Why Public Transit Needs To Lead The Autonomous Vehicle Conversation-Now

In 2015, driverless cars were hailed as the future. All the big brands—Apple, Uber and, Tesla—had a prototype (or at least a dream of one) in the garage. Others, like Google, were testing the application of this technology on the road. Just two years later, autonomous vehicles (AVs) were the hot topic at the 2017 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, with major manufacturers like Ford announcing they would have a production-ready AV by 2021. The future is now the present.

As a result, more and more industry insiders predict that driverless cars will be in mass production by 2020 and that they will bring with them profound societal and economic paradigm shifts. The truth is, autonomous vehicles could change transportation far sooner, especially as it pertains to public transportation. Mass transit should be at the heart of the transportation system of the future. How can transit agencies learn to take advantage of driverless vehicle technology to improve access to public transportation in a safer, and more reliable fashion?

Autonomous vehicles could increase access to public transit

A recent study by the OECD stated that when deployed en masse in conjunction with a high capacity transit system, autonomous vehicles could actually replace all cars in a city, decreasing vehicle emissions and reducing motor vehicle accidents by 90%.

While it’s true there’s a possibility that the advancement of autonomous vehicles could also result in falling ridership for public transit agencies, the potential for a demand-driven system powered by autonomous vehicles will help attract new riders. Autonomous vehicles could usher in a ride-sharing revolution that transit agencies could own. This type of evolution in public transport is necessary because transit ridership is falling everywhere. The only cities that haven’t experienced declines are those that have been paying attention to what riders want: more frequent and customizable modes of transportation. As such, transit agencies must heed the call for one important reason: they could apply the innovation, ethos, and technology behind driverless cars to their own operations.

Not only is this possible, it is already happening. Around the world, some countries are operating low-speed autonomous public transit shuttles to ferry riders throughout campuses and business parks. In the U.S., three new autonomous vehicle pilots in California, Florida, and Nevada are being actively tested or in late-planning stages. In other cities, agency-owned AVs could be dynamically dispatched only when demand is evident, enabling agencies to get the most from their existing assets and do more with less. In both scenarios, the ideas behind driverless vehicles could ultimately help shift an agency from a capacity-driven to a demand-driven model.

For years, new mobility options, from bike shares to ride-hailing have made it easier for people to ride transit more and to drive cars less

The transit agencies that are bold enough to position themselves within the conversation, now will future-proof themselves against the inevitable arrival of AV fleets.

People are (almost) ready for a world without driving

Unfortunately, some people tend to associate public transit with big, half-empty buses, impeding the flow of traffic. This couldn’t be further from the truth. For years, new mobility options, from bike shares to ride hailing, have made it easier for people to ride transit more and to drive cars less. Ride-sharing services have even reported transit stops as being one of the most popular destinations for their riders. Other studies show that many people aged 18-39 aren’t getting driver’s licenses because it’s more convenient and more affordable not to have a car at all. With the cross-pollination between ride-hailing and public transit services, driverless vehicles will undoubtedly enter the mobility equation. This is just the start of a major market draw for ride-sharing based autonomous vehicle service.

Still, the majority of consumers remain highly skeptical of autonomous vehicles—only one in four trust the idea—mostly due to safety concerns. But there’s room for improvement; over half of the U.S. drivers said they’d ride in a driverless car from a brand they trust. Public transportation itself is a trusted brand; in 2016, transit carried over 10 billion trips in the U.S. alone.

It’s here that public transit has an opportunity to position itself to thrive in the approaching reality of an automated future.

Driverless cars probably won’t solve our congestion problems

The congestion that fuels our collective post-work conniptions probably won’t be assuaged by shared autonomous vehicles. It’s simple math; a driverless car with one commuter doesn’t solve the issue of 85 percent of the vehicles on the road today containing only one passenger. But, if we replaced that autonomous car with an autonomous high-occupancy vehicle, something with a larger load factor, we just might be able to carry more people at peak, high-demand times, thereby reducing congestion and harmful emissions.

An additional concern, as Conor Dougherty pointed out in the New York Times, is that the solution to rush-hour gridlock is likely to come from economics: “something similar to Uber’s surge pricing: charging people more to use driverless cars at rush hour,” as opposed to new technology.

While I’m not advocating surge pricing, it’s possible for municipal agencies to turn driverless vehicles into a revenue-producing model that capitalizes on cost as a motivator. We’ve seen something similar work in cities like London and Stockholm: congestion charges. From 2003 to 2013, Londoners had to pay about $75 per week to drive in or within the “charging zone” during peak hours on weekdays. A decade later, it looks as though congestion charges were a success. Bus usage and bike trips increased while traveler delays on the Tube decreased. Of the $222 million in gross revenue from the congestion charges, all went to London mobility improvements, including transit.

In actuality, transit agencies shouldn’t fear surge pricing; they should welcome it as an opportunity to counterbalance the projected outcome of new dependence on autonomous vehicles, namely a loss of transit income due to reduced ridership.

Transit leading the way

There are more modes of transportation available to the average person than ever before. Be it public transportation, ride hailing, bike sharing, or even organized carpooling, people have a variety of ways to get around, that don’t involve owning a car. With the shift away from driving that we see a whole generation currently making, the concept of autonomous vehicles is exciting—but it will never work without public transit as part of the conversation.