Michael C Hogan

Agile Product Development & Innovation Strategy


Self-Driving Vans, Not High Speed Rail

I awoke this morning to find a number of articles praising an artist’s concept for a national high-speed rail network. This is a bad idea.

Very few rail projects make economic sense. I studied city light rail projects in graduate school and found most installed systems have failed to meet projected ridership or return on investment. Heavy rail systems made money, but much of that was from the sale of land the rail companies acquired through US homesteading programs, which are no longer available. Rail also has a way of building discrimination into our communities as only some portions of the community benefit from convenient routes and others are excluded.

Like other rail projects, high speed rail sounds exciting and futuristic, but the routes would likely be frustrating.

So, what did I recommend in graduate school and what do I recommend today?


A viable alternative is a network of self-driving vans, similar to the cars Google has demonstrated. There are a number of benefits to such an approach: flexible routes that include otherwise excluded communities, reuse of existing roadways, and the ability to easily upgrade vehicles in the network to use new energy technologies.

But wait, if rail sucks so much, and networked vans are so much better, then why are politicians talking about high-speed rail and city light rail?

It turns out a lot of it has to do with funding. If I’m a government, I need money to build public transportation. Unfortunately, the only available transportation funding is already earmarked into categories that require specific types of transportation: highways, roads, light rail, heavy rail. So, if a government has to choose between nothing and rail, it is likely to pick rail.

What can we, as citizens, do to change this unfortunate situation?

We can let our government representatives know that we’re fed up with the government wasting money on archaic rail systems that are over designed and under used. We can demand that investment be directed to small, networked vehicles–similar to Google’s cars–that will work with our existing roadways and be flexible enough to support our changing communities.