The Paradox Of Established Technologies

Post by Steven Dale

How many of you own this? Image by Tom Raftery.

Quick! Hands up if you own an iPad!

(Good, now hold that thought because I’ll get back to it at the end of this post.)

A comment on a recent post over at Human Transit caught my eye:

The post was titled All Aboard The Canadian Hydrogen Overhead Monorail Express and dealt with Canadian Inventor Frank Illguth’s dream of a high speed monorail that doesn’t need to stop for boarding and alighting passengers.

As I discuss here, the concept of vehicles that don’t stop for boarders and alighters is not a new one. The practice dates back to the 1800’s and was called “coach slipping” and there are at least a few people in the world who still think it’s a viable proposition:



So does Mr. Illguth’s coach slipping monorail constitute a genuine invention or is it just the repackaging of an old idea? Doesn’t matter, that’s for the patent lawyers to decide and not the point of this post.

The response on Human Transit to Mr. Illguth’s CHOME was predictably and overwhelmingly negative and sarcastic. Mr. Illguth, meanwhile, didn’t help his cause any. He offered little evidence of his idea’s worth and caught the ire of the group by deriding other commenters and their “crap opinion(s)” – his words, not mine.

The discussion goes on and on and – as is typical of this kind of argument – one individual reiterated the oft-told and sacred rule of transit planning: stick with established technologies and a reputable manufacturer.

Fair enough.

But how does one define an established technology? And more importantly, how does a technology become established? It’s like the recent graduate who can’t get a job due to a lack of experience and is told to remedy the problem by getting a job so as to gain experience.

It’s a paradox and it doesn’t help anybody.

It’s not like we’re talking about fire or gravity here. Trains, buses and streetcars haven’t existed forever. At some point in time someone had to invent from nothing whatever transit technology you currently ride. And by virtue of that act of invention, every single transit technology in history has lived through a period of not being established.

One could argue that every major transit innovation/invention of the last 200 years was a deliberate and revolutionary act against the status quo. Horse drawn omnibuses led to San Francisco style cable cars which led to electrified streetcars which led to diesel-powered buses which led to LRT and BRT.

In other words, innovation and invention was always key. But somewhere along the line we traded that spirit of invention for a policy of establishment. Stick with established technologies and a reputable manufacturer. Good for the reputable manufacturers and established technologies, not so good for everyone else.

It’s nothing more than the No City Wants To Be First Problem: No city wants to be first with a new idea, but should the idea prove successful, every city wants to be second. Our cities have become the world’s largest riders of coattails and those responsible are strangely proud of it.

I know nothing about Mr. Illguth’s monorail and I doubt it will ever see the light of day. But guaranteed, if Mr. Illguth does find a city willing to implement his technology and it proves to be every bit as wonderful as he claims, cities will be clamoring for it. Same thing with the new London Heathrow PRT. Or the Chinese Tunnel Bus™. Or my CableRailGyroCopter (patent and trademarks pending).

Will every new idea pan out in the end? Of course not, but that’s okay. That doesn’t mean the act of innovation and invention is inherently something to avoid and fear. That we have an unwritten rule that is actively hostile towards the new doesn’t make it any easier, but that’s just the way it is right now.

New is hard, long and difficult. But it’s worth it.

Now to get back to that whole iPad question: How many of you ever owned a Newton?

Apple iPad circa 1987. Image by moparx.

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  1. I tend to think this is a byproduct of the general underinvestment in urban infrastructure. When capital funding is so scarce to begin with, authorities are competing against each other for the little funding that is available, and any less-than-successful project will likely be used in the future as a rhetorical weapon against the relevant locale/authority, it is natural for planners to get very conservative with respect to newer technologies. Being an optimist, I am hopeful that the era of dramatic underinvestment in urban infrastructure is coming to a close. But if not, it will likely be a long, but not impossible, process for newer technologies to penetrate.
  2. I wonder how much of the issue comes down to the government/bureaucracy factor. I mean, when you really look at it, all major transport technologies were really created by the private sector before mass consolidation of the lines into government monopolies. There was a motivation to make things faster, cheaper and better. But now all (for the most part) transit is funded, built, planned and operated by government agencies. Does the necessary motivation exist to spur things forward in through these characteristically conservative, risk-averse channels?
  3. It's almost like the public sector should come up with an investment and operating environment - such as unified ticketing with passenger transfers and shared revenue between the operators according to what they ride and the length of the ride, unified marketing and mapping, and some access to public subsidies if it is deemed to be in the public good, that minimises the risks for good projects to get up, so that the private sector can build new bits of the network, and tack on an aerial gondola, or a ferry service, or whatever, adjacent to a subway station, or another part of the system, where it thinks it can work. All that subject to a minimum service quality it has to meet. The metro agency still has control of policy and planning, but it is open to ideas. The private operators get to exist and minimise risk, and the passengers get a better, more extensive network to ride upon.
  4. Yeah, but how many people would have even been able to afford a Newton when it came out. In 1992 would it have even been worth the cash? Or how about a Figaro, the $6,000 Newton predecessor... C'mon, the thing didn't even have the Facebook yet. uselsess. I think the fear of being first is often linked to the fear of high cost. Look at the Roosevelt Island Tram. It was a first, and when it was built no one knew how to deal with it. They had to invent their own insurance policy because it didn't fit in any of the little boxes. I guess insurance companies don't include an "Other transit modes" option.
  5. Its the funding and mentality not if its a private or public sector. How many top ten airports are in North America, how many miles does a average American fly compared to others. It seems US Americans and maybe Canadians are more reluctant to invest in infrastructure than other Nations. Worse they even struggle to maintain their existing infrastructure. The new transit systems in China are very modern and they have enough funding to experiment with technologies like maglev or a tunnel bus. But even with conventional technology China takes the lead. For example their new long distance high speed railways. They use sleeping cars in high speed trains. Simple proven technology and it could work in North America too if there would be funding.
  6. @ matthias, "they even struggle to maintain their existing infrastructure." Agreed. But have you ever travelled in Canada or the United States? Those countries are positively enormous! Trying to build and maintain infrastructure across those distances is almost impossible. Canada and the US are both roughly 10,000,000 km2 whereas countries like France and Germany are roughly 1/15 and 1/30 of that size. And yet France has more than 1/5 the population of the US and Germany has more than 1/4 of the population. In other words, countries like France and Germany have a far greater population density nationally which allows them to devote more dollars to infrastructure on a per km basis simply because they don't have as much to maintain. Similar with China: For all intents and purposes China and the US are the same size geographically-speaking. And yet the US has only 1/5th of the population of China. So while I agree with you that there is a "mentality" issue, there is also a simple demographic issue. Too many people spread over too much space makes building and maintaining infrastructure very, very difficult.
  7. I never was in Canada yet but several times in the US both for work and to visit relatives and make holiday. I travel a lot but the worst welcome ever was at Washington Dulles airport. Even developing countries have better airport infrastructure and faster immigration. The population density is only partly true. Even in NA most of the population are concentrated in relative small areas. There is no public transportation somewhere in the French countryside either. In the most areas of the US school buses are the only form of transit. If you try to walk people call the police because it is so unusual. If you have kids you need to drive them around for everything until there are 16 as there is no other transportation. In return every youngster makes the license and get a car as fast as possible. And now you want that people which live with this situation for three generations suddenly invest in uncommon modes of transit? Even replacing the school buses with public buses which run the whole day would be a huge step forward. And even they would be willing to invest in transit you will face the problems the the cities where designed for cars not humans. As long its not possible to walk the last few hundred meters to the next transit stop or station any system will have little success. This is also a problem of density but not due to size of the country but due to design. Russia is less dense populated than the US for example but the towns and cities itself have a decent density for public transit. If you have neither WLAN nor a Mobile Data Plan an ipad is also not useful. The less if you struggle to pay your current bills.
  8. @ mattias, The issue of country size is very important. Much of transit is funded by senior levels of government. Those same levels have to pay for things like intercity rail, highways, etc. The more money a senior level of government has to spend building and maintaining those things, the less money they have to spend on things like urban public transit. In Canada, for example, we have hundreds of small communities all around the north. Some of these communities have only a few hundred people in them, but the government still has to supply water, electricity and highways to access them - through incredibly difficult terrain as well. After you do that, how much money do you have left over to give to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver so they can build an LRT? There's only so much money to go around.
  9. Of course the size is important but even in Switzerland we pay lots of money to provide access to small mountain villages, which from a pure economical standpoint would be better abandoned. In case of the USA they where once leading in transit technology. The once exported locomotives to Japan and other parts of the world. Now they have to import even streetcars form Japan or Europe. With good and fast passenger trains and very extensive streetcars and interurban lines. If it was possible to build and maintain a good infrastructure hundred years ago, why it is not now. And population density increased in those hundred years too. So its just the matter of political priorities. Low taxes or good infrastructure. Individuals or communities. Real productive Industry or financial Industry etc.
  10. @ matthias, "in Switzerland we pay lots of money to provide access to small mountain villages, which from a pure economical standpoint would be better abandoned." That's true. However: 1. Those small mountain villages are no more than 50 kilometers away from major city. Compare that to something like Churchill, Manitoba which is a whopping 1,700 km away from Winnipeg - by rail! 2. Those small mountain villages often provide for the alpine farming communities in the spring and summer seasons. As Switzerland dramatically privileges locally-sourced agricultural products, there is a clear economic value to these mountain villages. 3. Related to point 2: Many of those mountain villages serve as the centre of, or satellite communities to ski resorts throughout the country. As in the case of agriculture, there is a clear economic benefit to these places existing. I don't think we're really disagreeing here. I just think size and scale are important to consider as well as the issue of political priorities.
  11. @ Rose, "Look at the Roosevelt Island Tram. It was a first, and when it was built no one knew how to deal with it." But now look at it: Residents of the island would rather take that than the subway.
  12. @ Matt T, "The metro agency still has control of policy and planning, but it is open to ideas. The private operators get to exist and minimise risk, and the passengers get a better, more extensive network to ride upon." Given that funding for transit is drying up quickly, I think there's a good chance of us seeing more of exactly what you've just described.
  13. (1) I agree looking at the private/public distinction is probably going down the wrong path. The U.S. military is publicly-funded and subject to public oversight, but it is also highly innovative (too innovative, some would argue). That is possible because it is extremely well-funded (too well-funded, some would argue), and therefore can fund a lot of R&D, innovation competitions, and so on. Give transit authorities similar levels of committed funding, and I bet you would see the same thing. (2) I don't think the geographic spread alone is sufficient to explain the transportation funding dynamic in the United States over the last 50 or so years. I understand that some extra spending on intercity infrastructure is going to be necessary, but it shouldn't be THAT large of a funding diversion, and cheaper land partially offsets the additional costs. I think to explain everything in the U.S., you have to get into the details of the federal political structure, and how it encourages disproportionate catering to rural interests in general, and how combined with "white flight" it has recently encouraged the formation of a specifically anti-urban/pro-white political party. Interestingly, this is also a dynamic that is reaching its final stages as the United States continues to urbanize, become less white, and white flight reverses . . . an anti-urban/pro-white party is already at a disadvantage when the field is level, and in not too long it may lose national elections even when conditions are in its favor.

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