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Addison Del Mastro
7 Mar 2022

The Trolley Problem

Style versus function in the race to improve urban transit.

The Trolley Problem

Elon Musk’s supposed reinvention of underground transit, which turned out to be “Teslas in tunnels,” is the poster child for overhyped and underperforming technological fixes for transportation and land-use problems. Sadly, it’s far from the only one, and the captain of industry at least has the merit of thinking big. Throughout the United States’ urban landscapes, long-running and seemingly intractable problems are often answered, though not actually solved, by exotic and unproven technology. More often, these are problems of governance rather than innovation. 

Take battery-electric buses. Like electric cars, many people think electric buses are the future of transit, or at least the future of buses. SEPTA, Philadelphia’s rail and transit agency, underwent a costly pilot program to convert part of their bus fleet into battery-electric vehicles, which went into service in 2019. But from the very beginning, the vehicles ran into issues: the weight of the batteries caused parts of the chassis to crack, and cold weather severely reduced the efficiency of the batteries and thus the range of the buses. So far, the fleet has been substantially grounded for most of its life.

Other cities have had similar problems with these vehicles as well. Duluth, Minnesota’s transit agency outfitted their own new battery-electric buses with diesel-powered heaters, to reduce the strain on the batteries. And even Southern California, whose weather is far more amenable to battery-electric buses, has run into maintenance issues with them.

Connor Harris of the Manhattan Institute sees the problems with battery-electric buses as illustrative of two common problems: “fascination with new technology for its own sake, and preemptive surrender to neighborhood grouches with trivial aesthetic complaints.”

If the new and not-quite-perfected technology of battery-electric buses is not the answer to noisy, polluting diesel-powered buses, perhaps the trolleybus is. 

Trolleybuses – buses that run via overhead electric wires, but use tires and drive directly on the road surface – were first deployed over a century ago. “Philadelphia’s first trolleybuses hit the streets in 1923,” writes urbanist Leonard Bonarek. He explains that despite being first seen as temporary – Philadelphia used them to test out routes that might eventually be turned into genuine trolley routes—they soon became a “fully fledged mode of their own.” The fact that they were reliable, and cheaper than true trolleys, helped.

Many studies have suggested that trolleybuses are no more expensive than battery-electric buses, and their technology is more reliable and proven, if old-fashioned. The need for overhead wires does raise an infrastructure issue, as well as an aesthetic one.

But the main objection to trolleybuses – that they are limited to where the wires are – is no longer true. Modern trolleybuses are essentially hybrid vehicles: they’re fitted with a small battery (much smaller than the one in a battery-electric bus) that can be charged via the overhead wires, and can carry the bus for stretches without wires at all.

It is unlikely that “overhead wires are ugly” fully explains why this simple and already existing solution has been ignored by so many American transit agencies – including SEPTA, which continues to push ahead with its battery-electric bus program. Alon Levy writes in Bloomberg CityLab, “this technology is virtually unknown in North America, where transit agencies treat the trolleybus as a dinosaur.” It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this reflects a bias towards the new and flashy, rather than a decision based on sound analysis.

Then there are projects that hinge on technologies which are not even fully formed, yet alone tested and reliable. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy announced in December of 2021 a “Request for Expressions of Interest” (RFEI) to private firms regarding the potential construction of an “all-electric powered, micro-transit system with self-driving mini buses” for the state capital of Trenton, according to NJ.com.

Trenton is not a terribly affluent city, nor is it one known for the excellence of its services. Perhaps thinking big on tech is a way to deflect from those more ordinary problems. We learn, further down in the NJ.com story:

Called “Trenton Mobility & Opportunity: Vehicles Equity System (MOVES),” the micro-transit system would use a fleet of 100 all electric powered, self-driving vehicles. They would transport people on demand, who call for a ride with a smartphone app or from one of 60 kiosks to be built in Trenton and on the outskirts, according to the RFEI.

Experiments with this type of program are under way in other cities in the United States and Europe. But the technology is in its infancy. Reliable self-driving vehicles, in busy urban contexts – potholes, pedestrians, unexpected movements and interactions with other vehicles – do not exist, and there is no guarantee that they ever will exist.

There is no real reason why small buses or large passenger vans could not be deployed to Trenton’s streets tomorrow to fill in transit coverage, perhaps where full-size buses do not run or would not see enough ridership to justify their expense. The problem is a lack of service, not a lack of “innovation.” So why does “innovation” take precedence over simple and practical solutions that could improve the lives of people immediately, with low cost and little fanfare? Well, maybe that’s the problem.

But Trenton does not take the cake for the most gratuitously experimental transportation initiative. In early February, the state of Michigan awarded a contract to an Israeli transportation-tech start-up to build a one-mile-long wireless charging strip underneath a street in Detroit. Environmental news site Canary Media quotes Tim Slusser, Detroit’s chief of mobility innovation, on the project, who dubbed it a ​“first-of-its-kind deployment in the U.S.”

Detroit is not known for maintaining its infrastructure. It’s a city with thousands of vacant buildings, empty streets, and long response times for emergency services. While wireless underground car-charging tech might be on brand for the Motor City, does Detroit really need a “chief of mobility innovation” at all? Does anybody think that Detroit’s mobility and transportation challenges arise from a lack of innovation? Maybe such big plans are needed to attract funding and investment; but that indicts the investment and funding landscape, rather than justifying such questionable projects.

In fact, there is innovation going on in Detroit, but it has nothing to do with cars, batteries, or technology. Rather, it is the work of architects, homesteaders, and ordinary families who sense that the city reached its nadir in the 2010s, and is now fertile ground for new life. For all its troubles, Detroit never ceased existing, and it never ceased being home for hundreds of thousands of people who loved it or could not leave. Small-scale, incremental rebuilding of derelict neighborhoods, not big downtown projects, is the kind of thing that will bring the city back.

Some of these projects, to be fair, will pan out as intended; some of today’s newfangled technologies will end up being the old reliables of tomorrow. But many of them will founder and fail, after the fanfare is over and the money is spent. And every taxpayer dollar – or worse, every dollar borrowed through municipal bonds – spent on flashy vaporware is a dollar stolen from those who need the city’s humble and tested services the most.

***

In his most recent book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, Charles Marohn, president of the urbanist organization Strong Towns, has a chapter about a marvelous and under-utilized technology.

“I am going to start this chapter by revealing to you an astounding transportation technology that has the potential to revolutionize your community,” he begins. “This amazing transportation technology serves nearly all ages, allowing a community’s youth and elderly alike to be dramatically more mobile and self-reliant. In fact, cities where this technology is prominently in use disproportionately attract young professionals and high wage earners.”

Enticing, right? As Marohn reveals a few sentences later, he is talking about your own two feet.

It is unfortunate that it takes the breathless language of tech boosterism to underscore just how amazing our ability to walk is – and just how many land-use and transportation problems could be ameliorated simply by creating built environments that are more amenable to humans rather than to cars.

An urbanist on Twitter put it well: “Really smart tech doesn’t need a microchip. Bicycles and sneakers don’t need microchips. Resilient mobility.”

Too often, technology is seen not as a way to improve a situation, but as a solution in itself, and sometimes even a solution in search of a problem.

In some cases, of course, it is a solution, and in any case we often must choose between technologies, not between tech or no tech. Electric trolleybuses are just a more durable and time-tested technology than the flashy but underperforming battery-powered models. It’s important to emphasize, then, that the problem here is not technology itself, but a more general bias towards newness, as well as a media landscape and political system that favor newness for its own sake over things that are humble, boring, and effective.

Such a system and attitude is biased also towards taking simple things and making them complicated. In some ways the instruments of “micro-mobility,” whether self-driving electric mini-buses or electric scooters, are not dramatic innovations, but sneakers with microchips. Sometimes, the best solution is to leave something alone.

What we need, especially as the pandemic has laid bare the complicated and fragile nature of so many of our systems, is a devolution of scale and complexity. We need to renew a sense that people can take part in, and be participants in, their communities, rather than passive beneficiaries – or test subjects – for schemes that always spend their taxes and only sometimes benefit them. Sometimes this will involve a smartphone, an app, or a battery. In many cases, it will not.

Technology must be a partner in urban and land-use issues, not an end in itself. Otherwise, like so many other arrogant and top-down attempts to “fix” the city, it creates more problems than it solves, and leaves the least fortunate holding the bag.

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