Robocars and Mass Transit

As the robocar age develops, one interesting change is that mass transit starts picking up ridership. But why? you ask — after all, isn’t a robocar the ultimate cocoon of comfort?

It is. But it’s also an expensive cocoon. And robocars benefit major transportation firms a hundredfold more than they do individual owners. Labor costs in the transportation sector drop like a stone; buses, trucking, and rail transportation all get an order of magnitude cheaper than they already are. For mass transit agencies, more and better service can be provided on the same budget: more capital investment, better equipment, a balance between efficient routes and responsive transit. Heck, in the robocar era, most mass-transit agencies may well be profitable!

This is occurring at the same time that capacity changes fuel complete-streets revamps of late human-driver stroads. Bikes, rather than cars, have become the symbol of “freedom” — or, more accurately, the symbol of the ability to control your own destiny. Sure, some specialty agencies will likely deal in offering the experience of driving your own car out in the open countryside, but, unless you’re on a bike, you’re not propelling yourself from place to place. Your robocar or robobus or robotrain is doing it for you.

Endpoint storage also becomes a greater concern for a robocar owner. In denser urban places, services like Uber and Lyft start to evolve towards a sort of transportation-subscription service; this becomes viable as they transition towards robocar fleets. But they soon realize attempting to tap the commute market is not practicable — some 80% of their fleet would have to be laid up in the off-peak. Better instead to partner with the mass transit agencies, or to offer competing bus service … which, in its turn, drives mass transit providers to compete with Uber and Lyft. And that’s not including railroads looking to make returns on moving passengers again … All of this means that endpoint storage becomes more centralized, with a handful of large garages handling the robocars not being used in the off-peak, due to the vertical integration these service providers impose.

You will probably download your own Lyftlike app to make money with your robocar. But here you face two challenges: first, whether or not such an app exists, and second, how large its customer base will be. See, by migrating to a subscription model, transportation service providers effectively lock out new ones in claimed markets. That leaves storage … meaning your car is costing you money, instead of making you some, when you’re not using it.

Fortunately, early in the robocar era, storage is cheap. In fact, it’s the cheapest it’ll probably be in a century, when inflation-adjusted. This is because, as Uber subscriptions take over as the dominant transportation option, and the providers consolidate the storage space for the 40%-50% of the fleet they don’t use at peak, storage space in other garages becomes cheap. Really, really cheap. Demand has just fallen off a cliff.

In fact, it becomes so cheap it stops making its owners money. And now, as owners renovate it into apartments or offices or retail space, the extra demand is removed from the market, until a new equilibrium is reached, one where storage space costs more than ever (remember, robocars render parallel parking obsolete). And as land development shifts towards the new reality — subscription-based transportation — private car ownership becomes more expensive than ever.

A generation in, and owning your own car is seen as a mark of conspicuous consumption. It’s expensive, surprisingly unlikely to make you money (given the size of the subscription services’ robocar fleets), and not something you can use very often. Overall, the vehicle fleet declines by ~33% (~40% in metropolitan regions). Late driver-era traffic engineering, with its quaint focus on “congestion”, has been moved past. Uber, Lyft, and mass transit agencies have seen their business models fuse; in many cases, one service or the other is offered in major metros, a duopoly as kvetched-about in its day as the Comcast-Time Warner one is in our day. Trains and buses are cheaper to run; in fact, the dominant transportation provider runs them as peak services in outer regions and all-day ones in inner regions.

It is important to realize this: when you can pay a service monthly so you can order a car on demand, or (in urban cores) to show up at a bus stop and expect one to be by in the time it takes to play a couple of games of Bejeweled Blitz!, the advantages of car ownership start to disappear. With robocars, you can’t control the car beyond entering your destination in its built-in GPS. Comfort becomes the name of the game when it comes to cars … Then what becomes symbolized as freedom?

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One thought on “Robocars and Mass Transit

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