Thought Experiments



Thought Experiment: The Cost of Multi-modality

Whether we’re talking about Light Rail, Urban Gondolas, Monorails or PRT systems, I’ve recently begun to hear an argument against multimodal transit systems that I’ve yet to hear before: The cost.

From a transit agency accountant or city finance perspective, multi-modality is nice in principle but incredibly costly to implement.

Let’ s walk through this issue with a simple thought experiment:

Imagine you’re in charge of a 30 year old transit agency in a medium-density, medium-sized American city that’s worked exclusively with a fleet of ~200 buses over those decades. Recent population growth and an infusion of money from the Feds allows you to expand both your service level and coverage.

You have two choices:

Your first choice is to stick with what you know and buy another ~ 50 buses. The buses option isn’t ideal. The curvilinear layout of your road pattern means buses routes will be highly circuitous and indirect, thereby increasing travel times and headways between vehicles.

On the flip side, you’ll only have to hire a handful more mechanics and make a relatively minor expansion to your maintenance and storage yards. You’ve already got all the equipment you need; and well-functioning procedures and processes are already in place. In other words: There’s no learning curve.

The cost savings associated with no learning curve mean you can expand the system to a relatively great degree. But the bus compromise mentioned above suggests your expansion plans will generate only marginally more ridership.

Your second option is to go with a different technology. For the purposes of this thought experiment, it doesn’t matter which. You could go with Light Rail, Gondolas, the CableRailGyroCopter, the Dutch Superbus, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that whatever your technology choice, it will provide a superior level of service to the buses you’ve been running for the past generation. The route alignment will be direct and will likely cause a decent increase in ridership.

The catch is that your agency has no history of dealing with any technology other than bus. That means there’s a learning curve – a steep one.

You need new maintenance facilities, new processes, new drivers, new mechanics, new schedules, new everything. Not to mention all the consultants you’ll have to pay to understand and realize this brave new transit world. After all that, there’s not much money left over to actually build the transit system. That means you’ll only be able to build half as many kilometres of new transit lines than if you went with the simpler bus option.

That situation is further reinforced by the lack of economies of scale you will experience in Operations & Maintenance that will inevitably drive up your per trip cost per rider. Were you to go with bus, your per trip cost per rider would actually decrease due to the economies of scale you would experience upon opting for the first choice.

So which do you opt for?

I currently know of no research that delves into this issue of the cost of multi-modality in public transit, but think it to be a fascinating area that’s worth exploring. If you know of any such research or have any personal/professional experience in this area, please give us your thoughts in the comments below.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Thought Experiment: Should Roller Coaster Designers Design Public Transit?

Image by flickr user Mike D.

Disclaimer: This post in no way, shape, form or description advocates using roller coasters or thrill park rides as mass public transit.

Should Roller Coaster Engineers and Theme Park Designers participate in the design of public transit?

Probably an insane idea; no doubt completely and 100%. But also probably worth exploring, if only in a space as limited as a short thought experiment on a niche blog.

To begin, a presumption: Thrill Ride Engineers and Designers are very much in the same business as Public Transport Planners.

Though neither is likely to admit it, both at their cores are in the business of moving people in pursuit of a larger goal. Neither move people just for the sake of moving them.

Public Transport agencies move people for a whole host of reasons: Increased mobility, social inclusion, economic development, decreased car emissions, traffic reduction, etc., etc., etc. Rarely, however, do transit agencies consider such things as enjoyability to be an important motivator behind transit planning decisions.

Roller Coaster Designers, meanwhile, move people in order to evoke a feeling from riders. That feeling can be awe, terror, joy, whatever, but the fundamental work of a Roller Coaster Designer is to provoke an emotion in people that would not exist if not for the environment and motion that designer creates.

Yet despite their implicit similarity, the metrics used to measure success in each industry are completely different: The first is quantitative, cold and mathematical. The second is qualitative, experiential and emotional.

A second presumption: Public transit ridership is at least in part dictated by the enjoyability of the ride itself.

Public transit ridership is oftentimes low in western society. Furthermore, people who ride public transit tend to do so grudgingly and are only willing to pay a few dollars at most per trip. If we believe the second presumption to be true (which it may not be), then we can logically assume that part of the reason for this low ridership and grudging acceptance is due to a dissatisfaction with the enjoyability of the system itself.

On the flip side, groups of families and friends will travel great distances for the privilege of attending a theme park, spend hundreds of dollars to do so and be willing to stand in lines of an hour or more for the thrill of a two minute ride. Again, the enjoyability of the ride experience must therefore be high enough such that large volumes of people are motivated to endure significant hardship merely for the pleasure of a short ride.

This isn’t to say we need roller coasters instead of public transport (though some people will surely decide that’s exactly what I’m saying).

It is to say, however, that if ridership and ride enjoyability are connected then in order to increase public transit ridership we must therefore improve the experience of public transportation. It might therefore be wise to consult with individuals who actually understand those emotional things which are currently lacking in our assumptions and models about public transit ridership.

Hence Roller Coaster Engineers and Theme Park Designers.

Humans, after all, are emotional creatures and it seems logical to engage with people who understand how the emotional experience of transportation impacts a human’s heart, mind and soul and how we can best calibrate those experiences to best align with a transit agencies’ need for increased ridership.

And again, just because the internet has a way of twisting people’s words: This was a thought experiment. I don’t believe we should be replacing public transit with thrill rides and roller coasters.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Thought Experiment: Business Development

"So we're killing this project tomorrow, right?"

A Thought Experiment:

For the last two years CableRailGyroCopter Inc. has developed projects in 10 North American cities. Each were to be purchased by the public sector for the purpose of providing public transit.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume each of the projects is two kilometers long and will cost $100 million USD each.

In 5 of the cities, projects are modestly developed and CRGC Inc. invests roughly $500,000 to develop each. For a variety of reasons all of these 5 projects die on the drawing room table.

In 3 of the cities, projects progress even further to the point that contract-signings are imminent. In these cities, CRGC Inc. invests $2 million per city in business development.

However . . .

In one of the cities an election is held and an insurgent mayoral candidate defeats the sitting mayor who planned on investing in the CRGC technology. The new mayor kills the project, dead.

In the second city, funding required from a senior level of government to realize the project is withheld when it’s found that city clerks improperly filed their paperwork. As the senior level of government really didn’t want to fund the CRGC project in the first place, they use this as a convenient way to get out of the arrangement. While the government claims their continued support for the program, officials close to the government indicate that the project is unlikely to ever be funded.

In the third city, people of all political stripes are onboard with the project.  Unfortunately, a small grassroots political organization is looking to make a name for themselves and decides to fight the CableRailGyroCopter on the grounds that the parts necessary to build it would be imported, thereby depriving locals of jobs.

The grassroots group finds a young city councillor sympathetic to their cause because – like them – he is also looking to make a name for himself. The councillor rallies local unions against the project and successfully kills the endeavor as the unions are one of the largest contributors to the mayor’s election campaign.

"So the buses are going to look exactly like these pictures, right?"

So of the original 10 cities CRGC Inc. was developing projects in, only two remain.

In one of them, contracts have been signed and a ground-breaking ceremony has occurred. Unfortunately, a massive gap in the city’s budget is discovered and senior government officials decide to plug that gap by transferring funds allocated for the CRGC project to other services. People wonder aloud if that’s even legally possible, but creative policy-interpretation and accounting make it happen.

Expensive lawsuits ensue and while CRGC recoups some of their losses, they’re still stuck with a $10 million loss on the project. After all, they’d actually started manufacturing parts for the system.

So now CRGC is left with one lone project. And it’s a good project. Actually, it’s a great project. There isn’t a single problem with it; the funding is there; the locals love the idea; and politicians at all levels are in support of it. It’s a project that’s going to happen.

The question is this: How much will the project cost? Despite original estimates, you can bet it’s not going to be $100 million.

Over the course of the last two years, CRGC Inc. spent $18.5 million on business development in nine of ten cities without realize a single project. Do you really think CRGC is just going to eat those losses?

Of course not. Instead, when it comes time to tender, CRGC will find a way to tack on those losses onto the purchasing price of the project that is finally realized. Suddenly a project that was to cost $100 million is going to cost $118.5 million – more if you include the opportunity cost of not having that $18.5 million to invest elsewhere.

Transit planning has become as much about political gamesmanship as anything else. And while politicians and policy-makers may see this as a simple zero-sum game, one of the little discussed externalities that results from this is the artificial inflation of the price of transit products. Ideas are made, plans are born and projects killed with little more than the stroke of a pen.

Simple economic logic suggests that as the political process makes transit projects inherently riskier, two things will occur. Firstly, losses from “losing” projects will be turned into the costs associated with “winning” projects; and, secondly, as developing projects become more and more costly and riskier, investors will necessarily seek a higher return on their investment to justify that risk.

"So if we hold the ground-breaking indoors, the environmentalists can't find us, right?"

The only way to realize that higher return is to jack the technology’s price up.

Same holds true for the legions of contractors, consultants and builders all required to bring a project from idea through to fruition.

It’s kind of like a reverse Ponzi scheme. Losses involved in one collapsed deal get passed onto the next city contemplating a major transit investment. As long as no one ever follows through with making a purchase, those losses keep piling up and are passed around the circle. That is until the music stops and one city does decide to follow through. Then that city is left holding the losses caused by every other city’s political waffling.

This isn’t to say that every ill-conceived transit project must necessarily be followed-through with – that would cause a whole other set of problems. It’s also not to say that large companies are somehow owed something by government. Companies choosing to invest in the transit sector do so of their own volition with an understanding of the risks involved.

It is, however, to say that the risk embedded in the transit market makes it very difficult to drive down costs and find efficiencies. It’s probably a fair argument to say the transit market is actually built in such a way that it drives up costs and decreases efficiencies. Our current transit planning climate is so risky from an industry perspective, it’s a wonder any private sector company would venture the risk in developing any project.

And every time a project such as the Tampa-Orlando High Speed Rail or Toronto’s Transit City is brought so far to term only to be birthed stillborn, the price of providing good transit for everyone else is bound to increase in lock-step.

All images by flickr user Metro Transportation Library and Archives.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Thought Experiment: Why Not Experiment?

Image by flickr user Gary Huston.

A thought experiment:

Imagine if we created financial incentives for people to experiment professionally with transit?

For example: What if, for a transit agency to receive federal/state/provincial funding they had to dedicate at least 5% of their total annual budget to research and development?

How would that change things?

My recent flaying at the hands of the PRT community got me thinking about this. While I may disagree with the logic of PRT, but I’m pleased the industry continues with their somewhat quixotic quest. Their dedication to an ideal and their perseverance to doggedly pursue it is admirable.

The fundamental beauty of what the PRT community represents is a willingness to experiment and take risks. Whatever your position on PRT, you have to admit, these are a group of people with guts.

Generally speaking, transit doesn’t have those guts. And maybe it needs it.

In the last 100 years, we’ve basically seen no risk-taking and innovation limited risk-taking and innovation in transit and we’ve been left with the results of that neglect. Sure there’s been the occasional BRT or LRT, but those are just standard technologies put in their own rights-of-way. Most innovations have come in things like ticketing and fares.

Don’t even get me started on monorails.

We need a culture of transit that privileges – nay, expects – experimentation, innovation and invention because the status quo just isn’t working too well anymore. That doesn’t mean taking reckless risks, especially when it may endanger people’s lives, but it does mean we can’t change things for the better using the same techniques that got us to where we currently are.

We may laugh at things like the Chinese Tunnel Bus™ but what if it actually works?

Yes research, development and experimentation is expensive and the fruits of it somewhat elusive. But it is something that successful companies (whether public or otherwise) commit to. There’s a reason things like auto show concept cars and haute couture fashion exist.

Maybe no one’s ever going to wear a dress made of meat or drive a shape-shifting sports car, but the ideas and discussions those things provoke go on to challenge and influence our preconceived notions of the world around us. They inspire us to dream a little higher and a little better.

When was the last time we saw a high concept tram? A bus made of paper? A flying subway? All ridiculous, of course. But that’s partly the point.

There’s a reason PRT continues to hang around: It inspires us to imagine public transit better than what it currently is.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



What Transit Can Learn From Camping Gear: A Thought Experiment

Image by capcase.

In his legendary treatise on industrial design The Design of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman professes his love for camping gear as being some of the best-designed products in the world.

Why does he think such gear is so well-designed? Because more often than not, the products are designed by people who actually use them.

It makes logical sense. Campers, hikers and the like are prone to understand the needs of outdoor gear better than anyone else by virtue of the fact that they encounter the situations that warrant said products more frequently than anyone else.

They get it because they do it.

It’s such a simple and intuitive concept that it almost slips past you. Products designed by people who use them are often (typically?) better than products designed by people who don’t use them.

You wouldn’t trust a plane engineered by people who don’t fly, now would you? Nor would you want to eat from a restaurant that even it’s own head chef wouldn’t dine at.

So then why do the same standards not apply to transit?

A thought experiment:

The remarkably poorly-named city of Transitopolis passes an ordinance obliging all the people who planned, engineered, operated and designed Transitopolis’ transit system to use the service on a semi-regular basis.

That is, all people in Transitopolis who worked in transit must make more than half of all their trips by public transit. And I’m not just talking about the engineers. I’m talking about everyone from the drivers to the ticket takers to the planners. Everyone.

How much different and/or better would public transit be in Transitopolis than, say, your city? Might it be worse?

The situation described for Transitopolis is impossible, I know. Despite what some transit advocates would like you to believe, one can’t force another to take a specific mode of transit to and from work everyday. And if one could it’s likely to be in a part of the world you wouldn’t want to live in. I think it safe to say that Transitopolis wouldn’t be the most popular place to live on earth.

Nevertheless, the question intrigues me.

Maybe a better way of phrasing the question is this: How many of the people involved in the daily operation, running and planning of your city’s transit system actually use your city’s transit system? How many of them see transit as nothing more than their job or as a product they believe in strongly enough to use it everyday?

I doubt such statistics exist. But if they did, you’d probably learn a lot about the state of transit in your city just by looking at them.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



A Thought Experiment: Turning Tables

A thought experiment:

Do we have a transportation supply problem?

I’d say no. We’ve got plenty of roads, plenty of transit and plenty of freeways. We do not have a transportation supply problem.

Image by flickr user joiseyshowaa.

(I’m well aware, of course, that there are certain large American and developing world cities that have slim to no transit, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s leave those out of the discussion for the time being.)

What we do have is a transportation demand allocation problem. We have too many people demanding transportation services at a single time. Too many people want to get from Point A to Point B during the hours of 7am – 9am and 4pm – 6pm.

Generally speaking, about 1/3 to 1/2 of all motorized transportation trips occur during those four hours. Basically, 33 – 50% of all travel occurs during a window of time that accounts for only 16.6% of the day.

That is a demand allocation problem. Not a supply problem.

North American restaurants face this problem constantly, but successful ones handle it with ease.

The dilemma restaurants face is this: Most diners like to eat at 7:30pm. That presents an enormous problem.

Restaurants have a limited supply of space. They only have so many seats, so many tables, so many burners, so many dinner plates, etc. And there is virtually no way to expand that supply. For a restaurant to make money, they have to reuse that supply over-and-over-and-over again throughout the course of a day. There is simply no way a restaurant to accommodate all the demand during one two hour period that begins at 7:30.

Because most restaurants assume a table will be used by a given party for around 2 hours, a 7:30 reservation means the table in question is basically booked for the night. For most people a dinner out at 5:30 is too early and 9:30 too late. (In fact, for the after-movie, after-theatre crowd, 9:30 is also too early.) If a 7:30 reservation is granted, the restaurant cannot “turn” the table.

If the restaurant is slow, this doesn’t present a problem. If the restaurant is busy, however, every “turn” that’s missed hurts the bottom line hard. Restaurants operate on extremely slim profit margins. Even high-priced, fine dining establishments are used to walking that fine line. For a restaurant to make money, they need to “turn” a table as many times as possible to maximize revenues.

Therefore, not everyone can eat at 7:30. That’s the rule.

That’s why when you call a restaurant asking for a 7:30 reservation, the Maitre d’ is likely to tell you he can take you at 6:00 or 8:00. Still want to show up at 7:30, just in case? Great! There’s space at the bar while we prepare your table! He’s not saying he doesn’t have room for your party at 7:30, he’s telling you he has room for your party as well as someone else’s.

He’s not doing it to annoy or irritate you, he’s merely shifting and reallocating demand to meet supply.

So the thought experiment is this: Do we need a Maitre d’ of Roads & Transportation?

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



A Thought Experiment: Witricity

I’m going to forego my usual thought experiment introduction and just leave it at this:

What happens to cities, transit, cable, etc when Witricity (or something comparable, but with a less awful name) is scaled up and as common as an electrical outlet?

Watch, contemplate and discuss:

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.