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In a world of autonomous vehicles, this is why we'll need more public transport than ever
Combined with high-capacity public transport, AVs could remove 9 out of every 10 cars in a mid-sized European city.
The media is fascinated by autonomous vehicles (AVs), in particular their safety and when or if they will arrive en masse.
A bigger and more important question is how AVs will work together as fleets and whether they work with public transport to move more people with fewer vehicles to solve our urban congestion and pollution challenges.
There is growing consensus that while personal electric AVs may improve air quality, they will only make traffic worse in cities, because replacing private autos one-for-one will not address congestion; and people may be so comfortable in their AV pods that they won't mind sitting in traffic for hours. For the latter reason, researchers at ETH Zurich have suggested that cities prohibit the use of personal AVs.
What is crucial is that AVs are electric, shared and work with public transport; and that cities invest in the infrastructure and technology necessary to support a connected, multi-modal transit network that includes shared electric AVs that can replace or augment less efficient traditional bus lines.
The city as app store
Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft are adding public transit to their apps to help people plan door-to-door trips, becoming Mobility as a Service (MaaS) aggregators. But this is backwards – public transit apps should add Uber and Lyft and the robotaxis of the future into their marketplaces. "There's nothing precluding commercial MaaS operators from favouring their own solutions; public transportation could very well be sidelined," urban planners at San Francisco's SPUR have warned.
Los Angeles Department of Transportation General Manager Saleta Reynolds has put it this way: cities should act like "app stores" for mobility services. "The way Google and Apple invite innovation on their platforms is that they have terms and services that the companies agree to and then they can sell their products in the app store," she said at last year's CoMotion LA event. "As soon as they violate those terms and conditions, they are out of the app store."
This approach may rankle some who hope that electric AVs will replace what they see as inefficient, subsidised public transport with profitable, private alternatives. Though people often complain that public transportation loses money and is a drag on government budgets, looking at it as for-profit business misses much of the value public transport brings to communities and overlooks the costs of auto-centric mobility.
The benefits of public transit
The capital and operational costs associated with public transit should be viewed as an investment in economic development rather than a simple business cost. The Union Internationale des Transports Publics (UITP), the world's largest association of public transportation agencies, points out that "investment in public transport sparks a chain reaction in economic activity up to three or four times the initial investment".
It is important to remember that transportation, public or private, is rarely an end in itself. It is a means to another goal, for individuals to get to work, for example, and for employers to have wider access to workers. The benefits of accessible public transportation are widespread, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA):
- Every dollar invested in public transit generates $4 in economic returns;
- Every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation yields $30 million in increased business;
- Every $10 million in operating investment yields $32 million in increased business.
In the US, households living in auto-dependent locations spend as much as 25% of their income on transportation. A car that breaks down can mean the loss of a job. Reliable public transit lowers the cost of living for people with easy access to it, saving users more than $10,000 per year.
Costs of auto-centric cities
The UITP also points out that "while large-scale public transport investment projects are undoubtedly expensive, they are actually significantly less expensive than the direct cost of congestion, which can seriously harm the cities' competitiveness, affecting travel time reliability and business productivity."
Let's look at some of the negative economic and social impacts of private autos and congestion and pollution in cities:
- 1.25 million deaths and 20-50 million injuries from auto accidents each year (mostly due to human error) costing $518 billion globally or 1-2% of GDP for most nations;
- Some 385,000 people die prematurely each year from air pollution caused by vehicle emissions;
- Lack of public transportation is a major obstacle to employment in many regions – Europe already spends 1.4% of GDP on unemployment benefits;
- Commuters spend 100-200 hours per year in traffic, that's as much as five 40-hour weeks of lost productivity.
Will AVs help or hurt cities?
Multiple studies have been published sowing the seeds of doubt about the ability of AVs to improve congestion. University of California at Santa Cruz researcher Adam Millard-Ball studied traffic in San Francisco and found that AVs could double traffic because it will be far less expensive for vehicles to cruise or return home than to park in the city centre. Researchers at ETH Zurich and the University of Sydney came to similar conclusions.
Many point to the impact that ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft have had on congestion and pollution as negative examples of what private AVs could do to cities. While promising to reduce traffic and emissions, the services are responsible for 5.7 billion miles added to US city streets, for example, and travel 2.8 miles empty for every mile that they carry a passenger. Most of those miles are used by people that otherwise would have used public transport.
A shared future
At the same time, research shows that shared electric AVs could reduce traffic and ride times. Integration with public transport is critical to achieving these benefits. Shared AVs "combined with high-capacity public transport could remove 9 out of every 10 cars in a mid-sized European city," according to the International Transport Forum (ITU). The corresponding reduction in traffic could reduce the time taken by these shared vehicles to complete all trips by as much as 30%.
Making cities work
More than 50% of the world's population live in major metropolitan areas and more people are coming: by 2050, that number is expected to near 70% percent. These cities are the economic engines of the world. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, "Six hundred cities – the City 600 – are projected to generate more than 60% of global growth to 2025."
Cities are already short on roads and housing. In order to accommodate growth and support business and commerce, urban transportation will need to get smarter. New public and private transportation services including autonomous ones can play an important role in enabling smarter mobility but getting there will require more investment in urban transit, not less. In addition to reducing congestion, the ITU found that a combined shared AV/high-capacity public transport network can reduce off-street parking needs by 80%, "generating new opportunities for alternative uses of this valuable space."
If cities are to serve as an app store for new mobility services, they will need the support of corresponding technology platforms that enable public and private operators to work together. "There is no reason why current public transport operators or taxi companies could not take an active role in delivering these services," ITU's report says. "Governance of transport services, including concession rules and arrangements, will have to adapt." This will no doubt include limiting the number of AV services that can be operated to balance supply and demand and to avoid the overloading of vehicles seen with today's peer-to-peer ride-hailing services.
Public transportation has a mandate that private companies don't: to make safe, affordable transit available to all residents regardless of age, income, ability and location. Cities will need leverage to enforce policies that serve all stakeholders so that all can thrive. While public transit operators may never turn a profit in the traditional sense that we use to evaluate private businesses, the direct and indirect economic benefits that their services deliver to residents and businesses are far greater than the capital and operational costs involved. AVs and services will need to be a part of the mix public transport offers becoming, as the ITU notes, "a new form of low capacity, high quality public transport."
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All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.