The streetcar, in addition to its visible charm, was an engine of significant change in urban transportation. Over the space of a few years it enabled a substantial geographic expansion of most American cities and continues to provide the backbone for numerous European municipal transport systems. All this from the simple replacement of horsepower with electricity. The basic form which electric trolleys built upon was network of horse drawn people movers called omni-buses, and the transition to electric power took less than 5 years in most places.
My family and I recently spent some time riding trolley cars around San Francisco. I was surprised that what I assumed a tourist attraction actually a functions as an important part of the Bay Area Municipal transit system. And the smile on my daughters face speaks volumes about the fun it is to ride.
It got me thinking again about the range of forms public and private transport developed over the past hundred years, and just which of them a driverless world will adopt. In an earlier post I took a look at that broad category of human powered vehicles described as "work bikes" and what attributes they might lend to autonomous vehicles. Here the focus is on one of the most popular forms mass transit of an earlier age - the streetcar.
Reliable, non-polluting and solid, both vehicles and track provided a sense of permanence largely missing in a rapidly changing world. Their narrow gauge rails create a footprint that is substantially narrower than an automobile lane and allow for a long, slim vehicle that is somehow more visually appealing than a bus. And the sound! Cinematic.
But back to my daughter's smile. The cable car in SF is unique in the access it provides and the proximity between rider and traffic . It's too exposed for long trips or harsh weather, but one could imagine a scaled down version operating pretty well in the safe road environment driverless traffic would provide. In any case it's another example of the wide range of forms driverless vehicles might borrow from, largely because there's reason to expect a greater flexibility in design without the structural requirements inherent in today's vehicles.
The romantic in me hopes that the cable car, having survived the age of automobiles, will flourish in an driverless age.