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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Greenlight’s antique vision vs. driverless cars

Regarding transportation, the question for all of us — but especially for Pinellas County voters, who in November will decide about their near-term future — isn’t whether we’d like it to be easier to get from here to there. As the kids say: Duh.

No, the question is what methods are likely to produce the best outcome at the best price. And by best price, The Right Stuff doesn’t necessarily mean the cheapest, but instead the proverbial most bang for the buck. Just now you could make a fair argument that nobody really knows what that arrangement is, or even what it is likely to be over the next half-dozen years or so.

That said, the lead article in the Tribune’s Aug. 10 Views section establishes in compelling detail that the worst way for us to go about our business is the way we usually do it: by looking backward. Consultants who plot a forward course by studying what’s disappearing in the rearview mirror find themselves in a constant state of surprise by innovation that disrupts with ruthless persistence.

This is not to conclude that Greenlight Pinellas is the wrong plan at the wrong time, but instead is simply to note its organizers intend to solve the county’s rail-resistant problem — transportation through a county that is densely populated but bereft of destination centers — with the stubborn application of 19th century tools.

There remains much to be said for true bus rapid transit, in which state-of-the-art coaches travel in dedicated lanes between well-spaced stops defined by modern kiosks. Compared to rail, BRT is almost equally efficient about moving passengers, but at a scant fraction of the price. Make sure they’re powered by natural gas, and you’re cutting emissions, too. Everybody wins.

Meanwhile, innovation in transportation seems destined soon to cross a this-changes-everything threshold: Google and Mobileye, an Israeli company touted by the Motley Fool, to cite two, are galloping toward realizing self-driving vehicles — SDVs. When the gizmos become viable and, not much later, affordable, everything changes. Among other things, Forbes Britain-based contributor Tim Worstall contends driverless cars will obliterate any hint of consumer demand for high-speed rail (not that politicians will cease their clamoring).

“The real joy of the train is that you don’t have to drive. The drag of it is that you’ve got to get to the network node, the station, and that it then delivers you to the other network node, that other station. A driverless car will be just as comfortable as a train, will take you point to point, and you still don’t have to drive. You can spend the journey on Facebook, just like you can on the train. And that point-to-point convenience will probably mean that you’ll prefer it for journeys up to a couple of hundred miles. It’s going to take three or four hours whichever way you do it, isn’t it?”

It’s not hard to imagine SDVs doing similar insult to whatever demand accompanies laying track in the Tampa Bay area. Just last week, the forward-looking Florida Animated Vehicles, a division of the Florida Department of Transportation, largely agreed.

“Since drivers — or rather, passengers — will potentially have the ability to summon their vehicles when and where they want them, driverless cars do not have to remain parked when not in use. This brings up the notion that automated vehicles can function like the ride-share services we know today: After the vehicle brings the initial passenger to his or her intended destination, it can go on to another passenger, and so on. In essence, this functionality acts as a sort of public transportation service, raising the question of what will become of the systems we now know. Will we even need subways and buses when we have driverless cars?”

FAV notes an absence of consensus among its experts, some arguing that by operating in problematic first-mile/last-mile zones, SDVs could make buses and trains more popular. Pinellas voters need to decide whether that’s a gamble they’re willing to take.

Because it could be rolled out quickly and at a comparatively low price, true BRT deserves hard and prolonged consideration on both sides of Tampa Bay. But rail is an entirely different proposition. Greenlight’s best-case scenario for building the 24-mile anchor stretch linking Clearwater and St. Petersburg is projected to take 10 years and $2 billion. Wow. Stacked up against the implications of hyper-speed innovation, that sort of investment should give voters pause.

Well before phase one of the new infrastructure could be finished, it’s not implausible SDVs — owned by a blend of individuals, private consortiums and public transportation authorities — will commit to resolute antiquity Greenlight’s grand and expensive light rail scheme.

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