Efficient Suburbs - USC Discussion & PowerPoints

USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, September 19, 2005, Guest Lecture in Course on Institutional and Policy Issues in Transportation,

taught by Genevieve Giuliano, Director, METRANS Transportation Center. Updated 6/15/06

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USC Debate / Discussion

1. USC: "Efficient Suburbs" is another in a long line of technology-centered visions. We need people to think outside the box and come up with new modes of transportation, but there are always issues with these types of schemes.

C21: Possibly one point of differentiation for this technological approach is that it came out of customer-centered research. [Silver Bullet Methodology Paper] In the "California at 50 Million" series, Berkeley's Elizabeth Deakin called for such customer-centered transportation design, "We need to figure out what really makes transit work and deliver such service. We need real analysis on how to create competitive transit service. "

Cambridge Systematics makes this point more assertively, "Few transit agencies do true strategic planning, at least as commonly undertaken in the private sector. The most significant divergences include the absence of modern market research techniques and neglect in the positioning of service vis-à-vis its competing modes. While these elements are ubiquitous in the strategies of private sector companies, they appear to be rare or absent among transit agencies in the United States. Transit agencies commonly conduct only on-board surveys and use the results to refine services. Yet the vast pool of potential riders are those not riding, and it is their needs that are not being served by the current transit service." [Suburban Silver Bullet - Full Report, page 21]

Todd Litman of VTPI calls for better transportation system design, "We should kick the engineers out and bring the advertising people in," indicating that real market research and real customer knowledge is important.

Another point of differentiation compared to solely technological approaches lies in the "high-touch" features (low mileage community, etc.) and the policy proposals (company town housing, etc.)

2. USC: I'm skeptical of the resultant mode shift. Typically, a few minutes on the end of a trip is not a huge incentive.

C21: First, the 30% Commuting Time Penalty Rule is very important. Given a choice between a 20 minute SOV commute or a 26 minute (30% time penalty) commute alternative, a high percentage chose the alternative. Thus, alternatives have to be relatively competitive, but DO NOT have to be equally speedy as SOV.

Santa Clara County Valley Transit Authority's Senior Transportation Planner Chris Augenstein validated this 30 percent time dis-advantage, "In our forecasting model, if the door to door transit time is within 30 percent of driving alone, then our model forecasts high transit mode share. This share drops off rapidly once you get past 30 percent."
13 interview respondents indicated a greater stated willingness to incur a time penalty to avoid SOV trips, generally varying from a 25% to 100% time penalty. Remarks CarlosSOV, "I love to read. I would trade a 30-minute auto commute with NPR on the radio for a 45 minute Caltrain reading session with a 15-minute connection any day." [Suburban Silver Bullet - Full Report, page 94] "Time penalty" graphs are provided in the full report.

Second, the Last Mile Problem is well accepted by leading transportation consultants. In an hour-long meeting with Cambridge Systematics presenting the mode shift research, Principal Chris Wornum concluded, "OK, I believe your ridership argument," and then went on, "but I'm skeptical of your cost estimates."

"Consultants agree that the last mile problem is real. Cambridge Systematics, a well-known transportation consulting firm, recently prepared a market analysis for San Mateo County, which adjoins Santa Clara County. At a meeting with the analysis team, they indicated their conclusion that solving the last mile problem was of even more importance than improvements proposed to the commuter rail trunk line service. CH2M Hill's Granzow and Schmidt also prepared an analysis of why workers in the Caltrain corridor refused to take transit. One of their conclusions was that there were too few houses and jobs close enough to Caltrain." [Suburban Silver Bullet - Full Report, page 16]

The other side of the Last Mile Problem is that the current solution, the shuttle bus, does not meet customer needs. Commuter interview research makes this readily apparent. [Suburban Silver Bullet - Full Report, pages 35-36] .

Third, the full mode shift forecasting methodology is laid out (warts and all) including the full text of the survey instrument, in [Silver Bullet Methodology Paper]. Detailed criticism of the methodology is encouraged, but such analysis is a large undertaking. The most detailed critique of the methodology can be found in [Suburban Silver Bullet - Full Report].

3. USC: I'm skeptical of PRT cost projections.

C21: PRT technology will be difficult to implement, and especially difficult to implement in a cost-effective manner. Multiple efforts may be required - it is not at all clear that the first fully funded effort will succeed. PRT represents the first truly new transportation mode since the airplane. It is useful to reflect on the difficulty in bringing about the airplane. Before the Wright Brothers succeeded, there were many failed attempts (collectively known as the "Wrong Brothers"). Many very intelligent people believed that man would never fly.

It is possible to produce PRT at a low delivered cost of $10M per mile, as well as a high $40M per mile. A model whereby engineers have financial incentives to keep costs down will be more advantageous than that of a traditional "cost plus" manufacturer that passes on cost overruns to taxpayers. Likewise, IBM required a "skunkworks" culture to bring about the PC, and a similar structure may be necessary for PRT. Traditional component vendors may be forsaken for cost-conscious roller coaster and gondola makers, or even Daimler-Chrysler's semi-autonomous GEM subsidiary. The winner of the first DARPA Grand Robotic Desert Vehicle Challenge spent $1M to claim the $1M prize. The second place finisher, the Golem Group, spent only $35K. Golem provides another excellent example of desired PRT vendor characteristics.

PRT systems share more in common with today's complex hardware/software systems than with the traditional civil/transportation engineering discipline. The largest technical challenge is in developing the "control system" that safely choreographs vehicles maneuvering only 10 feet apart. In order to obtain liability insurance, the control system safety must be proven via a painstaking, time-consuming process.

Most of PRT control system technology has already been prototyped in research projects such as: University of California's PATH Lab automated car tailgating project, Frog Navigation's Park Shuttle, Daimler-Chrysler's Chauffer II truck tailgating, and Toyota's IMTS bus.

4. USC: I'm concerned about PRT visual impact.

C21: For you, we've created the portable full scale PRT model (notice the pictures with USC's Professor Burke). Now you can help come up with the most appealing "skins" for PRT columns and guideway within the context of the architectural environment where you're planning on putting PRT in. Should the guideway blend in or should it stick out? You decide. Note PRT's svelte profile - similar visual impact to a roller coaster, not a freeway overpass.

5. USC: I'm simultaneously fascinated and skeptical. Something must not be right. If PRT is so great, why aren't people investing.

C21: First, the pace of PRT technology development has been accelerating in recent months, thus we've seen a number of investors, government agencies, and prospective employees undertake technology "due diligence" analysis and conclude in favor of feasibility. But, the proof is in the pudding. Information on the latest PRT developments (Heathrow, Dubai, Korea, Uppsala, etc).

Second, The European Commission's Research Director for Urban Sustainability claims the major PRT implementation obstacles have been non-technical in nature. One such problem is that no American city wants to take on the downside risk of hosting the first PRT system (many cities want to be the second host city).

Third, PRT does not present the MBA's dream of an easy venture capital deal. This isn't a 24 month payback with an 80% ROI (venture capitalists aren't very patient with their money). Acquisition of public rights-of-way, approvals, and entitlements all conspire to increase uncertainty and to require a messy public/private partnership. VCs don't like deals where the public sector is involved, "Ya can't trust the public sector."

6. USC: I disagree with your contention that the U.S. public sector won't fund worthy projects. For instance, in the 1970's, UMTA funded the Morgantown Group Rapid Transit (GRT) system. Sure, there are problems with our system, but eventually we muddle through and end up doing the right thing.

C21: UMTA's support for the Morgantown system was convoluted. USC Professor Burke's book (http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/burke.htm) provides the sordid details of how the government squashed Aerospace Corp's simultaneous PRT proposal because UMTA would have had to admit a mistake in choosing GRT technology.

Here's a quick summary of Professor Burke's 1979 book: Why can't government advance major innovations? There are seven reasons. 1) Innovations produce winners and losers, and potential losers represent a powerful, entrenched constituency. Major innovations suddenly turn experts into novices and expose flawed thinking in organizations. 2) Political subsystems comprise people and organizations that spend most of their time dealing with a narrow cluster of issues. Such subsystems include: agriculture, defense, energy, healthcare, education, and transit. Innovations present a threat to the subsystems, threatening accepted truth, job roles, and power structure. Subsystems often fight innovation by cooking up biased analyses (analysis is just politics carried out by other means). A phony $75 "study" was used to stop a Las Vegas PRT proposal. 3) Subsystems compete against other subsystems. For instance, in the U.S., the transit subsystem is weak and underfunded compared to the highway subsystem. 4) Revolutionary innovation is very hard in political subsystems. Instead, the incremental approach is most comfortable. 5) There are few rewards for innovation in government and huge penalties for failure. Scapegoating results whenever something goes wrong and superiors /elected officials unfairly grab credit for successful programs. The risk/reward equation discourages innovation in government (unlike in the private sector). 6) Media acts to stifle innovation by exaggerating political conflict. In addition, the press has abdicated the practice of journalism. Instead, the press's "balanced coverage" manages to insert an influential negative quote about all innovative ideas, no matter how flawed the logic or how vested the interest. 7) The macropolitical system, as opposed to political subsystems, is the rest of government that doesn't specialize, such as elected officials. Up to the 1980's, macropolitical systems took into account broader public interests and could force revolutionary change on political subsystems. For example, in the early 1900's, "continuous aim firing" was developed for the U.S. Navy, allowing the Navy to increase accuracy by 3,000 percent in 6 years. Because the innovation created a dramatic change in expertise and power relationships, the Navy strongly resisted. Roosevelt, through the macropolitical system, forced this innovation on the Navy.

Since the 1980's U.S. democracy has "matured" to the point where entrenched interests control the macropolitical system. Thus "bold" macropolitical actions are now taken to protect innovation-hating vested interests, not to benefit the masses. Public sector investments are being made in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. For Europe, these investments are made as part of their climate change strategy.

6B) Consider this quote from Machiavelli's The Prince, from 1513:

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the [innovator] is endangered along with them.

It is necessary to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. The nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. 

7. USC: The Company Town Housing proposal is unsettling. It smacks of Pullman, Indiana. It is very dangerous to give so much control over employees to the employer. The proposal is a recipe to make it easier to exploit employees.

C21: Look at Katrina and New Orleans. America is a two tier, racially divided society. We need to take some very aggressive steps to provide low income upward mobility for Latinos and African Americans. The company town housing proposal is most paternalistic towards low income employees. A very high level of involvement, coordination, and volunteering by employers will be required to increase upward mobility. As for high income tech workers, they are capable of taking care of themselves. The proposal does not call for employers to directly own and oversee the housing; thus employers do not become employer-manipulated marionettes. Rather, the idea is that employees think a little harder before they take a new job with a terrible commute. We're emphasizing apartments and condos over single family homes as shorter residential duration in apartments and condos more closely matches employment duration. This is really the standard transportation policy approach of using true cost pricing to make the housing market more efficient and to "internalize" negative economic externalities. Cities21 is very guilty of presenting the Company Town Housing proposal in an intentionally provocative manner. We don't disguise the fact that large scale change and new policies will be required to address global warming and peak oil.

Efficient Suburbs Papers and PowerPoints

1. Efficient Suburbs 2020 vision paper (Emma's Story): efficientSuburbs2020.htm Co-location, tipping point, low mileage culture, bowling alone, small square footage Murphy bed apartments & condos, carsharing, homeless, Latino-serving housing, reduced solo driving, grocery carts, less isolated work day, paid parking, personal rapid transit, new mobility, and huge transit village.

2. Background PowerPoint: USC_background_web.ppt Global warming, peak oil, regional visioning, limits of smart growth, disfunctional human settlement patterns, environmental sustainability goals, public policy & quantum innovation, social entrepreneurism, hydrogen economy, automated highway systems, solar McMansions, villainous office parks, villainous housing industry.

3. Silver Bullet PowerPoint: USC_silver_bullet_web.ppt Customer-centered transportation design, personal rapid transit, PRT alignment, Stanford Research Park commute shed, resultant commute mode split: only 45% solo driving, comprehensive & integrated mobility, Marauder's Map (GPS cell phones), extended transit village, commuter psychology, PRT status / due diligence, and rough economics.

4. Walk to Work Housing and Green Culture PowerPoint: W2W_LMC_hitchhike_web.ppt.

Efficient Suburbs Fact Checking

Major concepts and relevant references

1. Walk to Work Homes and Upward Mobility. This is a "peer contributed" policy study, with contributions from over 15 well-respected professionals in related fields. The policy has already been implemented in a number of localities, but is not widespread. Presented at Rail~Volution, September 2005, by Steve Raney. Other presentation/publishing opportunities are being pursued.

2. Low mileage community. This is a "peer contributed" policy proposal, currently without pilot funding. The proposal benefits from national contributions by Transportation Demand Management professionals from CUTR's transp-tdm list-serve, as well as contributions from other relevant fields. A critic might label this concept "new age TDM."

3. Small Housing. This section is unsubstantiated. Needed is new real-estate product market research, similar that found in the "information acceleration"-style Silver Bullet Methodology paper below. Note that experts argue that the ENTIRE real-estate industry needs to develop new products and undertake rigorous product development market research:

Some of the nation's top housing policy analysts lament the lack of innovative housing choices, pointing the blame at what they characterize as the "stodgy" real-estate industry. Two related comments from Fannie Mae's Housing Policy Debate (Volume 12, Issue 4. 2001) illustrate this point: 1) Zimmerman / Volk. "The home industry is now led by a few lumbering giants that provide housing 'value' measured by size and novelty. Genuine housing innovations have been mostly limited to the areas of production efficiency and risk management, rather than any meaningful improvement of the product offered to the consumer." 2) Smart Growth America: "Homes are treated as generic commodities like pork bellies, which are all essentially the same, rather than as consumer products like cars or clothing, which vary greatly according to people's preferences.

4. Rapid shuttle, huge transit village, new mobility.

5. Parking