Atlantic runs ridiculous article that proposes to replace NY subways with driverless hoverboards rented at market price from private companies

Atlantic’s editors must have all taken stupid pills on the same day or forgot that editors are also supposed to check the math. Or maybe they thought it was a science fiction fairy tale when they agreed to run “The New York City Subway Is Beyond Repair” by software expert Peter Wayner?

Wayner proposes to replace the New York subway system with underground paved roads on which a variety of private fleets of driverless vehicles would transport New Yorkers directly to their destinations, all guided by one central scheduling system. Prices would vary depending on the time of day and type of vehicle employed, as Wayner imagines a market for both basic transportation and luxury cars outfitted with a desk and chair. He believes it will be cheaper to convert the subway system and buy fleets of driverless vehicles than the $19 billion that Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) chief Andy Byford says it will take the fix the subways. Wayner, whose expertise in the matter seems to be that he has self-published a few books about driverless cars, prophesizes that it will take less energy to run the tens of thousands driverless vehicles than it does to run the current fleet of subways.

Wayner’s exposition has a sieve-like number of logical holes in it. First off, he never demonstrates why a $19 billion price tag means that, of necessity, we should replace the railed mass transit concept. It’s called a “pons asinorum” in Latin, or “bridge of asses”: A being true does not lead to B being true, and wouldn’t even if both were true, which in this case, they are not.

The article’s basic premise connects two ideas—privatization and replacement of trains by driverless vehicles for individual users—that don’t have to exist together. We could privatize subways or we could have the government finance, build and run the system Wayner proposes. Of course, Wayner believes that privatization will lead to a greater choice of vehicles, amenities and other features without explaining how that could be a benefit to those wanting to get to the office or the jazz club on time and cheaply. Wayner undercuts his own argument without even knowing it when he notes that the subway lines were originally privately run. Yes, they were. But he does not complete his history: Private ownership of subways didn’t work out too well, so within a few decades government took over with a pledge to provide inexpensive and reliable public transportation to 1.75 billion rides a year.

Wayner’s math never really adds up. At best, he does hasty analysis that does not take every factor into consideration; at worst, he’s purposely trying to do some math magic tricks, similar to politicians who propose that lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations leads to greater job creation.

Let’s start with basic size, which in the case of vehicles matters a lot. The average 10-car subway train holds 1,832 people according to the manufacturer, but Wayner says 2,000 and I saw someone estimate it at 2,200. At rush hour, trains typically hold 103% of capacity, or 1887 if we use the manufacturer’s recommendation. At 1,832 per train at peak capacity, that’s 2.41 square feet per person; at 2,000, it’s 2.21 square feet. The current generation of Segways, the hoverboard I checked, measures from 5.41 square feet to 9.16 square feet, or from 2.25 to 3.8 times larger than the footprint of a subway rider. Thus, excluding the room that will have to exist between each vehicle as it rolls along the underground road, it will take from 2.25 to 3.8 times the total length of driverless vehicles to replace your average subway train at rush hour.

But wait. It’s going to be much more additional space than that. Remember that rich folk will be able to get customized luxury cars. And what about people traveling in groups, those carrying a lot of packages, or people with disabilities? Those traveling with strollers, bicycles or dogs in containers? Those who need to eat while they ride? Some people absolutely have to sit down for health reasons. A lot of the vehicles will end up being bigger than the current 5.41-9.16 square feet of a hoverboard. The bigger the vehicle, the more space needed between vehicles. That’s simple physics. Certainly the space between vehicles will be much more than the inches that separate New Yorkers on rush hour trains. Even with the efficiency of driverless vehicles under a central scheduling authority using sophisticated software, it’s hard to see how individual vehicles will be able to move the New York rush hour crowds as efficiently as an upgraded subway system with new switching systems could do.

That’s where peak pricing comes in, Wayner says. Peak pricing will influence people to select alternative times of day to travel. Let’s forget the obvious logical flaw—that a public authority can also do peak pricing for rail transit. Lots of people do not have flexible hours, and many (if not most) New York employers already stagger start and end times to accommodate the New York rush hour craziness their employees go through. The least flexible in travel times will virtually always be those who earn the least, so moving to any kind of peak pricing for mass transit will inevitably have a disparately negative impact on the poor, and thus go against the basic mission of the subway system for more than a century.

Wayner’s numbers for energy savings are just plain sloppy. He estimates that running the hoverboards will take only 20% of the electrical energy that running the subways does, but conveniently forgets to mention that he’s comparing apples to a basket of mixed fruit. He only estimates the electrical costs for running the hoverboards, whereas the MTA annual use of 1.8 billion kilowatt hours includes the electricity to power the lighting along the tracks, in the stations and outside entrances, the signal system, the toll booths and the elevators; FYI, Weyner’s plan calls for adding more lights to the roadways. Weyner also conveniently forgets to calculate how much electricity the non-hoverboard vehicles will use. Missing, too is an estimate of the total number of vehicles included in his estimate for energy use.

Let’s not forget that after a $19 billion investment, there will be fewer delays and breakdowns, meaning the subway system will use less electrical power.

The article never considers maintenance costs for concrete roads versus rails or the lifespan of hoverboards versus railcars, but he does make a big show of trying to prove it will take much less than $19 billion to convert to his vision. But when it comes to estimating how much it would cost to clean up the subways, pull up the tracks and pave them, add lights, install the appropriate software systems and buy the vehicles, Wayner is pulling numbers out of the air, with no basis. Again, he estimates the costs of hoverboards, but not of the hundreds if not thousands of bigger vehicles that will be needed for those with disabilities, groups, people with packages, those who need to sit and luxury travelers. He never tells us how he derived the figure of $8 million a mile to clean up and he never places a number on the additional lighting that will be required. His budget lacks so many crucial items that it’s essentially worthless in making a comparison to the cost of fixing what ails the subway system.

The paragraph on the great new money-making opportunity that an underground road with driverless vehicles will create makes me wonder if Wayner has ever ridden a New York subway. He sees untapped wealth in placing advertising billboards along these underground roads. He never answers the question why companies are going to want to pay more for ads along the underground roadways than they now pay for ads in the subway cars; nor does he estimate how much more ad space will be available on these underground billboards than already exists inside current subway cars. The only way not to chide him for these omissions is to assume he has never seen subway car advertising, which means he has never ridden in the New York subway.

Another sign that Wayner has never actually ridden the subway extensively is that he never addresses what to do with the 40% of the subway system which is at ground level, or more frequently, dozens of feet above the ground. Does he propose to enclose the elevated lines or place safety rails on their sides, and how much is that going to cost? I can tell you one thing: it will take a ton more money to dig new tunnels to replace the els than it will to complete the MTA’s $19 billion laundry list of current needs.

Subway systems in general are a product of 19th century thinking, just as Wayner accuses them of being. But big deal! That does not mean subways are obsolete, as Wayner declares at the beginning of the article. The idea that dedicated mass transit systems are the ideal way to transport large numbers of people in urban areas is a lot younger than the idea that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us, or that wheels encounters less friction than blocks in moving a weight over a surface. There are lots of old ideas and technologies that are still valid, many of which have undergone improvement over time; stereo amplifiers than play MP3s, electric screwdrivers, refrigerators that make ice, cars with electronic systems and batteries, and computers that take photos and make phone calls that you can carry with you in your pocket all immediately come to mind. Nothing in this mess of an article should convince us to abandon subways or the $19 billion improvement plan the MTA has developed.

And therein lies the real harm of this article and the real disservice that Wayner and Atlantic have done to New York and the entire country. Right-wingers everywhere will wave the article in the air and declare piously that it’s a waste of money for the state or the federal government to help fund the MTA’s ambitious but necessary improvements. And that has the potential to devastate the New York economy, and therefore the national economy, which is intimately tied to the economic well-being of its largest city. With all due respect to Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco-San Jose, Houston and Atlanta, New York has been the heartbeat of American commerce and finance for almost 200 years now. The New York subway system—like the tunnels taking rail traffic from New Jersey to Manhattan and like the Washington subway system and like our system of roads and bridges and sewer systems everywhere—are living on borrowed time. We have spent the past 30 years cutting infrastructure spending to line the pockets of the wealthy through deep and steady tax cuts. It’s time to invest in our country’s public infrastructure again, not spin pie-in-the-sky free market science fiction fantasies.

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