The Future Tech Red Herring

London is going through an extended and divisive debate over bus rapid transit (BRT) right now. The project is extraordinarily complicated and I don’t pretend to have more than superficial knowledge on most of it. Actually, I kind of doubt there is any one person in the city that could claim to know everything. The project ties in to several other huge initiatives including Dundas Place, The London Plan, Back to the River, London Bikes as well as a major road widening on Wharncliffe and an underpass project on Adelaide street. These projects, taken together, will change the face of this city for decades to come. And everything is connected.

One argument that keeps popping up over and over again in this debate – why don’t we just wait until the next generation of technology comes along? Just wait a while and all our problems will be solved.

There are a number of things wrong with this kind of strategy (it’s a stretch to call inaction a strategy but we’ll let that go for now). First of all, what future? Today it’s autonomous cars, tomorrow it’s hyperloop, the day after that it’s flying cars, and so on. Tech is moving so quickly it’s hard to know what’s vapourware and what will actually hit the market. You know what doesn’t move quickly? Governments. And society. And that’s not going to change any time soon.

All of these technologies are going to shake the foundation of our society. Even the tech that seems like it’s right around the corner like autonomous cars aren’t going to be embraced by the various levels of government any time soon. Why? Because there are a myriad of complicated issues to struggle with – tens of millions of people out of work across the continent (every truck, taxi, bus and forklift driver potentially out of work), redefining vehicle ownership (why own a car that sits idle for 95% of the time?), automobile insurance (who’s at fault when a driverless car kills someone?), ethical quandaries (what does it look like when a computer tackles the trolley problem?), transportation unions and a lot more that I’m not going to get into here. I can’t even begin to imagine the legislative and political agenda around these problems.

After those pesky little issues have been tackled you’re still facing another biggie – governments don’t do “cutting edge”. Governments don’t take risks, mostly because constituents don’t want them to (not with tax money anyway) and public transit is not going to be an exception any time soon. Governments want reliable, robust equipment with a proven track record. Every now and then a city will take a calculated risk but that’s the exception, not the rule. So even after this next generation of tech gets past all the regulatory hurdles it’s going to take a while to hit the public transit fleet in any serious way.

Another thing about early adoption? It’s bloody expensive. You know that the corporations that make this stuff are rubbing their hards when they think about all the extra money they can make. We’re going to have to wait a while before the price gets to a place that we can seriously look at integrating that into our system.

I think we’re going to see this tech appear for the first time at the edges of transit systems. We’re going to see solutions for first mile/last mile – small microbuses that pick you up at your door and shuttle you to the nearest rapid transit station. When you arrive at your destination you’re going to hop in another that takes you to your final destination. Leveraging mass transit between different areas of the city makes far more sense and is far more efficient than having 25,000 microbuses on the road, doesn’t it? These could be private microbuses or they could be an extension of the public transit network. But that’s not going to happen for 15-20 years.

The pro and con of buses is that they don’t have a huge life span and they aren’t long term investments. They age out relatively quickly which opens the door to adopting new tech as it hist that sweet spot: reasonably priced, well tested and not too risky. Diesel buses lead to electric buses lead to autonomous buses lead to light rail transit or hyperloop or something that we haven’t even dreamed up yet.

So what should we do? Well I think we should invest in those rapid transit corridors that will eventually integrate with that kind of tech. For London that’s BRT today and maybe upgrade that to Light Rail Transit (LRT) when we see where future tech is leading us.  Fortunately that’s exactly the plan that we have in front of us today: London BRT v1.0. Start small and grow.

We’re the very last large city in the country to implement a rapid transit system, that’s not because we’re smarter than the other guys, it’s because we’ve been overly cautious (green bins anyone?). I was a big proponent of LRT when this system was first proposed but I’m beginning to see the benefits in a phased approach to rapid transit in the city given the new technologies that are in their infancy.

What we cannot do is spin our wheels for another 20 years and make no mistake, that’s exactly what “wait and see” proponents are putting on the table. It’s time for London to get on the bus.

One more thing (and it’s kind of a big one) … you know what all that future tech has in common? It’s being designed and tested in California. I could be way off base here but I’m pretty sure that California has significantly less snowfall than Canada. Of course by 2030 maybe snow won’t be a problem anymore if climate change takes its course. Maybe autonomous boats are the tech we should be looking at?