There are four main problems in urban transportation that require four separate solutions, transit guru Jarrett Walker said in Chicago in March, urging people to be wary of tech companies that claim to solve more than one problem at a time.
Walker is a transit consultant for many cities who earned the ire of Tesla founder Elon Musk in December. Musk said at a conference that public transit sucks, Walker suggested on Twitter that only the rich could afford such a sentiment, and Musk called Walker an idiot.
At the Shared Use Mobility Summit in Chicago, Walker argued that technology can solve some problems, but not the same problem that public transit solves.
"We have four separate problems of urban transportation which have four separate kinds of solutions," he said, "and it is very important to not mistake the solution for one problem for the solution for a different problem."
1. Communications: Friction arises between a transit system and its users when the users don't have the information they need when they need it. That problem has been largely solved, Walker said, by information technology and apps. "That has been a fantastic transformation. Some of you may not be old enough to remember what life was like without real-time information, when you just went right out into the snow and wondered when the bus was coming."
2. Emissions and Energy Efficiency: "for which we're currently working on electric vehicles, and that's fantastic."
3. Labor and Safety: The cost of labor is the primary driver of operation costs for passenger transport, Walker said. "It is why your bus doesn’t come more often, and it is also why Uber can’t make money." Autonomous vehicles will address that and the accident rate. "There is a problem with the efficient use of labor, and also a colossal problem of safety for which we are talking about autonomous vehicles, and that's fantastic."
4. Space: "And there is a fourth problem which is the efficient use of space, for which the solution is on the one hand, cycling and walking, and on the other, public transit provided by big vehicles."
The fixed-route bus or train is the vehicle of the future, Walker contends because it remains the most efficient way to move large numbers of people through the congested space of a city.
In his critique of public transit, Musk pointed out that people prefer "individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want," like the Tesla Model S. But Walker contends individualized transport that goes where you want when you want can't move people through a congested city as efficiently as a fixed-route bus.
"We are always going to need vehicles sized to the appropriate capacity requirement, which means big buses in big cities," he said. "Our friends in the tech industry, including many of you here, and I love what you're doing, are always trying to sell us stories about how everything will fit together into a magnificent fusion. They want us to mix it up, to think about how it combines. And I’m always saying, but wait a minute, if you’re going to be a smart customer you have to think about how they work separately as well."