Opinion: Transportation future’s more than just self-driving cars

  • Richard A. White
3:00 p.m Friday, Dec. 15, 2017 Opinion

Fiat Chrysler and BMW recently announced plans to jointly develop self-driving cars. The move puts the automakers in competition with Google, Apple, and other car manufacturers that are also working on driverless vehicles. The question is when, not if, this is going to be commonplace.

Self-driving cars might seem to render public transportation obsolete. But the opposite is true. Autonomous buses have already made their way onto streets. And because Bus Rapid Transit tends to have dedicated lanes, the transition to driverless vehicles should be easier for public transit than for private transport.

The truth is that public buses, subways, trolleys, and trains will complement driverless automobiles by serving as our transportation network’s high-capacity trunk lines. Automated chauffeurs may pick us up for the first mile of our journey, or drop us off after the last mile. But public transit will serve as the backbone of that multimodal transportation system.

Over the past two decades, public transportation ridership has grown by 34 percent. Last year, Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transit, or 35 million every weekday.

City slickers aren’t the only ones using public transportation. Even as rural areas’ share of the population declined, ridership there grew nearly 8 percent between 2007 and 2015, thanks to regional bus service, van pools, and subsidized taxis.

Those who use public transit don’t miss driving. Typically citing convenience and cost, six in 10 riders prefer public transit to other modes of transport. About two in three do so five days a week or more.

Americans are giving up their car keys because buses and trains fit seamlessly with the ride-sharing, car-sharing, and bike-sharing services that have revolutionized how we get around.

As further evidence, consider a survey taken last year of commuters in Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Researchers surveyed 4,500 people about their use of public transit, car-shares, bike-shares, and rideshares. They then identified a subset that regularly uses several of these modes of transportation. Nearly six in 10 of these “super-sharers” reported that more often than not, they travel on a bus or a train.

These variations of ways to get around — public transit among them — are allowing more households to go car-free, or at least car-lite.

This makes sense. Consider a commuter living in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., who works in the nation’s capital. Thanks to Capital Bikeshare, she might start her day by riding to the Metrorail train station — and then switching to a bus in the city for the last mile of her commute. After work, she’ll likely take the bus and Metro again — or she could opt for a brisk walk home instead of a bike ride.

If she’s carless, she might summon an Uber or rent a Zipcar to visit family in the suburbs over the weekend.

Rideshare services and public transit are also complementary because people prioritize them at different times. In that seven-city survey of commuters, researchers found that Uber and Lyft are the most popular way to get around between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when buses and subways are typically closed.

Rideshare services and public transit in some cities are even working in tandem. In Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, Uber has partnered with local officials to integrate ridesharing with real-time bus tracking in one smartphone app. In the future, such partnerships could yield seamless transfers, unified payment methods, dynamic route maps, and even lower transportation costs.

These are all examples of how public transportation authorities can update their approach to deliver the right services at the right time and place — and thus serve as the future managers of mobility. People now expect to get where they need to go on-demand. Public transportation services can meet that need by offering convenient, reliable, and ubiquitous service, both individually and in partnership with others.

It’s important that they do, because a future with less driving creates healthier, wealthier, more sustainable communities. Taking public transit is 10 times safer than traveling by car. Those who rely on shared transportation are generally more physically active than their car-only counterparts. For most Americans, a car is the second-largest purchase they’ll make; skipping ownership bypasses that expense. Plus, increased reliance on public transit reduces U.S. carbon emissions.

Technology may soon take our places behind the wheel — and increase our reliance on public transportation in the process.