Has Transit Innovation Hit a Roadblock?

With technological advances giving rise to autonomous vehicles and hyperloops, some predict that in the not-so-distant future commutes may start resembling sci-fi movies. But are we really destined for flying cars and hoverbikes? 

Image courtesy of Getty

Film and television have always attempted to predict the future, whether Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek guessing the exact year of the moon landing or Ross Geller from Friends excitedly signing up for a social network one year before Facebook launched. Transit is often a cornerstone of these visions—who can forget Blade Runner’s hovering Spinners or the chaotic airborne car chase scene in The Fifth Element? The dystopian series Westworld and Altered Carbon both depict a hyper-real future in which the wealthy get around in luxury drones. (Unfortunately for hoverbike enthusiasts, Neil DeGrasse Tyson says this will never happen.) But as technology progresses and cities re-evaluate how to modernize transit systems for the post-pandemic era, how far off are we from making extreme advances in mobility and what will it look like?

There’s no clear answer, but city dwellers will soon have far more options than walking or driving as development on autonomous aerial vehicles (hoverbikes, self-driving taxis) and Hyperloops continues apace. “We see public transit’s role evolving to become mobility managers, orchestrating movement throughout their cities,” David Reich, Uber’s head of transit, tells McKinsey. “That includes more modes of transportation, such as dockless scooters, e-bikes, rideshare, and microtransit. When you put all these modes together, you serve people better. We’re really excited about how technology can help to further that movement—analyzing and measuring movement throughout a city, seeing where it’s falling short, and then optimizing that.”

Volvo XC90 with Uber’s self-driving technology. Image courtesy of Uber

But not all of these tech-forward options are coming together smoothly. There’s been major buzz around autonomous vehicles, but repeated controversies suggest the technology is still years away from widespread adoption. Uber’s foray into autonomous vehicles was disastrous at best, having invested more than $1 billion into the technology only to face widespread scrutiny when one of its self-driving vehicles fatally struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. (The company sold its autonomous business to Aurora Innovation in late 2020.) Tesla vehicles running autopilot software were involved in 273 reported crashes over the past year, including several with first responder vehicles. Opponents have called on federal regulation for self-driving vehicles to prevent further accidents, and federal legislation seems to be on the horizon, but regulatory power currently lies with the states.

Hyperloops once seemed like a viable solution to urban congestion when Elon Musk introduced the concept a decade ago. The Tesla and Boring Company CEO envisioned passenger pods speeding at 760 miles per hour through 13-foot-wide metal tubes kept in a near-vacuum. Pods would levitate on the track using magnetism—a technology known as Maglev, or “magnetic levitation,” that eliminates friction. Some were quick to dismiss the idea as fantasy, but the Boring Company has made some progress on developing its network of underground tunnels in Las Vegas, though not as quickly as originally promised and with its ambitious concept scaled down significantly. Earlier this month, it opened the first of its 55 planned stations. It’s still faring better than Virgin Hyperloop, which axed half its staff in February and pivoted to freight.

Image courtesy of The Boring Company

Despite the promise of these technological advances, it’s worth noting that most commuters simply want more reliable service on existing networks. According to a national survey conducted by TransitCenter, straphangers prioritize frequency of service, travel time, and reliability over even the most basic high-tech gimmicks like USB charging ports and Wi-Fi. Cities would be wise to optimize bus and train lines by removing underused stops or repurposing vehicles to create networks that offer more consistent and frequent service. Houston recently consolidated its bus network and made its fewer lines better—a move that may look worse on paper with fewer lines, but works in practice by serving its most populous corridors more consistently. Predictably, ridership spiked without the city spending a dime.

“One of the most consequential impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on public transit will be the redesign of urban transit networks to address new travel patterns and to account for updated equity and accessibility goals,” says Chris Snyder, Europe CEO at Via. “New digital planning tools make it possible for cities and transit agencies to make network planning an ongoing process, allowing transit to adapt far more fluidly to changing needs. This is a hugely promising trend that could signal one of the most fundamental reimaginings of urban life in 100 years.”

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