That big Sound Transit tax bill you are paying? The investments won’t halt congestion. Guest columnist Chuck Collins suggests a more radical approach.
Congestion. We all hate it. It is more than a frustration, more than an irritation. It shapes our lives. It increasingly controls where we go, when we go and if we go. If our booming economy has a limit switch, it is congestion.
Nothing — absolutely nothing — transit agencies are doing or planning to do will even modestly reduce congestion. The proposed Puget Sound Regional Council Transportation Plan indicates that in the next 22 years Sound Transit, Metro and the smaller bus systems adjacent to King County plan to spend $103.5 billion. Despite that massive spending, the same government plan documents that congestion will continue to grow. In fact, by 2040 current traffic delays in King County are projected to increase by 34 percent.
Recognizing the problem’s massive scale is critical. More park-and-ride lots or more rail lines will not solve it. Every weekday morning more than 1 million King County commuters climb in their cars and drive alone to work or school. Most will run a gauntlet through the congestion of Interstates 5 and 405, Highway 167 and the many other stretches of bogged-down traffic.
Sunday’s Op-Ed: Technology at the wheel
For more on autonomous vehicles and what Seattle and the region can do now to promote connected, electric and shared vehicles, go online: st.news/autonomous-vehicles
It is hard to say precisely what it would take to free up our streets and highways. But the number is clearly enormous. We need to think in terms of attracting as many as 500,000 people from their cars to transit. That many new round-trip passengers would triple Metro’s and Sound Transit’s current combined daily boardings. It is almost 20 times the 30,000 cars that the $54 Billion ST3 may get off the roads when fully implemented.
We have to start where Sound Transit fails. Any solution has to come to grips with the reality that 93 percent of county commuters are headed someplace other than downtown Seattle. In the last 40 years, employment has profoundly decentralized to new employment centers: Bothell, Overlake, the Kent Valley, Factoria, South Kirkland, Tukwila and almost countless others. Downtown Bellevue’s skyline now mirrors Seattle’s not long ago.
This dispersion is impossible to serve with traditional transit. Transit’s iron rule is to take passengers from where they are to where they want to go, take commuters from where they live to where they work. Building a rail station at Microsoft is not enough; you have to connect jobs to homes, even when spread over three counties.
If you draw lines between commuters’ homes and jobs on a map, the pattern looks like boxes of pickup sticks dropped on top of one another. It is a confusing, visual mess. Planners may dream of a tidy, distant future in which families live Manhattan-style in high-rise apartments surrounding rail stations. But, in the meantime, any transit congestion solution that does not confront the reality of the pickup-sticks commute will fail.
To serve this maze and get these commuters out of their cars, we need literally thousands of routes, many of which will vary day to day as commuters’ schedules vary. Few of those routes will attract more than a handful of passengers at any one time. Traditional trains and buses are too big and too expensive to cope with a pickup-sticks commute. We need to reduce the vehicle size, cut the cost and explode the number of vehicles to literally tens of thousands.
King County’s highly successful van pool program is in some ways a model. Van pools use 75 percent less energy per passenger mile than light-rail trains. Because the driver is essentially free, King County Vanpool actually turns an operating profit. But the free driver is self-limiting: (1) When the driver arrives at work, the van is idle until the driver leaves for home; (2) drivers with only a free fare and a van to use on weekends as incentives are not available in the tens of thousands. Nonetheless, van pools in a smaller vehicle are the right building block.
The game changer is the rapidly approaching advent of driverless, autonomous vans, dispatched much like Uber with smartphones, linked to the enormous power of artificial intelligence. We will need 25,000 of them.
Is it feasible for 25,000 van pools to carry 500,000 passengers round trip, or 1 million trips per day? It is, but there are constraints. For several reasons subsidies from new taxes are not politically possible. Private enterprise will have to see a potential for profit. Fares are important, and they will have to be significantly lower than current bus and rail fares. Low fares and a profit will require that the vans be driverless, electric and able to make multiple round trips per day.
Can it actually work? What are the assumptions? They include: (1) operate only during commute hours when congestion and demand are greatest, (2) operating costs of 44 cents per mile (one expert believes that the cost per mile for self-driving, electric vehicles will be 16 cents per mile by 2021), (3) an average trip of 11 miles, (4) five passengers per trip, (5) 10 one-way trips per day, (6) a gross profit margin requirement of 35 percent, and (7) a fare of $1.50. Those assumptions are reasonable and indicate that 25,000 vans can attract 500,000 passengers from their cars. After accounting for the van trips, they can eliminate 1 million car trips per day
This is early stage, but the technology is here. In the next two years, Uber will take delivery of 24,000 driverless Volvos. The market in King County is more than a million frustrated commuters stuck in traffic. The challenge is to radically change the very character of commuting.
In the end we are not proposing that drivers give up their cars; we are asking them to give up their miserable commutes. With the right leadership it can be done. The right leadership has emerged in the city of Bellevue. Stay tuned.