Archive for March, 2019

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Did Austin’s new Smart Mobility agenda kill light rail?

28 March 2019

Left: Passengers preparing to board Houston’s Metro light rail. Have “Smart City” visions scuttled Austin’s hopes for urban rail? Right: Simulation of “Smart City” traffic with autonomous and “connected” vehicles. Sources: L. Henry; Propmodo.com.

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients. References for numbered citations are at end of post.

On March 2, 2017 the Austin City Council passed a resolution that called for a major policy Austin transportation policy shift toward a future of electric and automated vehicles (EV/AV) based on public-private partnerships (P3s), ride-sharing, and other factors. This effort arose out of Austin’s Smart City Challenge entry, which it had lost to Columbus, Ohio. [1]

This big shift away from business as usual obviously required a new plan with a lot of detail. The City Manager was ordered to draft a New Mobility EV/AV Plan by June 15, 2017. One part of this policy shift was to get people within the Austin Transportation Department (ATD) to help promote this shift. Two of the top ATD people responsible for this are now Karla Taylor, in charge of all ATD staff, and Jason JonMichael who knows about wiring “Smart Cities”, stuff like getting all the vehicles and street intersections and other vehicles to talk to one another, and persuading the public to accept the shift.

This new industrial development policy reportedly is meant to help generate startups and assist in the new programs developed by mobility tech leaders like Google, Tesla, Uber. And even Ford, which wants to move in the same electric and alternative transportation direction. The new wave of sharable scooters and bikes fits right into this new city perspective.

It is true that light rail transit (LRT) is electric, but currently it is only rarely autonomous. Since high-level corridor LRT service handles so many people with one driver, there is not such a great need for rail to operate autonomously.

On the other hand, autonomous vehicles like Uber cars, trucks, and buses would be a different story since the big mobility providers could maybe save money two ways. They can save on transportation fuel cost by shifting to electric, and supposedly also by possibly eliminating driver labor.

Moving urban rail off the table

In order to get everyone moving in the same direction, and shift to the new transportation agenda, Capital Metro had to be brought on board. Aside from its penny sales tax, Cap Metro can’t issue bonds using city resident’s property, but the city can do so. Without much state funding and with federal funds uncertain, a lot of the cost is probably now going to fall on local taxpayers.

This shift was also made by hiring a new transit czar, Randy Clarke, who understands that his new marching orders include things like new autonomous and electric buses. Of course this also meant making a big shift in the nearly complete Project Connect planning process, which was supposed to be finished in September 2018 after years of work. But in mid-2018 the Project Connect process, now falling under autonomous-friendly management, was extended to December 2018 for an additional $600,000. As a result, we should see a new rapidly revised version of the Project Connect plan soon, with more than just lines on map.

For its part, the City of Austin (COA) focused on creating a new Smart Mobility plan. The City Manager missed an original June 2018 deadline, but did finally come up with the City’s new 141-page Smart Mobility Roadmap on October 5, 2017. See:

https://austintexas.gov/smartmobilityroadmap
https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Smart_Mobility_Roadmap_-_Final.pdf

In my opinion, light rail will probably not be allowed to get in the way of “reinventing” transportation, no matter what transportation experts might think or advocate, primarily because it doesn’t have the high-tech startup potential that the City’s new marching orders require. Autonomous has already been proclaimed to be Austin’s future. You can see it from the Smart Mobility autonomous vehicle agenda, where the public-private partnerships have decided that the Austin’s transportation future is autonomous and “smart”, and as certified by the tech gurus the city hires. And don’t forget that new fleets of electric autonomous buses will supposedly help save us from global warming,

High-tech deliverance?

The executive summary from the Smart Mobility Roadmap gives an overview of what city leaders have in mind. [2] As this excerpt from the document lays out, the City of Austin and Capital Metro’s Smart Mobility Roadmap comprises five key areas:

• Shared-Use Mobility
• Electric Vehicles and Infrastructure
• Autonomous Vehicles
• Data and Technology
• Land Use and Infrastructure


City of Austin’s Smart Mobility Roadmap.


The Mobility Roadmap makes a series of recommendations for implementing, accommodating, and facilitating EV/AV vehicles in “Smart City” style:

1. Engage citizens, businesses and visitors on how this technology can meet their needs and address community issues
2. Hire an Executive level Officer of EV/AV Transportation
3. Develop a Master Plan roadmap for emerging electric-connected and autonomous vehicle (E-CAV) technologies
4. Create an interdisciplinary AV Work Group
5. Create an infrastructure task force to examine electric, technology and land use infrastructure requirements
6. Test Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) technology for vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) reciprocal safety messages
7. Test 5G technology for vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) reciprocal safety messages; compare to DSRC 8. Increase public awareness of electric autonomous (E-AV) shuttles in various Austin locations through EV/AV pilots
9. Increase public awareness of last mile E-AV delivery robots
10. Establish an EV/AV Commercialization Opportunities/ Economic Development Work Group
11. Create Shared/EV/AV focused team
12. Increase public awareness of electric and autonomous vehicle benefits
13. Create a regional New Mobility Workforce Training task force for new job training and educational opportunities for those with legacy occupations

We all know, or should know by living in our high-tech city, that all kinds of automated and electric vehicles are destined for our future. Scooters, autonomous vehicles, rental “Smart Cars”, and incredible stuff like fleets of autonomous connected buses will be shuffling throughout Austin, supposedly solving our congestion problems as they go.

In addition to its rental scooters, Lime is making a foray into services with larger vehicle. Last May, Bloomberg News reported that Lime was ramping up its mobility-rental efforts by launching a car-sharing in Seattle, aiming to with ultimately 1,500 distribute Lime-branded “free-floating” rental cars around the city. Lime is also testing vehicles it calls “transit pods,” resembling “enclosed golf carts or electrified rickshaws”, according to Bloomberg, with a top speed of about 40 miles per hour. [3]

It’s not hard to foresee these “pods” adding to the mix of new modes gushing onto the streets and sidewalks of Austin. By adopting the Smart Mobility roadmap as official city policy, Austin has made it pretty clear that whatever the tech giants like Lime want to do will get a friendly reception here.

High-capacity transit vs. laboratory experiment

The strategy here is apparently to make Austin a kind of Petri dish – in effect, a laboratory experiment – to incubate and give birth to all kinds of innovative high technology startups, such as the recent invasion of rentable electric scooters (which incidentally are not permitted in Seattle due to safety considerations). Also included here is Cap Metro’s vision of autonomous, electrified bus rapid transit (so far, not operating anywhere as far as anyone knows). From this permissive support for high-tech innovation, the benefits are supposedly going to trickle down to average Austin residents, who will end up paying an unknown share of the final cost.

But how can Austin continue to manage to deny the need for a very high-capacity corridor transit system (only rail has the adequate capacity) running roughly between our highly congested road corridors of I-35 and MoPac? Even now, nearly twenty years after such a reasonable system was narrowly defeated, we still try to ignore the obvious under city-level political pressure, as usual based on using average homeowner-based property tax revenue to benefit private real estate development interests. This defies all logic, and to me is yet more evidence of the continuing special interest influence over Austin’s transportation planning.

At some point we need to bite the bullet and admit that public funding is limited and requires hard choices, not only involving mode choice but also geographical areas. CAMPO’s outlook is that we can have both “guns and butter”, that unlimited roads plus lots of transit are somehow affordable. The fact that neither the state nor federal gas taxes have been raised for 25 years is clear proof of our continuing denial of economic reality and our inability to make hard choices until something breaks.


Attractive high-capacity light rail transit is changing mobility patterns, boosting economic development in cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul. Photo via Transit for Livable Communities.


Reference Notes

[1] http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=272885

[2] https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Smart_Mobility_Roadmap_Executive_Summary_-_Final_with_Cover.pdf

[3] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-13/lime-wants-to-spread-1-500-shared-cars-around-seattle?srnd=premium

Related: Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

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