Puncturing Randal O’Toole’s autocentric robocar fantasy

Google self-driving Lexus covered 500,000 miles under robotic control. Photo via Extremetech.com.

Google self-driving Lexus covered 500,000 miles under robotic control. Photo via Extremetech.com.

By Bill Heger

In another of his familiar diatribes against rail transit, anti-rail Road Warrior “hired gun” Randal O’Toole recently posted on the Cato Institute website an attack on the relevance of long-range transportation planning (he’s particularly critical of the federally mandated 20-year horizon). Titled “Planning for the Unpredictable”, O’Toole’s tract focuses on the potential “unpredictable” impacts of “self-driving cars” (aka robocars, autonomous cars) on future travel patterns. Planning for public transport, he warns, should be minimized, because robocars “will be on the market in the next 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas.”
As usual, O’Toole’s admonitions are directed primarily against what he calls “obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways”, which he sees as “just a waste of money.” Don’t start developing rail plans for your community, he warns; in fact, don’t plan for the long term at all. Think short-term, because everything could change. “Instead of writing 20-year plans that pretend to know what a city will need in the distant future, planners should only write short-term plans that solve today’s problems …. Urban areas should avoid infrastructure projects that take decades to complete and would make sense only if people completely changed their lifestyles.”
Public transport advocates and professionals are well aware of robocar technology and have been analyzing its implications — with the assessment that, while technological innocation will undounbtedly introduce changes in travel options, there’s no basis for believing that rail and other public transport modes will be made obsolete by robocars anytime soon. Light Rail Now technical consultant and contributing editor Lyndon Henry has discussed some of the implications of robocars in two articles on the AllAnalytics.com website: That Robot Is Derailing My Train and Sterilize Your City for the Robocar Revolution? Transport planner/researcher Todd Litman, head of the Victoria Transport Planning Institute, has also issued an excellent analysis titled Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions.
These analyses raise both daunting technical and policy issues which suggest major obstacles to predictions of a tsunami of self-driving cars that will flood cities and usurp mass transport services.
In the following post, Bill Heger, an authoritative and influential St. Louis rail passenger advocate, offers his own rebuttal to O’Toole’s counsel to cities to put transit planning and project development on hold while awaiting the Robocar Revolution just over the horizon. His narrative not only challenges some of the glib chicanery against rail transit development presented by O’Toole, but also expresses in a down-to-earth way several of the major complex issues that currently confront robocar technology and its implementation.

I see a lot of things wrong with what Randal O’Toole is saying in this article. First he complains about how long it takes to get transportation projects done. Has it occurred to him how much bureaucracy and red tape you have to go through just get a project started?

This fact is just as true for a road project as it is for a rail transit project. In fact, it’s usually people like O’Toole who come along and try to screw things up when you build a rail project, thus making the costs go up and dragging the construction time out.

Case in point: Here in St. Louis the original plan for the Shrewsbury Metrolink extension called for almost all surface construction. However, a group of arrogant and uninformed neighbors banded together and insisted that large portions of the line be placed underground. Once construction started, the crews ran into several underground utilities which did not show up on any plats. The project failed to come in on time or at budget because the transit company was not allowed to build it on the surface.

Another thing O’Toole leaves out is the energy impact these self-driving cars will have. Nowhere does he mention what will power these cars. Will they be standard gasoline engines, diesel, hybrid, fuel cells, electric? He does not say. Considering that one time he posted something once highly critical of the Toyota Prius, I suspect he would be opposed to anything other than gasoline standard internal combustion.

This leads into the next question: Where is all that gasoline supposed to come from? Oh sure, the powers that be now try to insist that the United States is currently nearly self-sufficient in oil. But if that’s the case, why are we still spending billions of dollars defending a bunch of third-rate dictatorships in the Mideast? It certainly was not to bring democracy to the region. Just ask the Iraqis.

A further question O’Toole neglects is: Will people really want self-driving cars?

Part of the whole appeal of the automotive culture is the word AUTO. It means self. A large part of the automotive culture is the idea of self-mobility; the fact that you are in control.

Furthermore, the automakers have wanted to convince the consuming public that they are building a car just for you. That’s why GM had 5 auto lines, Ford Chrysler and VW had three, and virtually all the other auto manufacturers existed. It’s your car. I even know of some people that still insist on manual transmissions because they want that much control.

O’Toole is a free market conservative. What if the free market says No to self-driving cars?

This point leads to another libertarian contradiction. Libertarians are always big on people doing their own thing. They oppose drug enforcement, they are pro-choice, and they are generally opposed to the government doing anything other than providing for the common defense. I knew of one libertarian that even wanted to privatize the military.

If their whole philosophy is one of the individual making their own choices, then don’t self-driving cars fly right in the face of that philosophy? Can you say “hypocrites”, boys and girls? Sure, I knew you could.

Furthermore, who is going to control the mechanisms that govern these self-driving cars? Nowhere in his article did O’Toole address who would be in control.

Does the Federal highway administration set up some central control center? Does each state set up their own control system with federal oversight? How do you guarantee each state’s system is compatible with the others?

Thrill of the open road? Latest version of Google robocar comes without steering wheel, brake pedal, or accelerator pedal — car will drive humans, human's won't be able to drive car. Thinking among robocar technology developers is that human control must be eliminated for safety reasons. Photo via Recode.net.

Thrill of the open road? Latest version of Google robocar comes without steering wheel, brake pedal, or accelerator pedal — car will drive humans, humans won’t be able to drive car. Thinking among robocar technology developers is that human control must be eliminated for safety reasons. Photo via Recode.net.

And finally, who and how do you pay for all of this? O’Toole and his fellow thinkers love to complain about the costs of rail projects. How much is his driverless car system going to cost? I don’t recall seeing any figures.

Finally, the next generation coming up may not even be able to afford a car, whether that car is conventional or driverless. Most likely, they will not make the money their parents made and they may be entirely responsible for their own retirement and health insurance.

Where is the money for a car supposed to come from? Furthermore, if they have kids, that only means even less income. A car is almost out of the picture.

In conclusion, I fail to see how O’Toole expects to make his autocentric future world work. ■

Remembering Edson L. Tennyson, icon of rail public transport advocacy and development

Edson L. Tennyson, 1922-2014. Photo: Tennyson family.

Edson L. Tennyson, 1922-2014. Photo: Tennyson family.

With profound sorrow we have learned of the loss of our close colleague, the renowned transit industry icon Edson L. Tennyson.

Shortly after his 92nd birthday, Ed, senior technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, passed away at his home near Washington, DC on 14 July 2014 following a valiant struggle with cancer. He intrepidly had continued to post his insights and analysis of transit issues on the LRPPro listserve, to the benefit of hundreds of colleagues belonging to younger generations of rail transit advocates and professionals.

Two of Ed’s daughters, Marilyn Tennyson and Marjorie Tennyson, were with him in his final days. He is also survived by another daughter, Connie McCarthy, and by his wife of 70 years, Shirley Forward Tennyson.

Services will be held on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 at 2:00 PM at the Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia.

Ed Tennyson was perhaps the most prominent U.S. public transport expert, still professionally active, who had actually worked for the original interurban and urban electric railway industry, and who also, in the words of Greg Thompson — Chair of the Light Rail Transit Committee of the U.S. Transportation Research Board (TRB) — “understood the fundamentals of successful transit.”

In postings on the LRPPro listserve, Ed often cited his youthful experience riding the once-extensive electric trolley system of New Jersey Public Service, mainly in northern New Jersey. He also drew upon lessons from his stint as a station employee for Greyhound.

After completing two management engineering degrees, Ed began his main public transport career at Pittsburgh Railways, subsequently moving to a management position with Milwaukee Rapid Transit. There, as described by Lawrence Lovejoy, a Senior Supervising Engineer for Parsons Brinckerhoff, Ed was particularly involved with developing the Speedrail system, an effort to reorganize remnants of the Milwaukee region’s once-extensive interurban system into a suburban rapid transit service.

Ed Tennyson stepping from a Speedrail electric interurban car, c. 1950. Photo via Lawrence Lovejoy.

Ed Tennyson stepping from a Speedrail electric interurban car, c. 1950. Photo: Arthur S. Ellis and the Miller Library of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, via Lawrence Lovejoy.

While Ed’s formative experience was gained in the course of a largely unsuccessful struggle to retain electric rail and trolleybus operations during the U.S. Transit Devastation era, his understanding and insights have proved invaluable to colleagues, and influential in the revival of electric surface railways over the past four decades.

In 1951 Ed was appointed City Transit Commissioner for Youngstown, Ohio, championing the city’s electric trolleybus system which remained in operation until 1959. He served Youngstown until 1956, when he became the Chief Transit Engineer and Deputy Commissioner of Transportation in Philadelphia.

According to Tom Hickey, Chief Development Officer of Virginia Railway Express and chairman of the Streetcar and Heritage Trolley Subcommittee for the American Public Transportation Association, Ed helped helped “reimagine” Philadelphia’s Center City “as we know it today”, with “Penn Center and Market East and Independence Mall redeveloped into open urban spaces centered around transit, not the automobile.”

Tom adds the following about Ed’s achievements in this period:

When other cities were ripping up street railways and building urban highways, Ed was key to crafting Philadelphia’s policy to eschew the temptation of cheap federal dollars for roadways and focus on preserving rail transit through what we today accept as public-private partnerships with the railroads and then-private transit companies. He is one reason … that Philadelphia is still by far the largest street railway operation in the US. He extended the light rail “Subway-Surface” tunnels under the Schuylkill River lines and University City to their present portals.

In rail rapid transit, he extended the Market-Frankford El to 46th Street at the same time as the Subway-Surface extension. The “Almond Joy” el cars were purchased under his watch as well. He led the extension of the Broad Street Subway to the Sports Complex in South Philadelphia. He was highly influential in the creation of PATCO [Port Authority Transit Corporation] — both in extending the predecessor Bridge Line under the streets of Philadelphia from 8th & Market to 16th & Locust and in splitting the Lindenwold High Speed and Broad Street Lines into the configuration we know today.

As for commuter rail, Ed formed the Passenger Service Improvement Corporation in the late 50s with the then-unheard of proposition of giving public money to private corporations (the Pennsy and Reading) as reimbursement for the losses incurred in commuter rail service, as well as providing new rolling stock to do so (Silverliners I, II and IIIs plus RDCs for the Reading diesel lines). He was the force behind linking Philadelphia’s two commuter rail networks through the Center City Commuter Connection, as well as the Fox Chase electrification, Airport High Speed Line and retention of the PRR Norristown Line as far as the City limits (Ivy Ridge).

Finishing in Philadelphia as Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Public Property for Transit Engineering, in 1972 Ed was appointed by Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp to the position of Deputy Secretary for Local and Area Transportation in the state’s Department of Transportation (PennDOT), where he served for seven years. It was in that position that he helped steer Pittsburgh away from totally eliminating what remained of its former streetcar system and toward converting the most important lines into a modern light rail transit system. As Greg Thompson relates, Ed was influenced by similar developments in Europe:

He grasped immediately the idea that German light rail, which evolved from streetcars in Germany, was a new transit mode faster, higher capacity, and more productive than both buses and traditional streetcars. He understood that for those reasons light rail could be configured as the backbone of regional multimodal transit systems that attracted high ridership and were productive.

Energized by those developments, recalls Greg,

Ed tirelessly advocated the potential of Pittsburgh’s streetcar system, fighting not just against its abandonment, but for its reconfiguration into trunk lines. What has remained would not have remained had Ed not carried on the good fight. He also researched the relative performance of busways in that city, revealing the chasm between what they promised and what they actually delivered.

High among Ed’s other achievements in his Deputy Secretary position was to improve intercity rail service — particularly “resuscitating Keystone corridor rail service between Harrisburg and Philadelphia”, according to Greg.

When his term with PennDOT expired in 1979, Ed moved on to a role as consultant for the new San Diego Trolley project, helping to guide startup operations there, and with several other transit entities. Then, in 1983 he was appointed Public Works Planning Coordinator for Arlington County, helping to complete the Metro Orange Line to Vienna, Virginia.

Following that, in 1992 he retired — nominally. But in reality, Ed stayed very active as an advocate and advisor to others pursuing important public transport projects, especially rail. In 2000, he was one of the original members of the Light Rail Progress Professional (LRPPro) listserve, an online forum where his analysis and advice have been of enormous value to other professionals and advocates striving to develop and improve rail public transportation. In recent years, he served on the Fairfax County Transportation Advisory Commission, and as an emeritus member of the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council. Until a few weeks before his death, Ed was working with engineering consultant (and LRPPro member) Alan Drake on a proposal for expansion of Washington’s Metro system.

Ed’s legacy rests not just with his many direct achievements in the physical development, improvement, and operation of public transport systems, but especially with the vast influence he has had within the industry and in the thinking of other professionals. Tom Hickey emphasizes that

Ed was a determined, tireless, and often effective advocate of doing things right. He was eternally generous with his opinions (even when unsolicited…) and always challenged those around him to extend their reach.

Tom also cites the Biblical passage, “You shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16.)

A flurry of condolences and eulogies has been posted to the LRPPro listserve, on which Ed had been so active and influential for 14 years. Bob Reuter, a dedicated rail transit advocate in the Baltimore-Washington area and a transportation engineering consultant, posted the following:

My deepest condolences, and he already has left a hole in the fabric of the transit community.

I knew Ed professionally and as a friend for well over 25 years and he was never anything but the consummate gentleman.

I have saved every one the 5459 messages he sent to this list. I hope to be able to bring order to his posts and maybe repost them at a future time. His wit and wisdom will be greatly missed

Again my deepest condolences to the family; you will all be in my prayers.

Expressing profound sadness, Lyndon Henry, founder of the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT), technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to the Light Rail Now website and blog, noted that

Ed has been my most influential mentor. I will miss his advice, wisdom, and inspiration more than I can express.

In a message of condolence to the Tennyson family, Dave Dobbs, TAPT Executive Director and publisher of Light Rail Now, wrote the following:

Edson Tennyson was a great friend and mentor for the last 23 years. He was foremost among those who sought to bring back a rational transportation system to America, the professor emeritus of public transit, and in that effort he inspired the rest of us to make the world a better place in every way.

I will miss his sage advice, his insights and his careful analysis of the all important numbers that he so enjoyed presenting to the world. LRPPro, started by Lyndon Henry, grew out of our website, LightRailNow! (www.lightrailnow.org), which Ed inspired with his charts, graphs and commentary that he presented at the Dallas Rail-Volution in 1999. I had the honor of converting those incredible materials into electronic format, which, in 2000, became a website that now has thousands of pages and numerous articles by Edson Tennyson and is used by many in the transit industry for information.

Lyndon Henry, Roger Baker and I and others here at TAPT offer our condolences. Please know that while your personal loss is immeasurable, our loss and the loss to the transit industry is shared with you in a very keen way. Ed was one of the greatest generation; a soldier right up to the end, he continued to give to his country and the world. May he rest in peace and may you find peace in knowing how much Ed meant to others.

And Greg Thompson’s eulogy undoubtedly expresses succinctly the feelings of most of us that knew Ed Tennyson well:

I shall miss him, but I also am comforted in the fact that his work is responsible for the industry being on a plane higher than it would have been without him.

Roger Baker: The fallacy of belief in “exponential growth in a finite world”


Commentary by Roger Baker

In a May 28th post, the Energy Skeptic blog highlighted with its title the fact that “Expressways & Interstates are only designed to last for 20 years”.

The article notes that U.S. highways are “falling apart and need $930 billion of work.” It quotes transportation researcher Earl Swift, who warns that “Bringing the system into full repair, and keeping it there, will cost us $225 billion a year for the next 50 years to rehabilitate surface transportation.”

Let us combine this well-documented fact that our roads are self-destructing at an appalling rate with news from a July 2nd post in Streetsblog, which further warns that “State transportation departments could see the federal funding they receive pared back as early as a few weeks from now if Congress doesn’t come up with a transportation funding solution.”

In August, the U.S. Highway Trust Fund — the major federal funding mechanism for the nation’s transportation system — will become insolvent unless Congress acts. Chart: FHWA, via Streetsblog.

In August, the U.S. Highway Trust Fund — the major federal funding mechanism for the nation’s transportation system — will become insolvent unless Congress acts. Chart: FHWA, via Streetsblog.

We should see this as dismal news for roads and transit short-run, but good long-run news for rail, which lasts much longer, and is far more energy-efficient for hauling people or freight. Politics can hold out against economic reality for only so long.

While the U.S. roads keep falling apart, due to their intrinsically high upkeep and poor economics, and with a funding gap the federal and state fuel taxes cannot now cover, we will soon be obliged to turn toward rail — assuming we even still afford rail as our Plan B in this context.

Meanwhile, we watch the Mideast, ground zero for global oil addiction, shift into something like civil war based on ancient religious animosities, as this recent article posted on the Resilience.org website discusses:


Is there a way out of this mess? Yes, according to the bankers, who probably never even saw an oil well, yet are bravely assuming that by fracking, the USA can even challenge Saudi Arabia in crude oil production! A July 4th article titled U.S. Seen as Biggest Oil Producer After Overtaking Saudi Arabia, posted on the Bloomberg News site, expresses this kind of assessment:

The U.S. will remain the world’s biggest oil producer this year after overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia as extraction of energy from shale rock spurs the nation’s economic recovery, Bank of America Corp. said.

U.S. production of crude oil, along with liquids separated from natural gas, surpassed all other countries this year with daily output exceeding 11 million barrels in the first quarter, the bank said in a report today. The country became the world’s largest natural gas producer in 2010. The International Energy Agency said in June that the U.S. was the biggest producer of oil and natural gas liquids.

“The U.S. increase in supply is a very meaningful chunk of oil,” Francisco Blanch, the bank’s head of commodities research, said by phone from New York. “The shale boom is playing a key role in the U.S. recovery. If the U.S. didn’t have this energy supply, prices at the pump would be completely unaffordable.”

These bankers, who place their faith in fracking to challenge the Saudis, are oil junkies in denial, an outlook which Resilience.org debunks on a regular basis. To paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, the only ones who believe in exponential growth in a finite world are madmen, economists, and now, bankers. ■