Automobile Infrastructure Personal Rapid Transit Urbanism

Will autonomous cars change the role and value of public transportation?

» Self-driving cars could alter how we get around—and also change the way our cities work.

Even the concept of a self-driving car is enough to get people talking in raptures about the potential for a utopian future society. It could fulfill the promise of “personal rapid transit” transportation planners hoped to provide decades ago, offering personalized point-to-point service without the hassle, congestion, or crashes involved with driving.

The autonomous vehicle, some predict, will replace many of today’s forms of transportation and radically expand mobility by allowing people, including the young, old, and disabled, to get around without having to walk, without having to know how to drive, and without having to wait for a bus or train. Operating without a driver and using electricity for power, the autonomous vehicle could be cheap to operate and environmentally friendly. It could, in fact, replace car ownership for many households.

We’re years away from the rollout of any self-driving car that people can purchase, and we’re even further from a future city with no human drivers on the street. But progress toward autonomous cars has accelerated, and companies from Google to BMW to Volvo suggest that they’ll be able to offer such vehicles relatively soon.

How exactly will autonomous vehicles affect our transport systems and our cities in general? As I’ll describe below, they may radically alter the types of public transportation regions provide for their citizens, and they may increase—or decrease—the sheer amount of driving people do. Given the fact that these types of cars are almost definitely coming at some point, it is time to begin the conversation on how to handle them, since their impact on the urban environment is a matter not only of private research and development but also of public policy questions about space, access, and who decides how our transportation system will work in the future.

I gained some insight on these issues at the International Transport Forum (ITF) in Leipzig, Germany that I’ll relate here (full disclosure: as part of the Media Travel Programme, the Forum covered the cost of my attending and traveling to the event).

New forms of mobility: An intermediary step toward autonomous vehicles?

The basic forms of urban mobility have hardly changed over the past century. Walking, biking, public transport, driving, carpooling, and taxiing represent the vast majority of trips. Each of these modes has, in essence, remained technically similar while there has of course been a very significant shift away from public transport toward single-passenger automobiles as cities have spread and become less dense.

Advanced computing is slowly but surely altering the interactions between people and the transportation system, potentially with the endgame of eventually replacing most motorized modes with fully autonomous vehicles, which would represent a radical change in technology.

The development of these new forms of mobility thus far has been evolutionary and taken advantage of the technology offered by smart phones in particular. The creation of hour-by-hour car-sharing options such as Zipcar encouraged people to rely on public transport, walking, and biking for most of their trips but also allowed them access to automobiles on demand, and research indicates that car sharing does, in fact, significantly reduce household car ownership.

Also made possible by new technology, French company BlaBlaCar‘s simplified paid ridesharing allows people to split the costs of long-distance trips for its 10 million users. According to BlaBlaCar head Frédéric Mazzella during a panel at the ITF, the service has yet to enter the U.S. market because with gas prices “at two dollars a gallon, there’s not much to share.” The U.S.’s weak transit systems and sprawling physical environment also limit the ability of users to carpool.

Undoubtedly the most prominent entry in this field of technologically informed transportation solutions has been Uber, whose fleet is generating up to $10 billion in annual revenues. Like Lyft and others, Uber’s offer of cheaper taxi services has been transformative; in San Francisco, for example, traditional taxi rides have declined in number by at least 65 percent over the past three years.

Now other startups are attempting to, in a similar vein, supplant traditional public transportation. Boston’s Bridj guarantees seats, faster travel times, and wifi for customers who are willing to pay slightly more than they would for a public bus.

What’s undeniable is that novel approaches to transportation have relied on tactics that avoid many of the regulations that have been in place for decades, or require them to be altered. Zipcar’s initial implementation, for example, needed a change in Massachusetts’ car rental laws. Uber’s services, more dramatically, require public entities to classify its operations differently than taxis (though that may be changing), allowing its independently contracted drivers to avoid full insurance and reducing the public sector’s ability to cap the total number of driver services being provided, guarantee stable fares, or ensure adequate pay for drivers.

It is true that the arrival of these transportation options has increased the mobility of many people who do not own, or do not wish to use, private automobiles. Uber’s Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy David Plouffe (who was the campaign manager of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign) emphasized in an ITF panel session that the company’s services are being used in many cities as a gap-filler. “We are very excited about how we help public transportation,” he noted. By guaranteeing transport from the end of a rail line, for example, Uber can ensure peoples’ ability to get home at all hours when they’re not living within walking distance of a stop in a way that less available and more expensive taxis may not be able to.

“The only option is getting more people in fewer cars.”

These new taxi offerings may also be able to reduce costs for their users even further through the use of carpooling; UberPool and Lyft Line, for example, allow two to three people to share the same ride, and its cost, with one driver. Today, according to Plouffe, 20 percent of Uber rides in San Francisco are shared.

For cities coping with congestion, this kind of carpooling does suggest benefits for traffic reduction and Plouffe is right when he says that “the only option is getting more people in fewer cars,” since new highway construction is untenable in most places. Switching people out of single-passenger automobiles and into carpooling-like services could, indeed, reduce traffic. But if these people are choosing not to use transit, they may be making traffic worse. After all, twenty cars with three people each still take up more space per capita than a bus with sixty passengers.

The rapid rate of technological change in transportation has been a challenge for the public sector because of the difficulty of keeping up. For better or worse, the government’s ability to regulate urban movement has been undermined by the speed of the tech companies and their publicly attractive insistence that they’re only increasing mobility. David Plouffe claimed at the ITF that Uber is “hungry for new regulations,” but it’s hard to avoid the sense that Uber simply won’t accept regulations that don’t fit with its revenue motives.

The rise of tech companies effectively making their own rules and then asking the public to accept them puts in question the government’s ability to maintain stability in the industry while ensuring safety and continued access. Is the public sector abandoning its role in favor of crowdsourcing and crowd ratings?

Another question is the long-term impact of the services of these new companies. In making the argument for its importance, Uber’s public relations strategists have emphasized the company’s success in creating 20,000 new jobs per month. Similarly, Bridj suggests that it is providing supplemental services to public transportation, not competing directly, therefore creating more transportation jobs in general. It’s unclear, however, how many taxi drivers are now losing their jobs or suffering from reduced incomes, or whether public bus routes are not being implemented because of the availability of new private options.

The rollout of self-driving cars

The new jobs created by such technological advances may be ephemeral at best, because the autonomous car is likely coming soon, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that transportation companies are licking their chops to reduce the labor costs of their operations. While new services, from Zipcar to BlaBlaCar to Uber to Bridj, continue to rely on drivers to function, what would happen if labor were simply removed from the equation altogether?

There’s disagreement about how soon self-driving cars will come to market, though Google’s autonomous vehicle is already making the rounds, both literally and in the media. The fact that it has been tested on highways across California surely indicates that popular use of the technology isn’t far off—even if the experience of riding in the vehicles leaves something to be desired.

Slate’s Lee Gomes points out that there’s still plenty of work to be done, beginning with the fact that the Google car relies on highly complex maps of every street it drives on, and most streets have not yet been mapped. But it’s hard not to believe that some sort of vehicular automation will be rolled out soon. “Autonomous cars are going to happen so fast that it almost doesn’t matter what you’re going to do between now and then,” Robin Chase, co-founded of Zipcar, told me in an interview at the ITF. She predicts a public rollout in the next five to ten years.

But the question for our cities is how these autonomous cars will be introduced; will they simply replace today’s Uber drivers, or will they be owned by individuals? In an article in CityLab last year, Chase delved into this problem, arguing that individual ownership of self-driving vehicles would be destructive, increasing congestion and encouraging significant increases in car travel by people who order their vehicles to drop them off in front of stores, only to have the car circle the block for hours as they shop. Indeed, the ITF has modeled out scenarios showing increases in miles traveled with the rollout of self-driving vehicles.

Alternatively, a world in which autonomous cars are shared, perhaps operated as Uber-like taxis or alternatively as some sort of publicly or cooperatively owned service, could have significant benefits for cities by reducing the need for parking, encouraging intermodal trips, and expanding mobility by providing lower-cost travel options.

Changes in the role of public transport

As suggested by Uber’s David Plouffe, new mobility options may be providing an important complement to existing public transport systems. Evidence from San Francisco, where technologically advanced mobility may be most instilled in the popular culture, suggests that there hasn’t been a dramatically negative effect on public transportation thus far.

As of December 2013, Uber was already providing 160,000 trips per week in the Bay Area, a number that has likely increased in the subsequent months. Those trips, however, do not appear to have reduced transit ridership. Indeed, according to statistics from the American Public Transportation Association, ridership on buses and trains operated by all four of that region’s major transit operators—BART, San Francisco Muni, Oakland’s AC Transit, and Caltrain—increased between 2013 and 2014.

So perhaps Uber et al. are actually increasing transit ridership. Or maybe ridership is not increasing as quickly as it could given that metropolitan area’s relatively explosive population growth. It is probably too early to tell.

What is likely true is that the prices being charged for these taxi-like services are too high to attract most people out of public transportation for their daily trips. As Robin Chase told me, even UberPool, at “Five to seven dollars a trip, is still not what people can afford to get to work. Fourteen dollars a day, that’s not happening… and that’s [Uber’s] best case scenario!” At those prices, bus and train ridership is not likely to be dramatically affected.

On the other hand, Chase told me that she thinks that automated cars will dramatically change the equation for public transit services because of the much cheaper prices made possible when there’s no human labor involved. For Chase, “buses, shuttles, minivans, school buses [will be] all gone.” Because of the ability to substitute automated cars for these low-capacity transit modes, they will simply disappear from the options available in the urban environment as cities recognize the limited utility of their fixed schedules and inability to adapt to point-to-point demand. And she expects this change to come sooner rather than later.

“Would you prefer what we have today, [where] only poor people use [most transit service] and it sucks, or would you rather that poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?”

When I asked her about how this would alter the public sector’s role in transportation, she noted that she expected governments to switch from subsidizing service provision for all to providing vouchers for automated transportation for the poor, much in the same way that the government in the 1970s switched from building public housing to providing rent vouchers.

I raised the prospect that this would negatively affect poor peoples’ mobility, but Chase rejected my premise, arguing that lower-income people would be able to use “the same vehicles that people who can afford it are using… Would you prefer what we have today,” she asked me, where “only poor people use [most transit service] and it sucks, or would you rather that poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?”

It’s an interesting point, but it would require a very significant public role through subsidies if we’re to maintain mobility for low-income people who do not have access to their own automobiles. Are American cities ready to provide direct transportation subsidies for poor people to use self-driving cars? How would those subsidies work, and would people have access to unlimited trips and travel distances?

Paratransit services provided by many cities already offer people with limited personal mobility a point-to-point alternative similar to that which could be offered by automated cars. Today, paratransit trips cost the public purse more than three times as much to provide as regular bus and rail services according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, but that’s in part because of the low capacity of paratransit vehicles, high labor costs, and their non-fixed-route services. Eligible customers in most regions are allowed to take as many trips as they’d like upon advanced reservation, generally at a per-ride fare on par with traditional transit.

But paratransit has been implemented thanks to a federal government mandate resulting from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Without a similar requirement, will cities have the incentive to subsidize poor peoples’ trips? Or will they simply abandon traditional transit and leave those people to fend for themselves, at whatever price point charged by the companies operating automated vehicles?

Chase’s vision—that low-capacity transit operating on fixed routes will be replaced by automated cars that allow point-to-point trips—has become a commonly cited argument among those who suggest that governments cease investment in public transportation. To them, why spend any public money on transportation if all our problems will be solved with driverless cars?

But eliminating bus lines would disassemble the transit grid that makes the network work in most places. A large share of transit users rely on buses to take them to the train, or vice verse. Automated cars could fill some of that gap, but it’s hard to see them replacing local transit routes entirely.

In addition, eliminating bus routes as a component of the urban transit system could terminate one of the biggest perks of living in many cities: the unlimited-ride fare card. For tens of thousands of people—even millions of people in some cities—the unlimited ride card allows people to move about their city on public transit at one fixed price per month, giving them the ability to take side trips and explore new parts of the region. Could trips in automated vehicles be incorporated into such a system?

For Chase, “major, hard routes” like subways and elevated lines—and probably bus rapid transit, though she did not name it—would remain important even with the mass use of automated vehicles. The most heavily trafficked transit corridors, with more than 5,000 people moving per direction per hour, cannot be handled by automated vehicles alone. When operating in its own lanes and in a dedicated right of way, transit also has the potential to be quicker than automated vehicles.

So for dense urban neighborhoods and major job centers, public transit will likely remain a fact of life.

It’s also worth emphasizing that any advances in technology that provide for automated cars could also result in automated public transport vehicles, potentially saving significantly on the cost of operations by eliminating the need for driver labor (it could also reduce the cost of shipping by, for example, eliminating the need for truck drivers). Automated trains are already common for new subway and elevated rail systems, and some train lines in cities like Paris have been converted from driver to automated operation.

Buses moving around the city with no drivers could be more frequent because of reduced labor costs, and certain bus lines could probably be operated profitably. In other words, automobile automation could have a genuine competitor in automated public transport.

Automated buses and trains, much like automated taxis, do come at a cost: Significantly fewer jobs in the transportation business. Is this a tradeoff worth making? Is the robotization of transportation labor a benefit for society as a whole in that while it will eliminate transportation jobs, it will reduce the cost of getting around, producing more jobs in other industries? Or are the well-paid jobs in transportation worth retaining as an essential pathway to the middle class?

Implications for the urban environment

The mass adoption of automated cars could radically alter how the urban environment looks and works—particularly if, as Robin Chase suggests, they’re shared. The easy availability of cheap point-to-point transportation in which passengers are free to read, watch films, or sleep while travelling around could increase the amount of time people are willing to travel each day, increasing overall vehicle use.

Automated cars could also devalue urban cores by making biking and walking, or waiting for transit, less appealing when a robotized car can arrive practically instantly at the touch of a button.

But Chase’s sense is that people “really enjoy clusters.” People like living and working near one another, and that has led to the renaissance many American central cities are experiencing today. Uber itself seems convinced of that fact; the company is planning a huge headquarters complex in the heart of San Francisco filled with walkable shops and restaurants and—intriguingly—it will be directly adjacent to the T-Third Street light rail line. In its urban perspective, the complex is diametrically opposed to the suburban, generally car-oriented campuses under construction by fellow tech giants Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Chase notes that the real benefits of the autonomous cars will actually be to the currently less-accessible parts of dense cities. Today, she argued to me, “If you live in Brooklyn, and you live three blocks from the A [Subway] train, your house is more valuable than if you live within 15 blocks of it,” but with the automated car, people there will feel like they are much closer to the Subway stop and therefore their home values will increase. But living in the exurbs, with no effective public transport available, will remain unappealing to many.

Perhaps her vision is optimistic, but I don’t disagree with her sense that most people won’t want to spend more time in a vehicle—automated or not—if they can help it, especially since they’ll be paying for the privilege.

And the automated vehicle, if widely adopted, could do wonders for the livability of urban neighborhoods by significantly reducing the need for parking. If every automated vehicle replaced 10 now privately owned cars, we would need one-tenth of the parking spaces at peoples’ residences. And retail, parks, offices, and other attractions would need virtually no parking, since the automated cars could simply store themselves somewhere else—or serve other customers—once they’re finished being used.

Eliminating parking would reduce housing costs and free up space for other, more important needs.

Urban transportation politics after the rise of the automated car

Self-driving cars will transform our cities, but how will they transform our urban governance?

Plouffe’s argument is that the public sector’s role has diminished, will continue to diminish­­, and does not need to stop diminishing.

At the ITF, Uber’s David Plouffe painted the rise of his company’s services—and the potential future implementation of automated cars—as a sort of reaction to the limitations of our era’s public sector. For Plouffe, many cities “don’t have the ability to build whole new public transportation systems” because they “don’t have room or money” for new subway lines or other investments.

Plouffe’s argument is that the public sector’s role has diminished, will continue to diminish­­, and does not need to stop diminishing. As a result, private actors such as Uber are needed to fill in the gap and, in fact, replace the government in some ways. Uber’s mission, Plouffe said at the ITF, “is to provide more mobility options so that cities can plan better, make better choices, and actually save money.”

But who should be doing the planning: Uber or our democratically elected governments?

There’s no doubt in my mind of the validity of Robin Chase’s evaluation that the current American public transportation system, particularly in smaller cities and suburban areas, is too often a repository for the poor. Inadequate funding has produced inadequate service, leaving people isolated and, frankly, often desperate to purchase their own cars.

But automated vehicles are no panacea, nor are they an excuse for the continued defunding of the necessary and vital transit systems that will continue to serve our cities in the decades to come. Uber’s current shared services, while cheaper than the taxis of yore, are still far more expensive than public transit. Even if self-driving cars lower costs further, it’s hard to see how they could ever match the low operating costs of far higher capacity buses and trains, especially if everything is automated. So we shouldn’t rush into the privatization of every element of our transportation system; we cannot allow it to be hijacked by new technology without first ensuring that changes do not negatively affect the parts of the system that do work.

New technologies offer the opportunity to change the way we think about transportation and likely offer us opportunities to improve our cities. But the public sector, and the civic sector in general, must continue to play the key role in planning, identifying essential investments, and aiding those who are in need.

Image at top: Google’s newest self-driving car, from Flickr user smoothgroover22 (cc).

35 replies on “Will autonomous cars change the role and value of public transportation?”

If self-driving cars become feasible, there is no reason why self-driving buses can’t as well. Labout costs account for between a thrid and half of bus operating costs, so you transit agencies could potenitally double frequencies at no extra cost. Alternatively, bus routes would pay for themselves at half the ridership. Think 20 boardings/hour rather than 40 boardings/hour.

More importantly, if both bus and car are self-driving, the cost advantages of bus and taxi/car would remain the same. I don’t think it will significantly change the demand level at which buses become cheaper than taxis.

In short: bus service will become cheaper/better, but it won’t change the potenital market.

:/ I tire of the idea that we can science our way out of the problems that auto-dependence have created. Self-driving cars may be safer as far as crashes go, but even emission-free self-driving vehicles still create the negative land use and social impacts. Instead of spending our time waxing poetic about a technology clearly developed by and for an out-of-touch minority, we should be working towards a more equitable modal split altogether. Every staff-hour spent on accommodating these self-driving vehicles is one not spent on improving transit and walking access for those who depend on it.

I find it distressing that every article I read about the future of transportation, almost inevitably neglects to discuss any sort of externality or road pricing. Universally unspoken, the assumption is that streets space was created by divine forces and does not bear consideration.

All of the issues we have today relate back to a core decision to allow people to use a dramatically larger portion of public space than they used to. If we are ever going to solve this, we have to go back to that decision and either regulate use of public space, price the use of public space, or privatize it. By not tackling this, we get the worst of all three options – public space remains unpriced and unregulated. It’s too congested and dangerous to be considered public space any more, but the private entities occupying it have no incentive to control their use of it.

As long as the space between the buildings remains the only urban space you can use in large quantities for free, entities of all sorts are going to seek to exploit this and turn an externality into a revenue stream. Once they do that, they will have the means to fight any attempt to roll it back.

1. Regulate the use of space so that public space remains public (read: safe and pleasant for people, not vehicles)
2. Price public space – allow everyone an allotment of 20 square feet and require they pay if they want any more.
3. Privatize it – sell off every inch between the buildings and see if any private operators would allow 3000 lb vehicles at fatal velocities to barrel through for the low low price of $0.

One factor not addressed in this article is congestion. Driverless cars will undoubtedly move around empty to find parking or the next rider. This implies more vehicle miles traveled (VMT) which implies more congestion. True, ridesharing may reduce VMT but significant ridesharing has proven impossible to implement despite many efforts over many decades. If you do not share a taxi now, why would you in the future if it is driverless and thus cheaper?

Shorter headways (time between vehicles) would help, but could be many decades away since the initial emphasis is on safety. I foresee traffic jams every time the weather is inclement because automated systems will not take the chances drivers are willing to.

Uber works because it has a nice app and the drivers are effectively paid less. How many Uber drivers are just working to a marginal rate, assuming their car (and even their own time!) is free? If the taxi industry had organized, it could have done this too.

Yes driverless car-share can reduce VMT, congestion and pollution, but this will be due to the consequence of having to arrange and pay for each individual trip, not the technology. Individuals with their own driverless car will probably negate any benefits overall.

Automated buses would absolutely be a tremendous boon to public transit, and I think you could have cut a lot of this article down and talked more about that.

You seem to view the removal of poorly-utilized bus routes as a bad thing. It’s not! It’s a good thing. Not having to run politically-motivated ‘coverage routes’ will be excellent for transit authorities, who can than focus on ‘high-ridership routes’. Those ‘coverage routes’ today are a major drain on the resources of agencies; I wouldn’t propose eliminating them now because they are a lifeline, but if they can be replaced by a more appropriate service in the future, great!

Those resources can then be used to run super-frequent automated buses on great grids all over cities and regions.

Paratransit is another area that will benefit greatly from autonomous vehicles, giving much more freedom to people with disabilities at a much lower cost to the public.

Regarding labor: We saw today that the sick perverts in TWU Local 100 just got a NY State Senate bill passed that will effectively legalize murder-by-bus driver if signed by Cuomo. I say that the sooner we get these stark, raving, TWU Local 100 lunatics out of the drivers seat, the better for everyone’s health and safety. Not to mention much, much better transit service that will ultimately help the economy grow and generate many more jobs.

In general, trying to ‘preserve jobs’ by hobbling technology is a fool’s gambit. Do you want to go back to working on a farm? Of course not. Replacing farm workers with machinery was one of the greatest economic and humanitarian advances our civilization ever made. The same goes for many other examples of labor being automated. Shall we go back to the original definition of ‘computer’: a job for a person who sits around calculating figures?

The whole history of economic development is that of replacing inefficient human labor with more productive means — and as a result, generating an even larger economy with even more and better jobs than before.

If you think that holding onto inefficient jobs as a ‘make-work’ program is a good idea(*), well, back to Econ 101 with you. We’d still be living in the Dark Ages with that attitude.

(*) With an exception made for Depression-like macro-economic circumstances when monetary policy becomes ineffective by itself!

Matthew, does your antipathy for “coverage routes” for transit also extend to “coverage streets” for cars? By your logic, government should only be responsible for maintaining streets that carry over a certain number of vehicles per day (1,000? 2,000?) — effectively eliminating the vast majority of residential streets. What about “coverage sidewalks” — should government not be in the business of requiring and maintaining them too? What about “coverage water mains” and “coverage sewers”? While we’re at it, how about getting rid of “coverage police patrols” and “coverage fire protection and EMT service”? Wow! Government agencies could get out of a lot of “major drains on resources” if they could just cherry pick where to provide public services and where not to! Why is it that this kind of service-degrading approach to “efficiency” is always trotted out as reasonable for transit but not so much for other public services?

As I read this article, the main thing I keep thinking is that everything mentioned increases the chance that someone “drives” (aka rides in a driverless car). We are already about 2/3 fat people in this country as it is; I can’t imagine the exacerbation of obesity due to ubiquitous driverless cars.

On the other hand, maybe automated cars will help improve pedestrianism by guaranteeing that cars stop at crosswalks, don’t try to make right on reds on front of people, not speed, and don’t run red lights. If people exercised their rights to walk, it could really benefit communities and slow down fast through traffic.

Robot cars might improve the pedestrian experience while crossing a street, but they could easily make the experience of being on the street much more miserable if, due to a lower effective “price” for transportation, volumes and distances go up. No matter how safe they are, I still think a river of platooning steel boxes will really dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for walking next to it.

Again, if we don’t with the externalities, any technology we apply is just going to move the nasty effects around, not actually deal with them.

Another ideas:
– right now we tolerate, just barely, mid block crossing. We wag our fingers, but most of the time, most drivers slow and stop safely. If people, knowing that robot cars always stop, just start crossing anywhere they please, they could easily bring gridlock for the people in the pods trying to exploit the unpriced public space. This could then lead to calls to further regulate pedestrian activity, perhaps sold with fears that pedestrians harm economic growth or perhaps going right for the gold and calling them terrorists.

I agree with Matthew. I am curious why there is no campaign for automated buses as a way of making BRT more effective. From what I understand about Google’s technology, is that its more like a digital railway. Why has there been so little attention given to this possibility? Should the transit community and environmental advocates put pressure on google to push for driverless buses? Nice work on this article.

Your comment that automated busses would seem to be a threat to equity and social mobility is interesting. However, do we really want to fight poverty by promoting more costly, and thus less, public transit (not to mention potentially more dangerous)? The automation of the economy is producing major challenges for low skilled workers (see Autor’s work), but this requires thinking of new ways to engage employment, and possibly policies such as unconditional basic income, or much higher earned income tax credits. Even without these policies, which respond to similar threats from automation in all sectors of the economies, if we can have efficient driverless bus service, then there are many other things that public bus drivers could be doing for cities if we wish to subsidize employment (e.g., building sidewalks, caring for elderly, managing databases, etc.).

Before I put my money on self-driving automobile (or bus) capability, I will want assurance within the railroad realm that positive train control (PTC) with provisions for collision-avoidance, overspeed-derailment prevention, maintenance-of-way crew protection, and open track-switch detection, is absolute. The reason I say this is because railways (trains) are a fixed-guideway-based transportation type (technology), whereas autonomous automobiles (and buses) are not.

If the collision-avoidance capability on the railway works as intended/designed and its efficacy proven, there is every expectation that the same will hold true in the roadway-based operating environment. If, on the other hand, PTC in railway operations fails to pass muster – which is a fixed-guideway platform, then I have serious reservations that autonomous automobility will ever come to pass.

The ways self-driving cars/buses and PTC-equipped trains avoid collisions is fundamentally different. The former actively and continously scan their environment to check for the existance of other vehicles – the avoidance is locally-based. The latter relies on not lettign trains near one another in the first place, knowing where every train is – the avoidance is centrally-based.

I too am very sceptical that this will ever actually happen. Urban streets are too chaotic for even the cleverest algorithm to avoid collision especially with pedestrians and cyclists. The default effect will be that these vehicles will crawl along at walking pace which might be the average surface transit speed in some cities in some places but even in London where I live we aspire to a bit better than that and achieve in most but the worst streets.

The main problem with driverless cars is the same as with regular cars: they take much more street space per person compared to buses or trains (at least in cities where transit ridership is sufficient). Even if ignore the parking issue for a moment, the problem of congestion is GEOMETRICAL in nature, not economical, not technological, it is mainly a matter of geometry: cars take too much area (per person), public transit does not. And the main point – public transit works in dense cities and individual transportation works in poorly populated ones – will not change once you make cars or buses driverless.

Also, cars (and buses, actually) don’t scale either.

Full train? Add a car! No need to add more permanent infrastructure.

Full highway? You need to spend hundreds of millions expanding. And don’t worry, it’ll fill right back up!

One minor nit–medallion systems do not ensure that taxi drivers are well-paid–indeed, in many cities, driving a taxi nets a sub-minimum wage.

It ensures the medallion holders are well-compensated, but medallion holders simply outsource the driving work, often to workers classified as independent contractors, and paid a “commission” based of the fares collected. And often expenses such as fuel are the drivers’ responsibility. Not only are drivers in such a setup paid little, but they are at the mercy of dispatchers, particularly in cities that prohibit cabs from answering hails from the street.

Now, were medallion systems to require that drivers either be a) the medallion holder themselves, or b) an employee (not a contractor) of the medallion holder, and one guaranteed a minimum salary, then we could talk about how restricting supply benefits cab drivers.

Right now, it mainly benefits their bosses.

A well-thought out and somewhat researched post – greatly appreciate the time and effort put into it.

I would encourage the writer (and interested readers) to research the costs associated with operating a bus fleet in a medium-density urban area – cities/regions of 750,000 – 2.5 million people. Then do some digging into the expected cost of operating a small passenger vehicle (4 pax?) without an internal combustion engine. I think that you will find two things:

1. That the operating cost of a heavily-used, route-optimized passenger car is very very low, _assuming_ that the cost of energy (battery or fuel cell) is low. Remember that driverless vehicles should substantially reduce congestion until demand at least doubles.
2. That the labour cost of bus drivers in a transit system isn’t the largest expense and will not reduce the overall cost of running a transit system more than…25%? Fuel isn’t a large expense. Capital, maintenance, and operational overhead, are very large cost drivers.

I believe transportation planners (and transit operators) assume that nothing beats the cost per passenger mile of a mass transit system. Maybe in high-density configurations (120 pax bus, trains) but in medium-density and low-density, the car is likely to rule. An electric car w/ 4cent/kWh cost and 3 pax might operate at 6 cents ppm, including minimal maintenance. And without an engine, could theoretically operate 24 hours per day.

Do the math yourself. A small passenger vehicle costs $15K retail, seats 4, can go anywhere and transfer any number of passengers economically. A “small” passenger bus seats 50, costs north of $300K, is uneconomical to run for less than 8 pax, doesn’t service every street, and requires maintenance every 2,000-3,000 miles using expensive specialized labour.

A poster summarizing research by Grush Niles Associates that I just displayed at the MIT Media Lab’s Disrupting Mobility Global Summit on November 12 follows up nicely on the above interesting essay by Yonah Freemark.

The punchline for implementation of the public and private policy choice to emphasize heavily-used shared fleet vehicles over privately owned, lightly-used vehicles is “the best path to shared robo-cars runs through public transit.”

Our poster — titled “Creeping Toward Sustainable Urban Robo-Transit” — and the paper providing a more complete picture can be viewed in pdf at

Stumbled upon A.P.’s comments here about cars having lower costs than transit. Fair enough, but things evolve. Ubur is already exploring coordinating rides and using vehicles larger than a car and smaller than a bus. It wouldn’t take much for Ubur to figure out how to provide a smaller density transit like network and automation would only make that easier. Ubur (and others like it) would avoid a lot of “legacy costs” that contribute to the overhead and capital costs A.P. talks about.

It’s worth taking a look at those costs in an automated environment. I question if high public transit overhead costs are actually productive. A private operator who doesn’t have to supervise drivers might have radically less costs in this area. The Achilles heel of private sector commuter transit is the poor utilization of capital. If a bus loads up and makes one or two trips and stands idle until evening, it’s hard to make money. What is different in the new environment is pricing models that mitigate that or take it into account. Surge pricing is only the beginning. What you might see is not just so-called “coverage” routes in jeopardy, but mid-day service — because it will be hardest for private operators to provide vehicles that don’t see use except rush hour.

Interestingly, what this means is moving towards a jitney based model, one that seems to dominate in many third world areas with less established public transit.

If automated driving only replaces taxi and limo drivers, not a lot will have changed and most of us will go on with life as before, leaving the relaxing to the lexus passengers. But if Ubur and it’s like works out a mid-point that is widely affordable that combines rides and genuinely competitive with the automobile – THEN you will see things start to really change. A lot MORE people will no longer be driving alone and the number of vehicles will drop, even if public transit ridership drops or is replaced in smaller markets by the Ubur type option.

A.P. shows why it’s not just the automated driving that will drive change, but the ride-sharing technology as well as the demand pricing models.

Autonomous cars should be one of the most important issues for changing our inner cities. See how we can, through local government and the private sector, we can rethink how we provide public transportation.

I find it interesting that the invention of the self-driving car can enable all age groups, from three-year-old female toddler to a retired Army war veteran with a fake leg, to commute from one place to another as a way to resolve problems in the current public transportation system. If I was the mayor of a town, I would find a company that assembles these vehicles and use it as a free community shuttle service. That way, everyone in the neighborhood can benefit from local businesses, which helps them earn money and keep the town’s economy afloat in the process.

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