Automation also provides an opportunity to reduce costly investments in expanded rights-of-way for exclusive lanes for bus rapid transit and grade-separated rail lines that restrict high-speed transit to a limited number of high-volume locations. In a fully automated and managed transportation network, with computers and sensors guiding vehicles, public transit could travel along congestion-free lanes without requiring expensive new infrastructure.
New service models to bolster transit
Ultimately, shared-ride vehicle services, automated or not, can reach far-flung people and places, transport persons with disabilities, plug first/last-mile gaps, and feed into public transport operating along major corridors. Transit agencies around the globe are already launching demonstration and pilot projects, including partnerships with Lyft and Uber, real-time rideshare-matching services, short-term car and scooter rental, and bikeshare services. Several transit agencies in the United States and Canada are subsidizing TNCs or microtransit providers in less dense, suburban areas where traditional transit service is especially expensive.
Pilot projects provide experiences that can lead to planning better public transit connections and services. Of particular interest is how first/last-mile services can increase ridership for fixed-route services. Ultimately, transportation providers will need to understand how the cost, performance, and environmental impacts of investing in complementary services compare to such traditional ridership-enhancing strategies as reduced fares, park-and-ride lots, increased frequency, more routes, and expanded hours of operation.
Going forward, the transit industry — and local leaders — will have to assess the ability of ride-hailing and other new mobility companies to be good partners and to provide reliable service, adequate capacity, and stable pricing. Among the many questions is their ability to scale up, given the limited number of drivers available at the low compensation levels now offered.
While the case for new transit partnerships and a new vision for public transportation is compelling, and the opportunities they present are enticing, they are also fraught with political land mines. Transit services employ union labor, offer low fares to serve low-income riders, and often extend routes into low-density suburbs, at high cost, to better serve the community. Changing these practices would inevitably affect their stakeholders. If they reduce or withdraw service, or partner with non-union private entities, they become vulnerable to political backlash that could further threaten the support public transit currently enjoys.
Helping public transportation flourish
Public transportation is on the cusp of dramatic change. New transformational technologies and service models are already having profound effects on transit. Current methods of delivering and managing transit must change if the mode is to remain viable. More traveler choice and better service are possible, but by no means assured. A multiplicity of stakeholders, limited funding streams, the needs of carless travelers, and the economic vitality and livability of cities frame these challenges.
Policy will play a crucial role in shaping the future of public transportation if the path forward is not left solely to the pace of technological evolution and market forces. Some things are clear. First, financial support must be adequate to sustain transit infrastructure and services in high-volume locations where large vehicles and trains are uniquely suited.
Second, the government must provide a social safety net of affordable mobility for low-income urban travelers and ensure door-to-door assisted services for travelers with mobility limitations. Alternative mobility options that undermine these obligations should be eschewed; those that can better serve riders with disabilities at less cost should be pursued.
Third, as private companies begin to play a larger role, local government oversight will be needed to ensure equitable access for all and to protect the public from abusive practices all the while without stifling innovation or hindering private sector competition.
Fourth, transit policymakers will have to address the labor implications of automation on the 200,000 bus-operating employees for fixed-route services and 100,000 employees for demand-responsive services. Managing fare collection, monitoring customer behavior, and providing customer information without an onboard operator will surely prove a challenge for public transportation going forward.
Fifth, one of the most critical issues facing transit stakeholders is long-range planning and capital investment decision-making, in light of the long lifespan and high cost of many fixed-infrastructure commitments. For example, today’s new rail projects might come on line just when new automated vehicles appear, cutting into anticipated business. New mobility options could also influence urban development patterns, further altering travel demand. Meeting these challenges in a responsible fashion will be key to retaining credibility with the public.
The future of transportation is highly uncertain. What is certain is that travelers will have more choices from an array of new mobility options varying in cost, speed, convenience, flexibility, safety, reliability, comfort, and environmental impact. The path forward requires tearing down silos among transport modes, perhaps more quickly and deliberately than ever before. Affected groups — users, local governments, taxpayers, operators, advocates — need to begin organizing around the mobility needs of various market segments and quality-of-life objectives, rather than around existing modes, technologies, or governance structures. Progress will require leveraging the entrepreneurial private sector in such a way that it can complement the purposes that have sustained the historic public investment in transit.