Transportation & Infrastructure

Super-Cheap Driverless Cabs to Kick Mass Transit to the Curb

Bloomberg Tech: “The self-driving vehicles being pioneered by Tesla Motors Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and others are poised to dramatically lower the cost of taxis, potentially making them cheaper than buses or subways, according to a joint report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and McKinsey & Co. Having no driver to pay could reduce taxi prices to 67 cents a mile by 2025, less than a quarter of the cost in Manhattan today, the report found.”

Why Cleaning Up Abandoned Lots Can Reduce Shootings

Francie Diep: “On average, in the year after a clean-up, the areas around remediated lots saw 5 percent fewer shootings than the areas around un-remediated lots, and remediated houses experienced 39 percent less gun crime. That’s a boon not only for city coffers, but for neighbors as well. In a previous study, Branas and his colleagues showed that walking past abandoned lots raised locals’ heart rates and stress levels, perhaps because these places were known crime magnets.”

Self-Driving Cars Are Going to Beat Up on Trains, Too

City Lab: “A new report released Monday from the Boston Consulting Group concentrates on the potential impact AVs will have on an older, globally popular form of transportation: passenger rail. ‘Will Autonomous Vehicles Derail Trains?’ the report asks. Short answer: Oh yes.”

From the report: “Trains will remain the least expensive mode of transportation during peak times in urban areas. But during off-peak hours and in rural environments, they will lose riders to AVs. Rail companies may even end up in a downward spiral: with reduced overall ridership, rail companies’ overall unit costs for all remaining passengers will escalate because of the inherently high proportion of fixed costs in operating a train network. This could trigger price increases or reduced schedules, which would result in a further reduction in ridership. The off-peak impacts of declining demand in rural areas could reverberate throughout the entire rail network, since it’s difficult to operate fewer off-peak trains without affecting the costs of peak trains.”

How to Do Infrastructure Spending the Right Way

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry: “In many ways, Washington, D.C., is like a fantasy land. Sometimes there are seemingly magic words that, when spoken, yield a magical effect. One example? ‘Infrastructure spending.'”

“So, what should we do? Here are a few pointers.”

“The internets! The one place where America’s infrastructure most inexcusably lags is high speed internet.”

“Nukes! Nuclear power is the best form of power there is. It’s clean. It’s safe. It’s long-lasting. It just works.”

“Research innovative infrastructure ideas. A lot of people, including Hillary Clinton, talk about an ‘infrastructure investment bank,’ which sounds kind of appealing, kind of business-y, kind of national-y, but always ends up being cronyist nonsense. If I’m going to use a buzzword, how about this: a ‘DARPA of infrastructure.'”

How the New Driverless Car Rules Could Cost Lives

Real Clear Policy: “Three numbers: 35,200 people were killed in auto accidents last year; 94 percent of car crashes are due to human error; 613,501 lives have been saved by advances in auto safety over the past 50 years. These numbers form the basis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head’s argument for autonomous vehicles and a friendly regulatory environment.”

“In a speech on Monday at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said that his agency’s goal is to create ‘a framework that will speed the development and deployment of technologies with significant lifesaving potential.’ However, the very next day, his agency released the long-promised NHTSA guidelines for autonomous vehicles, proposing two new authorities that would do the exact opposite.”

“The problem is that approving every single model for every single manufacturer would be a monumental task — and a slow one. Do we really want an FDA-style premarket approval process when delays could cost lives?”

“‘If we wait for perfect, we’ll be waiting for a very, very long time,’ Rosekind said of autonomous vehicle technology in general. ‘How many lives might we be losing while we wait?”

Uber Wants to Take Over Public Transit, One Small Town at a Time

The Verge: “Uber has so far been pitching itself as a supplement to existing transit programs rather than a replacement. But in June of last year, for the company’s five-year anniversary, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick envisioned a future where increasing efficiency would make Uber cost-competitive not just with owning a car, but with traditional mass transit.”

“With the help of public subsidies, that future is coming fast. The speed with which Uber has entered the public transit sector has stunned industry activists. ‘It’s happening very quickly,’ says Lawrence Hanley, the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. “It’s like a tsunami.'”

“With or without the cooperation of public agencies, Uber is becoming a new transit provider for at least a segment of the population. For cities like New York with extensive transit systems, this could mean a new front in the Uber wars — or a new era of private-public collaboration in transit. Either way, the rise of ride-sharing will spell major changes in how the country’s largest transit systems move people.”

Self-Driving Cars Could Put 4.1 Million Jobs At Risk

Market Watch: “When the self-driving-car revolution firmly takes hold, there will be carnage, according to Wolf Richter of the Wolf Street blog. Not the car-crash kind — though that is a prevalent fear — but on the employment front… Citing government figures, he says that 4.1 million jobs (the stat of the day in our daily Need to Know before-the-bell column) are at risk, including chauffeurs and drivers of trucks, cabs and ride-share vehicles.”

“The potential savings will outweigh the human cost, as companies fight for profit margins, he explained. Drivers are one of the biggest expenses for transportation companies. And they have to sleep and take vacation. Not so their autonomous replacements.”

The Sequel to Keystone XL: The North Dakota Access Pipeline Debate

Brookings Institution: “In what looks to be a sequel to the Keystone XL Pipeline dispute, a group of climate activists, Native American groups, and landowners are opposing the construction of yet another oil pipeline. Since the North Dakota Access Pipeline was first announced in 2014, opposition to it has slowly gathered momentum, culminating in high-profile protests last week.”

Here are some things to know:

“What is the Dakota Access Pipeline?”

“The 1,172-mile project is expected to carry nearly half a million barrels of crude oil daily—enough to make 374.3 million gallons of gasoline per day—from the hydrofracked sites in the Bakken formation in northwestern North Dakota  through South Dakota and Iowa into Illinois.”

“Why is it being built?”

“Supporters of the project argue the pipeline represents the safest and most efficient way to transport Bakken oil… Dakota Access LLC, the company behind the pipeline, claims that the project produces significant economic benefits.”

“Why is the pipeline controversial?”

“The protests have been the most intense in Sioux County, North Dakota, home of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a reservation of 8,000 people. The Native American group says the pipeline endangers sacred sites and drinking water resources… The pipeline has also brought together environmentalists and climate activists intent on blocking the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Uber and Lyft Want to Replace Public Buses

Bloomberg Tech: “In Uber’s early days, it said it wanted to be ‘everyone’s private driver.‘ Now the company and its main U.S. competitor, Lyft, are playing around with the idea of becoming the bus driver, too.”

“Uber has partnered with a handful of local public transportation agencies to strike deals like the one in Pinellas Park, which it expanded earlier this month. Later this month Lyft plans to launch a partnership with Centennial, Colorado, its first deal where a local government will subsidize its rides. The company also said it has helped a dozen transit agencies apply for federal grants that would pay for a portion of Lyft fares in situations where its drivers would effectively become part of the public transportation system.”

“Each of the current projects is tiny, but they could eventually be combined into something big, said Emily Castor, director of transportation policy at Lyft.”

“As officials grapple with those questions, it’s hard to ignore the real savings for governments—and real revenue for Uber and Lyft.”

Infrastructure Investment Gridlock Likely to Continue No Matter Who Becomes President

American Prospect: “One thing that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can agree on is that America’s infrastructure is an embarrassment.”

“Yet when it comes to the scope and pace of U.S. infrastructure investment, the person moving into the Oval Office may actually matter less than who gets new digs on Capitol Hill.  Despite some noises on the left about infrastructure investment, Congress’s austerity politics continue to put roadblocks in the way of municipalities across the country that are desperate for infrastructure solutions and the dollars to make them happen.”

“There is little currently to suggest that November will bring a seismic shift in thinking from federal lawmakers obsessed with demonstrating their cost-cutting chops to tax-averse voters back home, particularly on issues like raising the federal gas tax.”

“That gridlock, rooted in equal measures of political orthodoxy and fear of voter retribution, merely tosses back to cities and states the thorny question of whether to raise revenues to confront the infrastructure squeeze… some city officials would prefer to see Congress consider structural changes that would allow federal funds to flow directly to cities, eliminating the states as a ‘pass through’ clearinghouse for federal dollars.”

“Congress, too, is full of people who don’t see the utility of sending money to cities, even though most Americans now live in them. Metropolitan regions are the primary engines of economic growth in most states.”

The Independence of the Fed Is Being Undermined

Hoover Institution: “A number of proposals have been put forward to reform the Fed. But I see disturbing trends in how Congress and others seem to envision the appropriate role for our central bank. In particular, Congress has been using the Fed to explicitly avoid tough fiscal choices. This undermines the independence of the Fed with potentially dangerous repercussions.”

“The most recent encroachment on Federal Reserve independence is perhaps the most serious. Last fall, Congress chose to fund a portion of a highway-transportation bill using the capital surplus account at the Fed and reducing the dividend payments to those large banks that have chosen to be member banks. This is poor policy from a number of perspectives. First, transportation infrastructure spending has typically, and correctly, been funded by taxes on users. This practice has now been abandoned. Worse, this action is further evidence that Congress increasingly seems to think of the Fed as a source of funding for fiscal initiatives. Central bank independence is incrementally being eroded.”

“Particularly troubling is the fact that the Fed has not put up much of a fight. Independence is a fundamental principle of sound central banking. The Fed should protest more vigorously and make clear to the American public the risks of such actions.”

America: Digitally Divided 

Brookings Institution: “Rural areas have significantly slower internet access, with 39 percent lacking access to broadband of 25/4 Mbps, compared to only 4 percent for urban areas. This rural/urban ‘digital divide’ in access severely limits rural populations from taking advantage of a critical component of modern life.”

“This discrepancy in access inhibits rural communities in often unforeseen ways. While their YouTube stream may not be the highest quality, rural communities may also be unable to efficiently provide internet access to students in public schools… Rural schools lack access to high-speed fiber and pay more than twice as much for bandwidth. In a growing world of personalized online curricula, internet-based research, and online testing, this severely restricts rural students from educational opportunities their urban counterparts may enjoy.”

“Furthermore, rural communities may be unable to access critical government services. From Social Security to FAFSA, government services are transitioning to online access. Tax forms and services are being increasingly streamlined through online portals and tools, and with limited broadband speed, rural America may struggle to access these services.”

“…the FCC must expand access alongside advances in technology rather than after the fact, satisfying increased demands for faster internet with infrastructure growth. Otherwise, rural communities will continue to play catch up with their urban counterparts and the U.S. will remain digitally divided.”