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remains of a public transit bus in the woods.

It’s been 54 years since the Jetsons (a cartoon show depicting futuristic life in 2062) premiered on ABC, and while we aren’t quite to the point where flying cars populate the sky, we’re quickly approaching a world where passing an autonomous vehicle on your way to work could become commonplace. The introduction of the autonomous vehicle could mean big changes to the transportation landscape, and here at TransLoc we’re asking the question, what does this mean for public transit?

You might be thinking, “Autonomous vehicles aren’t going to be that accessible!” And you’d be partially right—when autonomous vehicles hit the market, they’ll most likely not be feasible purchases for the average American. Experts predict wealthy consumers will be the first to try these new commodities for their personal, everyday use.

Within the next decade, however, large urban areas could be the charter cities where private firms begin operating fleets of multiple autonomous vehicles. Companies such as Uber or Lyft who currently operate on-demand, taxi-like services could now offer this same system with driverless vehicles. The vehicles could more or less be constantly moving, reducing the need for parking, and freeing up land space dedicated for this use. As prices for these vehicles drop, some transit planners believe this could trigger significant reduction in traditional vehicle ownership and the introduction of special lanes on the road strictly for autonomous vehicles.

So, what does this mean for the future of public transit?

There are concerns that the introduction of autonomous vehicles could reduce demand for public transit and ultimately encourage increased vehicle use. However, most transit experts don’t believe that autonomous vehicles will take over public transit because of the concept of multi-modal transportation. According to a study done by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), nearly 70% of millennials (people ages 18 to 34) use multiple travel options to get to their destinations, several times per week. Of the millennials polled, 54% of them still believe that public transit is the best mode of transportation to connect all other modes, even with the abundance of options such as car-sharing, bike-sharing, walking, and car ownership.

The reliance on public transit as a major player in the multi-modal transportation system isn’t the only reason public transit will endure—there is also the problem of space. New technology can’t change the geometry of moving large amounts of people in a limited amount of space, ensuring that autonomous cars will never fully replace public transit in dense urban environments. While autonomous vehicles will use space more efficiently than private vehicles, it still isn’t spatially feasible to replace a bus full of 60 people with 60 cars in a dense city. Autonomous cars have the potential to dominate in suburban areas where private car ownership is already the preferred method of transportation, but more and more people are choosing to live in urban environments, and public transit isn’t going anywhere in crowded cities around the world.

What about autonomous buses?

The future of autonomous vehicles won’t stop at personal use and privately-owned ride-sharing services. An autonomous shuttle, affectionately named Olli, has already begun making trips in Washington, DC. This electric shuttle was created by Local Motors, and it’s operated by IBM’s Watson supercomputer, allowing you to ask the shuttle questions like: “Can you take me to the nearest mall?” The shuttle only accommodates 12 people and reaches speeds up to 12 mph in a 32-mile range, but it’s a step towards autonomous city buses, and strides are being made all over the world. Cities in the Netherlands, Greece, Switzerland, and China are also experimenting with driverless shuttles. Although the reduction in driver jobs is an economic downside, autonomous vehicles could reduce operating costs and lower fares for riders. This could be a game-changer for public transit.

How can we make public transit better right now?

We live in the era of technology, and there are an increasing number of options available for people to get where they need to go—whether it be existing car-sharing services, multi-modal options, or future autonomous cars. Rather than resisting these new services in the name of an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality, public transit agencies can leverage technology to embrace them and work towards improving service by putting the user first. By working with other modes of transportation, agencies can increase ridership by simply providing another solution, like solving the first mile-last mile problem. At TransLoc, we can help you do that with our Uber integration for the TransLoc Rider app, and this is only the first step. We’re already thinking about multi-modal integration solutions and as autonomous vehicles are adopted more widely by ride-hailing companies and transit agencies, TransLoc will be ready to integrate them too.

Interested in learning more about what we’re up to? Contact us today!