My Vision Of The Future Of Public Transit

By now, you should be well aware that I take an interest in my local public transit. Quality public transit is still one of the things the majority of the US lacks. A mate literally just linked me to a map of public transit in the US. There are gaping holes in it. I don’t believe that it should be something that is limited only to cities. There is little doubt that is not cheap to implement a system that works like a finely tuned clock. Nor do I have any doubt that my vision of a “perfect” system would be far from cheap either.

I also have little doubt that it would be decades before it would even be possible. My system would actually be two systems, called SubTrain and SkyTrain. As the names may suggest, SubTrain would be underground and SkyTrain would be above. Both would be high-speed networks, to the point that ideally the system would enable international travel. And I don’t mean something simple like the US to Canada. I’m talking the US to Japan or Australia in four hours. NYC to Melbourne is 10,363 miles (16,667km). If we divide that (and round) by four, we get 2,591 (4,167). That means we’re looking at a train possible of going 2,591MPH. I don’t even know if that is possible with maglev, but that would probably be what my envisioned system would use. I’m well aware rockets are pretty damn fast, but even I’m not ready to strap a rocket engine on to a train.

This also means the system would need to be a) isolated from other infrastructure to go that speed, b) very, very straight with damn near flawless track at all times, and c) extremely aerodynamic. SkyTrain I also envision as being as scenic as possible, which in my book means lots of glass. I’d love to see the track be glass so that it would blend into its surrounding environment. If the engineers out there are thinking, “Good luck, have fun,” I don’t blame you.

Both SubTrain and SkyTrain should also be accessible to the majority of people, and especially for the neighborhoods they run through. I’d want stations to be more than just another train station. I’d like them to be something like Japan’s, with retail and tight integration into other infrastructure. But I don’t want to be building mega malls all over the place too. I want to see train stations built with the local community and environment in mind. I want them to be a place where people can gather. For starters, I’d put a library in every single major station.

I also want the systems to be accessible in terms of ease of use. Stations should be linked to existing modes of transit in the area and making a transfer should be painless. Digital signage would be everywhere, including large self-service TVs. Not computers, touchscreen TVs. It is no secret that sometimes people are afraid to ask for help. It also no secret that in many cases, people interacting with something can draw a crowd. Information is meant to be shared, so why shouldn’t information displays be too? Need directions to your train? Tap your phone, already preloaded with your ticket, to one of the screens. Train information and directions to the platform will pop up. Tap your phone again and that information will be synced back to it.

Now, as much as I love technology and have problem with it automating much of my life, sometimes I’d rather talk to a person than a machine. While the trains themselves would be fully automated as well as ticket machines, stations and trains would still be staffed, with the staff functioned in support roles. Machines break down. The machines to fetch and repair the broken-down machines break down. I get that. You can pour as much programming code into a machine as you want, even give it the ability to think for itself, but I don’t think we’ll ever pre-program something to account for every possibility of what could happen. Get involved in systems testing and you’ll learn exactly what I mean.

Now, even though the systems would be very expensive to design and implement, I don’t want that cost being passed of to passengers. Passengers are passengers, not customers, or worse yet, cattle, as I’ve seen them viewed as on some systems that exist today. The systems would be affordable and if you didn’t want to have to carry a specific card to be your ticket, you won’t have to. Like what SEPTA is planning with its new fare system (and by god do I hope it works), anything with NFC would be accepted. Swipe your phone, existing credit card, watch, whatever. If it supports NFC, register it with the system and it can hold a fare. As for the fare cards, should one choose it, they would actually function as reloadable, NFC-enabled debit cards and would be usable anywhere NFC is accepted. It would be similar to JR’s Suica system, but without the limit of being restricted to supported readers.

I also believe public transit should reward its regular users. The system would be point-based with a wide variety of rewards (ie: discounts, free travel, gift cards, etc.) It would also be randomized. I’m a firm believer that a pleasant surprise can make someone’s day. Without spending any points, the system would randomly reward frequent travelers with things like a free ride, free seating upgrade, or for the very late night travelers, a free ride home (taxi included) or night’s stay at a hotel. It’s far better to be safe than tired.

So how would the system offset its costs then? For one, it would be extremely heavy on self-sustainability. Power for the system would be fully renewable, be it solar, wind, or geothermal. Food would be locally sourced, to the point of perhaps a rooftop garden at a station. Licensing would be another. The technology and rolling stock would be licensed to existing transit agencies while also being one itself. Say, to pick on something here in Australia for a change, PTV decided it was no longer feasible to run the systems themselves (for the record, they technically don’t now to begin with). Or maybe Yarra Trams felt like PTV was screwing them over and wanted to go independent, but PTV was too big of a funding resource to break away from. The systems could be licensed to take over an existing operation. Names and branding would remain the same, as would the network, unless it was in dire need of an upgrade. Even staff would remain the same. Everything would simple be under the system and, perhaps, there would be a major shift to put the customer as top priority, not profit.

So yes, I don’t expect to see my vision for public transit of the future introduced in my lifetime. I wouldn’t mind seeing it, but I’m definitely not holding my breath. I am seeing the US slowly realize it has a major infrastructure problem. I’d love to live in a world where public transit reaches internationally, is plentiful, and dependable. Such as system is probably far off, but I can dream, right?