Tom Chen and Kim Huynh revisit the best case for light rail and argue that autonomous cars are better
Last week, we wrote an article arguing that light rail is no good for Canberra. Much of the constructive criticism that we received revolved around two points: firstly, that we did not sufficiently take into account the benefits of the projected high density development relating to the tram; and secondly, that we did not provide a detailed alternative.
This article responds to both criticisms.
Light rail is not the only or necessarily best way to improve land value. Indeed, proximity to rail stations has a variable and often meagre impact on property prices. Here’s some of the related studies on the matter.
- This 2015 article finds that an increased number of bus transit stops also correlated with higher property prices.
- This study of Brisbane’s transport system found that proximity to both light rail and bus rapid transit had uplift benefits, but only if there were frequent services.
- This 2007 study and this 2013 analysis of 23 research projects found that the uplift impact of additional light rail services is low if an area is already well serviced by bikes, buses or cars.
- The most comprehensive 2016 analysis of 140 studies from 60 examples stretching across 40 years in the US concludes that proximity to rapid transit had very mixed outcomes in terms of both increases in land value and the quality of development.
That is why we should be worried that 60% of the government’s reported benefits of light rail are from wider economic and land use benefits, especially when the benefits are marginal compared to the costs.
We should also be wary that the government is not double counting benefits when it comes to value uplift. Incorporating such benefits when assessing proposed infrastructure is widely regarded as poor analytical practice.
But let’s suppose that house prices go up because of light rail. Who would gain? Experience from other projects gives us reason to believe that the land sales, rezoning laws, and government expenditure on urban renewal associated with light rail will provide lifestyle benefits to a small minority of Canberrans along with a windfall for property developers. All of this will be largely paid for by taxpayers across Canberra.
It would be better for us to invest in driverless vehicles (see infographic below) which offer all Canberrans an effective, exciting and environmentally sound way to get from A to B. The technology is ready. And they could be operating in a similar time-frame to the tram network at a fraction of the cost because the infrastructure is largely in place.
Driverless vehicles would give Canberrans what we want now while also future-proofing us into the twenty-first century.
Figures from the ABS indicate that 88% of people in ACT used private motor vehicles for commuting in 2012. Unpacking the motivations of these people, 7.5% had no access to public transportation at all, 10.7% had to carry equipment or passengers, 19.7% needed a vehicle to before/during/after hours, 22.0% said that services were not available at the right time, 30.5% found public transport too slow and 45.9% preferred the convenience of driving.
But acknowledging that Canberrans use, need and like cars does not mean that we cannot be green or forward-looking when it comes to transportation.
We envision embracing electric driverless vehicles capable of ferrying passengers around without human input. The benefits of driverless vehicles are many: they significantly reduce vehicle accidents by removing human error; they save you from having to drive so that you can rest, read, eat or type; they reduce requirements for parking and driveways; they can transport the disabled and elderly; they improve air quality; you don’t need to pay for a driver; and they take you directly to where you want to go.
Most importantly, driverless vehicles can be networked together into a self-driving taxi fleet that provides the transportation capabilities of private cars without ever having to buy a vehicle or drive yourself.
Some readers might find the prospect of driverless vehicles frightening. But that’s what people thought about elevators and automobiles when they emerged.
This is not science fiction. By the end of 2016, Uber will have 100 self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh ferrying passengers around. nuTonomy started offering driverless taxis in Singapore as of August. Google’s fleet of self-driving cars have already clocked up 2.4 million kilometres. These are driverless cars that are engaged in real life driving through real traffic. There are 33 major companies committed to rolling out driverless vehicles, many of which have committed to being on the road by 2020.
Shane Rattenbury is thus wrong to assert that driverless cars are at least 15 years away. The “thorny issues with the technology” are being solved, it’s now up to politicians and planners to fashion the appropriate laws and regulations.
A more detailed feasibility of driverless vehicles should be conducted by the government given both its promise and the progress of other cities. We should aim to have a trial of driverless vehicles in Canberra within the next five years. If that works out, we could have a working fleet by 2025.
The value of a fleet of electric self-driving vehicles beats just about any other transport alternative. The $963 million cost of light rail could purchase a fleet of more than 19,260 driverless vehicles at $50,000 each which modelling suggests could provide Canberra with 600,000+ journeys each workday with no passenger having to wait for more than five minutes to get a ride. The cost of recharging an electric vehicle is about 70% cheaper than running a conventional car. We estimate that the electricity cost of providing the entirety of the ACTs passenger travel 2014 though electric vehicles would be less than the annual cost of running ACTION.
There are no doubt people who believe in light rail not so much because of the numbers or evidence, but because they have a vision of a more sustainable and sophisticated Canberra. Autonomous cars are a better way of achieving that vision.
What do you make of the government’s push to increase population density in Canberra generally and along the Northbourne Avenue corridor in particular? Under what if any circumstances would you ride in a driverless car?
Tom Chen works as a research officer at the Australian National University and believes that people are capable of making the right choices when presented with the right information. Kim Huynh is a RiotACT columnist and is also running as an independent for Ginninderra in the ACT election. Check out more on Facebook at gokimbo or GoKimbo.com.au