Look Ahead, Not Back:
An Alternative System for Regional Public Transportation

by John S. Niles

Reprinted from the March 1995 Policy Brief of Washington Institute for Policy Studies,
published just before the March 1995 vote that defeated a larger RTA plan
that preceded the scaled-down plan that passed in November, 1996.

The rap on skeptics of the RTA mass transit rail plan is that they don't have an alternative to the pending $6.7 billion system.

It's true, RTA rail plan opponents have not coalesced around a single heavy construction alternative.

Instead, local rail skeptics offer a portfolio of various solutions.

Some ideas. such as expanding car and van pools that use HOV lanes to bypass congestion, address transportation capacity. Other suggestions would reduce trips by locating jobs and service delivery offices near housing and transit centers. Or, incentives could be provided for telecommuting. Still other proposals, such as bus service improvements, are included in the less-expensive, more feasible pieces of the RTA plan.

"Headed Down the Wrong Track," published in March 1993 by the Puget Sound Transportation Discussion Group (TDG), proposed 23 solutions to chip away at the difficult problem of controlling congestion.

But the no-rail side of the debate is missing a spectacular centerpiece project, a "mega-system" that brings all the other pieces of a "seamless, intermodal" transportation system together. Any serious alternative to the highly romanticized notion of a 69-mile light rail system must be good enough and grand enough to capture the imagination of politicians, the media and the public they serve.

What might such a rail-beater look like?

It should be available to every traveler every day for every trip.

It should capture the extensive empty passenger capacity that is already moving around in private and public vehicles.

It might even pay drivers instead of just adding to their tax burden.

Sound implausible? After all, to achieve such a progressive system would mean connecting the region's buses, van pools and car pools to a fast lane on the information highway a notion infinitely preferable to adding a slow train to the I-5 corridor. But is it too far-fetched? Perhaps not.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has been working since 1992 on a concept of "smart travelers" riding on "smart vehicles." "Smart" means that both the people and the vehicles are continuously connected via wireless telecommunications. This sophisticated approach -- Advanced Public Transportation Systems (APTS) -- would keep track of traffic conditions and the origins and destinations of passengers seeking a ride. It would monitor the location of all vehicles with room for passengers.

The computer system could be programmed to provide HOV drivers with the best and fastest route in prevailing traffic conditions. Drivers and passengers could make one button calls for emergency assistance. Hand-held computers and video kiosks in office lobbies, schools, and shopping malls would display up-to-the-minute information on available public transportation options. These would at first look something like the terminals now carried by Federal Express drivers and Washington Gas meter readers. Within a decade perhaps by the end of the century these computers would be small enough to hang on a key chain. Or wear like a watch.

Central to the success of such a system would be a painless scheme of electronic fare collection as well as financial incentives for drivers and passengers who give rides voluntarily to people in their neighborhood or workplace.

In short, instead of funneling people into train stations, this system would strive to achieve one-seat rides from door to door, the private driving ideal. It would offer faster travel, flexibility to change plans, universal and low-cost geographic coverage, and equity for elderly and physically impaired travelers.

Would it work? Ask yourself: Would you occasionally provide a ride to a friend, neighbor, or co-worker of your choosing who was going in the same direction at the same time as you were? Especially if the coordination problems were non-existent, and if you were reimbursed electronically for making the extra stops?

Getting 20% of the driving public to answer "yes" to this question a few times a week would be the goal for a Puget Sound Public Transportation Information Utility. Such a system would do more for traffic than any light rail system. Be honest-- wouldn't you be more apt to use APTS on a regular basis, either as a driver or passenger than any type of rail?

And we're not as far from realizing APTS as it might seem.

Government agencies and private companies are already designing early prototypes for pieces of this `smart traveler' system. Such an approach would take advantage of privately funded, already-committed corporate plans for improved wireless telecommunications, data and video communications over fiber-optic cables, and small but powerful computers.

A mobility-enhancing package like this would cost billions less than the $6.7 billion RTA package. A $1 billion public program over the projected RTA timeframe, for example, would easily pay for designing and installing a public transportation information system based on smart vehicles, wireless communications, and hand-held computers for every traveling citizen of the region. This would free billions of dollars in the regional economy for other private and public purposes.

The high-tech, environmentally conscious Puget Sound region should seize the opportunity to revolutionize public transportation. By building a leading-edge system that utilizes already-developed telecommunications and computer technology, Puget Sound's transportation could be a world wonder. While other cities build monuments to transit's past, we can provide the blueprint for the transportation needs of the 21 St century.

It just takes vision -- toward the future instead of the past.

John S. Niles, President of Global Telematics in Seattle, consults throughout the U.S. on transportation and telecommunications issues.