Tag Archives: absurd solutions to transport problems

Engineering, psychology, and a bus on stilts

This week I’m trying to clear up the loose ends of threads I began and never finished, and get rid of some of the draft posts that I started but never polished…

Last week I posted about tracked hovercraft and straddling buses — a tongue-in-cheek look at how through the ages engineers have proposed ever more overcomplicated engineering solutions in an attempt to manage our out-of-control transport problems.  I assumed that my learned readers would get the point without labour.  WordPress.com very kindly picked it as one of their daily front-page features, though, which led to it receiving around 4,000 spam comments, including several dozen along the lines of “wow that bus looks awsum and wood solve all our problems make one for america!!!?! (p.s. here’s a link to my blog!!!11!)”.*

Well, actually my guess is that the straddling bus will be just another absurd transport solution that fails to achieve the things that it is designed to achieve.  The stated purpose of the bus is not to get cars out of its way, it is to get the bus out of cars’ way: the designers complain that the frequent stop-starting of buses means that they hold up the traffic behind.  It will probably fail to achieve much in the way of making car drivers’ lives easier because the designers are obsessed with engineering and don’t consider Motorist behaviour.

Here are a couple of random fascinating psychology factoids.  I wonder to what extent the bus backers have considered them in their models?

  • When you make road lanes just a little but wider — as you will surely need to do if you are to accommodate the bus safely — people drive faster.  They’re not doing it deliberately or rationally, perhaps not even consciously, they just do it.  It feels right.
  • Drivers slow down for tunnels, and things that feel like tunnels — tree-lined avenues and close high walls.  Even if there’s nothing telling them to, and no rational safety reason to do so.  They just do it.

The cause of traffic jams is traffic.  Too much of if, behaving erratically.  We like to pretend that it’s bad engineering, because we can always fix engineering by replacing it with some different engineering.  And we like to pretend that it’s not the volume of traffic and the behaviour of drivers, because acknowledging this would mean giving up hope that one day the traffic jams will magically be solved.  But that’s the way it is: too many cars, too badly driven.  The straddling bus will probably not help congestion — at least, no more than a conventional bus on a conventional bus lane — because it will change driver behaviour in a way we can’t easily predict, but which (as described) will likely involve them slowing down and speeding up in chaotic waves as the bus passes them and they pass the bus.  It doesn’t sound like much, but these effects have a habit of amplifying themselves: the traffic between lanes will cease to be smooth, so cars will be changing lanes more, and this lane-changing contributes further to slowing things down, and also greatly raises the risks of accidents occurring.

Perhaps that effect will be marginal given all of the other existing complications and currents in the traffic flow.  Perhaps we’ll see other interesting unforeseen behaviour changes in the Shenzhen trial.  All that we can say for sure that everybody will be predictably surprised when drivers don’t behave in a simple rational manner.  Just like they were the last ten thousand times the solution to congestion was discovered.

The main reason the bus will fail, though, is the same reason that all urban roadspace provision schemes fail: create a new space for cars to drive in, and an equal or greater quantity of car journeys will be created to fill that space.  The cause of traffic jams is too much traffic.  Double the capacity for traffic and all you’re doing is doubling the size of the traffic jams.

Put a conventional bus on a conventional (parking and taxi enforced) bus lane.  It’s easier.

* Not that I’m not grateful for all your valuable contributions to our discussions ;)

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Overcomplicating things

We’ve looked at jetpacks, hoverboards, tracked hovertrains, and self-driving cars: here is what I’ve learned from all these absurd concepts.

In the 1960s, people were convinced that there was a huge and growing problem with transport.  The then Ministry of Transport commissioned engineers and economists to look at those problems and suggest solutions.  The Beeching Report recommended closing all except the very core main lines of the railway network.  The Buchanan Report recommended razing cities and building neat modern concrete one-piece tower-block-and-motorway towns.  These were huge problems that called for radical solutions never before heard of.

That was the future of transport then, and every day since we’ve been treated to another great future of transport, from politicians, engineers, design students and photoshop fiddlers.

From the politicians we get grand projects: something that will leave a conspicuous legacy.  Boris spends millions on a distinctive new not-a-routemaster bus because the new bus (if it’s not ridiculed by Londoners) will be a conspicuous media-friendly achievement where fixing the distributed millions of little everyday problems with uncomfortable unreliable overpriced and overcrowded bus journeys would not.  Philip Hammond loves to play with High Speed Intercity Rail and motorways, but lets councils fight over the pennies that will determine the future of people’s everyday local journeys, because big billion-pound national construction projects give the impression of getting things done where the boring work to enable commuter journeys on the existing little lines in Conwy, Cornwall, Camberwell or Caithness doesn’t.

Perhaps the most perfect example in this category is the news that while the existing Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels fall apart (and the Clippers are cut back, and the road tunnels are closed at night, and the Woolwich ferry rusts), Boris thinks it’s a brilliant idea to build a massive cable car river crossing between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks.

Meanwhile the engineers are left alone to tinker with what we already have, attempting to keep the status quo viable by “managing” the problems, designing ever more complicated traffic management schemes, and attempting to fix fundamentally flawed designs and devices.  Things like 155mph superbuses and, of course, electric cars.  Things that will at best merely delay the day when a problem becomes a crisis.  This reaches its absurd conclusion with “shared space“, when engineers conclude that the best way to manage our problems is to rip out all of the myriad expensive engineering that we have spent eighty years installing to manage our problems, and just let the problems free to magically manage themselves.

And then there are the design students and photoshop fiddlers, playing at engineer.  People who come up with ideas like the hourglass traffic light.  Ideas that are all media-friendly pretty picture and no relevance to real world problems.  This gushing moron is so enchanted by the shiny computer mockups that he’s willing to put his name next to prose that earnestly declares the segway, the backpack helicopter, the moving pavement, and the zeppelin to be the future of transport.  When small children draw these pictures and tell us they’ve invented something brilliant we think it’s cute.

These politicians, engineers, and amateur inventors recognise that there is a problem.  (Most frequently they cite carbon emissions as the problem; sometimes it’s congestion; rarely the many other problems that afflict car addicted societies.)  And they all think that a solution is in need of invention — a shiny and expensive and conspicuous and media-friendly solution.  Fifty years ago it was jetpacks and hovertrains.  Today it’s segways and maglevs.

And all the while a handful of little European counties have been looking on in amusement, happily getting to where they need to be with a bicycle or a pair of boots and the occasional old fashioned railway train, wondering whether the rest of us aren’t overcomplicating things…

Where’s my self-driving car?

In 1967, Popular Science magazine declared that cars would be self-driving by, at the latest, 1985.  Their vision was of cars that were driven manually for the final mile at either end of a journey, but which were guided by electric railways for the bulk of the trip:

“You gulp the last of your coffee, wipe the egg off your chin, and dash for the door. In the driveway sits a vehicle about the size and shape of a Volkswagen. Beside the door on the driver’s side is a handleless hatch. Beneath the car, unseen, are four flanged wheels of smaller diameter than the car’s tires.

As you slide away from the curb, the sound of the electric drive motor hardly rises above a whisper. A few blocks from home, you steer the car into a special lane, and pull a lever under the dash. The front wheels lock in straight-ahead position. Simultaneously the side-hatch door slides back and an electric third-rail folds out. It makes contact with a power rail, the flanged wheels roll onto the rails of a track, and your car accelerates at a controlled rate of 0.3g. You twirls a dial until you see “5th Street” appear in a small window. Seconds later, as your car enters a main guideway at exactly 60 m.p.h., you open the paper and scan the news. (via Boing Boing)

This was the 1960s, when you could put a man on the moon within a decade.  You’d think that the Americans could manage a simple extensive network of national, regional and local automated road/railways.

Turns out, this system had not quite been completed by 1985.  It’s not at all clear why this dream failed to come true.  But whatever the reason, the engineers at Google have been left wondering, “where’s my self-driving car?”  So they’ve built some of their own.  These cars are far more fascinating than the rail-cars of the 1960s.  These cars drive themselves on normal streets and motorways.  In amongst lots of manually-driven cars.  And pedestrians.  And San Francisco’s stoned cycle couriers.

All the news coverage of the Google Car fawns over its radar and cameras and obvious physical equipment, but far more interesting must be its software.  You can’t program a car with simple rules to accommodate unpredictable human hazards any more than you can create a driver by giving an idiot a car manual and a copy of the highway code.  How do you program a car to know that it needs to be more careful around pedestrians who are young and who are running and when the pavement is next to the carriageway and not segregated with railings and when there is another pavement opposite and there’s a playground nearby and there are parked cars and…?  There are a mere 306 rules in the highway code, but there are an immeasurable number of scenarios that one might encounter on a road.  So the Google Car must surely have used some very clever “machine learning”, and the 14,000 miles on the clock are presumably human-driven, with the car watching and sensing and learning how to drive — how a driver adjusts to other cars and other people, to the weather and the sound and feel of the road, in millions of situations and combinations.

It must be some of the most advanced computer science ever, with some of the most brilliant minds in the world working on it.  Google say that it could be available to consumers in eight years.  And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.  It’s a brilliant piece of work.  Just like the self-driving rail-car before it.

Tracked hovercrafts and straddling buses

The Ministry of Transport’s 1963 Buchanan Report on the future of traffic in towns may have thought of jetpacks and hoverboards as a potentially real future for individual private travel, but it didn’t ignore public transport entirely.  Obviously, in 1963 the railways were obsolete, but the report suggested there was some scope for “multi-passenger units”, particularly ultra high speed devices on long journeys between dense population centres.

The most delightful is this fabulous art-deco “tracked hovercraft”.  Happy 1960s families, where the women all wear skirts and sit cross-legged and the men all read big important newspapers, drive their car into the bottom deck and sit in airline-style comfort on the upper deck.  It’s not clear whether “tracks” in this solution refer to rail tracks or to caterpillar tracks — the diagram appears to show elements that could be interpreted as either.  Perhaps it has both, for ultimate flexibility.

The report says:

It is possible, of course, if serious technological studies were undertaken, that a whole range of new ideas for moving people and goods in cities would be produced.  It is indeed to be hoped that we are not at the end of our ingenuity in the matter.  The bus, for example, for all its convenience, does not appear to be the last word in comfort.  The travelator seems to offer much scope for development.  Continuously operating chair-lifts might be used in a highly attractive way between points of pedestrian concentration to augment existing means of travel.  Conveyor belts, pneumatic tubes, and pipelines might well be developed for the conveyance of goods, perhaps even justifying rearrangement of commercial processes to facilitate their use.

Monorails and moving pavements were the future of public transport in the 1960s — at least while we were waiting for our moon bases and space elevators.

Just some things to bear in mind when you consider the Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment Company’s (!) dream of the straddling bus:

Once upon a time, highly educated and expensive civil engineers were required to invent absurd transport solutions. Now all you need is an idiot who knows how to open photoshop.

For those unfamiliar with the city, Shenzhen neighbours Hong Kong; it was a fishing village right into the late 1970s when China created a “special economic zone” encouraging market capitalism here.  The city now has a population estimated to be 14 million squeezed into the limits of the SEZ, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  It’s an entirely new city, conceived late in the motorcar era, and full of the wide boulevards you would expect in modern car dependent Chinese cities.

Shenzhen is the future.  At least, it must feel that way to the people who live there.  The Chinese are in the middle of great change: social progress, economic development, and technological revolution.  This is their 1960s, and more.  They’re putting men into space to prepare the way for the space elevators.

They’re also struggling with the sort of problems that European cities were struggling with the the 1960s.  In the picture above you can see how this little city street is too narrow to accommodate conventional buses.  Conventional buses keep stopping and starting, and this causes congestion as Important People in cars have to slow down and move over into one of the other four lanes available to them.  Therefore there is a need to invent the straddling bus, which will not impair Important Motor Traffic — those SUVs and executive saloon cars can happily drive under it (albeit, only having been considerably shrunk in photoshop).

It’s a genuinely clever idea.  You might wonder whether they’ve considered safety, and turning cars, and height clearance.  Of course they have.  The engineers have thought of everything and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in Shenzhen.  Just as there was no reason why hovertrains and moving pavements shouldn’t work…

Memo to Philip Hammond: Hoverboards project

Continuing the 1963 Buchanan Report on the future of transport in towns, over the page:

A development which may offer a more direct challenge to the motor car, assuming the problem of noise can be overcome, is the air-cushion craft.  It seems to give scope for development of a small personal machine, useable perhaps eventually on ordinary pavements as a substitute for walking.  Yet it may be questioned whether it would really take this form, whether the urge to put a perspex cover over it for weather protection, to use it at higher speeds, to add extra seats, and to affix luggage containers, would not soon convert it into a motor car in all respects but the possession of wheels.

[…] It may have a different source of motive power so that it is no longer strictly a motor vehicle, it may be quieter and without fumes, it may be styled in some quite different way, it may be produced in smaller forms, it may be guided in certain streets by electronic means, it may have the ability to perform sideways movements, but for practical purposes it will present most of the problems that are presented by the motor vehicle today.

These days if you drop a criticism of car addiction into a conversation somebody will be there with a defence of car use: you could have the bigger carbon footprint.  Somebody driving their compact fuel efficient car to the shops once a week might have a smaller carbon footprint than somebody taking daily long-distance rail trips.  Congestion?  Sure, but that won’t make much of a difference to their carbon footprint.  They might drive into somebody?  Sure, but that won’t make much of a difference to their carbon footprint.  Particulate pollution?  That’s not a greenhouse gas.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that there were already multiple major problems with our transport and town planning long before we discovered our CO2 problem.  We need a solution to them all, not an excuse to ignore all but one.

(With a tip of the hat to Carlton Reid, whose joke I’m stealing.)

Where’s my jetpack?

From page 24 of Traffic In Towns, the 1963 Buchanan Report to the Minister of Transport:

The future of the motor vehicle

[…] it would be foolish to embark upon drastic and expensive alterations to towns to accommodate motor traffic if there were any serious doubt as to its continuance as a means of transport.

The possibility most usually canvassed is that within a measurable time some kind of individual jet-propulsion unit will be developed, of which a rudimentary form has already been tried out in the U.S.A. for military use.  This may well come about, but the problems of weather, navigation, air-space and traffic control appear so formidable that it may be questioned whether such a device would ever be practical for mass use, for either freight or passengers, in the crowded conditions of the modern city.  One only has to think of the rush-hour conditions in any large city to realise what would be involved.

The history of transport is a history of revolutions — cart horses on tracks, narrow boats on canals, steam engines on rails, and cars on roads.  I guess in the 1960s, era of progress, revolution, and invention, it was obvious that this periodic replacement of one technology by another would go on forever.

Weekly War Bulletin, 25 Sep

As we know, Boris has been quietly dropping policies that improve our transport and built environment by cutting private and business vehicle use.  The already delayed Low Emission Zone, for example, has been pushed back another two years — so another two years of the smogs that cost the city millions of pounds and thousands of lives.

All Newspapers reported the story that Brake are backing helmets for hire bikes – they’re essential, apparently.  Indeed, Boris is terrified by people’s careless Borisbiking.  As CycaLogical points out, though, All Newspapers overlooked the next part of Brake’s recommendations — that traffic be cut, speed be cut, and more routes be de-Motorised.

Oona King thinks that cycling in London will take off only if we provide showers for “hot and sweaty” cyclists.  No mention of the one issue that non-cyclists most consistently cite as putting them off: too much traffic too badly driven, and the lack of sane de-Motorised infrastructure.

Car park fees at tube stations are to rise — a stealth fares hike says All Newspapers.  Presumably, since there is no other way to get to a tube station, Motorists will just have to drive all the way to their final destination instead.  And up and down the country local councils are continuing their War On The Motorist by considering raising parking fines.

From the department of absurd transport “solutions”: the 155mph 23 seat business-class “superbus“.  And the electric van fitted with sci-fi sound-effects, because people would obviously be unable to adapt to a world with quieter vehicles.

Instead, how about a more stepped introduction to driving, with recently-passed Motorists kept off the roads after dark?

Via Boing Boing: the story of an Illinois state trooper who sends emails while driving at 126mph, before inevitably veering into an oncoming car, killing two.  His comeuppance? A 30 month suspended sentence, two years off work on full pay, and the receipt of $75,000 worker’s compensation.  If that isn’t a harsh disincentive to drive dangerously…

The number of careless driving convictions is falling.  Interpret this fact as evidence for anything you like.

Cycling is cool — but not for professionals.  Therefore professionals are not cool.

Recall of Bentleys: the flying B mascot will impale the pedestrians that get hit by the cars, they found.  Obviously, it’s fine to sell something that you know will kill people, it’s only the impaling bit that’s wrong.

London Underground will be fined for flying flaps that slapped passengers on the platform.

The proposal to give Waterloo Station (a “much altered and uncoordinated mix of styles”) listed building status has been rejected, leaving Network Rail free to mess about it with it.

Brixton bus depot burned down.

Apparently it was car-free day on Wednesday.  Me neither.

Railway first-aiders say they’re not allowed to give first-aid to passengers.

And your moment of zen, via flickr blog and flickr user Brunocerous: the sad sight of an old tree downed by storms in NYC.

BJN_1152 tree v SUV