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The Future of Public Transportation May Not Be in Our Hands

Oct 14, 2015
Bruce Leslie Bruce Leslie
Executive Director, Western Office
The Conference Board of Canada

In 1849, Toronto cabinetmaker Burt Williams launched a public transit service from the St. Lawrence Market all the way to the far-flung Red Lion Hotel in distant Yorkville. Called the Williams Omnibus Bus Lines, it was the first mass transit system in Canada and, notably, was a very successful private sector venture. In fact, privately owned and operated mass transit systems operated in Canada and North America until the post-war period, when attention turned to auto-centric transportation and urban mass transit overwhelmingly became a publically owned and operated venture.

Fast forward to today and, while our cities are on the cusp of introducing disruptive and transformative technologies in transportation, it may be time to relook at the role the private sector can play in moving people around our cities.

The fact that the public sector could use some help is self-evident. Edmonton’s recent problems around its new LRT line—over budget, behind schedule, and numerous traffic jam issues—and the “no” side coming out on top of Vancouver’s public-transit-tax referendum both suggest that other solutions are required.

My city for example, Calgary, has been blessed with leaders with foresight in transportation initiatives; we have a decent network of freeways that, although built for a slightly smaller community, are nonetheless much less congested than Toronto or Vancouver. We have an efficient and well-connected light rail transit system, fortuitously overbuilt during the pre-Olympic construction of the mid-1980s. At one time, Calgary boasted the largest LRT system in a city under 1 million people.

Today, Calgary is proposing to add another 100 km of track and dedicated roadway over the next ten years at a cost of approximately $5 billion. Perhaps our civic leaders need to stare into the crystal ball once again and imagine a future with autonomous vehicles.

While there is no current commercial application of autonomous vehicles (AVs) anywhere in the world, it’s not a stretch that we are going to see Google cars, or a similar facsimile, on our streets by 2018. As previous Conference Board research indicates, AVs will have an important impact on the way we design our cities. Imagine a simple scenario where a dedicated bus lane is also open to AVs. People could use AVs to shuttle themselves from their doorsteps to the stations and, rather than park there, simply slide into the spaces between the buses and travel the distance required. And if its anything like every other disruptive or transformational technology, the price will come down rapidly.

While a straight trade-off is over simplified, there is certainly a case to be made to let Google (or Daimler Benz, or Honda) be the Williams Omnibus Bus Line of the near future. They can carry both some of the load of passengers and the appropriate load of the financing for a publicly accessible transportation system that includes AVs.

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