Inching Closer to a Sustainable Mass Transit Model

Fairfax County and Dominion Energy are testing a driverless electrical shuttle. The Relay, a 13-foot-long blue bus is expected to begin regular service this fall, shuttling passengers back and forth between the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station and the county’s Mosaic District.

The service will be free. Users will be able track the Relay’s position with an app.

The 12-passenger shuttle, an EZ10, is now learning its fixed route, undergoing testing and awaiting approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to begin passenger operations, reports the Washington Post

“We feel good about their safety record,” said Julie Manzari, innovation strategist at Dominion. The shuttle travels at a top speed of 15 miles per hour. Continually scanning the environment, the vehicle slows in a smooth stop for obstacles in its path. If something jumps in front, it makes an emergency stop.

The biggest challenge in gaining consumer acceptance may not be vehicle safety but the general wariness of mass transit during the COVID-19 epidemic. As Time has observed, the virus has been “apocalyptic” for transit ridership.

Bacon’s bottom line: Whether it takes months or years, the virus scare will dissipate, and people will return to their old commuting habits. Traffic congestion in Northern Virginia isn’t getting any better, and mass transit is an unavoidable necessity. However, operating buses is expensive. Bus drivers don’t come cheap. Eliminating bus drivers will make mass transit more affordable.

One other thing I like about the Relay: It’s small. It is insane to build fleets of expensive giant buses that utilize only a fraction of their seating capacity. Successful mass transit systems need more small and midsized vehicles that match consumer demand on the routes served.

The Relay is a worthy experiment. Smaller, driverless vehicles may be what it takes to resurrect mass transit in Virginia.


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27 responses to “Inching Closer to a Sustainable Mass Transit Model”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    Right idea. This type of approach may be the only hope for Tysons. Close all curb cuts in Tysons. Through traffic only. Build huge parking garages on the outskirts of Tysons and run buses like these around Tysons. No more parking lots. Right now the ambitious plans for Tysons seem to be on the edge of failure. Time for some bold action.

  2. JimB says:
    “Bacon’s bottom line: Whether it takes months or years, the virus scare will dissipate, and people will return to their old commuting habits. Traffic congestion in Northern Virginia isn’t getting any better, and mass transit is an unavoidable necessity.”

    That’s the $64,000 question….maybe years?
    People seem to be avoiding mass transit now, I think I heard planned car purchases are up as commuters are staring to plan for new normal of driving to work. All of this really calling into question (most unexpectly of course) Virginia’s massive rail transportation plans.

    MetroRail recently announcing service coming back to normal sachedules (as in: Please Please come back!).

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Article in the FLS this morning about Transurban and it’s dynamic toll lane revenues but also about “mass transit” between Fredericksburg and NoVa in the COVID19 era.

    How many folks are going to get packed like sardines on commuter rail or a van pool?

    Also, my understanding is that the cost of a driver of a van is just one cost. The other is insurance. And I strongly suspect that insurance will play a big role in costs of autonomous transit.

    It’s amazing just how much “insurance” affects the way our society operates and it’s costs… We have great and wonderful ideas that soar like eagles until they meet that insurance bird.

  4. “It’s amazing just how much “insurance” affects the way our society operates and it’s costs… We have great and wonderful ideas that soar like eagles until they meet that insurance bird.”

    I can solve that problem in two words: tort reform,.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Perhaps. If a van rolls over and a bunch of people are hurt – I don’t think “tort reform” is a proper response to their medical costs, loss of work, etc.

      “tort reform” should not become a justification for irresponsible behavior.

      People, right now, pay significant insurance premiums for their homes and their cars.. and that’s not because of tort abuse.

      1. You’re the one who was bitching about insurance costs.

        And by the way, tort reform does NOT mean doing away with all lawsuits, and you are parroting partisan propaganda when you imply otherwise.

        Also, you wrote: “People, right now, pay significant insurance premiums for their homes and their cars.. and that’s not because of tort abuse.”

        Please provide proof.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Oh I never bitch about insurance costs per se. Nope.

          “tort reform” from the zealots is never really specific or surgical – it’s the answer to all problems.. no?

          re: “tort abuse” on home and auto – geeze .. there would be an uproar no? why would people agree to buy insurance to begin with if they thought they were being “abused”? Isn’t that what the “market” is for?

          tort abuse is a made-up issue by those who can’t deal with reality and especially those who hew to libertarianism – i.e. – let the courts decide property rights…etc.. til it actually “works” then it’s bad.

          1. Right. Any issue that might cause you to reconsider one or more of your beliefs is “made-up”. I get it.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            oh no. it’s not what one believes… that’s the problem!

            who exactly do you want to decide what is tort abuse (or not)?

            who should set the rules? What’s the process?

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    The General Assembly starting tomorrow has several proposals in front of it to increase the cost of human labor. New benefits, requirements, etc. all piled onto the things done earlier this year. But of course there is NO reason to think the high cost of hiring people is driving the move toward automation. Somebody will figure out a way to require a union driver in each of those vehicles…..

    1. UpAgnstTheWall Avatar

      Politicians working to ensure their constituents have jobs – how perfidious! Automation is coming on its own no matter what the GA does about minimum employment conditions and we need to decide how we treat people in the aftermath. Having human redundancy on automated transit is a good idea for a lot of reasons, not least of which is people need jobs. I know the conservative idea is that any person who doesn’t directly contribute to the engine of capitalism is a surplus human, but that’s going to be a tough sell, so displaced bus drivers can either get welfare or act as a redundant safety feature.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        What is amazing is predictions that half the jobs will not come back.

        Does that mean they were never really viable t start with and that they would be shed anyhow?

      2. Sounds to me like you don’t know much about automation. The end state for mass public transit is no human. CBTC along with all the other tech do not require a human on board, as they are designed to be fail safe.

        WMATA’s system didn’t require a driver prior to the 2009 accident, they’ve yet to return to ATO (automatic train operation) because they don’t trust their employee’s maintenance practices.

        The pinnacles of mass public transit don’t have driver or even a person sitting in the head end.

        Maybe you should have a background on the topic before you attempt to make it political?

        1. UpAgnstTheWall Avatar

          The fact that I described the human drivers as redundant would lead discerning readers to the conclusion I know more about the subject than you.

          1. They aren’t required, given my profession and who I work for I highly doubt you have more knowledge.

            The systems are designed in a fail-safe manner, a driver isn’t needed. They in fact aren’t used in Hong Kong, Copenhagen, Bavaria (they are even using driverless busses).

            If you’ve ridden the WMATA system since 2009, you’ll note the jerking braking throughout your trip, that’s the human operator. The ATO system would compute the very long, and very variable equation regarding that braking and it wouldn’t be there.


            The “redundant driver” would be there because the Union has mandated it, not because they are required.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m constantly AMAZED at what we consider “necessary” labor in the economy.

    More and more, it appears to me that a LOT of our economy is about non-essential things. Discretionary things. How do we honestly measure GDP when such a huge percentage of it is for things that are more related to entertainment and “wants” rather than true needs?

    No one “needs” landscaping or a granite countertop or a Redskins jersey or a Applebees burger… or a gym subscription or .. geeze I can name more things that are “wanted” than “needed” in our economy.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Welcome to the modern consumer economy. You didn’t even touch on the food or other products which can actually kill us. But transportation is a needed service.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        well transportation is but not transit… it’s a “want”.. no? And really, who actually “wants” it ? The canard that it’s for the “poor folks” is bogus.

        but if the ‘modern economy’ is truly not a necessity – what the dooda is all the ruckus about?

    2. djrippert Avatar

      Why would you believe that GDP only counts “necessary” items? As far as I recall that was never part of the definition of Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I don’t know that I “believe it” but I wonder then what “production” really means if it is just an activity that is not required in the economy.

        And if half of the small business jobs go away permanently – what does that mean in terms of “production” ?

  7. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    Rudder Mills… they advertise that they’re ready and willing to sue autonomous vehicle makers and owners to get you the settlement you deserve (1/3 + “modest” [another 1/3] investigator fees deducted, Probably).

    1. So, a Rudder Mill is NOT a factory that manufactures steering devices for ships?

      1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

        It could be Rutter Mills. They’re in the Yellow Pages… or behind the ambulance.

  8. Top-GUN Avatar

    This would be a good replacement for the money wasting money losing light rail in Norfolk….
    Not to mention you can change the route when needed

  9. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Reengineer the Dulles People Movers and problem solved.

    1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

      Best include a ladder in that redesign. Absent an airplane, that first step is a doozie.

  10. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Where to start?

    Most of the Greater D.C. area has too little density to support mass transmit, most especially rail. While ridership was, indeed, pleasantly growing on the Silver Line, no stations were ever predicted for as much ridership as Bethesda. Remember that the Silver Line did not qualify for federal funding on a cost-benefit ratio. Only massive bipartisan pressure caused the GW Bush administration to cave and provide federal funding.

    The original plan was for the Silver Line to serve Dulles Airport, traveling solely on the Dulles Toll Road and connecting roads. It would have had one, maybe two, stops for Tysons in the middle of the DTR. Tysons landowners, developers and Fairfax County earlier got together and, with some big contributions to political leaders, got the route diverted through Tysons. The coup d’grace was Gerry Connolly, both a SAIC VP and Chairman of the Fairfax County BoS, getting a fourth station in front of SAIC.

    Tysons, while having produced some good results, is crony capitalism at its highest.

    Smaller transit vehicles will, after removing COVID-19, be a much better solution for shared rides than massive trains and, even, big busses. From what I’ve seen, taking out the human factor from driving can make traffic considerably safer. Have you ever looked at WMATA’s expenses for settling bus-related “accidents”?

    Driverless vehicles should address liability through no fault insurance just like Virginia addresses birth-related injuries.

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