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Debunking Self-Driving Myths: Public Transit Will Be Obsolete

Editor’s Note: In this series, Ground Truth asks industry experts to address some of the most pervasive misconceptions about self-driving technology. Here, Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst for Guidehouse Insights, tackles the myth that self-driving will end public transit. 

Is the gig up for public transportation? Once self-driving cars can safely and efficiently pick up workers and chauffeur them from home to office, where does that leave buses, shuttles, and subways? Will autonomous vehicles really make public transit obsolete? 

That’s not the way Sam Abuelsamid sees it. An analyst at Guidehouse Insights who specializes in self-driving technology and transport, Abuelsamid envisions a future where autonomous vehicles don’t cripple public transit, but actually strengthen it. “If we manage it right,” he says, the two modes of mobility could provide frictionless service that closes geographical gaps where public transit doesn’t efficiently reach. “What you’re likely to end up with is some sort of equilibrium—one that moves the most people in the most efficient manner that reduces congestion and improves safety,” he says. 

What cities don’t want, Abuelsamid says, is further growth of vehicles, even if they are autonomous ones, which could make traffic flow worse. “We already have a problem with too much land mass in cities being consumed by parking and vehicles utilized for maybe an hour a day,” he said. The last thing city-dwellers want is to put more cars on already jammed roads.

Instead, people need efficient, cost-effective rides for every trip, or every leg of a trip. Public transportation networks in many cities are successful because they provide more affordable options than personal car ownership or an individual ride-hail. However, transit deserts still exist. To link these areas to transit corridors we need “shared autonomous mobility” options, which includes things like ride-sharing and shuttle bus services that can move more than one person at once. “If we’re going to have autonomous vehicles in cities, you want to have a system set up where you coordinate different modes of transport, from mass transit to AVs,” Abuelsamid says.

To make a system like this work, transportation planners might need to strengthen “core” transit lines by adding more trains or buses to increase the frequency of arrivals. To offset the cost of these additions, they would replace low-utilization transit routes by leveraging the flexibility of an autonomous vehicle fleet. In this way, self-driving vehicles become a feeder system into the larger public transportation network, one that can be reconfigured in real time with the ebbs and flows of passenger demand. The net result could be lower cost per passenger and faster response times compared to current efforts to have large but mostly empty buses wandering around long routes with infrequent access. 

Abuelsamid warns that thinking of autonomous vehicle technology in opposition to public transportation carries the risk of defunding already stretched transit systems. “If the population is more interested in autonomous vehicles than funding public transit, it puts pressure on politicians to make funds for self-driving infrastructure at the expense of public transit,” he says. “Cities have a limited amount of resources, even more as we enter the post-pandemic years, and if there is a move towards AVs, they might be less inclined to put the resources towards beefing up those transit systems.”

He argues that cities must continue to invest in their public transit systems while opening the regulatory door to autonomous vehicles for the trips where it makes most sense. “In the Detroit area where I am, if you happen to have a job in the city, but you live in one of the surrounding suburbs, getting there if you want to avoid driving is very problematic, because we don’t have a regional transit system, and the different systems are not well coordinated,” he explains. Living in such a public transportation desert particularly impacts lower-income residents, who often find they may have to take two or three different buses, and the scheduling means you might have an hour wait if you miss the next leg of your trip.

“If you’re trying to get to your job on time or home to your kids, that’s a problem,” he says. “What you want is a mechanism that allows you to coordinate among the various service providers, which allow travelers to put in their current location, destination, maybe prioritize by speed or cost, and have the system be able to automatically route them on a trip with the least amount of disruption,” Abuelsamid says.

An integrated, autonomous, last-mile, ride-hailing service, for example, would be able to call up a self-driving car from a mobile app, which would then bring someone to a central public transit node in time to make the connection. “Public transit is very effective on the most highly used routes, but by their nature, subways or trains rely on fixed physical infrastructure and have limited flexibility.” Ideally, says Abuelsamid, cities want to look at where the high volumes of traffic are going and put the public transit routes there. Where there is a lower density of people traveling, cities can then turn to autonomous vehicles as a first-mile or last-mile solution to feed into those transit lines where it’s appropriate. 

The goal, says Abuelsamid, is making transportation accessible for everyone who lives in a region, while also improving overall congestion and safety. And the only way to achieve that goal is by doing something that many autonomous vehicle developers already do: striking up strong and lasting partnerships with cities.   

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