Sunday, October 20, 2019

Proposing an autonomous transit service for Houston

This week we have a guest post from Nikhila Krishnan on a potential autonomous transit future for Houston. You can also hear her presentation at a Houston Tomorrow H-GAC lunch event this Wednesday and on the HT website here, including links to more detailed documents.
A recent post discussed that Texas was ranked near the top for residents that feel their state is the best place to live. I would go so far as to say Houston is one of the best cities to live in, but there is one thing holding Houston back from taking the top slot as the best city:  effective public transit. The Houston readers can commiserate with the feeling of boredom and frustration when stuck in stand-still traffic during rush hour. We Houstonians have to make sacrifices due to limited public transit options including:
  • 10 days wasted per year in the car 
  • thousands of dollars spent each year on gas and vehicle maintenance
  • thousands of kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted annually
With the upcoming Metro Next Plan vote, there has been much discussion about future transit systems in Houston, but one key transit possibility has been absent from the discussion: autonomous vehicles (AVs).  

Autonomous vehicles are advantageous for the following reasons:
  • Transform system from small number of large vehicles to large number of small vehicles
  • Switch from fixed-route, fixed-timetable to demand-responsive system
  • Address the first/last mile problem
  • Point A to point B system
Because autonomous vehicles do not require a driver (or a driver’s salary), Houston would be able to better afford a larger fleet size of smaller vehicles. This means that there would be frequent services that reduce commute times and increase convenience. In addition, autonomous connected vehicles can communicate with each other and the passengers to create demand-responsive routes which would be more convenient for riders and would lead to higher vehicle load factors. To increase connectivity, autonomous vehicles can be applied to the first mile/ last mile problem of public transit that excludes some populations from using a transit system. Many opt-out of using public transit due to limited connectivity between their initial location and the transit pick-up or between the transit drop-off and their intended destination. AVs can fill in the gaps of existing transit, helping to create a fully integrated and accessible system that can get a user from point A to point B. The advantage of private cars is that one can hop in a car and get wherever they want whenever they want. If a public transportation system is comprehensive so that commuters can get from anywhere to anywhere with short wait times, it can challenge the dominance of cars and thus change the face of Houston transit.

I recently finished a Masters course at the University of Cambridge in which I wrote a dissertation (alternate link) postulating the use of autonomous vehicles as a means of delivering a public transport service in Houston. The results from the dissertation suggest that autonomous transport systems have great potential in Houston with regards to social, financial, and environmental performance. Houston needs a forward-thinking solution when planning transit that will be in place for the upcoming decades. Autonomous vehicles are that solution and Houston can be the leader in pioneering autonomous systems for public transit. 

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At 9:44 AM, October 22, 2019, Blogger George Rogers said...

One nit is that the pic 1.3 is counter flow evacuation, not normal rush hour!

At 12:54 PM, October 23, 2019, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

Before we spend one dime on this, I would like to see Harris County, City of Houston and Metro liberalize the rules for private local mass transit operators. It is still pretty much illegal for private operators to work fixed routes in the Houston Metro taxing jurisdiction. Allow the private sector to fill the void between private passenger vehicles and giant Metro buses. Just see what happens. It won't cost the taxpayers anything.

At 1:38 PM, October 23, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Total agreement we need to allow more private operators.

At 7:57 PM, October 24, 2019, Blogger JC said...

I have proposed in other venues, a rather radical re-structuring of vehicle licensure. Does every vehicle really NEED to be safe at freeway speeds? I adduce in evidence many restrictions on motorcycles on freeways,e.g. 350 cc minimum. Seriously, kids, you even ridden motorcycles on freeways? In traffic, at 70 MPH? You want a sense of mortality, I've just told you where to find it.

Likewise, my sainted mother probably hasn't driven on a freeway in decades. She really doesn't NEED that Jaguar(a gift from one of my brothers, she'd never buy it herself, love it though she does) to make her daily circuit of grocery store, Mass, and ... well, that's it really.

So, once again,allow me to suggest controlled access. Horses for courses. I work construction (GC), but all of my work is within a pretty circumscribed area. Call it a 5 mile radius. I need to move me and my tools, some supplies. I could do that in a tuk-tuk, but I can't, because I wouldn't be able to keep up with freeway traffic. But I wouldn't be on the freeway anyway. I'm still faced with the statutory minimum of, let's call it an F-150, at $25k, despite the fact that all I need or indeed want to is move maybe 500 pounds of stuff at 35 mph.

Controlled access. It's simple. Street tag, freeway tag. Do it with an RFID. That would require a sensor the size of a 6-pack at the freeway on-ramps, including the power supply, cell connection, and PV charger. This is not rocket surgery.

Here's a test case:

Wow! My sunk costs can be slashed! $1250 tuk-tuk (a reasonable price, check Ali Baba) instead of a basic pick-em-up at 20 times the price! My overhead just got lowered! Now let's do some fine tuning. Insured value of vehicle cut by a factor of 20! Hazardous conditions are now pretty much trivial! Even liability goes down, because, with that lightweight people-and-stuff mover, how much damage can you do? I can send an apprentice out to pick up a part, instead of a Journeyman or Master. Why? Because INSURANCE, BABY! So I'm putting up 300 foot of custom wood fence. I just have the materials delivered. This is not a problem. They know me. The culls go back for credit.

Now, I must admit that here in Houston, a city roughly the size of the State of Connecticut, there might be some difficulties. But, truth be told, it's mostly being able to bitch and moan to the Jefe in his air-conditioned F350 crew cab with the Cummins Turbo Diesel running at idle to keep the AC up. I've spent 60 summers in Houston Texas, and I live without AC. What makes me so special? I'm out there swinging a hammer, running a nail gun, pulling wire, sweating pipe, getting those miter cuts RIGHT, being an asshole with the level and a plumb bob. I just know the job better than you do, generally, and if I'm wrong, I wanna hear about it. And you don't have to come talk to me in my Ford Castle. Because you know me, and I don't have a Ford Castle.

But no. Each of you must have an F150. That's a lot of cash, there. You go there for a break, to eat lunch, whatever. With the money I've personally saved, I can set up a swamp cooler and a party tent, and buy everyone lunch. Sorry, no Vegan option. But you've never fired up your genset and your compressor. Everybody except a few of the welders don't need 'em anyway.

At 2:45 PM, October 25, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That's a pretty cool idea. I know a lot of communities that allow golf carts, but I guess they're not allowed on normal city streets (i.e. Rice police can't ride it over to Rice Village). I can really appreciate what you're saying because I'm in Morocco right now and they have everything from cars/trucks/buses to motorcycles and scooters to tuk-tuks and horse drawn carriages!


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