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Is the future of public transportation electric buses, autonomous shuttles, or self driving cars and ride-hailing networks? The answers are far from clear.

Autonomous Vehicles

Electric Bus vs Autonomous Shuttle vs Ride Sharing: What Is The Future Of Public Transportation?

Is the future of public transportation electric buses, autonomous shuttles, or self driving cars and ride-hailing networks? The answers are far from clear.

Cities are growing like never before. By 2035, more than 2 billion more people will have moved to cities, according to a report by The Guardian. Cities are already drowning in congestion from private cars, forcing cities like London to impose additional fees on cars entering city centers. Now US cities on both coasts — Boston and Seattle — are considering congestion charges of their own as a way to reduce the number of cars competing for space in those cities. Fewer cars would also help reduce carbon emissions.

Public Transportation In The US

public transportationPublic transportation still carries a stigma, especially in the United States where it is class thing. Why be pressed like sardines into a subway car or city bus when you can take your own car in air conditioned comfort while taking selfies and listening to your favorite music? Public transportation is just so declassé, you know?

Last year, American took just over 10 billion trips on public transportation, according to the American Public Transportation Association. That was a decline of 2.9% compared to 2016, due in large part to a nearly 5% drop in bus ridership. A report by the APTA that came out last week claims the failure of  local, state, and federal governments to fund needed infrastructure projects has caused $340 billion in lost economic activity in the US over the past 6 years.

“Our failure as a nation to address America’s public transit modernization needs has wide-ranging negative effects because lost time in travel makes a region’s economy less productive,” said APTA president Paul Skoutelas. “Congress has an opportunity in the current fiscal year 2019 Appropriations process to help address the nation’s aging public transit infrastructure.” Of course, Congress has its own priorities, like pleasing the donor class by shoveling more money their way so they in turn will generously support re-election campaigns.

Innovations In Public Transportation

Steven Higashide, director of research for TransitCenter, urges public transportation agencies to become more competitive, by which he means finding ways to attract more riders instead of waiting for new technology to save the day. In Omaha, the transit authority is trying several new ideas, starting with raised platforms that allow passengers to board and exit buses without going up or down stairs.

The new bus stops are protected from the elements and feature internet-enabled ticketing equipment that allows riders to prepay for their journey. New 60-foot buses have three extra-wide doors to speed the loading and unloading process. The average time the new buses spend at each stop is down to as little as 12 seconds — shorter than a NASCAR pit stop! The city has also constructed dedicated bus lanes to avoid normal congestion hassles and cut commuting time.

Autonomous NAVYA ARMA ShuttleIn Dallas, the city’s transportation authority is partnering with local taxi companies to help riders get to its buses from their homes and then to work once they arrive in the city. Convenience is a big factor when people decided whether or not to use public transportation.

Autonomous shuttles are seen by some as the answer. NAVYA, a French company, has begun trials of its NAVYA AUTONOM Shuttle electric autonomous shuttle on the campus of the University of Michigan and at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. The NAVYA AUTONOM Shuttle is already in service in Paris, Las Vegas, and Christchurch, New Zealand. An autonomous shuttle travels a fixed route, usually one that has no other vehicles on it that might come in conflict with the shuttle. Think of it as a horizontal elevator.

Autonomous Cars To The Rescue?

Some transportation experts expect autonomous cars to revolutionize public transportation. It is well-known that most private cars are used less than 5% of the time. The rest of their lives are spent parked in the driveway or in a parking lot, waiting for their human masters to decide to go somewhere. Think how much better it would be if self-driving cars were in use 24 hours a day? One AV could replace ten cars on city streets. Voila! Congestion solved. Some are already in operation in Frisco, Texas, and Phoenix.

All of those sunny suppositions may not come true, but the concept certainly has an allure for city planners. Think of the wonderful things that could be done when all the parking spaces in a city are no longer needed. Visionaries like Elon Musk imagine such autonomous vehicles could solve the number one problem why people don’t like to use public transportation — convenience.

In this brave new world, the passenger would use an app to summon a ride. The car would come right to the passenger’s location on time and deliver the passenger to the desired location on time. No standing out in a snow storm. No waiting half an hour for the next bus. No need for first and last mile solutions. No parking hassles. Just pure convenience and at what is projected to be very low cost. What’s not to like?

Steven Higashide of TransitCenter has one quibble. He thinks buses are the better option, primarily because they can carry so many more people at one time. Their passengers per mile ratio is naturally going to be superior to any smaller ride sharing vehicle. And of course, as more and more cities transition to electric buses, the costs of their operation will tumble while carbon emissions from diesel powered buses will be slashed.

And The Winner Is…

Bus? Autonomous shuttle? Ride-hailing service? Which one is the pluperfect antidote to urban congestion and emissions? The answer very likely will be “all of the above.” What is best for Brattleboro may not be ideal for Indianapolis. What plays in Peoria may not appeal in Altoona. Personally, I find the idea of a vehicle that comes to me on time and deposits me within steps of where I want to go by the most efficient route possible sounds mighty appealing. That’s just my opinion and worth precisely what you paid for it. For now, true Level 5 autonomy is years away, which makes the argument for electric buses a strong one while we wait for the future to arrive.


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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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