ll pick up other people going in roughly the same direction as you, bolstering capacity of the personal car to a grand total of five.

Five trips, one car. As one Twitter follower called it, it becomes mini-mass transit, but at the beck and call of an app and as flexible as it needs to be. If this method of travel becomes ubiquitous – and that’s a big if – then the personal automobile might become a thing of the past.

What, then, of the places we’ve outfitted at great expense to fit the personal automobile? These would need to be retrofitted to fit this new dominant mode, and we can do away with some of design choices that favored the personal automobile.

Probably the biggest change is the demise of the large parking lot. These huge slabs of asphalt dominate suburban commercial landscapes, often taking up 80 percent of commercial parcels. They dominate the streetscape, and arterial suburban roads are lined with them. Without personal vehicles to park, there’s no need for a parking lot. That land could be put to productive use.

All this will be wasted space.

All this will be wasted space.

With a transportation system that’s five times as efficient, too, there’s little need for wide arterial roads packed with single-occupant vehicles. As well, without human drivers, there’s no need for “forgiving engineering” focused on driver psychology and driver needs. We can narrow lanes from 12 feet (freeway width) down to 10 feet or even 9.5 feet and have the same vehicle capacity and speed. There would rarely be a need for roads wider than 2 lanes in the suburbs.

So, we can wave goodbye to parking lots and wide arterial roads. What could we do to optimize the suburbs to fit this new reality?

First, trip origins and destinations would be best served if they are along the same axis of travel, and they should be relatively evenly spaced and close together. Street grids lined with origins and destinations make sense, so as to maximize the directness of the travel. That means either a commercial street with homes behind or above.

With the loss of parking lots, it makes no sense to place storefronts far back from the street. They should be placed against the street to ease access for passengers.

Finally, there will likely be a need for a short walk to or from a vehicle, especially when returning home. It makes sense to make that walk a pleasant one, and to put amenities there, too.

corridor-capacity1

Relative capacities of modes

It’s important our density not get too high. Although boosting car capacity fivefold is a huge step forward, trains have eight to forty times the capacity. For the highest-density areas, where trains are already at capacity, driverless mini-mass transit won’t be enough to solve congestion or to adequately meet residents’ travel needs.

So in the retrofitted suburbs, there should be a balance between the need for a dense line of origins and destinations and the need to not overload the system. Perhaps just six stories, at most, in the most dense places of the suburbs.

For this kind of system to work and not devolve into that kind of nightmare, it needs to have simple and easy lines of operations, just like the streetcars did, with origins and destinations located near stops. Unlike streetcars, the whole street is a possible stop. Rather than a series of one-dimensional stops surrounded by a station area, there is a two-dimensional transportation corridor surrounded by a transportation area. The station neighborhoods currently in existence could easily be integrated into suburban corridor fabric.

At this point, this does not sound much like the suburbia we often consider “suburbia”. With no parking lots, no wide roads, a street grid, and shops and homes clustered up against the sidewalk, it sounds more like a town center. That’s because this transportation cloud functions much more like the streetcars of the old days than personal cars of today. The urban landscape described is precisely the kind of bus-transit-oriented development that suburbs could be investing in today. This article could have painted just the picture: “Imagine standing at almost any street corner, where every five minutes an electric train bus vehicle comes by…”

Indeed, if this system ever does overcome myriad regulatory hurdles, it will work best in places where buses and light rail work best. If this is our dream future, then we can start planning for it today. There’s no need to wait for driverless cars.*

Of course, this system will likely be decades away, if it ever happens. There are huge regulatory hurdles to any driverless car, and any area where this system operates could be seriously disrupted by even one person driving their own car. As well, there are still questions of who owns and maintains the vehicles. In the interim, personally owned automated vehicles will likely start to ply the roads. (While they will reform how we use parking, they won’t do much about traffic.)

But if this system does come, it’s not something for champions of small towns, walkable living, and transit to fear.

*As people start to buy personal driverless cars, the need for vast parking lots will diminish. If we really want to start planning for that reality, too, then we should reform or abolish parking standards today. 

AN ASIDE: This system has been speculated upon for decades as Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, though generally it was theorized on rails. In fact, it already exists, in a sense, in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Much of the time, Morgantown’s system works like an elevator (push a button to summon a vehicle, push a destination button and you’re on your way). During rush hour, it operates like standard-issue fixed-route transit during peak hours, and in off-hours each car runs the whole track as a circulator.

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