Welcome back and thanks to everyone who commented on yesterday’s post, which tried to highlight some ‘inconvenient truths’ about light rail (LRT). In today’s post I will try to synthesize and respond to those comments, before moving on to what I think are greener pastures. Taken together I hope that these two posts inject some excitement into conversations about the future of public transport in Auckland.
First let’s consider some of the important general comments from yesterday post:
- Context of the debate – BrisUrban highlighted the importance of context. Let’s be clear: We are discussing transport technologies that will be used in Auckland in the future. And let’s be even more specific, we are talking about post-2020 transport scenarios. Why? Well for the next 10 years all available public transport funding in Auckland is already committed. Unless I’m pleasantly surprised and the Nats get rolled in November.
- Redundant arguments – In another comment, George D suggested that those who support light rail in Auckland are already aware of its weaknesses. This does not match my experiences. From where I’m sitting it seems like LRT is often thrown out there as the default transport technology Auckland aspires to (e.g. by Len Brown), without much awareness of a) its limitations and b) other potential transport technologies.
And now let’s respond to some of the technical comments:
- Capacity – Patrick R (and others) argued that the Bogota BRT does not show that bus rapid transit (BRT) can match LRT’s capacity because it has two lanes in each direction, rather than one. But do the math – if you divide Bogota’s total throughput (40,000 pax/hour) by two lanes then you are left with 20,000 pax/hour/lane, i.e. about the same as LRT. So it is a fair ‘apples and apples’ comparison: LRT and BRT have similar capacities. It’s true!
- Resilience – Matt L suggests that observations of the fragility of LRT focus on “worst case scenarios.” But any discussion of technological resilience is an exercise in risk management, i.e. we must consider unlikely yet high-impact events. I don’t think it’s silly to consider how light rail would function in an earthquake, or in situations where cars get in the way – they are real risks involved in operating public transport in New Zealand, and they are risks that do not seem to affect buses as much as LRT.
Other commentators put forward advantages of LRT that were not discussed in yesterday’s post:
- Corridor width – Josh suggested that the narrower width of LRT was advantageous in constrained road corridors, such as Dominion and Mt Eden. But if this was really important we could simply build narrower buses. Also, I suspect that the emerging transport technologies (discussed below) will neutralize this problem because of the advanced guidance systems that they use.
- Market image – Nick R suggested that buses have an image problem. I’m skeptical of how important this is for three reasons: 1) the Northern Express has successfully got the suits out of the closet in Auckland; 2) bus systems overseas are well-used by people on high-incomes (e.g. Brisbane, Edinburgh); and 3) 15 year olds who start catching buses in 2020 will have a completely different image of buses from us oldies. We remember the bad old days of Auckland in the late 1990s, while the youngsters hopefully benefit from all our hard work over the next 10 years :). Finally, “image” is highly malleable, especially for new users coming from younger demographics.
- Mix of technologies – A number of commentators suggested Auckland’s future public transport system should involve a mix of transport technologies. This was never in question. What was in question is whether that mix includes light rail. I think not, or at least not in its current form. Even on “sensitive” corridors such as Dominion and Mt Eden, I suspect that existing transport technologies will work fine until better transport technologies (which are discussed below) become available.
Let’s now step back a second to consider what an ideal public transport technology (let’s call it a “BAM!” i.e. a Bus trAM) might look like. Ideally, a BAM would combine the advantages of buses, such as low capital costs, with the advantages of LRT, such as ride quality, while avoiding the disadvantages of both. That means we want to have higher vehicle capacities than can be accommodated on buses, while avoiding the need to run tracks and overhead wires. Even so BAM must be mainly electrically powered. We are really talking about some form of “technological convergence.”
But is the BAM a figment of my sore right knee or is it a realistic transport technology? Well, it actually already exists – sort of. A BAM (called the “Phileas”) was up and running in Eindhoven (those crafty Dutch) in 2004, as illustrated below (photo source).
That’s not to say that the Phileas ran smoothly straight up: There were problems with drive-trains and engines, which required a fairly substantial re-design from the manufacturer. But the Phileas seems to be developing nicely, and has since been tested by Douai (France) and Korea.
The Phileas website mentions some impressive headline technical specifications: The 26m hybrid diesel-electric version carries a maximum of 141 passengers and has a turning radius of only 12.5m (thanks to all wheel steering). This largely neutralizes concerns expressed by several commentators about buses leading to frequency overkill, or large buses failing to navigate through K’ Road. One of the most exciting developments included in the Phileas is its electrical guidance systems, which basically means it can steer itself – removing the need for drivers and potentially saving heaps in operational costs. BAM BAM!
But my faith in future, rather than past or present, transport technologies rests not on one product. Yesterday’s post also linked to Siemen’s BAM offering, which they are promoting as eBRT.
In contrast to the electric-diesel set-up used by Phileas, Siemen’s eBRT offering uses a fully electric power system based on super-capacitors (electricity buckets) that empty between stops. The super-capacitors are then re-charged (in 20 seconds) via overhead wires at the next stop (NB: Super-capacitors have been in development for several years as a cheaper and greener alternative to electric batteries). As with the Phileas, optical guidance systems are used to keep eBRT ontrack – so again it’s potentially driverless.
One final example of an unrelated but cool emerging technology is Avego, a real-time car-pooling (“ride-sharing” in U.S. parlance) software that runs through your SmartPhone. I know car-pooling has been talked about as a transport solution ‘fa-eva’ (in NZ parlance), but I get the feeling that the growth in GPS enabled smart phones will greatly reduce the transaction costs involved in finding someone to car-pool with. It may be at a stage where it takes off; although these initiatives are all about critical mass. If it does, then this may re-shape the transport landscape. Watch this space.
Some commentators (like KarlHansen) point out that these technologies are as yet unproven and it’s a very valid point. But I’d just like to point out that most of the technology underlying BAM is not new, even if the application is relatively novel. Moreover, time is on Auckland’s side, we have ten years before we need to chose the transport technology that will ply our major urban public transport corridors. Time is on our side, especially while the “Colossus of Roads” Steven Joyce is steering NZ’s transport agenda.
In conclusion, I suspect the future of Auckland’s (surface) public transport system will not include light rail as we know it, but it may well make use of new transport technologies that combine the advantages of light rail with buses.
To finish, I want to ask whether Auckland should be passive receivers of transport technology, or an active driver of technological change? We basically know what we want from the BAM, and we more or less know when we will need it.
Should we be making eyes at potential industry partners? Or if we’re too small to gain their attention should we be working together with Wellington, Christchurch, or other cities with similar technological demands.
Does anyone know why don’t cities collaborate with each other and then engage with relevant industry players to set a research agenda that delivers the type of transport system that we want? The EU tends to play this role in Europe and I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on whether we should be doing the same.