Mass Transit

A thing that’s on my mind right now – how to tackle the last mile problem.

I have done no research on this whatsoever, so this idea might already exist elsewhere, for all I know.

Start with an electric vehicle chassis that people can stand on. Think a sort of a long, tall, thick skateboard – say 1.5 feet high with about 6 inches clearance, about 3 feet wide, and maybe 15 feet long (same length as the average sedan). Motors in the wheels, and quick-swappable lithium batteries. Max speed would be no more than 20-25 MPH.

Now on top of the chassis, you have an area for passengers, standing only. There’s a driver bubble up front – also standing only. The sides are open, but the top is covered with a canopy. The passenger area is sectioned into 4 compartments with clear plastic dividers, with metal poles and plastic handles for holding on. There are steps skirting the passenger area.

The whole vehicle is electronically connected to a mobile app.  As people step on they bring up the app (which automatically detects the vehicle they’re in, possibly using sound pairing), and they use a map and/or search tool to indicate where they want to go.  The vehicle receives the destination, then uses some algorithms to add the new destination to the current route, update the route, and display step-by-step instructions to the driver.

A device like this would be able to:

  • Navigate along shoulders, bypassing traffic jams and delivering people directly to the curb (like a bus).
  • Be hailed just like a taxi (from the curb) or like an Uber/Lyft (from the app).
  • Be ubiquitous, because it would be cheap to build – slow speeds & reliance on proven technology means there could be a lot of them in a fleet.
  • Be cheap to use, because of efficient utilization – constant adding and removing of passengers means lots of people going to different destinations can use the same vehicle.
  • Be a compliment to existing mass transit – buses, light rail, trams.

Basically, this is an updated version of the minibuses that area already in service all over many countries, especially poorer countries where owning a vehicle is a major investment.  The minibus a very efficient model for capital utilization, but not really attractive in rich countries, because it relies on 1) packing a lot of people into a small area, and 2) you have to give up a lot of autonomy, because the other passengers in the vehicle have their own destinations.

By making the vehicle smaller, you reduce the complexity of routing, and you gain the benefit of navigating through tight traffic.  By making it app-connected, you leverage the power of routing algorithms to speed up delivery of people to destinations.  Making it slow means it matches the speed of traffic in congested downtowns, but isn’t overengineered for highway speeds.  Making it electric simplifies maintenance – batteries and wheel/engine assemblies can be simply swapped out when they need repair or replacement.

This could be an attractive addition to the mass-transportation solutions of lots of cities, because it meets the needs of rich folks.  However, it could be a kind of trojan horse to meet the needs of poorer people (who generally rely on mass transit a lot more than rich people).  Right now, rich folks avoid the bus, while poorer people can’t afford Uber/Lyft. This might be one of the things that rich & poor alike utilize, like subway and light rail systems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *