Forget The Shiny Toys — Urban Transit Will Go Low-Rent

Whenever public planning types talk about urban transportation's future, they always discuss light rail or tiny electric yuppie-mobiles. But future urbanites will really get around in the cheapest, most low-overhead manner possible.

It seems like every day, we come across about the "city car of the future." It's usually lightweight and next-gen, with an electric battery, solar panels, and lots of nano-carbon-fibres everywhere. To be honest, a lot of these designs look like kids' toys. Stuff like this. Or this. Not to mention this. Or hey, how about this foldable city car? These super-future cars always look teeny and clown-sized, plus they'll probably cost a fortune and fall apart the moment someone even looks at them harshly. Plus they're almost always one- or two-person vehicles.

Forget The Shiny Toys — Urban Transit Will Go Low-Rent

Slightly more believable are some of the fancy public transportation ideas people come up with, like light rail or maglev trains. Or this crazy (but sorta cool) London bus:

Forget The Shiny Toys — Urban Transit Will Go Low-Rent

But really, the more we think about it, the more we feel like the future of urban transportation in the first world will look the way it does now in the third world. That is, the boundaries between personal cars, buses and taxis will get blurred, and transport will have to be cheaper and more flexible.

A 2007 paper by the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions agreed — the Institute suggested a "Smart Jitney" system could be pressed into service quickly, and could reduce gasoline consumption and greenhouse gases by 50 to 75 percent. (Those numbers seem awfully optimistic to me. But you never know.)

As the Institute's report says, most U.S. cities don't have the density to make real mass transit (light rail, etc.) feasible. And electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cells aren't yet at the point where they're feasible for mass consumption. Blame our individualistic, car-centered culture — the Institute does — but we've created a system where only cars can serve our needs.

So we have to look to the jitney instead. Says the Institute:

A jitney is defined as a small bus that carries passengers over a regular route on a flexible schedule. Another definition of a jitney is basically an unlicensed taxicab. Basically, a jitney is a form of mass transit using cars and vans, not passenger buses. Jitneys typically are not required to travel specific routes on a specific schedule as are trains, buses and streetcars. They are both ancient and contemporary.

A friend of mine from Kenya said there are tons of van services there, which compete partly based on the type of music they play. There's the reggae bus, the hip-hop bus, etc. With private operators running their own van services, you could have whatever type of atmosphere, from professional to party bus, you wanted.

Forget The Shiny Toys — Urban Transit Will Go Low-Rent

Best of all, the "smart jitney" system could use existing vehicles — all those soccer-mom SUVs and minivans are just crying out to be pressed into service.

The "smart" part of "smart jitney" involves using high tech to provide an extra margin of safety. Like, each jitney could have an Auto Event Recorder to make sure the driver is being safe and observing speed limits. You could have an online "reservation tracking system" which you could access via cellphone or internet.

Already, some cities are experimenting with a smart carpooling system, where drivers pick up random strangers. For example, in Oakland, CA, you can wait near a supermarket parking lot, at a smart carpooling stop, and drivers will come looking for people who need rides into San Francisco. Passengers share the price of gas.

These ideas are nothing new. As far back as 1968, the Johnson administration issued a 100-page report to Congress on the future of urban transportation, which hailed super-futuristic ideas such as the dial-a-bus, "a hybrid between an ordinary bus and a taxi." It would use the miracle of computers to keep track of people's transportation orders, and pick up passengers at or near their homes as required. Other ideas in the report included Personal Rapid Transit, a kind of light rail system with individual cars that your family could ride in, and "dualmode" systems that could be cars or rail cars, depending on the situation.

Forget The Shiny Toys — Urban Transit Will Go Low-Rent

More recently, syndicated columnist George Will has written about the injustice of urban transit regulations. Cities hoard taxi "medallions," carefully regulating the number of cabdrivers and making it nigh impossible for new entrants to come into the system. Even worse, most cities ban "jitney" services, which are often the only way low-income people can get around. (A jitney is basically like a taxi service, except that it picks up as many people as will fit in the car, and then takes them, in turn, to their destinations.) I remember reading Will's columns on the subject a few times, but the most recent one I can find right now is a 2003 column in which he commented that Houston had "emancipated the providers of jitney services."

It's a perfect instance of well-meaning regulations holding back services that could actually help the most vulnerable people. Limits on taxi licenses might help keep taxi companies viable and allow for safety inspections, but they also help to leave tons of low-income people stranded.