THE TRANSPORTATION PROBLEM

travel.pngHow does America solve problems?  In America, does government solve problems or do Americans solve problems?  As an illustration, let us consider the transportation problem.  When we want to move people or their things, what does the government do?  The primary thing that government does is provide a right of way.  We buy our own cars and trucks.  Private companies buy and run airplanes, ships, and trains.  The government serves largely in a regulatory role.  Except in this regulatory role, the government has little to do with the development of the technology or its implementation.

Our transportation system needs improvements.  Our roads are congested, our vehicles pollute, and they use fuel from unfriendly, unreliable sources.  Should we expect government to solve any of these problems?  Not really.  To a large extent, government caused these problems.  Consider the issue of traffic congestion.   Is there a shortage of asphalt and cement pathways for our vehicles?  Not really.  The problem is that we tend to funnel huge amounts of traffic onto a few roadways.  That is simply bad design, and it should be no surprise.  What do politicians know about designing transportation infrastructure?

Let’s look at some of the parameters.

  • We have an existing network of roads designed to carry heavy vehicles.  Much of our traffic, however, consists of one person in driving to and from work.  In other words we have roads designed for 80,000 pound trucks clogged with autos and SUVs each carrying one human being weighting about 180 pounds.  Building too many such roads is extravagantly wasteful.
  • How and where we build roads are primarily political decisions.  The relationship between supply and demand is weak.  Politicians instead of citizens pay for roads.
  • With the exception of taxis, public transportation consists almost wholly of mass transit schemes — light rail and buses.  These technologies require the presence of paid drivers.  Because paid drivers are required, a minimum passenger load is needed to break even on expenses.  The minimum passenger load requirement makes the system inflexible; it forces two outcomes:  large vehicles and a routing schedule.  To reach their intended destinations, passengers have to waste their time going places they do not want to go.  Moreover, the route structure of any mass transit system can only profitably serve high volume routes.  
  • To avoid the inflexibility of public transportation, citizens buy their own personal vehicles.  Because they occasionally need their vehicles to transport freight, family, and friends, citizens buy larger vehicles than they usually need. 
  • Compounding the waste, most personal vehicles sit parked doing nothing.  These vehicles sit and rust the vast majority of their useful lives.  This is no way to use expensive capital assets.

How can we solve these problems?  We must remind ourselves that all government can do is facilitate changes.  We must encourage private enterprise to look for opportunities. 

  • When confronted with varying demands, private industry accommodates the needs of their customers. That is why we have a variety of different types of vehicles.  Government, however, controls the right-of-way.  Since we only have one type of right-of-way, a road surface, almost every right of way must accommodate 80,000 pound trucks.  This requirement tends to make highway construction expensive.  The lesson here is that local government should consider the possibility of providing a rights-of-way networks for light-weight traffic.
  • Roads and other transportation should be paid for by user fees (i.e., tolls).   To increase revenue, even monopolies must respond to consumer demand.  In addition, tolls would discourage urban sprawl
  • With proper system design, modern computer technology can replace drivers.  Thus modern computer technology obviates the need for expensive human drivers and the large vehicles we currently associate with public transportation.  With the use of computer technology, we can build fleets of small vehicles and serve the individual needs of passengers.   
  • The prospect of individual service would provide a great incentive for people to use public transportation.  To increase this incentive, government should let private companies rent the services of their vehicles to the public.  Multiple companies would benefit citizens by providing competition for their dollars.  Competition would also limit waste.  To maximize vehicle usage and profits, private companies would adopt price schedules that would maximize the use of their vehicles. 
  • We can also replace income taxes with taxes on petroleum.  If we want people to stop polluting, the easy thing to do is to make them pay for the privilege.  If we want to stop pollution, we should tax it. 

How would the system I envisage be built?  At this point, we only have ideas.  However, there are a variety of ideas, and little new technology is needed.  The predominant buzzword is Personal Rapid Transit (PRT).  Check out some of the websites below.  Or begin your own search (here).

Many of the technologies that would make PRT practical have only come about recently.  For example, inexpensive, powerful, lightweight computers are a relatively recent innovation.  To retain its competitive edge, America must explore how we can use these techologies to our best advantage.

13 thoughts on “THE TRANSPORTATION PROBLEM

  1. I’ve been looking for someone who had some knowledge on this topic. I know absolutely nothing. An excellent post. I’ll comment more on it but not now—you gave too much to think about.

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  2. Excellent analysis!

    > With proper system design, modern computer technology can replace drivers.

    This is the KEY point IMO. As soon as you recognize that humans are the weak link in the system, you open up the possibility of HUGE efficiency gains.

    Here’s my own proposal…

    http://www.PRTProject.com

    Unlike most proposals, mine actually replaces the automobile, taking over the existing roadways. This is a mandatory design decision as I see it. Elevated roadways simply make the system unaffordable.

    gary

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  3. Gary – That is a great web site. Shows a lot of thought.

    I know that computers systems still have trouble recognizing roads. So in addition to providing an energy source the rail system is important for keeping a vehicle on the right path. I am not sure how well current technologies do at accurately detecting obstacles. While the problem may be simplier, I would guess there would be issues with false detections. For example, a piece of paper blows into the pathway.

    The other problem I foresee is weather. Keeping the tracks clear could pose real difficulties in winter. In addition, I am not sure what effect heavy rain might have. Nonetheless, I think something on the order of what you suggest should be built and tested. Without such an effort, we will never get pass the idea stage.

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  4. Tom,

    Thanks for the kind words. I would say the software & sensor is not “off the shelf” (not a Vista app), but very doable. It will take at least ten years to fully develop the mechanics and such, so the correct app only has to be ready in time for the release. If I were Ford, I would have a team focusing on PRT technology and more importantly, proposing projects. I doubt oil companies are really the best to do this. They only run pipes.

    If I were the government, I would throw this contract open to all universaries. And all companies. Basically, to everyone. Award individual contracts for the various components…the wheel & track contract, the onboard computer contract, the routing software, the electrical transmission contracts.

    There would indeed be false positives. The rate would be a challenge at first, but over time this will only improve. I haven’t properly illustrated it on the website, but I do believe a small iron fence would be appropriate in many neighborhoods. Just tall enough to stop dogs & small children. But you cannot avoid everything and an acceptable level only needs to be atained. And don’t forget…it’s a fairly easy equation for AI to decide exactly what rate to break once a stop is needed.

    You do need to keep the tracks clear, just like you need to snowplow the roads and keep the potholes filled. And with PRT you avoid most of the needless deaths due to winter accidents.

    Finally, I agree. We need to get past the idea stage. If there’s a silver lining to the current train wreck – energy, pollution, failing automobile industry, it’s making us do a lot of rethinking. It was very frustrating to see people embracing biofuels so quickly, but to my amazement level heads seem to be prevailing (except in government).

    Other see disaster right now. I see it as a sign of luxury to come!

    gary

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  5. Gary – Thanks for the response.

    Frankly, with his idea of a prize for a plausible electric car, I think John McCain is onto something. Unfortunately, with his prize proposal, McCain also proposes the solution. How does he know what would work best?

    What might be more appropriate is for the Federal Government to award local governments prizes for the most innovative solutions for the transportation problem. We could have prizes that successively get bigger and further narrow the field in three stages: design, prototype, and implementation.

    Really, this would not be new. The military often awards contracts this way so it can get the best design for a new weapons system.

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  6. My only concern here is that something like a completely new transportation system may be too aggressive for any one community to pull off. It would be like expecting Los Angeles to build the first 747. Probably the idea of breaking the task into stages is the way to go.

    gary

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  7. kgotthardt – Are you at all familiar with the history of environmental pollution in communist states? I think not. I suggest you look into it and imagine what might have been. Sometimes weapons in the hands of good men protect our environment far more than any tree hugger. Without such men, the tree huggers end up silent or dead.

    There are evil men all too willing to do evil deeds. That is just a fact of life and nothing you or I can change — except by opposing what they would do. When we do not support well-designed weapons in the hands of good soldiers, we cannot protect ourselves or our environment.

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  8. Tom, what I am saying is we spend so much money on war over oil that if we rewarded those who removed our dependence on oil, we wouldn’t need to have quite so many wars and we would help the environment.

    Of course our soldiers need good weapons! But we don’t need to be sending them to their deaths over oil. In fact, I would prefer they were home, as I am sure many of their families do right now.

    It is never enough merely to hug trees, no matter how satisfying the notion may be to some. If we want things to change for the better, we must DO.

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  9. kgotthardt – We use oil because it is still relatively cheap. Government is not a magic wand. Just because we want them to do something does not mean our leaders either can or will do what we wish.

    We have been trying to get off oil for decades, and that has not happened for three reasons.
    1. Oil is cheap energy. Until recently, no competitive alternative existed.
    2. We were unwilling to tax oil to compensate for the pollution costs.
    3. Our leaders are perfectly happy to ignore the long term consequences of sending so much money to rotten regimes.

    As a practical matter, we need to spend money on both energy and the military. The two issues are related, but ending our need for Middle East oil does not solve all our military problems.

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