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Self-driving cars bolster the case for light rail

By Chris Steel MLA - 3 July 2017 55

The ACT Government is planning for the future by building a mass-transit system in light rail that, over coming decades, will be complemented by cheap and ubiquitous electric and self- driving car technology.

Like many Canberrans, I’ve enthusiastically followed the development of self-driving vehicle technology. Coupled with reliable and cheaper electric vehicle (EV) technology, autonomous electric cars (AVs) have the potential to replace conventional vehicles in the future and we will all benefit.

I’m keen to see the ACT Government play an active role in promoting self-driving and electric vehicle policy and infrastructure in our city. I was pleased that ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced an investment of $1.35 million in funding in the 2017 ACT Budget for a trial of self-driving technology in the ACT.

The ACT Government has already lowered duties for fuel-efficient cars and provided electric-car charging stations across the territory. We’re also continuing to lobby Waymo and Tesla to test more driverless car technologies in Canberra.

Seeing Machines, Waymo, Uber and Tesla are all in the race to develop driverless technology, and with Apple rumoured to be developing its own vehicle, it is clear self-driving cars are on their way. While some advanced driver assistance technologies are already here and they will become much more sophisticated over the next few years, fully driverless technology will take longer to develop. Nonetheless driverless cars are definitely a part of our future.

Electric cars are already here and are gradually becoming less expensive. The first deliveries of the lower priced (and aesthetically pleasing) Tesla Model 3 will take place in November this year, and will include inbuilt semi-autonomous driverless technology with the capacity for fully-autonomous upgrades. Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis has predicted electric cars will become cheaper than conventional cars by 2022.

The combination of electric and autonomous technologies has the potential to provide significant environmental benefits, increased safety through reduced human error, and increase in leisure or work time for commuters while on route to their destinations.

Importantly though, we must recognise autonomous vehicles will not displace the role of mass transit systems like light rail. Cars are still cars, and they will still cause congestion, autonomous or not. A mix of transport solutions, with autonomous electric vehicles, active travel and a mass transit system like light rail, will all have a role to play in moving people around Canberra in the future.

Light rail is a proven mode of mass transit. It will move people around our city quickly and efficiently across our future city wide network outlined in the Light Rail Master Plan.

The role of mass transit transport will only increase in importance as our city grows.  This week the Census has confirmed the ACT is the fastest growing jurisdiction in the country.Our city of 400,000 people is projected to increase over the next two decades from 400,000 to more than 500,000. On current growth estimates, Canberra will overtake Tasmania’s population by the early 2030s. This growth trajectory will mean thousands of extra cars on the road and – regardless of whether these cars have driverless technologies or not – this will lead to associated congestion. Unless we invest in mass transit, to move large numbers of people around quickly and efficiently, our city will suffer the same gridlocked fate as Sydney.

That’s why the future is very bright for mass transit systems like light rail. Sustainability and Resource Productivity company, McKinsey, has put forward ‘an integrated perspective on the future of mobility’ including autonomous vehicles that finds that:

Mass-transit rail systems – in combination with walking and cycling – would remain a vital and essential part of the mobility system, as the speed and capacity of such systems remains unrivalled.

Self-driving cars cannot solve the congestion problem alone. If not implemented properly, autonomous vehicles and taxis may in fact add to congestion pressures because of ‘dead trips’ when commuters ‘call’ empty cars to them from across the city. Ride-sharing isn’t an easy solution for this problem either.

There is no doubt autonomous vehicles have the potential to be more efficient than conventional cars in negotiating traffic conditions. Efficient braking and acceleration, and a fully integrated autonomous network where vehicles are ‘talking’ to each other can improve fuel efficiency and traffic flow.

However, mass transit systems will continue to play an important role in moving large numbers of people down major transport corridors, reducing congestion for other road users.

Self-driving taxis have potential to feed mass transit options like light rail, rapid bus routes and train lines rather than adding to traffic on a congested thoroughfares. Far from supplanting Capital Metro, a fleet of self-driving taxis will augment our public transport network by more conveniently directing patronage through light rail stops.

This supports the aim of Transport Canberra to create an integrated transport network for our growing city. The Government’s approach is proactive and will ease congestion, tackle transport-based pollution and direct economic activity into our city centres.

The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) has put together a neat diagram of the consequences of autonomous vehicles:

As the diagram suggests, an integrated light rail network will not only provide better quality of transport for people, but lead urban regeneration, while reducing congestion.

The narrow obsession of anti-light rail protagonists in promoting a single mode of transport – more privately owned cars on the road – will only lead to more traffic.

So while I welcome the emergence of self-driving vehicle technology, the ACT Government must also stand up to safeguard the liveability of our city by investing in a multi-modal transport future.

We will continue to invest in a city-wide light rail network and better active travel connections at the same time as supporting nascent autonomous vehicle technology – because all are part of the future of mobility in Canberra.

What’s Your opinion?


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55 Responses to
Self-driving cars bolster the case for light rail
KentFitch 5:03 pm 03 Jul 17

Chris Steel MLA said :

I would strongly encourage you to take a look at Northbourne Avenue during peak hour. Adding more vehicles to the road is not the solution to congestion.

Hear, hear!

Chris Steel MLA said :

As present, essentially one lane of traffic is taken up by buses, and people still struggle to fit on to these services. For Northbourne Avenue, light rail serves the purpose of providing greater patronage for public transport, with light rail having far more capacity for passengers, and also serves in taking buses off the main road.

Light rail serves the opposite purpose – it reduces public transport capacity, even compared to current ACTION route capacity, in the periods that matter most (peak).

For example, each weekday now, between 8am and 9am, 30 ACTION bus services leave Gungahlin Town Centre and terminate or pass through Civic (2xx red rapid, and routes 56, 57, 58), with capacity for about 2127 passengers (1362 seated, 765 standing). In that same peak hour, 10 tram services will have capacity for about 2070 passengers (660 seated, 1410 standing). Between now and the the tram opening, Gungahlin’s population will increase by many thousands.

By removing buses from one lane (hence adding to the supply of private car capacity, ie “adding more vehicles to the road”, something you said you dont want to encourage) and providing less capacity and convenience (further walk to stops, more transfers, less seating) (hence adding to the demand for private car transport) the inevitable effect of the tram will be to increase private car use on the route.

I sometimes wonder if this was the deliberate cunning plan all along to dud the Greens: the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it.

Damien Haas 5:01 pm 03 Jul 17

A valuable contribution to the debate Chris. Mass transit and planning to support dense transport corridors is the most logical way to plan and manage growth in Canberra, and that is the current policy focus. Light rail and integrated buses will provide broad coverage, and as the rapid bus network and the local bus network (and service frequency) expands, it becomes even more viable a a primary transport choice.

Autonomous cars may make a contribution to the overall transport picture, but they wont replace the requirement for mass transit. Enabling the technology to be tested and exist on Canberra roads doesn’t negate the investment in public transport, it adds to options.

Autonomous vehicles on public roads can easily replace regular route using vehicles such as garbage trucks, delivery trucks and even buses. It is already being trialled for heavy truck deliveries overseas.

It isn’t just the private car that may be displaced by autonomous vehicles. Uber and taxis could easily be replaced by this technology and this particularly benefits the problematic ‘last mile’ factor in public transport (for those who are unable/unwilling to walk more than short distances). Chris is correct, self driving technology and mass transit are not incompatible. The more transport options the better.

wildturkeycanoe 4:48 pm 03 Jul 17

bigred said :

This could discourage the unnecessary trips, such as driving the Kluger less than a km to drop off and pick up the kids at the local school, or to the nearby shop to get milk?

What is “unnecessary” about taking the family car to the local school to pick up your child when it is blowing a 70km/h gale, thunderstorm clouds fill the skies and lightning is cracking overhead? How is it unsuitable to drive when the mercury is approaching 39 degrees celsuis, your child is carrying a trombone or you just aren’t able to walk a kilometre due to a health condition? What about the well below freezing, foggy winter mornings when visibility is down to about fifteen metres? Isn’t driving a safer, more comfortable option?
What about when you are driving that short distance to school because you can go directly to work, rather than booking your child into before care to give yourself time to walk home, get changed and then drive to work?
Mass transit an or even autonomous cars are not going to solve most of the parental responsibilities involved in dropping kids off to school. Imagine a fleet of AVs dashing around the suburbs at 8:45AM, whilst parents wonder if they will get one show up in time? Not going to happen. With that much peak demand, there simply won’t be enough of them available. It would also then replicate the same traffic we already have with private vehicles, at most probably an exuberant fee due to peak tariffs.
Mass transit is only going to work if most people are travelling in the same direction at the same time. Telecommuting will reduce the need for a lot of office based activities so the remainder of commuters may not be office workers but retail and services. Trades people, emergency services, contractors and the like will not use public transport because of inflexibility and delays. There may be some demand now, but in decades they might be found running empty.

KentFitch 4:44 pm 03 Jul 17

Chris Steel MLA said :

They haven’t been made up, and all are of the view that mass transit (light rail or rapid bus routes) won’t be needed if we are just patient enough to endure 20 years of road congestion and wait for the rollout of autonomous vehicles.

It is untenable to support the view that the tram reduces congestion: Capital Metro’s own EIS unambiguously demonstrated that it will increase congestion on and around the Stage 1 route: http://canberraautonomouscars.info/faq.html#eisapend

Furthermore, whilst it may be de rigueur to argue with unsupported exaggerations in the ACT Assembly, outside of it arguments such as implying it will be 20 years before shared fleets of autonomous cars will be commercially available demands you show why you are a better judge of this than Ford (2021), Tesla (2019), BMW/Intel/MobileEye (2021), DaimlerBenz (2020), Audi (2020), GM (“sooner than you think”), Volvo (2021) and scores of analysts, think-tanks and transport and engineering consultancies (such as Parsons Brinckerhoff).

Chris Steel MLA 4:33 pm 03 Jul 17

KentFitch said :

Chris, your assertion “Self-driving cars cannot solve the congestion problem alone” may well be true for many routes into the CBD of Sydney and Melbourne but it is not applicable for Canberra.

Canberra has such a good road network that if the average peak occupancy can be increased from 1.1 (current private car) to 2 (shared autonomous car), almost half the vehicles in the direction of peak flow are taken off the road, eliminating congestion. Strongly encouraging shared use of cars by commuters in peak periods with financial incentives is the key. Empty vehicles returning in the opposite direction to peak tidal flows do not cause congestion: they are only empty in proportion to the lack of demand for travel on that route.

This is a well made point and will no doubt offset some added congestion (but not all). The point is there will be more congestion and this will not only be from dead trips but it will come from population growth which is already a problem here and now in Gungahlin’s case.

Chris Steel MLA 4:26 pm 03 Jul 17

Garfield said :

“The narrow obsession of anti-light rail protagonists in promoting a single mode of transport – more privately owned cars on the road – will only lead to more traffic.”

I’m an anti-light rail protagonist as you put it, and I’m that way inclined because all the published information comparing LR & BRT has shown that BRT would have provided much better value for money than LR. I would have been quite happy for the ACT government to invest in BRT and improve public transport in the ACT so as to try and reverse Labor’s achievement of reducing the public transport share of trips over their 16 years in power. Your assertion that people who are opposed to light rail only want more privately owned cars on the road is false, and can only be driven through ignorance or a deliberate attempt to smear residents critical of the government’s choice.

I reject the idea that governments can only focus 100% of their effort on one issue at a time.

I would strongly encourage you to take a look at Northbourne Avenue during peak hour. Adding more vehicles to the road is not the solution to congestion. As present, essentially one lane of traffic is taken up by buses, and people still struggle to fit on to these services. For Northbourne Avenue, light rail serves the purpose of providing greater patronage for public transport, with light rail having far more capacity for passengers, and also serves in taking buses off the main road.

However, the point you make is precisely what this article sets out to debunk. Opponents of the light rail investment in our city always outline that money would be better spent on rapid bus routes, or that rapid transit will have no place in future because of autonomous vehicles. However, the government is more than able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

We are building light rail because we need to invest in the infrastructure to support our growing city. On top of this, we are also introducing seven new rapid bus routes before 2020. And finally, we are supporting autonomous technology on our roads.

Chris Steel MLA 4:23 pm 03 Jul 17

chewy14 said :

“The narrow obsession of anti-light rail protagonists in promoting a single mode of transport – more privately owned cars on the road – will only lead to more traffic.”

I’ve not once seen people who are against light rail promote one single mode of transport and most definitely not seen this mode of traffic be privately owned cars.

It’s this kind of deliberate strawman argument that only make the proponents of light rail seem even less objective and able to consider the issue logically. If anything, their narrow obsession FOR light rail seems to fit the description made by the author more appropriately. Apparently light rail is the only option for mass transport in Canberra no matter what.

Several options of mass transit have been presented to the people of Canberra over the past decade, and light rail has consistently garnered the support of a majority of Canberrans in 2008, 2012, and 2016. It is also important to note that, alongside light rail stage 1 and 2, the ACT Government is also investing in 7 new rapid bus routes across Canberra, so rapid buses are part of the solution as well.

I would disagree with your assertions of a strawman. There has been article after article like this:
http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/could-selfdriving-cars-be-a-death-knell-for-canberras-stage-two-light-rail-20170427-gvubr3.html

This: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/selfdriving-cars-cheaper-and-better-than-light-rail-expert-20150828-gja3hr.html

http://canberraautonomouscars.info/

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/light-rail-cost-the-same-as-18000-audi-a3s-alistair-coe-20141212-125r88.html

And Tony Trobe in the Canberra Times are clearly pitting mass transit against autonomous vehicles: https://www.allhomes.com.au/news/design-matters-is-light-rail-the-best-option-for-canberra-tony-trobe-ponders-20170602-gwj9f0/

Even Alistair Coe’s idea that we should provide free cars to people rather than invest in public transport exist. Not to mention some of the comments below. They haven’t been made up, and all are of the view that mass transit (light rail or rapid bus routes) won’t be needed if we are just patient enough to endure 20 years of road congestion and wait for the rollout of autonomous vehicles.

bigred 3:24 pm 03 Jul 17

Leon Arundell said :

If self-driving cars bolster the case for light rail, then they must to a greater degree bolster the case for bus rapid transit. According to the ACT Government, $249 million worth of bus rapid transit on a single route provides more than 90% of the benefits of $524 million worth of light rail. That implies that $500 million worth of bus investment, on more than one route, would produce almost twice the benefits of a single $524 million light rail route.

Maybe, maybe not? The issue with buses in Canberra in almost no one wants to catch them. The argument for BRT is an argument for no change. Then again, the BRT arguments are coming primarily from an older demographic stuck firmly in a time warp.

KentFitch 2:55 pm 03 Jul 17

Chris, your assertion “Self-driving cars cannot solve the congestion problem alone” may well be true for many routes into the CBD of Sydney and Melbourne but it is not applicable for Canberra.

Canberra has such a good road network that if the average peak occupancy can be increased from 1.1 (current private car) to 2 (shared autonomous car), almost half the vehicles in the direction of peak flow are taken off the road, eliminating congestion. Strongly encouraging shared use of cars by commuters in peak periods with financial incentives is the key. Empty vehicles returning in the opposite direction to peak tidal flows do not cause congestion: they are only empty in proportion to the lack of demand for travel on that route.

For Canberra at least, saying autonomous cars bolsters the case for light rail is like saying renewables bolster the case for clean coal.

Just as “clean coal” is a distraction, an irrelevant fig-leaf for an ideological fiction, trams are irrelevant to transport given Canberra’s urban form. More details linking to a simulation of autonomous cars in Canberra and results from other studies here: http://canberraautonomouscars.info/

And as I understood it, the $1.35m for “a trial of self-driving technology” is in fact for a face-tracking study for semi-autonomous (Level 3) cars, which most of the auto industry now considers totally irrelevant to the goal of deploying Level 4 driverless cars by 2020-21, which unlike Level 3 cars, can be used as the basis of a public, shared fleet. Whilst Level 3 will have niche applications for private vehicles it doesn’t make sense to share (eg, a trady’s ute), but otherwise, will have the mass transport impact of “clean coal”: the last thing we need is mass private adoption of autonomous cars for commuting.

Robert Knight 1:56 pm 03 Jul 17

An excellent piece on the problems associated with relying on the idea of autonomous vehicles as a panacea to all of our future transport issues. As I’ve said elsewhere, cities are at their best when they provide spaces for people at the ‘human scale’. Fleets of space inefficient private transport, i.e. cars, will do nothing to encourage the development of these types of spaces.

As for the comments here about BRT being a better choice than light rail based simply on cost, I’ll refer you to my post from October last year:

https://the-riotact.com/why-rails-instead-of-rubber/186505

I appreciate people rights to have and express opinions, but when those ideas are consistently proven to be erroneous, isn’t it time to step back, take stock and change your mind? Nobody’s going to hold it against you. In fact, they may even respect you more.

Leon Arundell 12:34 pm 03 Jul 17

If self-driving cars bolster the case for light rail, then they must to a greater degree bolster the case for bus rapid transit. According to the ACT Government, $249 million worth of bus rapid transit on a single route provides more than 90% of the benefits of $524 million worth of light rail. That implies that $500 million worth of bus investment, on more than one route, would produce almost twice the benefits of a single $524 million light rail route.

Garfield 11:28 am 03 Jul 17

“The narrow obsession of anti-light rail protagonists in promoting a single mode of transport – more privately owned cars on the road – will only lead to more traffic.”

I’m an anti-light rail protagonist as you put it, and I’m that way inclined because all the published information comparing LR & BRT has shown that BRT would have provided much better value for money than LR. I would have been quite happy for the ACT government to invest in BRT and improve public transport in the ACT so as to try and reverse Labor’s achievement of reducing the public transport share of trips over their 16 years in power. Your assertion that people who are opposed to light rail only want more privately owned cars on the road is false, and can only be driven through ignorance or a deliberate attempt to smear residents critical of the government’s choice.

bigred 11:19 am 03 Jul 17

Chris, a thoughtful piece along the lines of how I have been thinking. I might even vote for you again.

Wondering if you have thought about price signals for those who drive less, say below 10 or 15,000 km pa? This could discourage the unnecessary trips, such as driving the Kluger less than a km to drop off and pick up the kids at the local school, or to the nearby shop to get milk?

Elias Hallaj 11:10 am 03 Jul 17

That’s a brilliant concept. I can imagine a day when people hop off a light rail stop in Canberra’s outer suburbs and if they’re too old or frail to walk home, or they’re carrying a bit of shopping, an intelligent autonomous car can take them on the last leg of their journey. It still might be a few years away before the light rail stretches to all the town centres and we have reliable autonomous vehicles, but building Stage 1 and Stage 2 of Light Rail takes us a few steps towards that reality.

chewy14 10:57 am 03 Jul 17

“The narrow obsession of anti-light rail protagonists in promoting a single mode of transport – more privately owned cars on the road – will only lead to more traffic.”

I’ve not once seen people who are against light rail promote one single mode of transport and most definitely not seen this mode of traffic be privately owned cars.

It’s this kind of deliberate strawman argument that only make the proponents of light rail seem even less objective and able to consider the issue logically. If anything, their narrow obsession FOR light rail seems to fit the description made by the author more appropriately. Apparently light rail is the only option for mass transport in Canberra no matter what.

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