What will self-driving cars mean for cyclists?

A cyclist passes a Google self-driving car at Mountain View, California, back in 2012. Image: Getty.

Last week, I joined thousands of other Brits in hopping on my bike to make the most of the uncharacteristically warm weather. But just as I was remembering all of the things I love about cycling, I was rudely reminded of one of its major problems.

It’s a scene that doesn’t need much setting because it happens far too often. I was pedaling down a typical London street, one lane of traffic moving in each direction. An engine revs behind me – an impatient driver looking to fill the two car-lengths between my bike and the vehicle in front. Overtaking will do no good here, and besides, there are cars coming in the opposite direction. It would be an unsafe maneuver.

The revving gets louder, and suddenly I feel the car whisk past my shoulder with millimetres to spare, squeezing between me and the oncoming traffic. It’s so close I’m destabilised and narrowly avoid a crash. All too aware of London cyclists’ bad reputation for shouting profanities at drivers, I keep my anger to myself. But an unexpected thought springs to mind: I can’t wait for self-driving cars.

My reaction was perhaps well-founded. In 2016, 102 cyclists were killed and a further 3,397 seriously injured on Britain’s roads. Whilst riding a bike remains safe by statistical standards – with only one death per 30m miles cycled on Britain’s roads, and the general health benefits far outweighing the relative risk – every cyclist has a story of a hairy experience.

Proponents of self-driving cars promise they will reduce that epidemic to close to nil. Through the combined functions of automatic braking, hazard detection, avoidance of driver fatigue and the elimination of blind spots, the technology does seem promising.

However a recent spate of deaths in the U.S. casts doubt on my rosy assumption that autonomous vehicles will solve cyclists’ problems once and for all. On the night of 18 March, an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman wheeling a bicycle across a road in Arizona. Five days later, a Tesla car on autopilot mode crashed in California, killing its driver.

It is clear that autonomy, in its current form, is far from perfect. Vehicles’ detection systems are developing fast but are still primitive, and in cases where cars offer partial autonomy in the form of steering assists and cruise control, the risk is that drivers can lose concentration. What’s more, when autonomous vehicles have to operate on the same roads as unpredictable road users – like cyclists and pedestrians – they face a far trickier job.

Though autonomous cars may be on Britain’s roads as early as 2019, it will be many years before every vehicle is automated. “The transition is going to be really messy,” Roger Geffen, the policy director of the advocacy group Cycling UK, tells me. “Before autonomous cars can really share the streets with pedestrians and cyclists, they’ve got to not just detect their presence but predict their movements. Cyclists negotiate space with drivers by a combination of eye contact and hand signals. How are driverless cars going to understand that?”

Until technologists can find an answer to that question, Geffen’s fear is that pedestrians and cyclists will be demonised for their unpredictability, possibly even facing the prospect of being banned from certain roads. And even if technologists could design an algorithm that can detect cyclists and pedestrians in every instance, autonomous vehicles still raise unanswered questions about cyclists’ place on the roads.

Looking to the future, there are two possible extremes. One is utopian: the lack of need for a driver will mean a small fleet of driverless cars working around the clock could replace the thousands of cars lying idle on our streets, freeing up space for cycle infrastructure and pavements.

But that scenario is not inevitable. “The nightmare future,” Geffen explains, “is one where the manufacturers are determined to recoup their investment by trying to make sure everybody’s got a self-driving car. We’ll end up with complete gridlock and the technology never getting to the point where it’s able to detect the presence of pedestrians and cyclists.”

Driverless cars offer great promises, and it seems fair to assume they will eventually lead to a reduction in road fatalities. But it would be foolish to expect that to come soon, and we may see an increase before numbers start to fall. It is likely cyclists and pedestrians will have to fight for their right to remain unpredictable, and possibly learn new behaviours to interact with self-driving vehicles.

One thing, however, is certain. The roads are going to change.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.