Mass transit - Charlotte 2020


Mint Hill, Monday 2020, 7:15 am.

Mother sticks her head out the door and calls to the children playing in the yard to get ready for school. After they fix their lunches, everyone climbs in the car so they can drop Junior off at school and Sissy at daycare. Then Mom joins the freeway and the car accelerates to 80 mph inches from the traffic in front and behind. During her commute she researches and composes a response to an email from her boss. Ten minutes later she leaves the car a couple blocks from her downtown office and is at her desk on the 32nd floor, coffee in hand, at five minutes to eight.

This may sound like a typical ride on Charlotte interstates, except that when she got on the freeway she released the wheel to pay attention to her letter and the automated roadway took over driving chores. After she got out on the curb downtown, the empty car was automatically whisked away to a remote garage to be retrieved at the drop of an email or telephone call. Even better, her stylish and distinctive non-polluting car is furnished at a nominal cost by General Motors as a proof-of-concept since Charlotte is the second city in North America to get a fully-functional automated commuterway. 

This scenario is not waiting for the Jetsons; the technology to do this exists today. Several years ago four cars cruised driverless along an empty mile of southern California highway that had been outfitted with guidance cables. This year, GM unveiled a fuel cell powered prototype that is incidentally fully drive-by-wire, allowing computers to control speed and steering. The pieces are all here, just waiting for the systems to be implemented on a large scale. 

In 2002, Charlotte started the ball rolling on the infrastructure by embracing a rubber-on-concrete transit system and building modern busways to our outlying suburbs. Rejecting steel rails allows the same vehicles that ply neighborhood streets and sit in residents' garages to join high-capacity lanes that bypass intersections, signals, and congestion. Once we've built the busways, it's a straightforward matter to add the guidance and control components for a fully automated road. Outside computers control the cars better than NASCAR drivers allowing a traffic density that would make I-77 feel like an empty parking lot. Because they're segregated from driver-controlled traffic, there is no worry that a rogue car will stray into the path of a driver who's reading the paper. 

This concept of transit allows the best mix of suburban lifestyle and high-capacity roadways. Commuters can travel door-to-door in a private vehicle without worrying about a schedule. The child seat stays in the car (along with the sticky candy wrappers). A busy parent can run errands during the day or on the way to or from work without having to juggle packages in a crowded transit seat. 

Most importantly, this system does not feel like transit so affluent suburbanites are willing to use it. Because the residential segment of the system is the same as in 2002, it is not dependent on high-density housing. Instead of driving to a huge parking facility and then hiking to a station to wait for the next train, one vehicle goes all the way from home to office and then stays in a high-density "valet" parking lot until it's called for.

This is all because in 2002 we chose to base much of our transit system on self-propelled rubber-tired vehicles rather than rigid fixed rail.

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Bill Barnes is a freelance small business system administrator. 

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Last updated Tuesday, August 16, 2005 08:41 AM


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