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    Advanced Transit Systems – Necessary Industry Steps for Further Deployments

    January 5th, 2016

    orange-countyBy Walter Kulyk, P.E.


    Proponents of Advanced Transit (AT) system deployments must take bolder and newer steps to help deploy more and better AT systems across the country.

    AT systems for purposes of this article are those systems that include automated transit and automated roadway transit vehicle systems. Automated transit includes automated metro systems on guideways (such as the planned new system in Honolulu, Hawaii). These are generally limited to regional line-haul systems. Automated transit also includes Automated People Mover systems (such as that deployed in numerous airports), Personal Rapid Transit (such as the Ultra system at Heathrow Airport), Advanced Group Rapid Transit (originally studied and tested by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration in the 1970s and operating in Morgantown, WV since 1975 and the Netherlands since 1990), and Automated Transit Networks (such as those being planned in Sweden and the U.S.).

    AT systems also involve fixed route line-haul systems on protected transit ways. These allow for transit vehicles (buses) to cross over other traffic lanes when this movement is protected by traffic signal preemption. The Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Los Angeles, CA is an example. AT also includes transit network system technology applications that operate in demand response mode (such as buses or paratransit vehicles that use intelligent transportation system technology). Autonomous and connected roadway vehicles in transit service also fit into the AT category. These vehicles generally carry multiple travel parties in the same vehicle, while operating in mixed traffic. No fully autonomous systems exist yet. And research and development work is underway by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to study and potentially test fully connected (through dedicated short range radio based, GPS, or radar technology) roadway transit vehicles through an entire regional route. The AT category also includes hybrid transit operations that involve automated operating systems enhancing all modes of transit. This would include the new systems being tested in Europe under the CityMobil program.

    The history involving the research, study, testing, and deployment of AT systems is varied and spotty. It is a relatively long history going back to significant work being done in the 1960s on the Automated Highway System (AHS) at The Ohio State University. The Urban Mass Transportation Administration (the predecessor to the FTA) conducted studies and research in the 1970s leading to the Downtown People Mover (DPM) Demonstration program. This resulted in several deployments of DPM type systems in this country. These deployments included systems in Morgantown, WV; Detroit, MI; Jacksonville, FL; and Miami, FL. Although these systems were not all fully funded exclusively through the DPM demonstration program, they drew on capital funding influenced by the results and notoriety of that effort. The Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) also undertook studies, research, and limited testing in the late 1970s and early 1980s on the Advanced Group Rapid Transit (AGRT) concept. The concept was innovative at the time, and involved advanced propulsion and increased passenger loads over the DPM or PRT concept. However, due to reduced Federal funding starting with the Reagan Administration, the AGRT concept never was fully tested or demonstrated. Starting with new Federal legislation in 1993, the Federal Highway administration initiated the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) program, which is still ongoing today. The initial period of the ITS program included a significant focus on automated highway vehicle studies. This resulted in a limited amount of funding for studies and testing of buses over the last 15 years involving crash avoidance and automated lane keeping and precision docking. Current efforts under the ITS program through the Connected Vehicle Initiative have placed renewed and increased interest on studies and testing on automated systems for both light and heavy duty highway vehicles, and also for those involving transit vehicles.

    All the studies, testing, demonstrations and deployments of AT systems to date, mostly in this country but also abroad, have resulted in only a handful of deployed Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems around the world. There have been over a hundred or so Automated People Mover systems deployed, overwhelmingly at airports funded largely by local dollars. There has been very little significant full scale testing and demonstrations of AT systems in this country beyond those DPM type systems mentioned earlier. The result has been a lack of awareness of the benefits of AT systems on the part of key decision makers at all levels of local, state, and federal government and by transit authorities.

    The opportunities for deployment of AT systems are rich. They include activity and satellite centers of employment. They certainly include regional and metro line-haul network systems on fixed guideways; fixed route line-haul metro bus systems on protected transit ways and in regular traffic; and autonomous and connected buses and other mass transit vehicles in regular transit service. In addition to these types of deployments, there exists potentially significant opportunities involving demand response mode transit networks; first mile/last mile connections at fixed guideway rail stations; and intermodal connections at high speed rail stations.

    But these opportunities are not being fully exploited. Due to a variety of reasons and factors, large barriers to the deployment of AT systems exist. The most notable factor has been the significant institutional inertia for the development of traditional bus and fixed guideway rail systems since the UMTA Act of 1968 which set up the federal agency and processes for federal involvement in, and funding for, new and improved transit systems in this country. These systems are generally expensive and historically have not involved significant advanced technology, certainly not autonomous or fully automated. There has grown a transit industry bias and institutional lobby for such systems. Certain national industry organizations have predominant members whose interests lay in the planning, designing, and deploying of these expensive systems.

    Over time, heavy emphasis on regulations dealing with capital funding has not adequately addressed the factors which make AT systems desirable, but rather has placed emphasis on large cost heavy rail systems. In addition, starting in the 1970s and continuing until recently, there has been a heavy hype by PRT proponents for this type of system as competition, rather than a complement, to metropolitan guided rail systems. This has soured many in the transit industry over the PRT type of system. This bias against PRT has been led by local authorities, national organizations, and design and construction engineering firms. Additionally, the lack of new and recent studies, research, testing, and full scale demonstrations have all led to a very limited transit industry knowledge and understanding of AT systems, further exacerbating the small deployment of these systems. Finally, there is no well-developed and coordinated strategic plan for the national deployment of AT systems. All of these issues and factors have inhibited the deployment and growth of such systems.

    In order to overcome these barriors and take advantage of several institutional forces currently underway (which include emphasis on automated and connected vehicle technology research, development, and testing through the ITS Program at the Department of Transportation), the AT systems community must take on a number of important actions. First, national organizations (including ATRA and others), must develop and conduct a continuous and rigorous education outreach program geared to alerting community leaders and those at the state and federal level of the benefits of AT systems. This program must complement active interaction with the executive and legislative branches of government at the local, state, and federal levels. Continuous and strong interaction with the various national organizations devoted to influencing national policies on planning, developing, and deploying new transit capital assets is also very necessary. The identification of champions at the local level for new AT systems is also critical. It is these champions who can have a strong influence of where these systems will be incorporated. The AT systems industry must also help to influence the development of public policy and support for new AT systems. Such public policy and support will lead to the increased funding of studies and research in this area. And most importantly, it will lead to highly necessary, full scale testing and demonstrations of AT systems. This will help identify technological issues and barriers and result in a broader acceptance and ultimate deployment of more and better AT systems.

    These actions will not immediately enable grand scale AT system deployments. But they must be done in a coordinated and intense fashion. Only then will the transit industry fully accept what these systems can offer – an improvement to the safety, efficiency, and cost of new and existing transit systems in this country.

    KulykPIC_Jan2016Walter Kulyk, P.E.