Will Computer-Cars Kill Public Transit?

TL;DR: Automated vehicles are coming. What does this mean for public transit? I argue that it’s going to be okay. Also, let’s not be scared of computer-cars.

I know, it’s a sensationalist headline, but it’s one of many that we are going to see sooner than later.

About a month ago, the Van Horne Institute published a report called Automated Vehicles: The Coming of the Next Disruptive TechnologyThis report is both an outline of automated vehicle (AV) technologies and a call for Canada to start incorporating this technology into policies as new infrastructure projects are developed. It goes into great detail attempting to quantify and understand the social, economic, and environmental benefits that this technology will provide. I have a number of criticisms of the report, one of which will constitute the meat-and-potatoes of this post. If you have the time and inclination, the report is free to read via the link above. I’ll warn you now: it’s 58 pages before the appendices and rather heavy on commas. Instead, you might enjoy this Oatmeal comic about the Google Self-driving Car which makes essentially the same points in a much more succinct and interesting way. In my mind, the biggest obstacle for the adoption of this technology is summed up wonderfully in the following quote:

“The unfortunate part of something this transformative is the inevitable, ardent stupidity which is going to erupt from the general public. Even if in a few years self-driving cars are proven to be ten times safer than human-operated cars, all it’s going to take is one tragic accident and the public is going to lose their minds. There will be outrage. There will be politicizing. There will be hashtags.
It’s going to suck.”

While the report estimates that accident rates will reduce by 80%, it does not provide any practical solution to the above social problem. In fact, the report assumes that the new technology will be so revolutionary that people will fearlessly adopt it with the same fervor that we have adopted smartphones. Sure, there are some parallels (all that talk about phones causing cancer), and we are all walking around with miniature computers in our pockets, but car accidents are much more tangible, visible, and headline-grabbing than future potential health risks. It’s this social attitude that will slow the adoption rate of AVs, despite the fact that they will be ready for us very soon.

What about transit?

One paragraph is dedicated to public transit in the report and warns transit companies to take the introduction of AVs into account in their long-term planning. This is of course a good idea (and on par with their advocacy of incorporating AVs into everything’s long-term planning), but only superficial suggestions are made of how transit might be impacted.

My prediction is this: AVs will become essentially a cross between a car share and taxi. I have talked before about how car sharing is not a perfect substitute for transit, and neither are taxis. Even without driver’s wages, automated taxis will still cost money to use, and will likely be owned by private companies that are able to charge what they wish. Yes, the need for parking spaces will rapidly decrease. Yes, cars will no longer spend the vast majority of their time sitting idly in a parking spot. Yes, some potential transit customers will turn to AVs for their needs, much the same way that they have turned to car sharing. All of this cannot change one fundamental advantage of public transit: Getting large numbers of people the majority of the way to their destination at an affordable price. That efficiency will not disappear with the introduction of AVs, which are still essentially personal vehicles. On top of that, the report states that car companies are developing AVs under the continued business model of private ownership. At least to start, the vast majority of these self-driving cars will be attached to one person or household.

All else being equal, transit use may decrease with the introduction of AVs, but what if transit companies start using AVs for their own service? Driver wages are a significant part of transit operations; with automated transit vehicles this cost is significantly reduced. Transit companies can start to offer better service either by lowering fares or by increasing the quality of their network, and this will generate more demand. It is this positive reinforcement that will absorb the disruptive impact AVs may have on transit systems.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited to see this new technology in action. It’s going to change the way cities are built and used. It’s going to provide mobility and access to places and people that didn’t have it before. It’s going to help the environment (or at least hurt it less). I can hardly wait.

So please, when it’s here, keep an open mind and a clear head.

2 comments on “Will Computer-Cars Kill Public Transit?”

  1. Luca Guala Reply

    dear Willem, we have been working on the development of automated public transport since 2006. With the CityMobil2 project, we started testing automated vehicles mixed with other users of the road in the summer of 2014 in Italy, the tests are continuing in France, Switzerland, Greece and Finland. The first tests mixed the automated vehicles with pedestrians and bicycles and further complications were added in the following tests, such as crossing with traffic lights, mixing with parked and moving cars, entering enclosed spaces, etc. We are working with the DoT’s of various EU States on the development of a new legal and normative framework that will allow automated public transport vehicles to run on public roads without a “supervisor” on board (as was done during these tests). We are convinced that automated public transport can be implemented sooner than automated cars, since it only needs to move on designated routes and not roam all over the street network of a city. Furthermore, there will be no need to change the ownership model since public transport is already shared.
    You can see more on the CityMobil2 website: http://www.citymobil.eu or read my post on Jarrett Walker’s blog: http://www.humantransit.org/2014/11/luca-guala-driverless-buses-will-be-more-transformative-than-driverless-taxis.html
    best regards, Luca

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