Public transport and flying machines

Anderson Cooper in a personal flying machine.

Real bounce or just a dead cat bounce? After hitting a low of about 21,500 passengers a year ago, Virginia Railway Express commuter rail service in Northern Virginia is seeing a pickup in ridership, reports The Free Lance-Star. In February, VRE reports, monthly passenger trips totaled more than 52,900. That’s a far cry from the previous pre-COVID February ridership of 355,000, but it’s something. A Florida federal judge’s decision to scrap the national mask mandate for public transportation could help kickstart ridership a bit more.

Yet…the latest numbers suggest ex-ERV drivers are NOT making the roughly 300,000 trips per month that they did before the pandemic. Some are likely working from home, but some may add to congestion along I-95. Virginia has invested in rail infrastructure, so it’s a shame people don’t use it. On the other hand…

Autonomous cars and flying cars. the Virginia Mercury reminds us that Sheppard Miller, Virginia’s Transportation Secretary, thinks flying cars could become a reality within the next 50 years – a reason the Commonwealth should “re-examine mass transit.” People have been fantasizing about flying cars for a hundred years now, and we haven’t seen anything remotely practical yet. But a wave of venture-backed innovation is giving rise to what could best be described as personal flying machines. These are not four-wheeled, winged cars; they are battery-powered drone-like craft that can take off from parking lots and the tops of buildings. On Sunday, 60 minutes play a clip of flying Anderson Cooper (seen above) in such a device.

On a more prosaic note, the Mercury discusses the rise of autonomous land-based vehicles, such as Fairfax County’s electric Relay shuttle, which seats up to six passengers and patrols a one-mile route between Dunn Loring subway station and the district of Mosaic at 10 miles per hour. Autonomous ground vehicles raise a wide range of issues – they’ve been known to run red lights, swerve into concrete barriers, and even kill pedestrians. Artificial intelligence still needs work and legal liability issues need to be resolved.

Fairfax’s experiment with the Relay sees autonomous vehicles (AVs) as potential sources in the Washington Metro — cheaper than taxis, Ubers or shuttles because they don’t require a driver. In this vision, autonomous vehicles can be a savior of public transit.

But others see AVs as a pipe dream. “Public money should go where it serves the public interest with fairness and efficiency in mind, and I don’t think this shuttle meets that standard,” Peter Norton, author of “Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving,” says the Mercury. “The real future is in much more profitable things like bike lanes and bus lanes. How many nice bus shelters could Fairfax County have for $520,000?”

As a curmudgeon, I’m not looking forward to “Flying under the influence” and rocket-propelled objects falling from the sky becoming a daily part of our lives.

On the other hand, if you look at the 60 minutes clip, you will be amazed by the creativity and innovation in the engineering and design of flying machines. With the tech sector pumping billions of dollars into self-driving vehicles of all kinds and varieties, I bet they will become a reality. I’m with Miller: It makes sense to think just as creatively about the future of transportation in Virginia. It may make sense to maintain investments in the infrastructure we have already built. But we’d be foolish not to consider how we might benefit from adopting outlandish new technologies.

—JAB

Melvin Z. Madore