According to the United Nations, nearly 70 percent of the world will live in cities by 2050. The International Organization for Migration says that three million people move into the world’s cities every week. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are one possible solution to make it easier for cities to accommodate more people, by making it easier for more people to get around using fewer vehicles. While much of the news about autonomous vehicles is focused on cars, cities are looking at shared transit models, and in some cities, pilots and live autonomous systems are already in place and working, providing valuable lessons for the rest of the world.
In its Initiative on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles, Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Aspen Institute “spent 2017 scouring the globe to understand how cities are preparing for AVs.”
The researchers analyzed AV plans of 38 cities around the world and one of their key findings was that, “the most anticipated role for AVs is the bridging of existing gaps at the edges of transit systems, a crucial link that planners call the ‘last mile.’ Almost every city indicated interest in using AVs for last-mile solutions, and for a majority of cities it was the highest priority.”
Why autonomous? The reasoning is simple. Autonomous solutions can be deployed with minimal new infrastructure, and when integrated with public transit can allow agencies to reach growing neighborhoods and hard-to-reach areas with smaller, nimbler vehicles that run on fixed routes or that can be summoned on-demand.
Operating in a Medieval City Center
PostBus, the largest bus company in Switzerland, began testing autonomous shuttles on city streets in 2016 in the city of Sion. PostBus wanted to see if autonomous shuttles could enable it to expand service into the medieval city center where narrow, cobblestone streets are not easily served by traditional buses. The thinking was that autonomous shuttles could allow the company to serve the area with minimal new infrastructure, using electric vehicle fleets to reduce noise and pollution. PostBus also wanted to validate customer acceptance and gain insights into the challenges of integrating autonomous shuttles into public transit.
By all measures, the project has been a success. The PostBus shuttles have carried tens of thousands of travelers, and public acceptance has been strong—the vast majority of travelers expressed “no or very minor concerns” about the service—a much higher acceptance level than before the system was implemented. Thousands of travelers have made the shuttles a part of their regular transportation routine.
The reaction has been so positive that the service was expanded to reach the Sion rail station, doubling the length of the shuttle’s route, connecting with rail transit, and operating the shuttles in more highly trafficked streets. PostBus also announced plans to deploy other lines in four more cities.
Connecting a New Neighborhood
In France, the French Agency for Environment and Energy and the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy launched an autonomous shuttle trial in Lyon.
The service extends transit to the Confluence neighborhood, a formerly industrial area that is being revitalized with the smart city in mind. Rather than designing and building a large traditional bus line, the agencies chose to experiment with autonomous shuttles because of the lower cost of building out the system. The autonomous shuttles travel a 1-mile circuit that moves people in and out of the neighborhood and is integrated with public transit. As with Sion, tens of thousands of passengers have used the shuttles, and many have become regular users.
Reaching a New Business Park
Switzerland’s Transports Publics Fribourgeois (TPF), the public transport operator for the region of Fribourg in Switzerland, launched an autonomous shuttle service to connect the city’s public transit system with the Marly Innovation Center, a near 100-acre campus for technology companies that is about two miles from the nearest public transit station.
The primary objective of the project was to help commuters reach their workplaces, with a secondary goal of helping residents in the area connect with the public transport network.
TPF selected autonomous shuttles for the service because it was the most cost-effective way to connect the somewhat remote area to public transit. The Innovation Center believes the service will help attract new businesses by making it easier for employees to get to work.
The results of these projects confirm and further support the potential of autonomous vehicles, integrated with public transit, to enhance public transit solutions that are safe, relatively inexpensive to deploy, and well-utilized by travelers. As the Bloomberg/Aspen study found, there are dozens more pilot projects in the works around the world. Many believe that these “last-mile” services that connect transit hubs to homes and offices will mark the first wave of autonomous vehicle adoption—the last mile being what the authors of the study called the “low-hanging fruit” of autonomous services. The end goal is to make public transit work such that cities are more livable and sustainable.
To learn more about the role of autonomous vehicles in public transit networks, watch the webinar, “Integrating Autonomous Vehicles with Public Transport.”