Q&A with Michael Hyland
Mike Hyland is a transportation engineering research scientist and a PhD candidate at Northwestern University in the school of engineering, where he studies transportation systems analysis and planning.
Q: Which city that you've studied has the best transportation system?
A: I think the general consensus, at least in the engineering and transportation planning community, is that Tokyo has the best intracity and intercity rail transportation system in the world (Hong Kong is a close second). It moves an incredibly high volume of passengers every day and is famous for staying on schedule (getting a seat may be difficult though).
Other cities worth mentioning include Copenhagen and Amsterdam which are exceptionally bike-friendly both in terms of the culture and the infrastructure that supports biking. Bogota has the highest rated bus rapid transit (BRT) system in the world.
Q: Why does Asia have bullet trains and we don't?
A: The four main reasons why the U.S. doesn't have High-Speed Rail (HSR) are:
1) Intercity travel distances
HSR is most cost- and time-efficient when intercity travel distances are between 150 and 400 miles. For shorter distances, a personal automobile is better, and for longer distances, air travel is better. ‘Better’ is a combination of cost, travel time, transfer time (e.g. wait time at airports, rail stations), convenience, and comfort.
Most large city-pairs in the US are too far apart for HSR to compete with air transportation. Notable exceptions include Boston-NYC-Philly-DC; the Texas Triangle; and SF-LA, and some would say the Midwest cities with Chicago at the center.
2) Metropolitan Size and Density
For HSR to be profitable or even economically viable, the demand for intercity travel must be high enough to offset the high capital and operating costs. Larger cities naturally have higher demand for intercity transportation and hence intercity rail transportation. Moreover, HSR is successful in cities with higher population, business, tourist and entertainment density. The reason why density is important relates to the previous section on intercity travel distances. There is only a small range of intercity travel distances that makes sense from a cost and time standpoint. If travelers need to spend a long time getting to a HSR station, personal auto travel and air travel become more attractive.
Compared to Asian and European cities, cities in the U.S. are significantly smaller and notoriously less dense. The 10th biggest city in China includes 10.3 million people! China has over 40 cities larger than Chicago - the 3rd largest city in the United States.
I think density is one of the more important impediments to the success of HSR in the Texas Triangle.
3) Non-auto Transportation Options Within Cities
The best way I can put this is by asking: “What are you going to do if you arrive in Phoenix/Houston/LA/Orlando/etc. via HSR?” You will either need to rent a car (which means you were probably better off driving in the first place) or the number of places you can visit is severely limited. This may change in the future with autonomous vehicles and ridesourcing and ridesharing.
In contrast, cities in Europe and Asia are significantly more accessible without a car. The public transportation systems are better, and the cities are denser (meaning walkable) in terms of tourist attractions, businesses, and residences.
4) Historical and Current Choices Made by Governments
Compared to Europe and Asia, the United States has a more expansive intercity road network, significantly lower gas prices, and, as previously mentioned, less dense cities. All of these are the result of decisions made in the public sector. The United States invested in an interstate road transportation network in the 1950s-1970s, rather than other interstate/intercity modes, and it heavily subsidizes gasoline. Both of these decisions contribute to urban sprawl (i.e. less dense urban areas).
Note that Northeast Corridor (NEC) in the United States is not disqualified by the first three reasons, which is why the ‘higher-speed’ Amtrak Acela line runs through the NEC. I’ve heard rail industry experts suggest that the topographical features of the NEC (i.e. too many darn mountains/hills and waterways) make bullet trains or HSR either infeasible or uneconomical.
Mike outlines several reasons why the U.S. lags behind Asia in high speed rail (HSR)
Q: What can you tell about a city or their culture from their transportation system?
A: Western cultures are significantly more individualistic than Eastern cultures. I think this manifests itself quite clearly in the transit systems in the United States and Asia. I do not have the exact numbers, but the design specifications for person-per-square-foot are significantly higher in Chinese and Japanese transit systems than in the US.
In recent decades, the Europeans’ emphasis on sustainability is quite evident in their transportation systems. European cities are denser than those in the United States, individual car ownership and usage is lower, and active transport modes are more common.
Q: What cutting edge strategies or technologies are being employed in the field and where are they happening?
A: I feel like this was a setup for me to talk about how awesome Pittsburgh is.
In my super-biased opinion, driverless vehicles are the single most important and interesting cutting edge technology related to the field of transportation. The potential benefits are enormous: significantly safer travel, lower overall passenger and freight transportation costs, and increases in productivity associated with travelers no longer having to drive.
While Google has been testing driverless cars in California and other states for a few years, Uber was the first to provide transportation services with driverless vehicles in Pittsburgh during the fall of 2016 (a person was in the driver's seat and able to take control of the vehicles).
Companies like Google are developing self driving car technologies, which could shape the future of transportations
I see a current shift away from individually-owned vehicles to private companies providing transportation services with a fleet of vehicles. Companies like Uber and Lyft are already in this space and generating significant revenues (if not profits); however, I think driverless vehicles will make these services more attractive from a simple economics standpoint à No driver = no labor costs.
Mobility- (or Transportation-) as-a-Service (TaaS, MaaS) is a cutting-edge transportation strategy that could significantly impact the way we travel. TaaS is basically the complete integration of private and public transportation options (bikeshare, taxis, transit, Uber, carshare, etc.) that is supported by a mobile phone application. The app provides travelers various multi-modal transportation options to make a trip and allows the user to pay for the multi-modal trip on the app.
This document gives a good overview of where HSR works best: http://www.america2050.org/pdf/Where-HSR-Works-Best.pdf