Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are becoming part of the mobility landscape and are playing a role in supplementing areas where public transit is not as optimised, says a new whitepaper.
Produced by the Cities Today Studio in partnership with May Mobility, the whitepaper highlights how AVs can and are bridging first- and last-mile gaps, helping public transit to recover post-Covid, reducing costs and improving safety, while also increasing equity.
Bridging the gap
Contra Costa in California’s Bay Area is representative of a flurry of transit agencies and cities that are looking to AVs to address specific needs, but also recognise the potential role that AVs can play in their wider transportation system.
In September, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) signed a partnership with May Mobility to provide a fleet of seven AVs to improve access to healthcare in the City of Martinez, with the aim of reducing medical appointment cancellations and absences due to a lack of convenient, accessible transportation.
Not only will this provide on-demand transportation for staff, patients and others but Tim Haile, Executive Director, CCTA, also sees the potential of AVs to fill other gaps in the region’s public transit ecosystem. This is particularly the case for the region’s planned network of shared mobility hubs along Interstate Highway 680, which effectively cuts across the county’s 19 cities and 1.2 million people.
“Shared AVs have the ability to go into those neighbourhoods where transit really can’t go, collect people and bring them to nodes where you’ve got high capacity fixed-route transit,” says Haile. “A big proportion of our local trips are under two miles, so how do we get people out of their cars? The answer is shared autonomous mobility.”
Feeding into existing transit networks
In Miami-Dade County, an 18-month trial starting in December will see 10 AVs rolled out that will form part of the suite of transit options offered by the county’s MetroConnect.
The main focus for the county is to prioritise the 40-kilometre elevated rail network and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in a network of high-frequency corridors, then to also include pockets of first- and last-mile on-demand services, including AVs.
“Shared rides are the way to go,” says Carlos Cruz-Casas, Chief Innovation Officer at the Department of Transportation and Public Works for Miami-Dade County. “We see AVs as fully compatible with on-demand transit and as the technology evolves and we see larger capacity vehicles, then we can start further supporting fixed-route bus services and BRT.”
Helping public transit to recover
Statistics from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released in 2022 and 2023 paint a bleak picture for the country’s public transit system. Although ridership has reached 70 percent of pre-Covid levels, agencies are facing operating budget shortfalls.
Fifty-one percent of APTA members responding to a survey said they are facing a “fiscal cliff” in the next five years. For the largest agencies, with operating budgets greater than $200 million, the percentage is higher, at 71 percent with an expected budget shortfall of between 10 and 30 percent.
The association reports that four out of five agencies are already cutting services due to worker shortages, problems in retaining staff, increasing costs from global inflation and the associated growing wage demands.
“Once you cut a service, the question is: what happens to the people that were relying on that service?” says Daisy Wall, Senior Director of Government Business at May Mobility, a leader in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicle technology.
“Autonomous mobility can help support today’s current public transit while also creating new modes so communities have a more resilient and healthier transportation ecosystem.”
Opening up transit deserts
AVs can fill big holes in public transit such as late-night services, which many public transit agencies find difficult to provide.
Kevin Desmond, Principal and National Director for Transit and Rail at Sam Schwartz, says that this will mean the business case for automated transit will continue to grow – in particular for very low ridership loads where the price point for fixed-route transit doesn’t exist.
“There are so many areas of a city that are really not possible or feasible to serve,” he says. “Whether they be transit deserts or a city simply doesn’t have the density to support transit that is remote from the centre and remote from main lines. That’s where AVs can come in and start opening up a city’s territory – in theory, in a much more cost-effective way.”
The whitepaper argues that AVs can have the biggest impact when they are accessible, shared and complement existing transit infrastructure to and from hubs such as college campuses, medical centres, and mobility hubs. The vehicles can improve accessibility, enhance connectivity, reduce congestion, customise routes, reduce parking demand, and integrate services.
“As we’ve seen, especially after Covid, people need different options to get to places as rider expectation and commuting patterns have changed,” says May Mobility’s Wall. “The key is how can you provide as many different modes of transportation as possible that really match well with the purpose of the rider to make sure that they can get from point A to point B, get to jobs, educational opportunities and healthcare. There’s a real opportunity for AVs to really shape the future of transportation.”
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