It is no secret that new mobility services have disrupted urban transit. Businesses like Uber and Lyft, and after them, Lime and Bird, stormed uninvited into cities with innovative, convenient services that customers loved. Public transport operators were caught off guard, seeing reduced ridership and worsened congestion. Some agencies, though, are innovating themselves to better serve their customers and help move more people with fewer vehicles. One use case that has helped public and private providers alike is autonomous shuttle service for first-, last-mile solutions that have been good for transit agencies, businesses, and travelers.
Mobility to ‘mixed-use’ center
In Fribourg, Switzerland, the public transit agency TPF launched last-mile services from a bus station to the mixed-use Marly Innovation Center (MIC), a 100-acre campus accessed by 500 employees with plans to develop housing in the future. The one-mile distance from the bus station was seen by MIC promoters as an obstacle to attracting businesses and, in the future, residents. TPF worked with the center and has delivered an autonomous shuttle service between the bus station and the MIC, and plans to tightly integrate the shuttles’ schedules with the public transport schedule, so that if a bus is late, the shuttle can wait for it before departing to avoid delaying passengers further. Since its launch in late 2017, the service has transported 9,000 passengers.
In Lyon, France, the French Agency for Environment and Energy and the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development, and Energy deployed an autonomous shuttle project to explore greener, cleaner ways to connect the city’s train station with the sustainably designed Confluence neighborhood. The former dockyards have been revitalized to be energy efficient, artsy, and walkable, but there wasn’t a convenient way to get in and out of the area. To facilitate access to the many shops, restaurants, and museums in the neighborhood, the agencies placed attendants on the autonomous buses to answer questions and to make people more comfortable. An online web portal educates the public about the service and how to use it. Since its launch in 2016 some 40,000 travelers have used the shuttles.
Navigating medieval streets
Back in Switzerland, the PostBus has been running an autonomous shuttle service in the city of Sion since 2016. The goal was to facilitate transit of visitors through the city center’s narrow cobblestone streets and reduce the number of cars driving and parking on the streets, making the area more attractive and accessible to visitors. This tested the shuttles’ navigation skills in tight spaces with both autos and pedestrians on the routes. The shuttles have carried 50,000 travelers and the service has since been expanded to connect with the train station for a first-, last-mile solution, making the medieval destination more reachable and less congested. PostBus is looking to replicate the service in other cities.
In Lake Nona, Fla., near Orlando, a planned community is using autonomous shuttles to ease the transit of residents and visitors. The 17-square-mile development features homes, shops, medical facilities, business parks, and schools. The first phase of the shuttle service takes people from an apartment complex to the city center. Owner Tavistock Group and autonomous mobility solution company Beep plan to expand the Lake Nona service, as well as offer services in other communities in Florida and beyond. The group sees the service as a way to attract residents to enable car-free living. While private, Beep has the full support of city and county officials, and the county recently received a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to upgrade the region’s infrastructure to accommodate autonomous mobility services.
Why autonomous shuttles?
Why are autonomous shuttles catching on as a way to spur business, travel, tourism, and growth? For transit providers, the shuttles offer an innovative way to expand service areas and reach new destinations. The shuttles require minimal new infrastructure, can get up and running quickly, are quieter and cleaner than traditional buses, and move at speeds that are slower and safer than private autos. Also, these services provide a way for mobility providers to better understand the public perception of autonomous services and their capabilities in public and private scenarios. As the capabilities of vehicles evolve, this insight will no doubt streamline the introduction of more complex services such as autonomous on-demand ride-sharing in the future.
Anne Mellano is co-founder of Bestmile, a mobility services platform provider.