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Thu, 28 Mar 2013

The Future of Public Transportation in America

Look at this proposed “high-speed rail system” spanning the United States.

It’s an awesome idea to dream and think about, and as a fairly regular traveler between Dallas and Houston (4 hr drive) I had a lot of time to wonder why I couldn’t take a train.

What I realized is that air travel is less “infrastructure-intensive” than roads and rail-road tracks. There is this ~myth~ that train travel will cost $0 and will be totally awesome, but look at existing Amtrak routes and you’ll see that it’s not nearly as cost-saving compared to air travel as you think.

Looking up Amtrak, semi random route (NY to Pittsburgh… the “Pennsylvanian”), is $70-80 one way (Feb 27) and ~9 hr trip. Feb 27 round-trip air returning 1 week later shows ~$120-200 and is between 1.5 and 4 hrs.

With air travel, you have a relatively high fixed cost at individual points / destinations, but zero incremental cost between arbitrary airports. Compared to trains, air travel has a very compelling connectivity and flexibility advantage, compared to building tracks that only one train at a time can ride on between two fixed points.

So while I love the idea of a train network (especially high-speed train), I think that currently air travel has a lot of advantages (quicker, cost-competitive, and is less infrastructure-intensive).

What I’d really love is for Google’s auto-driving cars to take off and have a “virtual-car” / “virtual-bus-system”. Give me a smartphone app, charge me less than $1/mi and guarantee a less than 5 minute wait.

Taking advantage of local road infrastructure for “point-to-point” automated local travel is soooo much better than trying to build a new inflexible train infrastructure to compete with airports for city-to-city travel.

With auto-driving cars you could do some very interesting things with the idea of actual “road-trains” (what 18-wheelers are called in Australia, I think). Imagine a passenger-based 18-wheeler. Automated semi up front, interchangeable 18-wheeler, glassed-in passenger-trailer on the back.

It uses existing road infrastructure and has a far better story for reliability, cost-effectiveness, and flexibility. With point-to-point local travel via “GoogleTaxis”, dropping you off at arbitrary parking lots / concentration points with a few “GoogleTrailers” connecting you quickly and precisely for long-haul city-to-city trips.

And when GoogleAir starts up and you can do point-to-point travel (started / planned from GoogleMaps, of course) charged to your GoogleWallet at insanely low prices, with insanely high customer-satisfaction… well, wake me whan that happens because we’ll be living in the future of public-transit.

22:55 CST | category / entries
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