Autonomous shuttles could end commuting woes

Posted on October 31, 2017 by Paul Mackie - Also by this author

Photo on D.C. Metro for Mobility Lab/A.E. Landes Photography.
Photo on D.C. Metro for Mobility Lab/A.E. Landes Photography.

Transit should be the focus of many of our trips, or, at the very least, our work commutes.

But living even just a half-mile away from transit is often enough to get most people defaulting to their private vehicles. Even with all this tech and the new business models filtering into neighborhoods near-ish to transit, there is not much of a spike in transit use around the country.

Take the neighborhood I live in, for instance. It’s in the Washington, D.C. region and about 1.2 miles from the nearest Metrorail stop. It’s filled with young working families who know many of their neighbors. Many walk or bike to their jobs, and many more take transit, but I’m convinced many more would take it if they had a first/last-mile option to get there.

Some experts have told me that Uber and Lyft are perfect for this kind of trip. And that can work sometimes, like when you’re carrying bags to get to the airport. But it gets pricey. Metro alone is really expensive, at around $10 per day to round-trip commute. Add in Uber fares and it begins to make sense to drive and deal with traffic and parking prices and stress, but at least in the comfort of your own metal sanctuary.

Wouldn’t it be a whole lot better to have an autonomous shuttle on a regular loop of my neighborhood, say, every 10 minutes during rush hours and every 30 minutes during other times of the day? Sounds a lot like a bus, but buses sure seem a lot less predictable. Further, there are frankly a lot of people who would be willing to take a trendy new option that doesn’t call itself a bus that could present itself as a clean, roomy, friendly way to get to the Metro.

The company that runs the service could do a full-blown educational launch in the places it’s identified, through smart data, as the places where great outreach combined with enthusiastic word-of-mouth would make the service a success. And friends and family and neighbors could all share a bit of the day together as well when they frequently run into each other in these hyper-localized shuttles to the wider world of the Washington, D.C. region.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but was finally moved to put the idea down on paper after reading this excellent article by Eric Adams in The Drive titled "American Commuters Fail Miserably at Last-Mile Mobility."

It lays out the argument as to why even my great idea could fail. And, if my idea fails, I fear it might be the last great hope to get our transit systems to be the central focus of all our future transportation innovations.

If my idea fails, I fear it might be the last great hope to get our transit systems to be the central focus of all our future transportation innovations.

For the most part, we don’t take alternative options particularly seriously here in the good ol’ USA. Indeed, while most of us say we love variety in our lives — in music, in friends, in vacations, in exercise, in work — there aren’t many who dig a lot of variety in our commutes. We may drive to the train station, ride the rails into town, and hoof it to the office, but that’s usually out of economic necessity. In reality, every transition is a pain point; every mode fraught with its own potential for hassle.

Transfers are indeed very unwelcome for most people. This is why transit agencies need to step up to make these first-mile options as painless as possible. If they don’t, all these rumblings about how autonomous vehicles will render transit obsolete will be another step closer to reality. Transit needs to, at this point, consider itself in a desperate struggle to survive amongst all the new competition. Adams continues:

We want things to be fast, easy, and affordable. But in urban areas, that ain’t gonna happen — at least, not until we’re ready to leave the warm, weather-sealed comfort of our cars and truly double-down on mixing up our mobility. A slew of recent research into the issue has found that the time to do so is now, that the holy trinity of fast-easy-affordable is contingent on a crucial balance between new technology, increased commuter flexibility, and, most of all, innovative thinking — particularly in the knotty world of last-mile mobility. So are American commuters ready to contribute to the solution?

The way people even get to and from transit stations is critical in speeding commutes and opening access to job opportunities...

It would certainly be to their benefit if they do. Not only do more evolved options like electric vehicles and carpooling limit pollution and congestion, but a new study from the University of Southern California, for instance, found that the way people even get to and from transit stations is critical in speeding commutes and opening access to job opportunities, particularly in regions that have only marginal transit systems. The researchers found that driving or biking to a transit station more than doubled the number of jobs that could be reached, by transit, in a 30-minute commute. Furthermore, having a variety of last-mile options at either the beginning or end of a commute was more effective than, say, boosting city bus frequency. This would include ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and bike-sharing startups, all of which can specifically target last-mile mobility.

But to truly put a dent in commuter misery, the innovation will have to go beyond Uber and Lyft and a bunch of racks of heavy bicycles. European communities — already accustomed to multi-modal transit, and uniquely bullish on bikes and walking — are wrestling with the challenge even more aggressively than those in the U.S. One recent analysis by research firm Frost & Sullivan found that economic growth and demand for new options has spurned car manufacturers to get in on the game, exploring shared ownership, smart parking, corporate car-sharing rather than individual ownership, and partnerships with alternative transport providers.

One Dutch effort, Next Urban Mobility, is exploring ways of consolidating the transportation options in terms of both account management — managing everything through a single app — and actual physical proximity. For instance, creating “mobility hubs” where you can drive your car to a parking garage and access rail and bus options, car-sharing services, or even bike-sharing services where bicycles will be waiting right at your assigned spot. In that case you’d simply cycle into the office, taking pressure off the downtown traffic and allowing in many cases for faster and more fluid access to your office. You don’t have to ride 10 miles to work — just a quick hop from a garage just outside of town. Sounds kinda nice, actually.

Of course, what works in Europe won’t necessarily always work in the U.S., where residential areas are designed differently — usually requiring car ownership for even the quickest of errands — and cultural and geographical differences influence both personal and city-wide commuting strategies. So service-based models rather than ownership-based models might have a harder time gaining traction in all but the largest cities.

It’s true that such a setup that I think can work in my neighborhood won’t work everywhere. But then again, where I live is not that different from many thousands of other places (and million of potential new transit customers) around the U.S. geographically situated one to two miles from a major transit hub.

I think it’s a slam dunk for any company that commutes to three guiding factors:

  • dig deep into understanding the data and movement algorithms about these neighborhoods
  • build in a highly strategic and caring public-outreach effort, and
  • provide flawless and friendly service.

Paul Mackie is the communications director for Mobility Lab. This post was originally published at www.mobilitylab.org.

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