Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for June 2019

Do we really want driverless buses?

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Image taken from original article in Smart Cities Dive

A consortium has been formed of US transit agencies who want to try out driverless buses. The idea is that the cost of getting into this new technology will be lower if it is shared.

I think the idea of a consortium to try out new technologies is a good one, and one that has a long history in transit. What worries me is that this is starting with a technology that I do not think needs to be the first priority. It is understandable, given the high percentage of overall operating cost that is due to driver’s wages and benefits. We have had driverless trains in this region for a long while. SkyTrain has also had significant numbers of people committed to patrolling the system to ensure passenger safety and security.

Recently an incident on the top deck of a British bus has awakened concerns here about passenger security on the double deckers shortly to be introduced here. (Hint: the driver has either a periscope or camera to see what is going on upstairs.) While assaults like this are relatively rare, bad behaviour by passengers is not. For this reason, bus operators are now getting protective screens on the new buses when they enter service. Equally, it is not unheard of for bus drivers to be the first responders in other cases of emergency. And one thing that we have probably all seen for ourselves is the reluctance of other people to get involved when someone else needs assistance. The response time to someone pressing an alarm on SkyTrain has also been an issue on occasion.

While a bus operator may not have all the skills and knowledge of a paramedic or a police officer, they are trained in what to do in an emergency. And often the interpersonal skills that they do have (and are now selected for) have been used to effectively reduce the tensions which can lead to rapid escalation.

There are autonomous buses in operation in France and elsewhere, but so far they have been limited to low speeds, short distances and relatively traffic free areas.

“The consortium [on the other hand] is expected to purchase 75 to 100 full-sized, autonomous buses that will run at full speed in real service environments.”

This seems to me to be unnecessary at this stage. And one of the things that has been improved in this region since I arrived has been the atmosphere on board buses since the emphasis in selection changed away from “has an air brake license” to “has people skills”. In general, the attitude and welcome you get on boarding the bus has been one of the best features of the ride. It would be a great shame to lose this. I also wonder how an autonomous bus would be alerted to the need to lower the ramp at a bus stop for a passenger with a disability – or delay starting until they were safely in place on board.


Written by Stephen Rees

June 9, 2019 at 11:07 am

Posted in transit

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The Bicycle Diaries: Episode 14

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Yesterday we got the bikes tuned up by Velofix (they come to you, which makes things very convenient) and the old, sprung front fork was put back on to replace the solid one I needed to accomodate the electric wheel. I never heard back from the guy who bought the other one, so I do not know if he got it to work. I will be taking all the bits I have left now to the zero waste facility (as the recycling centre has been renamed). – Postscript: one of the annoyances with the wheel was how the battery got wedged into its slot and was difficult to remove. “Impossible” I have been saying but today the staff at the Zero Waste site insisted I separate wheel and battery to put them into different places. It came out easily!

Since there is only one way out of here that does not require a steep hill climb, we decided to put the bikes on the rack of the car. We had heard that there was quite a bit of activity at Iona Beach on Monday – herons and eagles aplenty. That was not to be the case today, unfortunately. And while there were aircraft landing as we rode out along the jetty beside the sewage pipe, by the time we got to the end there was a distinct lull.

Doing this in bright sunlight with a camera that uses a screen (as opposed to a view finder) is not as easy as you might think.

Since we were last at the airport, the extension to the Mall at the eastern end has popped up like a mushroom after rain and traffic over the bridge at 3pm is already heavy before that opens. It was also backing up from Marine Drive as a dump truck and trailer had stalled at the traffic lights in the left turn lane to Milton Street. Since this was not immediately apparent to approaching traffic, there were people still trying to queue jump into the turn lane even though it was blocked and cars were having a hard time regaining the left through lane to get around the truck. The signals were not producing any left turn green arrow phases either.  I think we spent longer in the ensuing traffic jam than we did on the bike ride.

Next up will be a return to the Richmond Dike, and then probably a trip round Boundary Bay.

Here are some views from the end of the pipe, looking north towards UBC and Howe Sound. I have used the Mac’s photo editor to take out some of the hazy smoke.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 4, 2019 at 5:05 pm

Posted in bicycles, cycling, Traffic