Clinging to Fantasies to Avoid Admitting the 20th Century Is Over
Update: Brad Templeton responded late Friday afternoon in a comment on this post.
Today Forbes’s website published a rather odd article by Brad Templeton of something called “Singularity University,” a research outfit in Silicon Valley that claims to be working on the technologies that will solve human problems. The article claims that high speed rail is outmoded technology and will be supplanted by things he claims are futuristic but are, in fact, even more archaic than the bullet trains he derides. What’s he’s actually doing is desperately finding ways to prolong a failed model of transportation and land use, even as the public is moving away from sprawl and driving, unwilling to admit that electric trains are where the future lies.
The reality of the world, however, is that technology is changing very fast, and in some fields like computing at an exponential rate. Transportation has not been used to such rapid rates of change, but that protection is about to end. HSR planners are comparing their systems to other 20th century systems and not planning for what 2030 will actually hold.
Actually, we are planning for what 2030 will actually hold. It’s these supposed visionaries at Singularity University who are so busy looking backward they’re not paying attention to what’s actually happening or where the trendlines are pointing. And as you read his article closely, his biases – in favor of sprawl and utterly ignorant of rising demand for urban living – are obvious.
Cars that can drive and deliver themselves left the pages of science fiction and entered reality in the 2000s thanks to many efforts, including the one at Google. (Disclaimer: I am a consultant to, but not a spokesman for that team.) By 2030 such vehicles are likely to be common, and in fact it’s quite probable they will be able to travel safely on highways at faster speeds than we trust humans to drive. They could also platoon to become more efficient.
Their ability to deliver themselves is both boon and bane to rail transit. They offer an excellent “last/first mile” solution to take people from their driveways to the train stations — for it is door to door travel time that people care about, not airport-to-airport or downtown-to-downtown. The HSR focus on a competitive downtown-to-downtime time ignores the fact that only a tiny fraction of passengers will want that precise trip….
The cars won’t beat the train on the long haul downtown SF to downtown LA. But they might well be superior or competitive (if they can go 100mph on I-5 or I-99) or the far more common suburb-to-suburb door to door trips. But this will be a private vehicle without a schedule to worry about, a nice desk and screen and all the usual advantages of a private vehicle.
There are many practical reasons why this isn’t going to be a workable solution in 2030. First off, thanks to peak oil a reckoning is looming. Either gas prices become unaffordable, meaning few people will be able to afford a self-driving car, or people start seeking out alternatives to lighting fossil fuels on fire to get around. True, those alternatives will to an extent include an electric car. But the top range for mass market electric vehicles right now is under 100 miles. There’s a really long way to go to get them ready to drive 400 miles on a single charge. And of course, you’d need some way to power the electrical load needed to charge all those vehicles.
Second, assuming you either ignored or solved peak oil, where do all those self-driving cars go? California’s freeways are already jammed. Expanding them to handle the load of population growth would cost about as much as HSR – $25 billion to expand Highway 99 in the Central Valley alone. Expanding freeways in the urbanized areas is not only very costly, it’s a bad use of precious urban space.
Third, by 2030 many Californians will be living in urban centers and trying to drive much less than they do now. The evidence shows not only that Millennials are driving less, and Census data suggests Boomers will drive less too as they age. Sightline Institute has this to say about the year 2030:
we expect per capita driving for the adult population of the United States to fall by 6.5 percent through 2030.
Yet these geniuses at Singularity University think that self-driving cars will be all the rage in 2030. Uh-huh.
Templeton gives himself away when he writes of “the usual advantages of a private car” – which are what, exactly? Especially on a trip from SF to LA, being in an automobile just sucks. It’s small, cramped, you can’t move. Same on a plane, really. On a train, however, the trip is far more comfortable. Tired of being in your seat? Rather than being stuck or having to stop the car, you can stretch your legs by walking to the cafe car, getting a drink, sitting down to watch the view, then walking around some more before returning to your seat.
A train is even better if you have kids – rather than having them being stuck and antsy in a car, they have more room to enjoy themselves on a typical train.
Templeton’s desire to breathe life into 20th century methods of travel extends to the airplane, which like the automobile is older than the bullet train. Here again, facts get in the way of his unrealistic dreams:
The air travel industry is not going to sit still. The airlines aren’t going to just let their huge business on the California air corridor disappear to the trains the way the HSR authority hopes.
Actually, that’s precisely what they are going to do. Ask an airline exec yourself. JetBlue has embraced HSR and wants out of the short-haul markets where most airlines don’t in fact make much money. No other airline lifted a finger to block California HSR. Airports across California are strongly supportive of HSR, indicating they understand HSR isn’t a threat to their business but will help open up slots for the more lucrative medium- and long-haul flights.
Despite these facts, Templeton plows right on:
These are private companies, and they will cut prices, and innovate to compete. They will find better solutions to the security nightmare that has taken away their edge, and they’ll produce innovative products we have yet to see. The reality is that good security is possible without requiring people arrive at airports an hour before departure, if we are driven to make it happen. And the trains may not remain immune from the same security needs forever.
They can’t cut prices if the underlying realities of rising oil prices won’t let them, and an electric plane is quite far from being possible. The FAA has projected high airfares for the rest of the decade at least. As to security theater, I’ve not seen the airlines make a move to deal with this growing threat to their industry yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if their solution is to saddle the competition with it anyway.
Templeton really wants to preserve the 20th century, going to great lengths to propose ways to keep air travel as a primary method of travel between SF and LA:
The fast trains and self-driving cars will help the airports. Instead of HSR from downtown SF to downtown LA, why not take that same HSR just to the airport, and clear security while on the train to be dropped off close to the gate. Or imagine a self-driving car that picks you up on the tarmac as you walk off the plane and whisks you directly to your destination. Driven by competition, the airlines will find a way to take advantage of their huge speed advantage in the core part of the journey.
What Templeton ignores is that a downtown HSR station is actually more convenient for most people in California than most urban airports. More people live and work near Transbay Terminal than SFO. SoCal’s airports are generally on the fringes of the urban area and not very convenient for those living in the densest populated places, especially in LA. A self-driving car on a tarmac? Really? Indulgent, and perhaps viable, but it’s not a solution for the masses. Nor is it necessary when we’ve seen HSR work so well around the world.
Even the mythical electric airplane also suffers from the same problem as the electric car: where do you put it? The cost of expanding airports to handle more short-haul flights is well into the tens of billions. None of these technological transportation solutions are cheaper than HSR.
And of course, none of them carry the smaller carbon footprint of HSR. Anyone projecting what the world of 2030 will need who doesn’t once mention climate change or carbon emissions is not to be taken too seriously as a futurist.
Templeton makes a nod toward maglev, which is fine, at least that’s a train which fits the world we can expect in 2030: an urban society, with little use for driving, where oil is either way too expensive or where better alternatives have been provided. But he slides back into his 20th century defending ways when he touts teleconferencing as a magical transportation solution:
Decades after its early false start, video conferencing is going HD and starting to take off. High end video meeting systems are already causing people to skip business trips, and this trend will increase. At high-tech companies like Google and Cisco, people routinely use video conferencing to avoid walking to buildings 10 minutes away.
Telepresence robots, which let a remote person wander around a building, go up to people and act more like they are really there are taking off and make more and more people decide even a 3 hour one-way train trip or plane trip is too much. This isn’t a certainty, but it would also be wrong to bet that many trips that take place today just won’t happen in the future.
It’s true that video conferencing will eliminate the need for some business trips, but by no means all. And even as urban Americans are supposedly interacting solely through their smartphones and social networks, ridership on mass transit in cities continues to climb. In 2030, people are still going to want to travel, and they’ll need a convenient, comfortable, non-oil based way to do it. Nothing in Templeton’s article has suggested there’s a better answer than HSR.
Besides, telepresence robots? Seriously?
Once you get to the end of the article, though, you learn what this is really all about. Templeton just won’t accept that the 20th century model of automobile-based sprawl really is going away. He just refuses to accept the possibility:
Like it or not, sprawl is increasing. You can’t legislate it away. While there are arguments on both sides as to how urban densities will change, it is again foolish to bet that sprawl won’t increase in many areas. More sprawl means even less value in downtown-to-downtown rail service, or even in big airports. Urban planners are now realizing that the “polycentric” city is the probable future in California and many other areas.
This is just blind assertion without facts. Most of the SF Bay Area has urban growth boundaries. As SB 375 continues to be applied in practice, it’s going to get a lot more difficult for counties and regions to promote sprawl. But it ultimately won’t be up to the laws of the legislature. Sprawl is the product of three factors: favorable laws, cheap oil, and cheap credit. Even with credit being quite cheap these days, the end of cheap oil has cut sprawl off at the knees. Growth in the exurbs has fallen off dramatically. Companies are increasingly moving their headquarters from office parks to office towers. Twitter is in downtown San Francisco just a few blocks from the Transbay Terminal, whereas Facebook appears determined to revive the office park and is taking a lot of criticism for it.
Companies like Twitter and Amazon (which is poised to build three new office towers in downtown Seattle) understand that their employees don’t want sprawl, they want the city. That’s another trend Templeton has discounted in his drive to maintain the failing 20th century model.
High speed rail is a model whose success has repeatedly been proven around the world. It’s modern and high tech and while that may not be the kind of dramatic brand-new tech that some might want, at least it actually meets what will likely be the needs of California in 2030, rather than trying desperately to maintain 1980 forever.