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Challenge and opportunity: A Minnesota public/private transit revolution

Photo by Dorothy Childers/Hill and Lake Press
I've stood at the intersection of Kenilworth and Cedar Lake Parkway about half of the weekday mornings from July to the present.

Whatever this year’s Legislature cooks up, we can’t — simply can’t — keep doing “transportation as usual” – or so chants the light rail “conventional wisdom chorus.”

Let me suggest this: Doing light rail as any kind of a linear, continuous extension of the past might be just as bad — or worse — as doing nothing. We’re not Shanghai, London or New York, and never will be. Retrofitting our lagging, “losing-to-Portland” Twin Cities with 19th-century rail at 22nd-second century prices is a bad idea whose time has come — and gone!

Instead, let’s try something Minnesota used to do really well. Let’s organize and channel our long established political freedom to demand a public/private transit revolution, right here in Minnesota. Let’s use something China doesn’t have: our dormant, doormat, but still-real ability to make state and local governments respond to us.

Coordinating the public and private sectors to actually promote the general welfare — instead of special interests – has always been tough. Our American system was designed from the get-go to prefer stability to efficiency; future revolutions were to be peaceful and Private Sector Only. 

An amazing example: Minneapolis’ park system

But in Minneapolis, and Minnesota, we have at least one truly amazing historical example of a successful public/private revolution: the founding of the Minneapolis park system – and it is a carefully and deliberately planned and organized system. We need to think Transit Revolution with the same hundred-year time frame, the same stewardship and breadth of vision, and let me be blunt: the same speculative savvy taken by the civic leaders who founded our park system.

Whatever the next century brings, we know it will be automated. The 19th century was rail; the 20th was cars … freeways … buses. The  21st will be Automated Everything. This is our planning touchstone.

Republicans in the state House – keen about automated driving — should probe the assumptions behind the conventional-wisdom chant: 20 years of a $1 billion annual budget gap. Republicans should also challenge the Metro Council’s congested “managed growth” mindset. When cars “know” what adjacent vehicles will do, is congestion necessary? Might we plan for zero slowdowns and delays, and for the competitive advantages that would come from that?

Our real “knowledge gap” isn’t just automated driving per se. Our biggest gap – practically a vacuum – is in thinking through what automated driving will mean for public/private transportation and transit systems – again with the emphasis on system. What new opportunities, and yes, what kind of revolution, might be possible?

Outlines of an automated system

Here are the bare bones of Automated-Everything Transit Revolution:

  • Promote the general welfare” = make everyone better off = uber equity;
  • A massive jobs program, using thousands of Metro Mobility-size buses;
  • A point-to-point service grid, not just a downtown centered hub-and-spoke system;
  • Five-minute service or better, no schedules;
  • Real-time vehicle dispatch as needed;
  • Transit is a utility, driver’s license = Go-To card
  • Property tax pays the base rate;
  • Automate everything ASAP;
  • Car2Go, Uber, bikes and beyond (shhh!… patentable stuff) for “last mile” gaps as needed.

Post-1776 American revolutions have been centered in the private sector because it is designed to be disruptive — to produce “creative destruction.” A little capitalism goes a long way, but too much can be fatal; that’s why we have a mixed economy. The public and nonprofit sectors are in a real sense the “anti-” to an ever upthrusting ATV private sector that wants to run over anything in its way. It’s fair and probably inevitable to ask: How can the public sector be part of a revolution when its essential character seems to be more like “uncreative self-preservation”?

Reality of our public sector

Here’s the reality: The size and scope of existing public sector glaciers — sorry, entities — is essentially a given. These entities are somewhat reformable, and they could melt slowly given enough time (decades). This means for transportation and transit, the existing Metro Transit and Metro Council can and will cooperate only if they are convinced no one’s job, or pay, is threatened.

However, “hold-harmless” is only for current employees. Unions can and have accommodated to necessary compensation and other caps for new hires. Here’s a deal that will work for Metro Transit: first, no threats to existing jobs or pay – in fact we’ll launch a giant jobs program. However, it’s with this understanding: at some point, all the thousands of newbie-driven Metro Mobility size buses will be automated. That’s why the new jobs will be mostly or entirely part time. They might last for decades, but some or most could be gone in as soon as 10 years.

By the way, isn’t this essentially what President Barack Obama did with Obamacare? Lesson one: You have to accommodate all existing interest groups to make any major change in the public sector. Lesson two: Let’s be honest about what we’re doing.

With this approach, a Public/Private Transit Revolution is possible. Now let’s blend in our special Minnesota-made creative-destruction secret sauce: intellectual property. With massive, deliberate, organized public/private coordination, not only does Transit Revolution become possible, industrial-scale inventing is needed. The state that spawns this (hint: starts with an “M”) will have a first-mover advantage as the hub of a new global industrial sector.

A start, and alternative plans for SWLRT

I’ve made a start – my patent-pending “Transit Cloverleaf” enables bus transfers at a freeway cloverleaf – impossible today due to the inner loops. The “Transit Cloverleaf” includes a quick, inexpensive start-up configuration, with staged upgrade paths to something unique and amazing. I have many more ideas in mind, and I’m eager to work with people on all of them. Let’s launch Transit Revolution right here in Minnesota. Let’s create thousands of new jobs — tens of thousands — including jobs ideal for people now working at public-sector entities, such as, say, the Metro Council.

I’ll be working on this at the 2015 Legislative session. Step one is a petition I’m circulating, calling on MnDOT, Metro Transit, Hennepin/Ramsey and Minneapolis/St. Paul to come to an all-day Transit Revolution presentation, including two alternative plans for Southwest LRT (one is buses only, “Plan B” modifies and improves the Southwest plan, and preserves Kenilworth.)

Let’s approach transportation and transit with the same approach, and the same hundred-year time frame, that launched our amazing Minneapolis park system.

Bob Carney Jr. is a candidate-journalist-politico-entrepreneur-inventor-lobbyist; visit www.bobagain.com.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Richard Adair on 02/07/2015 - 11:28 am.

    Mr. Carney’s transit revolution

    Two quick questions:
    1) How would this system help reduce carbon emissions that threaten our planet? Why do leading environmentalists (e.g., Naomi Klein) promote rail transit as the most efficient way to move large numbers of people in appropriate corridors? In part, because electric power from green sources can be supplied from fixed power lines. Battery-powed electric vehicles are also less efficient than transit. Rails require less maintenance than roadways.

    2) Who would pay for this? Property taxes–really? How about the labor costs (one driver for 10 people on a bus, hundreds of people on a light rail train)? If the economics work, why isn’t the private sector already doing this?

    Light rail isn’t designed for every trip. Private cars, carpools, hour cars, buses, walking, bicycling are better in many circumstances. But rail transit is highly efficient when millions of trips occur in the same corridor.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/07/2015 - 10:30 pm.

    Yes, the world’s best transit systems are multimodal

    Portland is known for its light rail system and streetcar, but it also has frequent bus service and accommodation for bicycles and pedestrians. It’s actually the seven-day-a-week frequent bus service more than the rail system that makes it possible to live without a car, but for longer rides, rail wins. (It’s possible to take the same crosstown trip by either bus or rail in a couple of cases, and rail is both faster and more comfortable.)

    Tokyo, which probably has the world’s best system, has surface trains, both public and private, subways, full-sized buses, one remaining trolley line (the others were replaced by subway lines), and, more recently, half-sized shuttle buses for neighborhoods and a completely automated line to the artificial island of Odaiba.

    Living in a place with good transit is the best lesson in what is possible and what is feasible.

  3. Submitted by John Roth on 02/08/2015 - 10:40 am.

    inherent problems with cars

    There are several inherent problems with cars and buses, whether they are automated or not:

    First, they require an enormous amount of land for the roadways and parking lots, and the wast majority of that land is removed from the tax rolls.

    Second, the large roadways and parking lots are mostly eyesores and blights on the environment. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about the freeways cutting through Minneapolis and St. Paul. And large parking lots are simply ugly.

    Third, the impervious surfaces of the roads and parking lots collect solar heat and contribute significantly to the urban heat island, which raises the temperature in the cities by several degrees when compared to surrounding rural areas. The impervious surfaces also are a major source of run-off pollution and flooding, and their compacted surfaces deprive tree roots of aeration, which weakens the trees and often shortens their life.

    Fourth, large roadways and freeways break apart neighborhoods and the natural environment. They prevent the free passage of pedestrians and wildlife, and cause an astounding amount of roadkill.

    Fifth, highways are incredibly noisy. We used to live near 394 and found the roar of the highway intolerable. It definitely reduced the value of our property when we sold it.

    An automated car or bus will do nothing to overcome these problems.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/09/2015 - 12:18 pm.

      Freeways

      You can see exactly how freeways have changed Minneapolis by looking at the link below. The authors have paired aerial photographs from 1953 with ones from today, scaled exactly to each other. Take the divider and move it back and forth to see what the city looked like then and what it looks like today with its myriad freeways slicing through neighborhoods.

      http://iqc.ou.edu/2014/12/12/60yrsmidwest/

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/08/2015 - 12:54 pm.

    Let’s hear it for public-private partnerships!

    The public-entity that is Metro Transit did not just happen. Long, long before Mr. Carney ever thought of applying for a patent and trying to sell the idea as innovative thinking, all transit in the area was the realm of the private sector. Twin City Lines was well-run in the beginning, but ended up being a carnival of 20th century white collar crime.

    Privatization of what is supposed to be a public good seldom works. What happens if investors don’t get the expected returns? Corners will be cut, service will be discontinued, and taxpayers will (as these things tend to go) have to step in to take up the slack. What happens if Mr. Carney does not get his patent? There goes that solution to our problems.

  5. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/09/2015 - 12:26 pm.

    Automated Cars

    The automated cars are a nice idea, but they’re still a long ways from seeing the light of day. At this point it’s a good idea to keep tabs on them and see how the technology progresses, but it’s too early to incorporate them into our system planning. Here are just a few not-insignificant technical hurdles that still need to be overcome.

    -The cars can only drive through areas that are thoroughly mapped. What that means is they can’t approach a new street and figure out the dynamics as it goes along. If the street isn’t on its internal map, it doesn’t exist. That goes for each and every stop sign and light along the route too. Someone somewhere has to code each and every road on the entire North American continent. Or at the very least, the Twin Cities.

    -The cars can’t handle rain or snow–a big problem here in Minnesota. Weather blinds its sensors.

    -The cars can’t handle sudden situations, like a ball rolling out into the street. Humans will slow down, figuring there may be a young child behind that ball. Automated cars move along as if nothing new has occurred.

    -Even when/if automated cars reach the market, it’ll be 20+ years before they get serious market penetration. Until then we’ll have to deal with a situation of mixed vehicles.

    I look forward to the day when automated cars rule the road as they’re a heck of a neat deal. After all, humans are the weakest link in the transportation chain. But we’re a heck of a long way from that point and, for the time being, we have to design and implement the solutions we currently have on hand.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/09/2015 - 06:37 pm.

      Good points about automated cars

      If a Roomba crashes into something, the worst case scenario is dinged furniture. If an automated car crashes into something or someone, well, it’s a car crashing into something or someone, with everything that implies.

      I haven’t looked into the question extensively, but I imagine that the developers are promising perfect automated cars “in ten years.”

      I’ve been a Japanese-English translator for twenty-one years, and ever since I started, machine translation developers have been promising that perfect machine translation is “only ten years down the road.” Well, I suggest that you not run your English text through Google Translate to turn it into Japanese unless you want to have your Japanese-speaking readers laughing themselves silly.

      A human translator can look at the context and decide whether to translate the English word “fall” into the Japanese word meaning “autumn” or the one meaning “fall from a height,” “fall over from a standing position,” or “stumble and fall.”

      A human driver can determine with reasonable accuracy whether that pedestrian standing on the curb is going to wait for the car to pass or dart out and try to dash across the street.

      Machines are great for routine tasks, but tasks that require judgment and subtlety are best left to humans.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/11/2015 - 12:54 pm.

        Insurance

        Yeah, I didn’t delve into the whole insurance aspect of automated cars, figuring that is a minor issue compared to the technical hurdles. What happens if an automated car hits someone else’s vehicle? Is the passenger at fault, the car manufacturer, or the software developer? Who gets the liability for the hit?

        Or do we simply require all people to have insurance at all times and pay out property damage and health bills from a pool?

        Personally, I would love to have automated cars as it makes the roads a heck of a lot safer. Just this morning on the way to work I watched no less than three drivers make left turns on red lights as traffic (me and other vehicles) were coming at them. Humans are dangerous, not to mention stupid.

        But as you pointed out, automated cars looks like it’s one of those technologies that will be “just around the corner” for a long time to come.

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