Sin City vs. SimCity: What can a pair of experiments in Las Vegas and Milton Keynes, England tell us about the future of urban mobility?
This essay was commissioned by New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management as part of its 2014 research initiative “Re-Programming Mobility: The Digital Transformation of Transportation in the United States.” It is republished here in full (from greglindsay.com).
Sin City vs. SimCity
What can a pair of experiments in Las Vegas and Milton Keynes, England tell us about the future of urban mobility?
Las Vegas, 2016: It’s another sunny 103º day in Henderson — and the first of mandatory “dry-outs” without water service after five years of drought. Instead of driving his SUV to work — these days, it’s really just for weekend excursions — the lawyer opens the Shift app on his phone and enters his destination: Zappos’ headquarters. Seven minutes later, a chauffeured Tesla S sedan is ferrying him to work downtown, which has boomeranged from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Nevada to one of the wealthiest, thanks to Tony Hsieh.
Zappos’ CEO invested his $350 million personal fortune in creating an entrepreneurial utopia, perhaps the most ambitious piece of which was Shift — an all-inclusive car-, ride-, and bike-sharing service combining aspects of Zipcar, Uber, CitiBike, and RideScout. Instead of checking traffic or wondering when the bus will arrive, members ask the app for the fastest modes between A and B. The attorney didn’t choose a Tesla today; Shift’s “decision engine” chose for him. And while this trip is a simple pick-up and drop-off, there have been times when he’s been ordered by the app to park his Smart car in a designated spot along the curb and finish his journey on a Social Bicycle (SoBi) chained next to it — locking and unlocking both with his phone. Five hundred dollars per month is a small price to pay for mobility-as-a-service, and he knows it, because the payments on his other car had come to $750 a month before he sold it…
Milton Keynes, 2017: “The pods are naff,” the consultant’s husband had huffed when she mentioned at breakfast she had reserved one for her visit to Milton Keynes that morning. Upon arrival on the train from London, she had to admit he was right. Seeing them lined up empty outside the station, strobing in different shades of neon — looking down at her phone, she saw it was flashing the same garish shade of purple as the third one from the front — makes her reconsider her earlier enthusiasm. Approaching the two-wheeled self-driving pod resembling something out of Minority Report (a film that’s now fifteen years old, she remembers), she opens it with a tap of her phone. After placing her bag in the second seat, the door silently swings shut and then glides smoothly not onto the street, where traffic is zooming by at 70 mph, but onto the Redway pedestrian path — and without her steering.
On her way to the headquarters of Transport Systems Catapult — really, she could have walked, had she felt like traversing parking lots and dodging cars on Grafton Gate — the pod quietly creeps along the path, until it doesn’t. Whenever pedestrians, dogs, and other pods draw too close, it alternately slows, stops, or accelerates, depending on whatever algorithmic rules it silently consults. The ride lasts no more than a few minutes and is pleasantly uneventful, but by the end she’s resolved to use the city’s “mobility map” to hail one of its electric taxis after her meeting — after all, Milton Keynes had been designed for cars….
Are these competing visions for the future of mobility, or two sides of the same coin? Despite the differences in locales and autonomous pods versus Tesla S sedans, the similarities are more compelling: the smart phone interface; the multi-modal system; the algorithmic “decision engine” and “mobility map,” etc. What sets these scenarios apart from the four offered in “Reprogramming Mobility” is that they are real — or would very much like to be.
The pair occupy a middle ground between the present reality of such startups as Uber and Lyft on one side and the proximate future of Google’s autonomous cars. In comparing and contrasting their inspirations, visions, models, and implementations, we can begin to tease out the assumptions buried in their premises and address the tensions between their multiple missions. Is Shift (which is scheduled to launch this month) designed to convince Las Vegas residents to give up their cars, or to boost the value of Hsieh’s properties by making it easier for suburbanites to navigate downtown? Are Milton Keynes’ pods an experiment in sustainable transportation or a stealth effort to build a domestic autonomous car industry? The answer in both cases, of course, is both.
They also raise some of the more pressing questions facing elected officials, planners, entrepreneurs, and citizens everywhere. Is connected mobility best provisioned as a public or private good? (And what role does government have to play if it’s the latter?) Is transit information more valuable than transit itself? If so, are cities better served by linking existing modes in new combinations, or by introducing new vehicle types designed to mitigate the car’s shortcomings? Will these networks disrupt current patterns of land use, or be deployed to uphold the status quo?
Interestingly, the projects in question differ on these points more often than they agree, which is to be expected when one is a self-consciously disruptive startup in the desert and the other an ambitious public-private partnership with the support of both the U.K. government and its domestic auto industry. The remainder of this essay will compare Las Vegas and Milton Keynes in key areas — the aims of each project, the histories of each city, and the respective roles of technology and governance — before offering a few guesses as to which project may prove more influential in the long(er) run.
The Downtown Project(s): Shift and LUTZ Pathfinder
When Tony Hsieh launched the Las Vegas Downtown Project in late 2011, he announced his intention to invest $200 million in real estate, $50 million in start-ups, $50 million in local businesses, and $50 million in schools. He also planned to move Zappos from its campus in suburban Henderson to a new headquarters downtown in the former Las Vegas City Hall, seeding the landscape with its 1,500 employees. In the meantime, he and his deputies got to work terraforming the area into a creative class company town replete with restaurants, bars, co-working spaces, and a “Container Park” guarded by a 40-foot-long metal praying mantis spitting fire from its antennae.
Despite Hsieh’s best efforts at social engineering, the majority of Zappos employees still commute by car from the suburbs. This doesn’t fit with Hsieh’s image of downtown, which is based on what he calls the “three Cs:” collisions, co-learning, and connectedness. Basing his theory on a close reading of Harvard economist and Triumph of the City author Edward Glaeser, Hsieh believes increasing the density of encounters will in turn accelerate the diffusion of good will and good ideas, making downtown more attractive to talented individuals in the far-flung corners of Las Vegas and beyond. In light of recent layoffs, resignations, and rumors widespread disarray, implementation of these ideas may be a different matter. One thing holding people back is the costs — real and psychological — of movement to and within downtown. “No one knows what people would do if those costs didn’t matter,” says Shift’s co-founder and CEO Zach Ware. The assumption is that they would do more of it, boosting the value of Hsieh’s investments.
Announced in March 2013, its original code-name, “Project 100,” referred to the quantity of each vehicle the membership service intended to offer. The headline-grabbing centerpiece was 100 Tesla S sedans — the electric carmaker’s largest single order at the time — coupled with shuttle buses and bike-sharing. An app and underlying algorithms yet to be written would not only steer members to the nearest share station, but also assign which mode to use (to prevent them from hogging all the Teslas). Within a year, the startup had added Daimler Smart cars and Chevrolet Volts to its fleet, as its mission crept from providing an amenity for downtown residents toward aiming to replace the car of any commuter within the entire 500-square-mile Las Vegas Valley.
But that wasn’t the limit of its ambitions. In May 2014, the company raised $10 million in venture capital led by Tony Hsieh, who had previously been its sole investor. Before it had even launched, Shift was being built to scale — first within Las Vegas, and then to cities beyond. “By the end of the year we will not only replace your car, but we’ll deliver so much more than your car could ever deliver,” Ware wrote in a blog post. And we’ll be far more affordable than you might think.”
While Shift was scheming to replace your car, a consortium in the U.K. had set out to reinvent it. In November 2013, the city of Milton Keynes announced it would host a five-year project to release 100 autonomous pods on its pedestrian paths as an experiment in point-to-point public transportation. Dubbed the LUTZ (Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone) Pathfinder program, the specifications called for a vehicle carrying two passengers at maximum speeds of 12 mph without the benefit of any tracks or embedded guidance systems, meaning they would be required to identify and respond to almost anything in their path – including pedestrians, pets, and other pods. Whereas Shift was content to write an app, Milton Keynes and its partners would create both a new vehicle type and the operating system to run it from nearly scratch.
Those partners included the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC), one of seven industry-specific technology incubators around Britain bringing university researchers together with private industry and investor networks to spawn new technologies, companies, and especially jobs. (Signaling the importance of the Pathfinder project, TSC moved its headquarters to Milton Keynes simultaneously with its announcement.) The larger Catapult network is in turn an initiative of the Technology Strategy Board, a government advisory group tasked with channeling the flow of knowledge from Britain’s research universities to the private sector, and then transforming it into new businesses and products. While Shift is a millionaire’s inspired gamble, the initial £50 million in public funds for Pathfinder came down from the very top of U.K. leadership.
Representing the universities in this collaboration is Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group, led by Professor Paul Newman. Newman’s team is responsible for the pod’s telemety and autonomy, including its sensor array and operating system. They demonstrated their ability to design both with last year’s RobotCar U.K., a self-driving Nissan Leaf equipped with £5,000 worth of lasers, cameras, and controllers — roughly a tenth of what Google’s test cars cost.
While Oxford’s researchers handle the software, Britain’s automakers have been tasked with building the pod itself. The Automotive Council UK was established in 2009 as a public-private effort to guide and strengthen the industry in critical areas, including “intelligent mobility.” In May, the Council chose RDM Group — a boutique automotive supplier and one of its members — from a public competition to design and manufacture the pods using components sourced almost exclusively from the U.K.
The schedule calls for three to be delivered in January 2015. The first year will be spent testing the autonomous systems on designated paths; assuming they are successful, the next year will be spent refining the pods and scaling up to 100 on the paths of Milton Keynes by 2017, available to anyone with a smartphone willing to pay £2 for trips within the city’s CBD.
The Machine in the Garden City
The choice of Milton Keynes as Britain’s testbed for post-car mobility resonates with ironic destin; as Geoff Snelson, the city’s director of strategy, reluctantly admits, the city “was designed on the assumption that the future would forever belong to the automobile.”
One of the last of Britain’s “new towns” planned under the New Towns Act 1946, Milton Keynes was intended to be the largest, with a target population of 250,000. Borrowing its name from an existing village, the new city was established on January 23, 1967, when responsibility for its creation was passed from local elected officials to the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, which was charged with its planning and execution. The principal consultants appointed by the corporation — led by architects Richard Llewellyn-Davies, Walter Bor and John de Monchaux — alternately looked to the past and to the future for inspiration in drafting a master plan.
In one respect, the Development Corporation’s plans harkened back to the “garden city” movement of seventy years earlier in that they called for a low-slung, low-density forested city requiring millions of trees to be planted on the site. But the planners were heavily influenced by the Californian urban theorist Melvin Webber, who argued that freeways and telecommunications augured a high-speed, random-access metropolis enabling what he called “community without propinquity.”
The application of Webber’s ideas in Milton Keynes produced several distinctive features, the most notable of which was a devolved grid of many local centers arrayed around a central shopping district. They were connected by a high-speed road network segregated from cyclists and pedestrians, who were relegated to a network of paths dubbed “Redways.” The combination “makes public transportation very difficult,” says Snelson, and in fact, it was always meant to. The master plan advanced by Llewellyn-Davies was aimed at defeating a competing proposal for high-density transit-oriented development around a series of monorail stops.
Despite — or more likely because of — its dependence on the automobile, Milton Keynes has achieved its goal of 250,000 residents, quadrupling in population in less than fifty years. Expansion plans ratified in 2013 call for 38,000 new homes to be built by 2026, bringing with them a projected influx of 50,000 new residents and a 57% increase in journeys by car at peak travel times compared to 2001. Although the original master plan stressed decentralization, central Milton Keynes has emerged as a regional employment center attracting 35,000 daily commuters, mostly by car. The intentional void at the city’s center has become “a dark star,” in Snelson’s words — “a center of gravity drawing in more and more people.”
Combined with stubbornly high petrol prices and broader concerns about climate change and carbon emissions, the city is facing what Webber once defined (with Horst Rittel) as a “wicked problem” — a tangle of complex interdependencies resisting a straight-forward solution. From Milton Keynes’ perspective, the aims of the LUTZ Pathfinder project’s aims are two-fold — to decrease its dependence on fossil fuels, and to implement the decades-old dream of personal rapid transit (PRT) as a new scale of transport between the car and mass transit, one capable of operating point-to-point in a low-density environment where the roads are largely off-limits.
“We believe there’s a place in the future for urban mass transit systems that are small, autonomous, agile vehicles capable of operating in pedestrian space,” says John Miles, chair of the Automotive Council’s intelligent mobility sub-group and a resident of Milton Keynes. He envisions a scenario in which public spaces — whether in low density suburbs like his or in megacities such as Tokyo — are intensified through the use of such vehicles, leading more cities (and perhaps his own) to ban cars from their centers. To alleviate traffic on the streets, cities will move it onto the sidewalks.
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Downtown Las Vegas was already dying by the time Milton Keynes was born. The city had sprung to life in 1905 with the auction of 110 acres of land around the junction of two railroads, producing a classic grid. Nevada’s legalization of gambling in 1931 led to the licensing of the state’s first casinos along Fremont Street, but the city’s center of gravity irrevocably tilted away from downtown with the opening of the Flamingo Hotel in 1947 on unincorporated land south of Las Vegas, paving the way for what is now the Strip. The opening of the Boulevard Mall east of the Strip in 1968 triggered what eventually became an exodus of retailers from downtown.
While the population of Las Vegas surged from 125,787 in 1970 to 606,762 in 2013, its suburbs grew faster. North Las Vegas, Henderson, and unincorporated Clark County were collectively equal to the city in population forty years ago; today they are twice its size. When Tony Hsieh decided to relocate Zappos from San Francisco to Las Vegas in 2004, he simply followed the rooftops to an office park adjacent to I-215. Before he arrived, a succession of Las Vegas mayors had unsuccessfully pursued downtown’s revival.
The Fremont Street casino corridor was pedestrianized in 1994 and enclosed by an LED canopy, creating the “Fremont Street Experience,” which stabilized downtown tourism but did little to revive blocks further east. A decade later, mayor (and former mafia lawyer) Oscar Goodman pushed through the redevelopment of several parcels west of downtown into an exhibition center, medical research center, and even a Frank Gehry-designed Cleveland Clinic complex in a faint echo of the “Bilbao Effect,” all to virtually no effect.
It wasn’t until 2010, near the nadir of the subprime mortgage-triggered financial crisis and housing price collapse, that Hsieh considered moving Zappos headquarters from the suburbs. By then, the east side of downtown (bisected by Las Vegas Blvd.) was marred by decrepit motels and vacant lots interspersed among locally-owned businesses. The median household income of the 89101 ZIP code (which includes downtown) was $23,166 in 2010 — barely half the state average.
“There weren’t any people walking around,” Michael Cornthwaite told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year. “You would walk down the street during the day and scary people, just homeless people or whatever, would probably outnumber the average person 30-to-1. At night it would probably be 50-to-1.” Cornthwaite’s bar near Fremont Street, the Downtown Cocktail Room, was the model and early headquarters for Hsieh’s vision of a walkable downtown in the desert packed with lifestyle amenities. Over the next few years, Hsieh would invest heavily to realize it, seeding the landscape not just with bars and restaurants, but also schools and medical clinics. But the “scary” locals Cornthwaite described were less welcoming.
Zappos employees resenting the end of their short suburban commutes soon complained to the Las Vegas Sun about the “serious safety concerns” posed by homeless individuals along the four-block walk from downtown parking garages to the company’s temporary offices. The company responded swiftly, hiring additional security and even starting a shuttle bus between the two, despite the short distance. After the company’s City Hall headquarters opened, it became possible for employees to never set foot on the street at all. Talk of encouraging employees to move downtown was quietly discarded in favor of stimulating “collisions.” To that end, in 2013, Shift was born.
The project’s original goal was similar to Milton Keynes’: to increase pedestrian use and street life intensity by collapsing distances downtown — in both cases, roughly a mile. While Milton Keynes’ dearth of density was intentional, downtown Las Vegas suffered as its grid decayed into vacant blocks. Shift would fix this by solving what its founders referred to as “the last-mile problem,” providing a system for easily traversing downtown to residents and commuters alike, summoning bicycles, buggies, shuttles and the occasional Tesla with the touch of an app.
But by early 2014, Shift’s mission was expanding. Rather than limit itself to movement within downtown, the company began to rethink accessibility to the core from the fringe, imagining a hub-and-spoke model encompassing metropolitan Vegas. “How can we incorporate the inner ring suburbs into the city?” Shift’s business operation lead, Josh Westerhold, rhetorically asked at the time. “That’s a nut no one has cracked.” In conversations, he described a system in which suburban members drove (shared) Chevy Volts or Smart cars from their homes to denser nodes where bike-sharing and other modes were available. It was an implicit rebuke to Webber’s notion of community-without-propinquity, one made explicit in Ware’s May 2014 announcement of new funding.
“Our aspirations are large but we see the path clearly,” Ware wrote on the company’s blog. “We will enable cities to develop themselves differently. No longer will you necessarily need to live in the middle of an active urban center to experience it as you would if you did. If we can equalize the time it takes for you to get to a place you care about from your home a mile or two away with the time it would take for you to walk there, imagine how a city could change. Imagine how many more people could live ‘in the heart of the action’ if the pressure on centralized real estate were lessened.”
Imagine erasing the time/cost equations defined forty years ago by the car and the suburbia it spawned; now imagine writing new ones favoring your downtown real estate investments instead. Not only would Shift redefine accessibility within Las Vegas in its own image, but it could also identify and invest in future hubs of dense local mobility. The company would hardly be alone in thinking this way; Google executives have privately conceded that the biggest financial opportunities surrounding autonomous cars will stem from changes in land use patterns — changes it will have the data and the cash to capitalize on, should it choose to. Shift is already ahead of the curve.
A common thread running between both projects is the emphasis on software, information, and intellectual property. Especially in the case of Shift, which is simply melding bike-sharing, car-sharing, and other vehicles into a single service, its value proposition is built less on the type of transportation on offer than its ability to manage the whereabouts, status, and availability of each vehicle in real time, using that information to deliver an attractively seamless customer experience. This is true of LUTZ Pathfinder as well — despite the attention given to the pod’s design and its onboard systems, the project’s deliverables include an app that can dynamically provision the pods’ usage to break even at a price of £2 per ride.
When Shift’s order for a hundred Tesla S sedans was announced, a number of observers questioned why Hsieh was effectively paying retail — $62,400 for the basic model — despite the his volume purchase. Instead of a discount, Hsieh and Ware bargained for an unprecedented degree of telemetry data for a car-sharing service, seeking to maximize such features as keyless entry, driver and passenger seat sensors, environmental sensors, and of course, its wireless modem, to track each vehicle’s speed, location, occupants, and battery status. While Shift has emphasized the sustainability aspects of using all-electric vehicles (with the exception of the hybrid Volt), the choice of each mode ultimately had more to do with information, including the fact that each type — even the bicycles — is equipped with GPS. This is essential to Shift’s success in two respects.
First, as a membership service ranging in price from an estimated $25 to $450 per month, Shift’s revenues will be capped, while usage is theoretically unlimited. This places a premium on Shift’s ability to shape demand and manage assets. For example, bike-sharing programs in New York, London, and Paris have all struggled with redistribution, while Barcelona’s reportedly loses 17 million euros a year doing the same. Although Shift expects to post losses at the outset, it cannot afford to write them off indefinitely (as Barcelona does) as a public good. One method of coping with pockets of high and low demand is to steer members to the nearest/easiest/cheapest option at hand, courtesy of its smartphone app. Rather than redistribute vehicles after the fact, it can attempt to regulate their usage beforehand.
To that end, Shift is building what is known as an “agent-based model” — essentially a stylized game of SimCity populated by algorithms instead of people — capable of simulating members’ travel patterns and projecting where they might go. What sets ABMs apart from traditional models is their bottom-up approach; complex behaviors emerge from the interactions of relatively simple actors. (Until recently, their complexity and computational intensity had largely restricted their use in transportation planning.)
In this way, the system might organically plan its own expansion. “We’ve become a transportation planner in some ways,” Westerhold explains, “but we’re trying to do it in a way that’s real-time and flexible as opposed to a fixed bus line or train route.”
Once again, Shift is not alone in this. In Boston, a startup named Bridj has begun a “pop-up bus service,” using chartered buses to ferry commuters for $6 per ride (compared to a city bus fare of $1.50), using data gleaned from Google, Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, municipal records and the U.S. Census Bureau to algorithmically calculate profitable routes not currently served by the city. In September, the startup raised $4 million from local investors and hired former Chicago and Washington D.C. Transportation chief Gabe Klein as its COO. Uber has also explored agent-based simulations to model the optimal behavior of drivers within a given city radius. Unsurprisingly, it found that “drivers with access to intelligent, central dispatching earn 25-50% more than drivers who need to drive around looking for a passenger,” hence the need for Uber.
But what sets Shift apart from such startups as Bridj is what Ware calls its “decision engine” — a software layer between the model and the app that crunches the optimal path (for members and the company alike) from A to B. It’s a real-time operating system of potentially staggering complexity, and Shift was originally in talks with two companies — including an offshoot of McLaren’s Formula One racing team — before deciding to build it in house. Given the complexity of the system, however, it’s an open question whether they can.
This hasn’t deterred their counterparts in Milton Keynes from dreaming of the same engine — what Snelson calls a “city mobility map.” “It would give you a live, up-to-the-minute maps of where all the traffic is,” he says, “and build the fastest route through the city, of which there would be thousands of permutations.”
But the core of the LUTZ Pathfinder program is, of course, the pod — its design, autonomous systems, service delivery, and supply chain represent a potentially massive new industry, with a majority of the IP held by British companies and universities. While program director Neil Fulton downplays this mandate, RDM Group CEO David Keene asserts his intention to eventually not just build the pods at its UK manufacturing facilities, but also its own autonomous systems. (The group already boasts its own telematics arm.) “There is no doubt that somebody working in the U.K. is going to do this,” he says.
Given Google’s scale, scope, and first-mover advantage, challenging the search giant in the area of autonomous systems (whether for cars or pods) will require either significant advances in technology or a remarkable decrease in cost… or preferably both. Oxford’s Mobile Robotics Group eschews Google’s expensive LIDAR sensors in favor of camera- and laser-based visual recognition, matching live video imagery with a database of objects to understand where it is, where to go, and what to avoid. Oxford’s RobotCar faces the same limitation as Google’s in that it can only operate across previously mapped terrain, but this should be a non-issue for pod deployment within central Milton Keynes. The larger challenge will be upgrading the RobotCar’s system from “restricted full autonomy” — its propensity to hand control of the car back to the driver when faced with unfamiliar territory or ambiguous signals — to full autonomy, which is necessary in a pod lacking manual steering.
The great advantage Oxford — and by extension, the U.K. autonomous car industry — has over Google is the costs of its system, which is nearly an order of magnitude less than Google’s prototypes, and Newman has set a goal of driving down costs down to $150 per vehicle within fifteen years. Similar technology developed by the Israeli firm Mobileye — whose driver assist software is already installed in 3.3 million vehicles — has inspired breathless reports of a “driverless car utopia” and a 73% increase in the value of its stock a month after its July listing on the NASDAQ. RBC Capital Markets forecasts that 80% of cars in Europe and 55% in North America will be equipped with camera-based assistance features by 2020 — excellent news for U.K. automotive manufacturers and suppliers.
To tap this market, in July the U.K. Department of Transport approved the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads beginning in 2015. In tandem, the Technology Strategy Board announced it would invest as much as £10 million in their development, selecting as many as three towns or cities to start trials in January. While separate from the LUTZ Pathfinder program, “I think there will be some similarities in the data generated from each program,” says Fulton. “But the focus for Milton Keynes is not only seeing how the pods perform, but also winning social acceptance for vehicles on the pavement.”
Fulton’s comments underscore the greatest challenge facing the program: users’ hesitation and resistance to not one, but two technological paradigms — autonomous cars and personal rapid transit. Despite the seeming inevitability of the former — the product of breathless hype, persistent lobbying (Google outspent ExxonMobil and all but one company in U.S. Congressional lobbying in 2012) , and the automakers’ bold timelines — less than half of Americans say they would want to ride in one. (And according to a separate study, more than half would refuse to pay extra for autonomous features. )
Compounding the problem is the historical legacy of PRT, a onetime transportation-of-the-future that galvanized significant top-down government investments in Europe and Japan, attracted interest from transportation companies such as Boeing, and relied on algorithmic decision engines to balance supply with demand on point-to-point journeys. The abandonment of Paris’ Aramis system in 1987 (after seventeen years of testing) was the subject of Bruno Latour’s book “Aramis or the Love of Technology, ” which concludes with the narrator describing the system’s “fragility” before deducing why it failed. “The demand for it is undefined, the feasibility of the vehicle is uncertain, its costs are variable, its operating conditions are chancy, its political support — like all political support — is inconsistent,” he summarized. “It innovates in all respects at once — motor, casing, tracks, chips, site, hyperfrequencies, doors, signal systems, passenger behavior.”
Too many technologies made Aramis weak, Latour decided — too weak to succeed without actors committed to seeing the project through. How committed are Milton Keynes’ constellation of public and private actors? And how much technology is too much?
While Milton Keynes and the LUTZ Pathfinder team navigate pitfalls endemic to technocratic projects, Shift faces a different dilemma: how much to disrupt? The default mode for ride-sharing services is “everything,” thanks to the runaway success of Uber, which has lobbied relentlessly and successfully to smash what it calls “the Big Taxi cartel” and bash in regulatory doors preventing it from operating. To persuade reluctant governments, in August the company hired former Obama presidential campaign manager David Plouffe as its policy and strategy chief. Even when the service is outright banned — as it was in Germany in September by a temporary injunction imposed by a Frankfurt court — it continues to operate anyway, gambling that given enough time and enough customers, it can defeat any resistance. Except in Las Vegas.
Uber met its match in 2010 when the Nevada Transportation Authority (NTA) classified it as a livery service, requiring passengers to book rides at least an hour before pickup, at an average price of $46 — neither of which are conducive to its business model. The company’s appeals to sidestep Nevada law were rebuffed, thanks in large part to pressure from the Livery Operators Association of Las Vegas (LOA), the Big Taxi cartel ruling the Strip. Uber has publicly complained about being frozen out of the multi-hundred-million-dollar market ever since; regulators remain unyielding. [On October 24, Uber began offering its UberX ride-sharing service in Vegas despite a lack of regulatory approval. A hearing has been set for November 7; until then, Uber continues to operate illegally, electing to pay fines while Taxicab Authority officers issue tickets and impound vehicles.]
Shift has had a front-row seat for this passion play, which has played out in cities across American and around the world as self-styled disruptors such as Uber and Lyft have spent their war chests of venture capital on lobbying. Although Shift’s ultimate ambition is to expand beyond Las Vegas, it is also inextricably entwined with the Downtown Project, and thus in Vegas and Nevada politics — scorched earth campaigns aren’t an option. How do you make the priorities of a public agency mesh with a private service conceived as a sweetener for those living or working downtown — especially when that agency has its own plans to accomplish the same goals?
That would be the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC), the entity responsible for planning and funding the metro area’s buses, roads, and traffic management. The RTC carried nearly 60 million passengers on 38 fixed bus routes in 2013, including several BRT lanes terminating downtown. In recent years, the RTC has created 364 miles of bicycle lanes, opened a 2,000 square foot Bike Center with free indoor parking, showers and lockers at its downtown Bonneville Transit Center, and added a network of bright green lanes running through downtown as a forerunner to bike-sharing stations along those routes.
Bike-sharing in particular has proven successful in cities such as Washington D.C. as a means for expanding the catchment area of transit. The 2013 Capital Bikeshare Member Survey Report found that 54% of members had used them in tandem with trains, and 23% with buses — which is why Ware and his Downtown Project colleagues once talked with the RTC about collaborating on Las Vegas’ own public bike-sharing system, which is on track to launch in early 2015.
By then, Shift’s own stations will be up and running on private land controlled by the Downtown Project, using bikes provided by Social Bicycles. (The RTC has not yet selected a system.) While RTC officials are optimistic about integrating the two — perhaps with “super-user” privileges for Shift’s members — Ware and his team are far more circumspect. “The best case scenario would be that SoBi bids on it and we find some interoperability,” says Jude Stanion, who oversees the bike-sharing component. “The key thing is to not get tied to their timelines.”
Stanton’s wariness underscores the fact that project doesn’t answer to the RTC. Before it can launch, however, it must file an application with the NTA. Neither bike-sharing nor Tesla rentals should raise any alarms — Zipcar is perfectly legal in the state. It’s only when you stick your own driver behind the wheel that things get a little dicey — just ask Uber.
Ware and his colleagues have taken great pains to avoid a similar fate. “I don’t necessarily believe can happen overnight, and I don’t expect it to,” he said in May. “I don’t believe in protectionist laws, but I do believe there are ways to do things that don’t involve telling a regulator you’re going to war with them.” Shift representatives have met repeatedly with NTA and RTC officials, both of which will publicly attest to the project’s good intentions. “I think it’s more productive to spend an hour with them now than to receive a cease-and-desist order a year from now,” Ware said.
Despite their apparent deference, the “D” word — disruption — keeps creeping into Shift conversations. “It is a very fine line between reading the statutes and finding a way to fit, versus also toeing that line to demonstrate there are other options that are going to be good for the community,” says J.J. Todd, Shift legal counsel. “We can make transportation better, and it may not fit with existing regulations in the state, but we’re going to provide a benefit. ‘Where do we push and how much do we push it?’ is a question I ask myself every day.”
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In September, The Atlantic’s urban affairs Website, CityLab, asked why U.S. cities “still haven’t figured out how to deal with the most important, most obvious innovation in transportation: the smartphone. ” Transportation officials had failed to take the lead in creating a transit app enabling riders to plan, book, and pay for trips combining any number of modes. While Helsinki is charging ahead on its plans to create exactly that, even New York City — which has the largest taxi fleet and transit ridership of any city in America — has surrendered the initiative to Google and Uber summoning cars, which today include drivers and tomorrow may not. Any private networked transportation system (like Shift) is by definition incomplete, and risks balkanizing ridership across public and private services. And any system (public or private) responding to issues of congestion by adding more vehicles — especially an entirely new class of autonomous PRT — is perhaps missing a greater opportunity, if not the point.
“Too often in transportation we attempt to address the symptom of a malady instead of the infection itself,” says John Tolva, former CTO of the city of Chicago and currently CEO of the engineering firm PositivEnergy Practice. “When we look to smart, driverless cars we think we’re addressing the problems of congestion and road safety. But the problem is too many vehicles on the road; traffic backups and collisions are byproducts. Looking at population growth alone in urban areas, it’s clear that a future where we’re whisked about in hermetic cocoons means more cars on streets.”
Or will it? Lawrence Burns, director of the Earth Institute’s Program on Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University, estimates a shared fleet of 9,000 autonomous vehicles could replace New York’s 13,000 yellow cabs at a cost of $1 per trip in Manhattan versus a taxi’s $7.80, with wait times of less than a minute. Buttressing Burns’ findings is an agent-based model created by the University of Texas’ Kara M. Kockelman unleashing shared autonomous cars in Austin . She found that substituting just 5% of weekday trips with the vehicles in question would replace roughly 20,000 private vehicles with 1,700 shared ones.
Buzzcar CEO and Zipcar founder Robin Chase has described an autonomous-driven world as “heaven or hell, ” heaven being the optimistic projections described above, and hell reserved for “zero-occupancy vehicles” circling the block endlessly while their owners run errands. Will LUTZ Pathfinder’s best intentions pave the road to hell? Does Shift point the way to heaven from the purgatory of private car ownership amidst endless urban sprawl? Considering neither has even launched — Shift only began soliciting beta members in mid-September — the answers remain to be seen.
Both projects would like to be a model for future urban mobility, but the reality for most cities will be more complex. Helsinki excepted, perhaps, no city can hope to enclose every mode into a single mobility offering. Instead, Tolva insists, “the solution is smarter transportation systems: the sum of the actual vehicles and rolling stock, the roads and tracks they travel, and most importantly the people who use them. Buses that can ask a traffic light to stay green a bit longer; commuters who know exactly their transportation options in real-time; cities full of privately-owned, networked jitney cabs; unified fare collection across all modes; street design that actually invites mixed use — these are the systemic ways to scale smart transportation, building on existing infrastructure, adding intelligence strategically, and empowering people to get around more efficiently.”
This is a messier but maybe more achievable vision, one that neither brushes the public sector aside for being hopelessly sclerotic, nor seeks to solve a dependency on one mode with a checkered past (the car) by simply supplementing it with another (PRT). As an evolving nexus of land use, energy, sustainability, and even inequality, urban transportation is arguably one of the wickedest problems of our time — we need as many answers as we can get.