Sydney FAST 2030: A Proposal for Faster Accessible Surface Transport (FAST).

Sydney FAST 2030: A Proposal for Faster Accessible Surface Transport (FAST).
Sydney FAST 2030: A Proposal for Faster Accessible Surface Transport (FAST).

Compared to comparably-sized cities in North America, Sydney does very well on Public Transport (Transit), with a pre-Covid 26% transit commute share. Compared to cities in Europe or Asia, it does poorly, indicating significant room for improvement. 

Much of that difference has to do with wealth and space. Despite the complaints,  Sydney is rich (money doesn’t grow on trees, but it does grow in rocks), so most families have cars. Sydney is also far less concentrated than cities in Europe or Asia, so distances are more amenable to the automobile and less to public transport, and the accessibility indicators show that.

Still, it’s clear more can be done.

There have been a forest of expired plans for public transport in Sydney. There are more plans still in the works. They almost entirely focus either on Trains (and especially Metros), or on specific lines that a particular party is pushing. But a detailed comprehensive look at the layer below the trains is missing.

I believe that removing rather than recapitalising most of Sydney’s Tram network was a mistake, and the evidence of Melbourne’s popular Tram service is as close to case-control comparison you can find in this field. Sydney has higher transit mode share than Melbourne, but that is because the Trains are so much better (higher frequency), not because people like the buses better than the Trams.

Still, that does not mean the trams should all be put back. First, Sydney cannot build everything on the historic maps, at least not all at once, even Chinese Metros have been built over phases. Even more significantly, you do not want to:

  1. It may have been overbuilt. Many historic tram lines were abandoned fairly early, indicating the proponents missed their mark.
  2. We have to prioritise. Some things are more important than others, or have a higher benefit/cost ratio. 
  3. Conditions have changed. The places where historic trams were built may not warrant tram service today because the land use has changed, and of course because people’s travel preferences have changed with the widespread introduction of the automobile, the broader train network, and telecommunications and other technologies. 

I have been thinking about a “blank slate” redo of Sydney surface public transport (buses and trams). This is something the Government could do in a decade if they applied themselves.

You can see a detailed version in Google Maps here. You will need to zoom out, as it centers on the Liverpool CBD (the geographic center of the region). As always feedback is welcome.

Extending the LRT System

The Figure below shows the Existing, Under Construction, and the Sydney FAST 2030 Proposal LRT Lines. 

Sydney FAST 2030 Proposal: Proposed LRT Lines, Existing LRT and BRT,  and Under Construction LRT.
Sydney FAST 2030 Proposal: Proposed LRT Lines, Existing LRT and BRT, and Under Construction LRT.

Design Principles

  1. History: The routes on the historic maps were reasonable starting points, they knew what they were doing and often reshaped the landscape to fit trams, and the human landscape reshaped to adapt to tram corridors. Trams added access.
  2. Comport: The new lines should comport with their environment and take almost no existing buildings, but instead use existing street space as much as possible, especially former tram lines, as well as former rights-of-way where appropriate. 
  3. Significance: We want to connect places that were significant 100 years ago because they are most likely to be significant 100 years from now, lines should follow historic RoW.
  4. Directness: Routes should proceed in a fairly direct (non-circuitous) routes between the origin and destination.
  5. Parsimony: We should have a few core lines with a maximum of one split (two branches) at either end. The branches can be numbered differently (L2 vs. L3), but they share a core. Spurs with high frequency can be used if branching becomes a problem.
  6. Complementarity: All lines should complement existing higher capacity public transport (Trains and Metro), not substitute for them. (Net riders on Trains and Metro should increase after the LRT opens)
  7. Terminals: Lines should start and end at key transfer points (e.g. a Train Station) or destinations (e.g. the Beach)
  8. Gap-filling: Lines should serve areas that are today underserved, even if it violates the above (e.g. Lane Cove)
  9. Rebalance Movement and Place: Motorway construction allows us to repurpose roads that presently have a conflict between Movement and Place function (Parramatta Road, King Street/Princes Highway, Military Road)
  10. Reconcentration: The collection of new lines (these plus that already committed) should serve all areas of the built up parts of Greater Sydney, and support infill (and brownfield) development rather than speculative greenfield development. 
  11. Exclusivity: The designs assume LRT to get high ride quality on exclusive tracks with lower operating costs. These are not classic trams that shared space with roads.
  12. Frequent: Most lines are served by single (articulated) car (L1), at a high frequency rather than fewer but longer trains (L2) at low frequency. 
  13. Electrical: Electric powered, electricity delivered by wire (more efficient than battery storage)

Proposed LRT Lines

The Proposed Lines are discussed below:

  1. L1sx: (Red) L1 Southern Extension: Central to Green Square and Mascot via Elizabeth and O’Riordan, Rationale: Serves existing high density areas and potential redevelopment sites. Elizabeth and O’Riordan are most feasible for Tram services due to Street widths among parallel routes and centrality. Provides capacity relief for T8 service, as well as serving areas in between the far-spaced stations. FAST Buses would serve parallel routes.  Extends L1 to maintain balance of flows (not split CBD frequencies too much on L2/L3, single car trams appropriate for this street running service. (~5.8 km)
  2. L2/L3liz: (Dark Blue) Elizabeth Street: Relocate the L2 and L3 on the eastern side of the Sydney CBD from George Street to Elizabeth Street (Phillip Street), and then circle around to George St. Rationale: Provides service to Eastern CBD via Tram (currently missing), allows George Street to serve L2 and L3 western extensions.
  3. L2ex: (Light Blue) Coogee Extension: Extends L2 from Randwick through The Spot to Coogee Beach. Rationale: Connect to a popular beach from the CBD without a transfer
  4. L2wx: (Light Blue) Broadway – Wolli:   This line takes over the George Street LRT (which meets (and through runs with) the Elizabeth Street LRT. At Central it proceeds west along Broadway, South along City Road, down King Street in Newtown, down Princes Highway, to Wolli Creek. Rationale: Provides high capacity services to part of University of Sydney (Camperdown) currently without rail service, Newtown. It has the potential to pedestrianise King Street in Newtown (like George Street in the CBD)  by terminating City Road at Carillon Avenue and terminating Prince’s Highway at Sydney Park Road, which should be now feasible in a post-WestConnex world.
  5. L3ex: (Dark Blue) Little Bay Extension: Extends L3 along Anzac Parade from Kingsford through Maroubra to Little Bay
  6. L3wx (Dark Blue) Broadway – Five Dock: The line splits with the L2wx line and runs along Parramatta Road to Norton Street in Leichhardt, and turns West at Marion, to proceed through Haberfield to Five Dock, where it terminates at a Metro Station.
  7. L4: (Green) Oxford Street/Victoria Road:  From West to East: West Ryde, via Top of the Ryde, Gladesville, Huntley’s Point, Drummoyne (assumes A40 tunnel under Drummoyne), Rozelle, sharing the existing L1 line (Alt: take two lanes from the Anzac Bridge), Museum, Darlinghurst, Paddington, Woollahra, Bondi Junction  to Bondi Beach
  8. L5: (Purple) North-South: Wynyard to Northbridge via Harbour Bridge, North Sydney, Cammeray to Northbridge. This project restores Tram service to Wynyard Station and the Harbour Bridge, providing local services to North Sydney, and enabling interchanges with regional Trains and Metro services.
  9. L6: (Purple) Wynyard to Lane Cove via Pacific Highway. Sharing track with the L5, it branches to provide local services on the dense Pacific Highway corridor and connecting with the historic regional center of Lane Cove, which is in an area underserved by rail.
  10. P1nx: (Orange) Castle Hill Extension: (Female Factory through Baulkham Hills to Castle Hill)
  11. P1ex: (Orange) Camellia Service (Rosehill – Camellia – Silverwater – Newington – Olympic Park)
  12. P2nx: (Orange) Epping Extension (Carlingford to Epping). Extends Parramatta LRT Phase 2

Creating a Rapid Bus Network

Sydney FAST 2030  Proposal: Rapid Bus Lines. 
Sydney FAST 2030 Proposal: Rapid Bus Lines. 

Buses have not received the attention they deserve. We could do much better with buses than we actually do, but elite projection (elites can imagine themselves riding trains but not buses) is hard to overcome, so buses are regarded as inferior to trains for reasons that mostly have to do with how we use buses in the system, rather than the technology itself.  [Recognising that the ride quality of buses on streets is not as high as trains on exclusive rights-of-way]. This vision for Rapid Buses is not T-Ways (on exclusive rights-of-way) everywhere, but more akin to the Arterial Bus Rapid Transit services that Metro Transit in Minnesota provides. (You can see a nice video about the service). In short, buses are the workhorse of the public transport system, and need more attention to make them as excellent as possible.


  • Gridded: We should design a Grid-like network, so that people can get to their destination with at most one-transfer. I don’t think this actually holds because of an inconvenient river. All of the proposed V-Lines stop south of the Parramatta River. Rail service north of the River is good, the B-Line already exists (which can be thought of as V-01), and the proposed LRT extension above are fairly comprehensive, so the areas north of Sydney Harbour and the Parramatta River get more H-Lines and no V-Lines. The existing Railroad rights-of-way present another barrier, as there are few surface street crossings of the lines, those are taken advantage of where possible, but wind up distorting the network from an idealised grid. (See Bambul’s post for a similar idea with a slightly different implementation or my earlier version focusing on Inner Sydney.)
  • Directness: We should minimise bus circuity for these routes (there can be other minor routes after these are fixed, I won’t bother with that here), so that travelers are not riding all over creation as the bus operator seeks a few extra passengers or to meet some arbitrary standard about distance to the nearest bus stop. 
  • Complementarity: Routes should complement not compete with existing Train, Metro, LRT, BRT routes. So even when there are bridges over the Parramatta River, they are already served by existing rail lines, so the principle of complementarity reduces the ability to provided continuous V-Line services from the south to the north, relying instead on transfers. This proposal assumes everything under construction and budgeted will be built (major Motorways, Metros, etc.)
  • Feasibility: The cost should relatively minimal (achieving High Return on Investment), so essentially no new roads, bridges, and so on, are built for the bus routes, and a minimum number for the proposed  LRT links.

The services are gridded, so they are divided into H-Lines and V-Lines. Specific lines are itemised below.


Shown in pale blue, East-West or Horizontal (“H”) Lines (always even numbers, major lines end in 0, lowest numbers in the North, highest in the South)

  • H10: Parramatta – Eastwood – Macquarie Park
  • H20: Chatswood – Cremorne – Mosman – Manley
  • H30: Crows Nest – Cremorne – Mosman – Taronga
  • H40: Guildford – Lidcombe – Olympic Park – North Strathfield – Concord – Canada Bay – Drummoyne – Birkenhead
  • H50: Bonnyrigg – Cabramatta- Yagoona – Chullora – South Strathfield – Enwood – Burwood Heights – Croydon – Haberfield
  • H60: Bankstown – Belfield – Ashfield – Leichhardt – Annandale – Glebe – Usyd – Redfern – Surry Hills – Moore Park – Waverly – Bronte
  • H64: Stanmore – University of Sydney – Redfern – North Waterloo
  • H68: St Peters – Randwick – Clovelly
  • H70: Liverpool – Canterbury – Dulwich Hill – Petersham – Enmore – Newtown – Alexandria – Green Square – Kensington (via Old Canterbury Road)
  • H80: Bardwell Park – Earlwood – Marrickville – Enmore – Newtown – Erskineville – Alexandria – Green Square – Kensington – Coogee
  • H90: Sydenham – Mascot – Rosebery – Eastlakes – Kingsford – South Coogee – Maroubra
  • H100: Revesby – Padstow Heights – Beverly Hills – Bexley – Arnclife – Kyeemagh – Botany – Pagewood – Eastgardens – Maroubra – Maroubra Beach


Shown in light purple, North-South or Vertical (“V”) Lines (always odd numbers, major lines end in 5, lowest numbers in the East, highest in the West)

  • V03: Bronte – Vaucluse – Watson’s Bay
  • V05: Rose Bay – Double Bay – Eastcliffe – Randwick – Maroubra
  • V11: Botany – Eastlakes – Rosebery – Zetland
  • V13: Potts Point – Zetland – Green Square – Mascot – Botany – Malabar
  • V15: Botany Road – Circular Quay – The Rocks – Barangaroo – Redfern – Green Square – Botany – Pagewood – Eastgardens – Maroubra
  • V21: St Peters – Waterloo Metro – Redfern
  • V23: White Bay – Annandale – Stanmore
  • V25: Balmain – Leichhardt – Petersham – Marrickville – Sydenham – Wolli Creek – Miranda
  • V29: Dulwich Hill LRT – Earlwood – Bardwell Park
  • V31: Summer Hill – Hurlstone Park
  • V35: Abbotsford – Five Dock – Croydon – Canterbury – Bardwell Park – Banksia
  • V41: Bexley – Rockdale – Brighton-Le-Sands – Kogorah
  • V45: Sans Souci – Carlton – Bexley North – Cabarita
  • V47: Mortlake Spur 
  • V55: Ramsgate – Allawah – Bexley – Kingsgrove – Belmore – Strathfield
  • V65: Carrs Park – Hurstville – Beverly Hills – Wiley Park – Flemington
  • V67: Penshurst – Lakemba – Greenacre – Chollura – Lidcombe – Olympic Park
  • V71: Mortdale – Riverwood – Punchbowl
  • V73: Padstow – Bankstown – Yagoona – Regent’s Park – Auburn
  • V75: Rose Hill – Sefton – Revesby
  • V85: Parramatta – Merrylands – Chester Hill to Panania
  • V95: East Hills – Villawood – Fairfield – Westmead

Physical geography is always a factor. Because of the width of Sydney compared to the height, there are more V-Lines than H-Lines. Also, based on the principle of non-redundancy, more vertical bus routes are provided, as there are more existing and under construction horizontal train lines.

Note this service stops in Liverpool, as the areas west are not developed yet. We have ideas about that, and I am currently doing work in the area, so will abstain.

If any of these H- or V-Lines are successful, they can of course be upgraded, and as the physical rail network changes, one expects these lines will evolve as well, taking advantage of the flexibility offered by buses. I have not conducted a formal accessibility analysis of this FAST network proposal, but if you are interested in funding something, find me.

This vision is essential if public and active transport are to be the preferred choice for most Sydneysiders, which is critical for achieving the environmental goals of eliminating CO2 emissions.

Notes from a Prison Colony

As I write this, my city is now in the eighth year of nearly continuous “lockdown” to “eliminate” the dread virus Covid. It has mutated more or less quarterly, and we are now on the ultra-contagious super-deadly variant “Chet” (ח). After the Greek letters were exhausted, Hebrew letters were used to name ever more virulent virus variants. Adjectives have also been exhausted.

It has become unclear how the virus still enters the city, since airplanes and ships were banned after the 4th year in an effort to attain the elusive objective of elimination. But apparently, like the tardigrade, the virus can survive extreme conditions. It withstands transmission through the air and the ocean. Some scientists have started asserting that Chet is now waterborne, and the Pacific has been described as a viral soup, though surely that is an exaggeration. The virus is merely added flavouring to the main ingredient: waste plastic and spilled oil. Others claim the virus is airborne and delivered by angels and feeds on CO2.

The police and military and Girl Guides have been engaged to keep the populace suppressed, but of course their numbers had to be augmented to fully suppress the population, so there is now about one officer for every non-officer. Enforcement officers are now the major vector of transmission, as they move about freely.

Everyone, police and policed populace alike, walks around in Hazmat suits when they are allowed outside, if only to collect food delivered by unmanned aerial drones, which are now ubiquitous. But the new mutations can get through even the protective equipment, so overly conscientious and germophobic people stay away from others when possible, staying in the climate control indoors, in the optimal virus breeding ground. The only saving grace is that none of the buildings are insulated, and all the windows are drafty.

These days the death rate remains pretty low, as most people have been vaccinated and had some version of the virus at some point in the past decade, and so have some immune response when exposed again, while the most vulnerable have already mostly died.

How did we get here? Well there were a few missteps.

The government promised life would return more or less to normal when vaccination rates hit 80%. But this only encouraged people who didn’t want life to return to normal to avoid getting vaccinated. The xenophobic thread was strong.

There was an inability among the governing and chattering classes to have a mature discussion about the tradeoff of quality of life vs. death. Every life is sacred became the mantra. While the government has a duty to protect its citizens, it also sacrifices some for the many in wartime on quite flimsy rationales. Yet, when they are this far in, the sunk cost myth set in, how could we have made all these sacrifices for nought?

Second the idea that it would just be a few more weeks keeps lurking. “Only a few more weeks in lockdown, and it will be eliminated.” People believed that at first. At this point, no one believes anything from officials in charge, and strangely, the opposition party just parrots the incumbents, and elections keep being delayed because of the pandemic.

Third, perfectly good vaccines kept being eliminated early on, which had the possibility of suppressing the virus before it mutated. Nominal causes and real causes are of course different, so whether the stated reasons for this were the real reasons remains unclear. But a worry about false positives for a third (rare) disease which has alternative tests, or a rare side-effect (which was somehow worse than the disease it hoped to prevent, despite the disease being so severe the city had to be locked down) derailed the vaccination process and allowed the virus to carry-on, and create opportunities for further mutations. Factories kept making vaccines, but they were never distributed, despite other areas of the world seeing even worse outbreaks.

Perhaps the most salient mistake was quarantining new arrivals at hotels inside the city’s central business district, requiring transport from the airport. Certainly this helped bail out the hoteliers, but was it wise? The alternative of not allowing people to come was periodically tried. The other alternative, quarantining people in the vast interior of the continent was never seriously considered, and proposals were routinely rejected by the national government, despite all the evidence that proximity facilitates transmission, and all the cases (logically) were imported internationally and escaped the quarantine process. The government even held offshore facilities, but those were restricted to people who arrived by boat, which is how the city was first settled by Europeans to begin with.

The effects of the semi-permanent lockdowns are varied.

With the near-permanent shut down of barber shops and beauty salons, if you could see them under their protective gear, all the men would look like members of ZZ Top, and the women would be more attractive.

All of the other small retail businesses have also surrendered. Aside from the police, army, and Girl Guides, almost no one is permitted to travel for work. All that remains are things that are largely automated and roboticised, and office-like work that can be done on computer from home. The government has taken to just printing money and distributing it to people. This Universal Basic Income is widely supported, but it would take 100 years of UBI to buy a house, whose average value has now reached $10 million. So young adults are living with their parents until their 30s, and almost no children have been born in five years. Everyone has come to realise nothing matters.

The reason the government can do this is the selling off of rocks of various precious minerals to foreign countries. The mining processes are automated, as are shipping, so this is done seamlessly. Money is transferred back to Australian companies and taxed. But the main source of money is simply inventing it. It turns out nothing about underlying value of money matters so long as people believe it will hold its value. And people will believe until they believe other people don’t. It’s an economy, if a bit of a strange one.

This lockdown has been made easier since the entire agricultural and food supply chain has also been completely automated, so no human touches food from when a robot first plants it, though harvest, shipping to a processing plant, transformation into Slurm or Soylent, and then distribution by truck and drone to people’s front doors. Slurm, by Coles, is widely considered tastier than Soylent, by Woolies, and I have to agree, but it is also a bit pricier and contains a lower protein content (though more amphetimenes). The most recent nutritionists recommend a balanced diet of 30% Slurm and 28% Soylent. These nutritionists have also had difficulties with math since all of their education for the past 8 years has been on Zoom.

Suffice it to say, the lockdowns have made us stronger as a society and civilisation, better able to deal with fear and surprise and address our foes head-on. I hope they continue until the virus is defeated, and the tables are turned, and millions of humans invade each virus cell. I am only sorry we didn’t begin lockdowns before the virus arrived. I will be sad to see them removed.

The New New Normal: Mobility and Activity in the `After Times’

We may be nearing “peak city”. This shift undermines all of the place-based strategies that economic development organisations have been promoting for decades. It’s a topic David Levinson will be addressing at the Festival of Urbanism 13-26 November. This article was originally published in The Fifth Estate, November 2, 2020.

The Dot-Com boom and Y2K crisis compressed a decade of technological investment into a two-year period. As a bubble, it was naturally followed by a stock market crash, but the Internet is bigger and more important than before. Since Y2K we have seen the advent of smartphones (the Internet in our pocket), social media, Wikipedia, ride-hailing (mobility on demand in our pocket) and a major refactoring of many if not most businesses around the new information reality.

COVID-19 has initiated as profound a transformation, acculturating the population to videoconferencing and  work from home and virtual conferences and webinars and distance learning and online shopping (for everything) and remote medicine and  Zoom weddings and funerals and many other activities that once would have been experienced in person. This transformation did not begin from scratch, all of these changes had already begun, but they were accelerated by events.  The home has at least temporarily returned to its historic pre-urban role of being the restaurant, the workplace, the schoolhouse, the theatre — making it more crowded and more intense.

Eventually, like Y2K, COVID-19 will cease to be an issue and we will enter the `After Times’. The fear of others will dissipate but not disappear.  Its effects on society will linger. 

Many people who previously stood all day at a hot-desked, open plan, office in the CBD  have discovered they like working at home at least some of the time, so long as they also don’t need to supervise children.  Couple that with finding that 37% of all jobs in the US can be done entirely at home, 39% in Australia, a greater share of those in metro areas, and a greater share still in Central Business Districts. Many more jobs can be engaged with at least part-time at home. Thus, many firms  have discovered they don’t need to pay for expensive CBD real estate. Soon governments and universities will discover the same. Many shoppers and eaters like getting deliveries rather than going out, and distribution infrastructures have scaled up to enable this. Dark kitchens designing meals for delivery will ensure they are no longer mere allusions to tasty food.  Many students find they like attending class from home, which may be China, and now they are able to.

It’s not that some of the people don’t miss some of the ways of the `Before Times’ — commuting at least some times provides a spatial and mental separation between home and the workplace. In a study we conducted during the Sydney lockdown (Aoustin 2020), almost everyone was traveling less, and respondents were asked how they experienced the decrease in time spent in transport. On a scale of 1 to 7, 51% said they missed this time little or not at all, 17% were indifferent, but 32%  did miss it. Travel to work does not need to take place at 8:00 am five days a week, 50 weeks a year, packed into a shiny metal box.

This prospective future no doubt would come as a disappointment to Urban Triumphalists, who insist the value of cities is due to economies of agglomeration resulting from face-to-face interaction, as well as organisations like the Property Council. While historically in-person contact has driven economies of agglomeration, and why be in cities but to be near other people, the question remains: Must it always be so? Mega cities were largely non-existent in the pre-Industrial Revolution period when the economies of agglomeration were often outweighed by the diseconomies. Cities will not be abandoned quickly, transitions are long, but we may be nearing `peak city’. This shift undermines all of the place-based strategies that economic development organisations have been promoting for decades. 

Face-to-face encounters will remain important for a few sectors, those with high trust issues like politics, or requiring hands-on physical interactions, it is clearly being abstracted away. The risk we as a civilisation face is that of the explore/exploit trade-off – if the urban triumphalists are correct that new ideas emerge more from in-person interaction, while we can continue to exploit existing ideas, we will generate fewer of them and the rate of progress will slow. 

I am not convinced this is true, certainly not to the degree it once was. Perhaps more ideas can be generated from the vast increase of total interactions online, even if those interactions are intermediated electronically, than the serendipitous in-person encounters traditional place-based thinking privileges. This is not necessarily Zoom meetings, certainly not group meetings, but may instead be real-time (or nearly so) text-based interactions, bulletin boards, messaging, Slack, Twitter, Miro, and the like.

The implications of these changes on physical places are several. 

If more is to be done at home for more of the day, the demand for more space per person at home will increase, and the demand for person space in offices will diminish. While physical distancing requirements may remain at offices, giving those in the office building more space as well, it also drives up costs of offices, further inducing firms to increase their virtuality. The demand for new office construction will be permanently reduced, and we may see buildings or sites retrofit for other purposes, perhaps residential, as they run through their lifecycle. The demand for housing in contrast will tend toward the larger, with in-home offices for every member of the household becoming standard for those who can afford it. This of course drives houses to places where land is cheaper, the edge of the metropolitan sphere, or beyond, rather than the center, as the commute to the center, which may once have been daily, is now reduced to weekly. The challenge will be to make good suburbs and desirable small towns, where people can still engage in meaningful out-of-home activity, while accommodating their demands for larger structures.

Daily travel changes are already visible: though vehicle miles traveled in the US are largely back to normal (with more rural and less urban travel), public transport levels are not. It will be a while before, if ever, public transport returns to the pre-virus normal, even in places like Sydney which were not nearly as severely hit as China, the US, and Europe. Work-from-home, fear of exposure on public transport (and not just personal fear, official fear being promulgated by governments), and just a general economic downturn and unemployment are all factors to date.  

Substitutes like walking and biking (and especially the newly cost-effective e-biking) are likely to pick up some of the slack for those who continue to travel to work in the CBD, though more needs to be done to facilitate safe bicycling, in particular instituting a much larger network of separated and protected bike lanes. Even auto travel will change though, while total vehicle travel may remain stable or drop only a small amount compared with the Before Times, the nature of that travel differs so it is less peaked. This implies less demand for new road infrastructure, as the usage of roads is more balanced across the day. 

The After Times are post-post industrial. The industrial districts that were fashionably converted to urban office precincts will now get reconverted, perhaps to residential, which the market will always demand – people have to live somewhere, even if they can work anywhere.

If we will indeed interact primarily intermediated by the Internet, we will have finally moved to the next stage of human development, that of spaceless places. The flip side of spaceless places are placeless spaces. We will abandon spaces we no longer need. The CBD office building is the first target. New and expensive transport links to connect to the central city, or relieve peak congestion, will also be seen as white elephants.

Fig 4. Tract-to-Tract Commutes of 80km/50 miles or less in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Fig 4. Tract-to-Tract Commutes of 80km/50 miles or less in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Covid-19 virus. Source wikipedia
Covid-19 virus. Source wikipedia

A city of homebodies? How coronavirus will change Sydney

Andrew Taylor at the Fairfax newspapers wrote a piece: A city of homebodies? How coronavirus will change Sydney. I had some quotes:

Professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney David Levinson said public transport services may be cut because more people work at home or are reluctant to board buses and trains. “Constructing protected lanes for bikes, e-bikes, scooters is likely to be accelerated to help serve the markets that were previously served by public transport,” he said.


Levinson said consumers were also becoming more accustomed to delivery: “This returns in many ways to how life was 100 years ago, when delivery and door-to-door sales were much more common.”

His questions in bold. My fuller comments below:

– I read that Sydney and Melbourne will be particularly hard hit by the shutdown of tourism, education, entertainment and hospitality. Do you agree these industries will be the hardest hit and how will that affect Sydney?

These sectors will obviously be hard hit, I don’t know about “hardest” without doing an analysis of the full economy.

Universities will lose many international students (who pay much more in tuition and fees than domestic students and thus help cross-subsidise the education of Australians) for a year, and perhaps longer if the reputational damage or air travel barriers sustain. No one is going to pay full tuition for an online experience, and we will see a race-to-the-bottom if we think we can sell our education product as online only, diminishing the great selling point which is the location within Australia.

China already sees this as an opportunity to retain more students domestically, and other countries are competing with Australia for these students.

– How will social distancing influence urban and building design? How we shop, go out, work?

Advocates are already pushing for wider footpaths, particularly in dense urban areas, especially near bus stops where people congregate. Similarly, because of the likely reticence to use public transport and increased work at home that will emerge in the aftermath, there may be some cutbacks to public transport service. Constructing protected lanes for bikes, e-bikes, scooters, etc. is likely to be (and should be) accelerated to help serve the markets that were previously served by public transport.

– Will the pandemic accelerate moves towards online retail and the death of brick and mortar shopping?

Yes. Some stores won’t survive the crisis and won’t be replaced. Consumer shopping patterns will become even more accustomed to delivery. This returns in many ways to how life was 100 years ago, when delivery and door-to-door sales were much more common.

– Property prices are the no 1 topic in Sydney. Will they fall sufficiently to make the city more affordable? Will apartment construction slow down?

To the extent that Australia constrains immigration through additional border protection, one of the major forces driving up the prices of new construction, the international market using property ownership in Australia as a way of securing capital away from their home governments and earning points towards immigration, will be tempered. This will happen with recession in any case, but travel controls will further reduce demand pressures.

– Will the city’s population growth slow?  Will the push towards more medium and high density continue? [Dense cities such as New York seem to have been affected more by coronavirus]

As above, at least a years worth of international growth will be forgone.

– Do you think ridership on public transport will drop and be replaced by cars, bicycles or less movement around the city?

Yes, yes, yes.


A broken Reddy-Go
A broken Reddy-Go


– How will increased surveillance affect city life?

– Will it lead to increased discrimination? And calls for less migration?

The tools of surveillance are historically the tools of oppression, and it can now be automated to a degree never before possible with cameras, face identification, and everyone carrying smartphones radiating bluetooth signals. Opening up the surveillance to the general public, not just selected state-appointed guardians, the idea David Brin refers to as Sousveillance or reciprocal accountability in his book The Transparent Society is one way of addressing the problem:  Who will guard the guards themselves?

– An increased focus on hygiene will surely occur. How will this manifest itself? Past pandemics saw slum areas cleared in inner-city Sydney for example.

I hope that people will now smell cleaner air and see bluer skies as evidence that current industrial and automobile-oriented social patterns have real consequences for public health, and what life could be like if actually cared about those things. People will probably wash their hands more too.

– Despite the high death toll, the Spanish flu did not appear to have a lasting effect on people’s lives. Why do you think the coronavirus will have a greater impact?

I don’t know that it will, and I wouldn’t assume the premise. The 1957-1958 pandemic (“Asian flu”)  was quickly forgotten in popular culture despite lots of deaths globally and a sharp recession. But those million deaths (more than covid-19 probably, and a much greater share of the population) greatly affected the lives of the friends and families.

– Will manufacturing make a comeback and what affect will this have?

I think most countries will try to build and maintain larger stockpiles of general purpose medicines, PPEs, etc. There might be selected demonstrations of doing domestic manufacture which is good for photo ops and newspaper articles, but it would have to be really significant to show up in the statistics. However to the extent that the world has become extremely dependent on China-based supply chains, I think there will be efforts to spatially diversify manufacturing, particularly to other low-income countries, or anywhere when it is robotics based.

The more general trend I think is the movement away from just-in-time economy and towards a more inventory-based system to improve reliability (at the expense of short-run efficiency). I think a lot of the shortages we have seen in markets to date has been the first thrust of that. If you lack confidence the stores will be open in a week or two, because of confusing messages from public officials, you will logically stockpile.

– The federal minister for regional health told me he thought regional areas might weather the pandemic better because they have less density and industries such as agriculture and mining are not as greatly affected. What do you think?

One really significant outbreaks in the US has been in South Dakota (pretty rural as US states go)  at a meat-packing plant. Most people in “rural” areas are not lone farmers milking cows and riding tractors.

The Next Big Things Revisited

On January 8, 2010, I was interviewed by the Jim Foti of the Minneapolis StarTribune for their beginning of the decade article The next big things

My bit below, with comments, numbers added for tracking:

New light-rail lines, many more MnPass lanes and cars that make driving decisions for you are in the commuting forecast for the next decade, says David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota.
(1) Congestion levels won’t change much, he said.

Mostly Correct. Obviously it depends on how you define “congestion” and “much”. MnDOT’s Congestion Report (not how I would define it, but it is a consistent time series), has percent of the urban freeway system that is congested going from 21.5% in 2010 to 24.2% in 2018   over a decade with a regional (MSA) population increasing from 3.3 to 3.6 million (8.4%) over the same period. (The CSA went from 3.7 to 4.0 million, 9%).  Mean commuting time to work in Hennepin County rose from 22.1 to 23.5 minutes. Some of that is due to congestion, some of that is due to longer distances as suburban growth continues.

(2) The Twin Cities area will have more residents, (3) but the aging population will be working less, and (4)  increased telecommuting will mean that people won’t go into work as often.

Correct, correct, correct. The Median age in Hennepin County when from 35.9 (2010) to 36.6 (2018)  according to the US Census. The Labor Force Participation Rate dropped from 71 to 70.3 over this period. Telecommuting increased, in 2018 5.7% of Minnesota residents worked at home, in 2010, 5.0% did.

(5) The Southwest and (6) Central Corridor rail lines are scheduled to start mid-decade, and (7) one or two Minneapolis streetcar lines could be in the mix.

Section B-B

Incorrect (it was scheduled, it did not happen yet), Correct, ~ (could is vague). Central Corridor started in 2014. The Southwest LRT (Green Line Extension) is under construction, but not opened. The streetcars appear dead, but these things never die.

(8) Levinson expects highway expansion to mainly take the form of new MnPass lanes, which are for carpools, buses, motorcycles and toll-paying solo drivers.

50%. Some highway reconstruction has a MnPass element, but not as much as I expected.

(9) He sees plug-in hybrids as the dominant car, meaning drivers will be buying less gas, so (10) a per-mile fee will be implemented to replace lost tax revenue.

Incorrect, incorrect and too soon. Hybrids petered out, and EVs are still slow on the uptake. I still expect EVs to be dominant in new car sales by 2030, and some kind of distance fee to be implemented on EVs and AVs by then.

(11) Cars will keep getting safer, he said, with (12) features such as automatic emergency braking and cruise control that adapts to the speed of surrounding traffic.


Correct, correct. Advanced driver assist technologies have been added to newer vehicles. Fatality rates are not where they should be, (especially for pedestrians and bicyclists), but fatality rates are better falling from 2010 (0.72) to 2018 (0.63).

A total of 12 numbered predictions basic predictions, 6 correct, 3 clearly incorrect, 5 too vague and half-right by my scoring.

Robots Driving Cars

Robot Driving Car by Vladislav Ociacia
Robot Driving Car by Vladislav Ociacia

As humanity leaves the dark ages, there will come a time when human-driven vehicles are banned from the road for safety reasons, at least somewhere. This creates a huge amount of stranded technology, viable existing cars that will suddenly be devalued.  Some of these are of little interest, and some can be retrofitted with aftermarket kits. For ‘classic cars’, it is important that the vehicle itself remain unchanged, retrofits will devalue the car compared to its more authentic state.

This provides a use case for robots, actual I Robot-like robots, that look vaguely anthropomorphic and have two legs and two arms. They can sit in the drivers seat, control the accelerator and the brake with their metallic robotic foot, and with AV software implemented through a robot frame, be safer than human.

An actual robotic chaffeur, the way people have joked about in bad science fiction for decades, does have a use case.

Sidewalk Talk: What city transportation will look like, circa 2043

I did a Sidewalk Talk with Eric Jaffe of Sidewalk Labs.  Disclosure: I am an advisor to Coord, a unit of Sidewalk Labs. This is a reprint.

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with forward-looking transportist David Levinson.


Historical depictions of the future of transportation (above, Petin’s hot-air balloon system from the journal L’Illustration in 1850) always seem to rely on blimps for some reason. (De Agostini Picture Library)
Historical depictions of the future of transportation (above, Petin’s hot-air balloon system from the journal L’Illustration in 1850) always seem to rely on blimps for some reason. (De Agostini Picture Library)

It’s 2043. Few people in cities own cars anymore. It’s cheaper to rely on electric, self-driving taxis. Some vehicles are big enough to share; others are individually sized to make the most of limited street space. They have one button inside: Stop. Dynamic curbs—patrolled by enforcement droids—remain clear for deliveries, pick-ups, and drop-offs. Street parking no longer exists, and this space has been recaptured for better public uses.

That’s the future as seen by David Levinson, the University of Sydney transport professor who writes the popular Transportist blog and is co-author of the 2017 book The End of Traffic and the Future of Access. “Look back to the 1920s, and you have magazines that ask: What does the future look like?” he says. “Some of it is absurd. Why would we all be using blimps? But some of it’s still like: Why doesn’t the future look like that?”

The truth, he says, is that imagining tomorrow’s urban mobility raises far more questions than it answers. If we get used to the idea of using taxis, what other things will we no longer feel the need to own? What are the new things we now can do because robots can move around without supervision? What will we do with all the extra time we don’t have to spend driving? How do you allocate road space in a world with delivery drones?

“These things are unpredictable in how they play out,” says Levinson, who’s an advisor to the Sidewalk spinoff company Coord, which recently launched a data integration platform for urban mobility. Levinson spoke to Sidewalk Talk about the challenges facing cities today—and the innovations 25 years or so down the road.

You give a lot of thought to the future of transport. How do you see the biggest challenges facing urban mobility at this moment but also in the short- and longer-term future?

There’s the litany of automobile evils we all know: lack of safety, pollution, congestion, and so on. Those are all here and have been here for decades and will remain here for at least a little while longer. Trying to actually solve those collective set of problems, which can be done (a) through technology and (b) on the demand side, is the project for the next couple of decades.

On the technology side, the rollout of electric vehicles is relatively straightforward. The rollout of autonomous vehicles, which is more complicated technically, will probably be a little bit slower. There’s simultaneously the rollout of the transformation from an ownership model to a mixed model of fleet-owned vehicles. And along with this transition toward fleet vehicles there’s also the opportunity to right-size the automobile itself, so we don’t have these large, oversized vehicles holding only one person in them.

Moving towards the one-passenger vehicle has huge benefits, and that’s the biggest challenge we’re not recognizing. The electrification at this point is well understood. Only the oil industry has its head in the tar sands about that. On automation, people have an unreasonable expectation of how quickly we can deploy this kind of technology, but we’ve moved faster than I imagined we would. We’re getting to the point where we’re going to have passengers in cars where the only thing they have is a “Stop” button. And that’s great, but it’s going to take decades to fully deploy this, because such a big system has to be transformed. Remember a few decades after the mobile phone, and a full decade after the iPhone, just under half of homes still have a landline.

The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.
The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.

To get to a fleet of AVs with just a “Stop button” there’s so much data the car will need to have to make choices, or to offer you choices as a passenger. Do I take a toll road or free road? Do I get to stop here or not? Are streets classified in ways where maybe there’s surge pricing on some?

There has to be a real-time map of the environment at different scales: of the infrastructure, of the presence of other vehicles on that infrastructure. Then there’s a services layer that Coord is doing, a real-time map of road prices, curbside regulation and availability, and parking regulations and availability.

Then you have the question of the user’s value of time. How much are you willing to pay to save a minute, because Road X is more expensive but faster, and Road Y is less expensive but slower? That’s if you imagine we will have some kind of spatial differentiation—I’m not convinced we will. It might just be going toward a universal time-of-day pricing, where it’s higher at 4 pm than 2 pm, but it’s not higher on Road X than on Road Y.

Say on the freeway you’re charging more than on a local road per mile of travel because it’s faster. Then more people will use local roads, and that’s not what you want. But if you want more people using the freeways, are you going to charge a discount on the freeways? That’s counterintuitive. It’s going to look something more like a mileage charge with a time-of-day discount than a differentiation by route. That’s my sense of where this goes.

Would you say road pricing is fundamental to a better future of transportation?

It’s fundamental to a less time-wasting form of transportation. I think there’s significant gains to be had from automation and from refactoring the automobile. That is, if we can convince 90 percent of the trips that they can use a one-passenger car, we can double the capacity of roads just from splitting lanes. Then with automation we can double it again, because vehicles can travel closer to each other. That solves a lot of the problem in most places.

If you can double the capacity of the roadway, that alone buys you 40 years of population growth.

There’s a big question as to how curbs will be managed given the increased demand from new mobility services. Can that happen in the absence of road pricing?

I think curb management is very ad hoc right now. In big cities, this is a tension. Getting that data streamlined and making more rational policies has had no systematic thought given to it, Coord can improve the situation. There is a lobby for people who would be against on-street parking; that would be the people who own off-street parking. And there is the transformation towards shared vehicle fleets in cities; many fewer vehicles need to be stored on the road at any given time because most are in motion, and there are fewer vehicles around because they’re used more efficiently. So that opportunity to eliminate on-street parking and transform that space into bike lanes, bus lanes, and loading and unloading spaces is ripe, the time is right .

Information technology is making it so that we can track and enforce use of lanes in real-time with cameras. There are many ways this could play out. Maybe enforcement needs to identify vehicles by the license plate, which means the camera angle has to be right, which means cities might need a robotic Rita, meter maid. Every block could have its own little enforcement droid to make sure no one is violating the rules about parking their car too long or loading and unloading for longer than needed. And you can do all that without road pricing.

If we get rid of street-parking, do you envision the curb needing the same types of definitions it has now? This is clearly a loading zone. This is clearly a bike lane. Or could it be more flexible?

It could be more dynamic, for instance loading from 4 am to 6 am then it’s for movement from 6 am to 9 am then it goes back to loading. Something like a bike lane you’d want to make more permanent. And for a bus lane, when there are enough passengers to justify a bus lane, it should be a bus lane. You already have cities that have parking until 3 pm, then from 3-7 pm it’s a bus lane (called a ‘Clearway’ in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK). And they have at 3 pm a vehicle and crew making sure the street is clear and ticketing the vehicles that are there. It works well enough, though it is a bit labor intensive.

You can imagine once existing rules are in place and well documented with a systematic way of describing and mapping them, people can think more rationally about which of these parameters they want to adjust. Then it’s just exposing it, showing what the map looks like to someone on the local Curb Management Board,  a new institution responsible for those regulations deciding how to maximize the value of curbspace for the community?

In this scenario, how would you envision pick-ups and drop-offs happening? Would they also be charged? Or they’d be directed to a certain place? I’m thinking of the scenario where you’re not driving, the car is driving.

Certainly they’d be directed to a certain place. You’d want to avoid loading and unloading them at an intersection. Maybe some midblock taxi stand equivalent. As part of your taxi license you get to pick-up and drop-off in whatever district you’re in, or maybe you pay on a per-drop-off basis. It depends how you’re collecting revenue from your taxi operators. In London, with the congestion charge, they exempted taxis arguing the price is embedded in the price of the license. That seems plausible if the license fee is large enough and you want people to use taxis instead of parking, then you want to encourage it and not put in another fee. And if you don’t unload at the designated place, that’s illegal and you get a fine, automatically assessed by camera or enforcement droid.

So how do we get to that place where we move away from the ownership model and toward the fleet model?

It’s a value proposition for the consumer. We already have taxi markets. But most residents say to themselves, it’s cheaper to own a car now than to get taxis every day. So if it costs $10,000 a year to own a car, that works out about $30 a day, and I’d pay more than that for my daily taxi, it’s cheaper for me to own a car. If the cost of taxis comes down to less than $30 a day, the value proposition says, I shouldn’t own.

Now there’s the out-of-pocket versus the fixed-cost question, but that can be dealt with through a subscription model. So just like my cell phone, and I have ‘unlimited’ data up to some threshold per month, I might have ‘unlimited’ rides up to some threshold per month, and then I go above that the taxi company charges me per ride.

The reason you should be able to get it under even $20 a day is that if you go toward automation and electric vehicles, the price of the vehicles should drop. Electric vehicles should be less expensive. To date they are not, but we’re moving in that direction pretty rapidly. Automation is the second thing. You’re saving on the cost of parking. That’s $30 a day alone in big cities. You’ve eliminated the driver so taxis are cheaper, so the marginal cost per ride is really low—cheaper than taxis are today.

But unless you can get that cost structure in place, people are not going to give up their car. And I don’t think public incentives are going to matter a lot here, because most cities won’t have the will or the money to subsidize shared rides just so there’s fewer private cars on the road.

So you see self-driving fleets that aren’t shared?

I see multiple models here. You have a taxi provider like Uber or Waymo providing what we would call a taxi service today, except it’s automated. You’ve got leased cars that are maintained centrally in some respects but you take them home with you, so you have them on-demand. Then you have privately owned cars, or less rigorous leases much more akin to today’s private cars.

In an urban area, I can have a car on-demand and some fleet manages it. In a remote area, a car on-demand is a 10-minute wait. Rural users are less likely to want a shared vehicle.

Do you have the same fear of the zombie or ghost vehicles—cars without any passengers in them?

There will be empty vehicles moving around in any case. There are passenger-less taxis moving around now. That’s probably on the order of 10-20 percent of distance. With a well-managed system, you get that down. With private cars, someone could say: I will drive into the city, then send it home to park, then have it pick me up in the afternoon. That would double miles traveled. That would be terrible. You’d need to have some sort of penalty for that. Road pricing becomes perfectly justified if that kind of behavior emerges.

What about the nightmare scenario where it circles the block for eight hours?

If people start doing that, road pricing is the obvious solution. But even without road pricing, you could make it a crime to circle the block more than once in a short period of time. You have road pricing by ticketing. If it’s automated with cameras, then it’s: we’ve identified your car on the same block three times in the past 15 minutes, that’s a $30 fine. People might complain a little bit, but cities will see that as a good way to disincentivize it, and they don’t have to go through the pain of implementing road pricing. Instead it’s a new crime, enforced using technology the way red-light running and speeding are now in some cities.

There’s going to be all sorts of new regulations. Teenagers will step in front of the automated vehicle to make it stop—we know this is going to happen. We will invent a set of laws and regulations, like ‘annoying a robot’, once these problems begin to emerge. Cities and counties are pretty quick at copying the regulations of adjacent jurisdictions. It’s a diffusion of innovation process. One place writes the rule, they get the rule right, then all the counties and cities around it just copy the rule.

Are there aspects of the future of transportation we’re not focusing on enough?

I think the curb space question is more generally the road space reallocation question. How do we recapture capacity we no longer need to move automobiles, and what do we do about it?

Doing the same thing better is the obvious first thing that happens. But what are the new things we can now do? It’s not just cars moving people. It’s person-less vehicles moving goods—and they’re not cars anymore. That’s going to change a lot about how we shop: what is the retail experience, what does it mean to want something?

Most discussions of shared AVs have an urban-centric viewpoint. How technology changes the world outside of cities is not well understood or much contemplated. It might be that the new transport’s impacts are less outside of cities.

The futurist’s job is to put trends together and paint scenarios, but in the end, we’re 25 years since the Mosaic web browser for the World Wide Web was released, and it has turned out different than was expected. Imagine in 1993 someone said: “Fake news being generated by Albanian teenagers for the purposes of getting ‘ad clicks’ on a social network called ‘Facebook’ from 60-year-olds would shape the outcome of the 2016 election and  elect noted casino owner Donald Trump.” … This is not a scenario a futurist could have foreseen. 2043 could be very strange indeed.


This Sidewalk Talk has been edited for length and lightly for clarity.



2018 Rail Trends: Falling Behind or on Track to Revitalize the Industry | Trapeze

Marcelo Bravo writes “2018 Rail Trends: Falling Behind or on Track to Revitalize the Industry” for Trapeze, a transit software company. My quote below. There are other good quotes at the link.

“The U.S. will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in investments in transit and ridership. London is set to open Crossrail (The Elizabeth Line), metros continue to pop up across China, even Australia is making large new investments in rail transit, and all these countries are seeing gains in ridership follow. In contrast, public transit continues to lose riders in most of the U.S. with low gas prices, and even the simplest investments are huge political battles.

The most interesting new trend is the rise of stationless bike-sharing in cities, making bicycling more convenient. Again, this follows from international experience especially China. Whether this works in the North American market is an important question to watch. E-bikes are also gaining popularity and falling in cost. Both challenge public transport for ridership for shorter trips.”

David Levinson, Professor of Transport in the School of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney

The end of traffic … a podcast with Jim Pethokoukis

I did the Political Economy podcast with Jim Pethokoukis about transport.

The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.
The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.


(I write much more legibly than I speak.)

The world is on its way to ending traffic, and that’s in part thanks to the pioneering work of transportation researcher and thought leader David Levinson. In this episode, we discuss how autonomous vehicles and other breakthrough tech will affect the future of transportation, and how infrastructure policy can keep up with the coming changes. We also discuss whether America has reached peak car ownership, if human driving will be eventually banned, and if we are culturally ready for a driverless future.

David Levinson teaches at the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney, he’s an honorary affiliate of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, and he serves as an adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota. He is also the co-author of The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape.

At the start of the year, there was a lot of talk about this administration pushing a big infrastructure plan — numbers like $500 billion, a trillion dollars in new infrastructure spending of some sort. And I wonder, at least as far as transportation goes, what does America need? How much should it cost? Do we need a trillion dollars in new infrastructure? Do we need more roads? Do we need newer bridges?

I always point out that the problem with journalists is that they’ve been to China — they see the big, gigantic brand-new Beijing airport, the airports in Shanghai — and think, “Ugh, America’s infrastructure is terrible, just look at China.” So, what do we actually need as far as transportation goes?

Well, there is no right answer to that question, and the reason is we don’t know how much we need because we’re not efficiently using the transport that we have. So for instance, we give away roads to users on a first come first served basis; you show up with your car, you get to use your road. Next person shows up with their car and they get to use the road, but now they are congested by you. This works fine if there is very little traffic and plenty of capacity, but once we get a lot of people together, we get congestion. We don’t charge people based on how much congestion they cause, which is inefficient from an economic perspective because this leads to overconsumption of roads; there are too many users at given times.

We could add capacity, and that would reduce the congestion at least somewhat, but it will increase the usage because by adding more capacity more people will say, “Oh! The travel time is lower than it was, previously it was too long for me to go at 4:00 PM in the afternoon between point A and point B, now I can make that trip.” So, we don’t really know what the right amount of capacity is because we don’t manage the capacity we have properly. I think getting the prices right is the first step before we should be doing anything like considering capacity expansion.

You made another point about China. I have been to China recently as well. They are building lots of things, and the reason we shouldn’t be directly comparing the United States or developed countries in Europe or Australia with China directly is that it is starting from a much less developed base. So, when you’re in a country with no intercity highways, it’s very important to build freeways. When you’re in a country where we finished the interstate highway system in 1982, more or less, it’s much less important to build new highways because we’ve already connected all of the places that need to be connected and we’re just arguing about the widening of roads and capacity expansions rather than building connectivity in the first place.

So a lot of this depends on where we are in the long-term life cycle of a particular technology — in this case, roads. We have not expanded the road network that much in the last 30 to 35 years, but that’s because we had such a large, mature system to begin with over this period of time.

You mentioned in the introduction technology, and this is an interesting aspect to it. So, is the new technology coming online over the next decade or two — automated vehicles in particular — is that going to require more roads or fewer roads? And I think that’s still up in the air, because you can see in one sense that if driving is easier, then people are going to drive more.

You’re right, it’s a classic paradox that we are trying to figure out. So, you could increase capacity, theoretically, with autonomous vehicles, but again that could mean that people could be driving more if when we are at work autonomous vehicles are circling the city all day driving around — then actually traffic would be worse.

There are things like that, but even at a simpler level, just imagine you’re using a driverless car to do the same kind of thing that you’re doing now — going from home to work, and going shopping and things like that. It’s now not as onerous to do that because you could do something else instead of paying attention to the driving task. So, the cost of making that trip is less, so you’ll be willing to travel farther, you’ll be willing to live farther out in Virginia and commute into Washington DC because you don’t have to grip the steering wheel anymore; there’s no steering wheel to grip.

“We don’t really know what the right amount of capacity is because we don’t manage the capacity we have properly. I think getting the prices right is the first step before we should be doing anything like considering capacity expansion.”

Now, the question of whether there’ll be dysfunctions in the system like cars circling on roadways instead of going to a parking structure, that gets back to pricing — is it cheaper to drive than it is to park your car? Well right now it very much is cheaper to drive than park your car in a lot of cities because we don’t charge for roads but we do charge for parking. If we did charge for roads, that calculus will change and we’ll probably see a better balance there.

But the flip side of this is, the idea that cars are more efficient if they are following each other more closely so we get better use out of the pavement that’s already out there. But there’s also better utilization of the cars through things like “I’m not going to own a car, I’m going to hire one on demand — Uber or Lyft or a taxi type of system — and when I don’t need it, the car could be doing something else in the middle of the day instead of circling around or parked all day for me, it’s serving somebody else in the middle of the day, and then I get it right back when I get it in the evening for instance.”

We have jumped a bit ahead, I do want to talk about autonomous vehicles, but just to jump back for a second to the pricing — what are we talking about? Like where I live in Northern Virginia, we have Interstate 95, and they’ve added these express lanes, and if you have your EZ pass on the window, you get charged if you want to take those lanes. Is it just more of that kind of thing?

That’s baby steps in the direction. So you have a few toll roads, mostly in the north eastern part of the United States, and you have express lanes in a few cities — the Washington DC Beltway and so on — but most roads are not priced, and most roads are congested. So if you start to price some roads and you don’t price other roads, lots of people will say, “Oh, I will just switch to the other un-tolled ‘free’ roads.” That will make those roads worse and will be worse for society as a whole, and the toll roads will be under-utilized. You see that, to some extent, with express lanes. They have fewer users, fewer vehicles per hour generally than the more congested lanes. Now that depends on the exact case — in some cases they are more but in many cases they are underutilized in some respects.

When they’re serving public transport, they might be carrying more people because they have buses on them and the bus might be carrying 40 people, and the car might be carrying one, and so it not being fully utilized from the vehicle perspective doesn’t mean it’s not carrying more people. But we could do better if we have a systematic road pricing system where all of the roads and highways were priced appropriately, rather than just a few of them being priced and diverting people to other roads. Now this is a hard thing to do.

I understand how you do that on a highway, but how do you do that on a surface street — like downtown — what does that look like?

Well, there are different technologies. If you’re in motion, you can use a transponder. Your cell phone carrier knows where you are, roughly. We don’t need to know on each specific street — that you’re on this street at 4:05 PM in the afternoon — we can simply know that you’re in the city, and you are moving at this time, and you can tell that from a cell phone. You can put a small device in the vehicle and tell that it’s in motion, or use GPS, or even cellphone triangulation if you want to ensure a little bit more privacy.

We know approximately where you are and then we’d say, “Well for travelling 3 miles from 4 to 5 the price will be a dollar, and if you want to travel more during that time, then the price will be higher. Or, if you want to travel during the off-peak time, then the price will be lower.” So there are different technologies that could be used, and I think there will be trials with different kinds of things.

It can be as simple as odometer readings, but the problem with just crude odometer reading is that they don’t make a difference by time of day. So, you probably need some sort of black box that you plug into your vehicle, that tracks use by the time of day and location. Now people would get upset about, “Well then, the government’s tracking you,” and it may be that the government’s tracking you. But if you’re carrying a cell phone you’re getting tracked already. So you’re not really losing any privacy.

Is this sort of pricing about to happen somewhere?

There are pricing systems in a few places, though not quite at this level right now. Singapore is the best example, it is going to be deploying this kind of system over the next few years. They have a downtown pricing system already, as does London and Stockholm and a few other cities in Europe. Right now, if you go into the center of London, you’re paying about 11 pounds a day or something like that. In Singapore, you’re paying a toll if you’re traveling into the center city and they are going to launch this island-wide. I mean of course you can say that the political context in Singapore is different, and what you can do in Singapore is different.

A little bit.

But this kind of technology is proven, it’s more of a political question at this point — whether you want to do it, whether you’re willing to do it, whether congestion is expensive enough for you to justify doing this in order to manage it and also raise revenue. But primarily, you want to think about it as a way of allocating a scarce resource, because we’re already raising revenue in different ways — the motor fuel tax is the largest in the transport sector, local governments raise a lot of money through property taxes and other sources, like vehicle registrations. You could consolidate all of those into a usage charge, and then it becomes fairer. People who use the roads more pay more, and the people who use roads less, pay less — in a more direct way than we have currently.

Earlier we were talking about autonomous vehicles, so let’s talk more about that. First of all, do you have any doubt that we will see fully or level-5 autonomous vehicles, where you could have no steering wheel and you could take a nap or check your email? Do you think we will have those on the roads in 20 years?

In 20 years, on the roads, we will have things that are very, very close to that. The question would be — is it on every road or just almost every road? Because there are still potential, you could call edge cases in the programming world, exceptional types of things that are hard to program for. So, the question of how you deal with those becomes important. But, that you would have a self-driving car that you could get into in the morning and that it would take you shopping or to work or to some other known place and back — without you ever touching a steering wheel — yeah, I don’t have any doubts that we would have that within 20 years.

It’s one thing to have a few people have those cars; it’s quite another for there to be 90% of those cars. To really reap the advantages of autonomous vehicles, does it really need to be that every car is autonomous?

You get advantages with any car being autonomous, primarily in terms of safety. When every car is autonomous, you get advantages in terms of congestion reduction, and being able to coordinate vehicles in a way that humans can’t do individually. But you don’t want it where you have 50-50 types of mixes; it’s better than zero cars being autonomous but it’s not halfway to 100% in terms of the capacity improvements because the spacing between the vehicles still has to be more at human-level spacing if you’re dealing with humans in the mix than if you’re dealing with no humans  because reaction times are very different.

If we have 5 or 10% autonomous cars, would that actually make traffic worse for some of the reasons I have mentioned earlier, where people are using those cars more but only a small subset is actually autonomous? Is it possible that rather than reducing traffic, it will initially make it a lot worse?

I think that only at 5 or 10% it won’t make it a lot worse because it’s only 5 or 10%. I think that the technology will be continuously getting better over this time, and so, the question of how aggressive a vehicle can be and how good it is at anticipating what other vehicles will do will continuously get better.

So, you’ll see reductions; there should be fewer crashes with the autonomous vehicles than with human-driven vehicles. If there’s not, there’s really very little reason to move in that direction. Assuming that it works as well as we hope it works, then, fewer crashes will lead to reductions in congestion because it’s one of the major sources. It’s been estimated as high as 50% of traffic congestion is because of incidents (a sort of a fancy name for mostly crashes, and construction, and things like that). So, you get benefits from that.

But, they [AV’s] might be more conservative than human drivers and that’s good over the long term, but it might be worse in a particular case. So if you’re less willing to take a chance, then you might be blocking the people behind you longer because you’re not going to play a game of chicken with somebody who is trying to enter from an entrance ramp; you might be more cautious about that. Or you’re not speeding, or other types of behaviors that people will do that at least in the short-term might eke a little bit more capacity out of the system. But in the long term, they are detrimental because they lead to suddenly slamming on the breaks and creating shock waves and things like that.

“You get advantages with any car being autonomous, primarily in terms of safety. But you don’t want it where you have 50-50 types of mixes; it’s better than zero cars being autonomous but it’s not halfway to 100%”

So it’s unclear. I mean, people have done simulations but honestly it’s just unclear as to how that nets out in a system with 5 or 10%, and it really just depends upon the kind of assumptions. Right now, it depends upon the kinds of assumptions that we make about the capabilities of autonomous vehicles, and in practice, we’ll have to see what technology is available on the road at a given time. When we say 10% of autonomous vehicles — well, 5% of them might be from a year before, and 3% from two years ago, and a couple percent from before that — and they all will be different mixes of technological capabilities. And while there are some software upgrades that will try to make them better, the hardware will just continue to get better. We have Moore’s Law in hardware — that the capacity of computer speed doubles every two years or so — we will see similar types of processes operating in both the software side and the hardware side on AV’s over the next couple of decades until the technology becomes more mature.

Will this require a radical upgrade of our roads? If the future is cars on a highway swarming at 90 miles an hour, six inches from bumper to bumper — you need much better roads than we currently have — not huge potholes, but pretty smooth. So, do we need an upgrade like that, or do they need to be somehow smart roads that can interact better with the autonomous cars? What does that infrastructure look like?

Well, the only way that this is going to get deployed is on the roads that we have. I mean, if you have to wait for the roads to get better it will never happen. So, the question will be, can it work better with better roads? And I think there is evidence that it could. I mean, potholes could create problems because if a pothole just forms immediately, the car that’s in front of it, if it’s driving at 90 miles an hour and sees the pothole for the first time, and it wasn’t aware that it was there, that’s going to create a problem. If the pothole has then been observed and marked, if it becomes part of the road network, and is then shared with all of the vehicles on the road — if basically there’s some sort of communication between the vehicle, either directly with other vehicles or through the central mapping system, and that’s then broadcasted back — then once that pothole is marked, the agency will know that there’s a pothole there and will probably fix it rapidly, if there’s the right kind of administration there. But secondly, all the other vehicles there will then decelerate in advance of the pothole and you won’t have the risk of breaking your axle right there.

You’ll have those kinds of communication things which will make things work better; roads would work better today if we didn’t have potholes. There are things like better striping of the roads that can help vehicles determine where lane markings are, better signage that’s more clearly visible to machine-vision types of systems. Those kinds of things are important. The ability to detect the traffic signal and what state the traffic signal’s going to be in — in advance of reaching the traffic signal or even in advance of seeing the traffic signal, so being able for traffic signals to communicate more broadly — all of those are great things, but the deployment of autonomous vehicles can’t be dependent on them because there are 3,300 counties in the US, and it’s really hard to imagine that all counties are going to be upgrading their traffic lights anytime soon. These are long-term investments and these are not fast-moving places. So, you have to be able to deal with the world as it is, and can’t expect the world to change in order to be able to take advantage of some of the AV benefits. But if there is a traffic light there, and if it broadcasts, all the better.

When we talk about autonomous vehicles, we also are talking about electric autonomous vehicles, right? Isn’t that the key to the vision?

So, simultaneous with the deployment of the autonomous vehicles is the deployment of the electric cars. We can already see major automakers saying that by 2023 or 2022, they’ll have an all-electric/hybrid fleet. Clearly, the end of the internal combustion engine is in sight, but it’s going to take decades to unwind this. The question is, will all new AV’s be electric vehicles? There’s no guarantee of that. So, some autonomous vehicles might still use an internal combustion engine; there’s no requirement that they’ll be electric. Similarly, electric cars have no requirement of being autonomous. But, if it’s 2025, and you’re thinking about buying a new car, all the best new cars will be both electric and have at least some autonomous features on them. So, you’re likely to buy both at the same time.

Will I be buying cars? Talking about personal car ownership, have we reached peak personal car ownership?

The third aspect of this tripod is the shared vehicle; to what extent will people continue to own vehicles versus to what extent they will use the shared economy — Uber, Lyft, Taxi types of services. If you have a driverless taxi that picks you up, why do you need a car? But on the other hand, cars are going to be less expensive, both less expensive to own and buy in the initial purchase, but also less expensive to operate because electricity prices are going to be falling over this period with the rise of renewable energy.

The cost of building an electric vehicle compared to the cost of building a combustion engine should be much less, because they have fewer moving parts. And if they have batteries produced at scale, and there are lots of companies working on this — not the least of which is Tesla — then we should be able to make electric vehicles less expensive than today’s cars. So just as the effective price of cellphones has fallen, the price of electric vehicles should be falling too over the next few years from being a luxury good that only the rich can afford. Like Tesla: previous models were on the order of $90,000, the next models are on the order of $30,000 to $40,000. Over time, these essentially equivalent vehicles are going to become much less expensive. So, the cost of owning goes down.

It depends on where you live as to whether you want to be a part of the shared economy or whether you want to be the remaining part of the ownership economy for vehicles. So if you live in a rural area, would you rather be able to go to a car that you own, drive when you want to, and have the car take you when you want to? Or, do you want to wait 10 or 15 minutes for a shared vehicle to come and pick you up? Well, over time, you will probably decide to own that vehicle.

On the other hand, if you live in a big city and you’re living in an apartment and parking is hard to begin with, why would you own a car? People in Manhattan already make that decision, they already use taxis on a regular basis for transit. So, a lot of it depends on where you are. The suburbs of the United States are going to be a sort of mixing ground — some people in sort of the older suburbs probably will be more willing to do the shared economy because you can get a car in a minute, and that saves you the hassle of owning. People who live in the lower density suburbs are probably still going to want to own a vehicle because land is cheap, they don’t want to wait a few minutes, and they like the personalization of the car.

You mentioned cheap renewable energy. I think some of the listeners think of renewable energy as being very expensive but subsidized by the government. So, what are you talking about?

The cost curve on solar power and wind power has been falling dramatically over the past few years, and the efficiency of solar panels is getting better and better. So we should be seeing — as this gets deployed more widely — renewables becoming a larger share of the energy mix. We can always see, globally and in most parts of the United States, that the use of coal has dropped; some of that is the substitution of using natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity, but a lot of it is the rise of renewables.

You can certainly imagine solar panels becoming more and more significant as the cost continues to fall, just like computer chips and electronic hardware. It’s just another aspect of the falling cost curves as you get production up to scale. So new solar is cheaper than new coal and new natural gas plants. Until recently, the problem has been the reliability issue that the solar panels don’t generate electricity when it’s night time or cloudy out, and so what kind of electricity are you going to use during that time?

So the question is — can we scale up battery production to provide a more stable stream of electricity? And one of the answers to the battery supply question is to use electric vehicles you have in your house, a few years from now, which basically can absorb power when the sun is shining and discharge power when the sun is not shining. And they can act as a battery along with in-house batteries that you have to try to balance the system so you don’t have problems when you have too much demand and not enough sunshine.

The United States has got a very large power grid, so if it’s not windy here, it’s windy somewhere else, and the electricity can move across the grid. Solar panels and batteries are similar types of things. And not all batteries are chemical batteries, I mean, you could think of a reservoir with a dam as being a battery — when energy is cheap and the sun is shining, you pump water into the reservoir, and when the sun isn’t shining, you discharge it; you drive a hydro-electric process. So, I think that there’s a lot of potential sources of ensuring that there is a reliable energy stream, even with the use of renewables that are dependent on the transient of the climate and the transient of the weather on a given day.

Do you think the end game here is that pretty much all vehicles will be autonomous and you are actually banned from driving your own car? Because that’s the question I get. Well someday, will it be illegal for me to drive an automobile? Is that where we’re going?

I hope so.

I mean, yes, we’re going in that direction; the question is how soon we get there and where and when. So, cities will be doing this first because cars are least valuable and most disruptive inside of the big city centers. European cities are already starting to do this, and they’ve set deadlines for it; they’re not going to allow automobiles in large areas of central cities. And over time, this kind of thing will spread to more areas. And as you’re willing to ban all vehicles, you would be saying, “We’re not going to let human drivers in, because human drivers are more dangerous. You can’t let human drivers into the next phase.”

For instance, we take the express lanes that are currently lanes for human drivers and high occupancy vehicles, and we say that only autonomous vehicles can use those lanes because we want to take advantage of them to get higher throughput. If you want vehicles driving down those express-freeway lanes at 90 miles an hour or even 80 miles an hour with one-meter spacing, you want those to be driven by computers, not driven by people, and so you can’t let any people into that system. So you geo-fence — essentially establishing an area where cars driven by humans aren’t allowed — and over time, those areas expand to freeways as a whole. They expand to city streets, then you can still drive your cars on Sunday afternoons, and you can still drive your car on racetracks, but other than that, we are not allowed.

Are we culturally ready for that scenario?

We’ll get ready for it. I mean, you can’t do that tomorrow, but this isn’t something that’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s something that’s going to happen over the next 2–3 decades. And are we ready for it? Over two to three decades, this is a kind of a social change that takes a couple of decades, but we’ve done it for other types of things. Smoking is probably the best example that comes to mind — you can still smoke at home, you can smoke in limited private clubs, but smoking has been banned from public places and in many areas outside the doors of public places. So, smokers become geographically more and more isolated.

Driving will be very much the same kind of thing for similar types of reasons. I mean, it’s also a public health question as much as anything — even if you solve the pollution problem, you still have the safety problem — cars still kill 37,000 people in the United States each year. So you want to reduce that, and the way you want to reduce that is by getting humans out of the loop. You’re not going to get it to zero; I mean, there are always some accidents — some unpredicted things, some child runs out to the street, something goes wrong.

Terrorist hacking! What about when they start hacking all of the cars and cause a 2,000 car pileup?

Yeah, right, this is one of the issues. You talked about autonomous cars, and then you asked about — well if they are connected, can they do better? In principle, yes. But there’s a risk associated with connected vehicles. One of the risks is that there is a centralized point of failure; if someone can get into multiple vehicles or even one vehicle remotely, they can do damage. I mean, you could cause a multi-car pileup with just a single car, but imagine if you could get into all of the cars remotely; you could turn those into very dangerous terrorist devices.

I’m working on a screenplay with that exact scenario right now.

How we manage the security on the connected vehicles is still an unclear question; clearly, something has to be done before they are deployed widely, but no one has got a really good answer to this because computer security is a hard thing. You don’t want to give keys to something that can easily be broken into. Does the automaker have the keys to your car?

I mean, Tesla recently updated the software on all of their cars in Florida amid the hurricanes so that people could extend their battery life a little bit longer. That’s a good thing to be able to do, but that also suggests that there’s a little bit of danger here because if someone at Tesla can do that, someone in Tesla could do something else — someone could hack into Tesla and do something else — and all of a sudden, all of the Tesla vehicles behave strangely one day.

What will I be able to do first: take an autonomous car from LA to San Francisco, take a bullet train from LA to San Francisco, or take a Hyperloop from LA to San Francisco? Which of those will come online first?

An autonomous vehicle will come online first, and you should probably expect pilot runs in the next year or two. Whether you can buy a car that will allow fully hands-off driving in the next year or two might be up in the air, but if you’re sort of looking at freeway only driving, it’s quite possible that by 2020 — for the freeway portion of your trip — it could be entirely hands-off.

And what’s going on with the bullet trains and Hyperloops? Are Hyperloops going to be the new bullet trains? What is the future of these technologies in the United States?

Well, bullet trains are a real thing; they’ve been around since the early 1960s.

Just not here.

Just not in the United States, for a variety of reasons, but they are a real thing in many parts of the world. They work fine technologically, and economically they are roughly break-even in some places, they require public subsidy. But, a lot of transportation requires public subsidy — highway certainly requires public subsidy — so the question is, “Will they finish it in California?” It’s under construction and it’s not planned to be finished in the next five years because getting into the LA basin or San Francisco Bay Area is difficult. So, the section they are building is in Central Valley, it’s under construction, and you will be able to ride a bullet train in the Central Valley at some point in the next few years.

When they finish that section of construction, they’ll have a happy ribbon-cutting ceremony, and the question of how you do the next step is not clear. They’ll be able to try that bullet train at not bullet-train speeds at San Francisco and Los Angeles — so it will be slow until you get to the Central Valley, perhaps, and then it will go fast and then it will be slow again — but as proof of concept, you will be able to ride a bullet train but not at bullet-train speeds.

Hyperloop, on the other hand, no one has ridden on a Hyperloop. It’s mostly vaporware at this point. Now you could imagine magnetic levitation trains — they certainly exist in parts of the world — generally on small a stretch. The technology is not more efficient than conventional high-speed rail, but it’s out there. When you put a Mag-Lev train in an evacuated tube — sure you could do that and there will be some energy benefits from that potentially, no one has really done that — but there are a lot of questions about Hyperloop itself because it isn’t actually a thing; it’s just a name.

Maybe I am getting all my Elon Musk ideas mixed up, but he’s also into tunneling. Is that part of the Hyperloop vision or is that a different vision?

They are interrelated visions. The tunnels can certainly be used for Hyperloop, and I guess, he [Musk] just signed a deal with the state of Maryland to build a 10-mile section of tunnel under some roads in Maryland — between Maryland and Washington — as the first step in the construction of a north-east corridor Hyperloop-ish thing. He’s also talked about using tunneling technology to move cars more quickly. One of the issues with tunnels has been that tunnels are expensive; I mean, we have tunnels in the world, it’s not like tunneling is a new technology. He hopes, he claims, that he’ll be able to reduce the cost by a factor of 10 — which if he can do that would be fantastic. I don’t know what he knows that all civil engineers don’t, but Elon Musk is obviously the smartest man in the world, so he must know something about how to reduce tunneling costs by a factor of 10.

“I think most transportation policy should be done locally at the state or local level, and so expanding Washington’s role isn’t the critical thing here.”

One of the things he talked about is making the tunnels smaller, because it’s cheaper to build smaller tunnels than bigger tunnels for sort of obvious reasons. And that instead of cars driving through the tunnels, they’ll be on sleds and then move through the tunnels, if you have looked through some of his demos. This is a little bit strange because if you’re going to do that why not just build public transportation? Why do I need to take my car into the center of the city if it’s going to be on a sled in the last part of the trip? Why not just park it in the suburbs and take a train into the center of the city?

So, the sort of a use-case isn’t clearly established; but if he wants to make investments in improving tunneling technology, you can do that — that’s got other ancillary benefits. We in the transportation community are just sort of skeptical of his ability to make huge innovations in that area. But if he can, then more power to him and better for everybody.

So finally, if you’re the Infrastructure Czar, or the Transportation Czar, what are two or three things that you would do, that you would have Washington do, in the areas of infrastructure and transportation?

I think getting the prices right. I am going back to sort of the first point: Getting the prices right is really important. I think most transportation policy should be done locally at the state or local level, and so expanding Washington’s role isn’t the critical thing here. But certainly, helping to set standards and move things in the right direction, and ensuring that the technologies talk to each other, is critical. You don’t want every state setting up a different pricing technology or a toll-pass technology.

So in the north-east quarter, everybody converged upon EZ pass and that’s a great thing from a technological-use point of view — if you had to have 15 different toll tags for 15 different states, that would be a real problem — so ensuring standards and communication in that, and maybe moving the federal gas tax over to a different pricing system, would be useful.

I think phasing in tolling — the political hit on this is really hard so tolling roads that are currently un-tolled is something that has led to riots, historically. I am not exaggerating here; historically, putting toll gates on what people perceived as free roads has led to riots. So you don’t want to do it that way. On the other hand, electric vehicles aren’t paying gas tax for obvious reasons — they are not using gasoline, yet they are using roads — so if we know that electric vehicles are going to be deployed over the next 10 or 20 years, now would be the perfect time to start implementing the pricing for electric vehicles in lieu of the gas tax. Once that becomes normal, then we have pricing without having this huge political fight and hopefully without having the riots associated with it. And we have a more sensible transport financing system, and a more sensible road allocation system, where we charge more at the peak times when the roads are more congested, and less in the off-peak — to encourage the demand to be balanced between the peak travel and off-peak travel, and to discourage the trips that don’t need to be made by automobiles at a given time.

Nothing you have described sounds fun for a politician to do. They’d rather have ribbon-cutting ceremonies, or put new pavement down. The things you described do not sound like what most politicians would gravitate toward.

Yeah, I mean, that’s why it hasn’t happened. It would be better if we were there but there’s not really a good path to get from here to there. On the other hand, if you’re in the oil industry, you should be all in favor of putting charges on electric vehicles; you’d say, “Well, they are free-riding on public roads and we have to pay, why shouldn’t they pay?” So there’s an equity argument here to be made.

It doesn’t sound fun because raising taxes on anybody isn’t fun. But you could say, “Well the people who have the electric vehicles today have above average incomes and they probably vote for Democrats, and they themselves would probably be more willing to pay higher taxes as a price of civilization than the other side.” So, it might not be that hard to sell as a way of reorganizing how we fund transportation. I think one of the problems is that congestion — as much as we complain about it — just isn’t bad enough for people to be willing to take a political bite of “I can do something that will actually solve the problem.”

But you think about if some of the states could do this, or some of the cities could do this — New York City is the closest to being able to do this, politically, they are almost ready to do this — and so if you start seeing this in more and more places in various forms, people get used to this idea and can see the benefits of it. So typically, when someone’s proposing a pricing system, the best case is probably Stockholm. It was a bit unpopular when it was proposed, but they did a trial of it for six months, then people saw the benefits of it. They turned off the trial and they had a vote, and it passed by a small majority; then they implemented and turned it back on, and since then, the popularity of the system has risen.

So a lot of things that people aren’t familiar with are unpopular and you need to get some familiarity; it has to start somewhere. You could maybe induce some cities to start doing pricing, and some states are doing experiments. Oregon and California, are having voluntary opt-ins to odometer-based pricing rather than gas-tax pricing, and they are doing these experiments, and the states get some experience. Deploying the technology, people get used to having this kind of pricing system and they become more familiar with it. Those small experiments are not going to solve any congestion problems, but they get people used to the idea of paying on a per-mile basis and maybe paying more at certain times of the day and maybe less at the other times of the day; it becomes familiar.

We pay for lots of things differently by different times of the day — restaurants have lunch and dinner menus, movie theaters charge more in the evening than they do in a matinee, airlines charge more in peak-time than off-peak time, Federal Express charges more for one-day delivery than two-day delivery, more still for same-day delivery than one-day deliver — so people should be comfortable with the idea, while certainly they’ll be grumbling. If the problem is serious enough, this is a solution waiting to be adopted.

Now maybe congestion is not bad enough for most people, maybe people enjoy complaining about congestion, I’m not sure; but I think that there are these issues that have been keeping the United States from deploying it. And the United States isn’t going to be the first country that deploys this; I mean, that’s another thing to keep in mind. There are lots of countries in the world who are farther along on this path than the US is, and so the “Does the US want to be left behind?” argument could also play a role in something like this.