Public transportation has so far been under-represented in the discussion of new mobility services. While the public seems to be enthralled with the idea of driverless vehicles on city streets and highways, the idea that new mobility services like ridehailing, robotaxi, and other private services will replace public transportation misses the point. These services and more like them can enhance and improve public transportation, but full replacement is unlikely and probably unwelcome as public agencies have a mandate to make mobility accessible and affordable to all members of the community.
Working Together Instead of Competing
This year, public transportation organizations began efforts to get a place at the table in the planning of new mobility services. In March of 2018, the Union Internationale des Transports Publics (UITP), the world’s largest transportation trade association launched its SPACE program (Shared Personalized Autonomous Connected vEhicles). The goal of the project is to place “public transport at the centre of the autonomous vehicles revolution and to help build the AV-public transport ecosystem.” Working groups have been established to:
• Assess the impacts of automated road transport systems
• Develop operational concepts and business models for the best use of AVs in passenger services
• Advocate for a harmonized framework to allow the safe operation of AVs in real (mixed) mobility scenarios
Around the same time, a group of international non-governmental organization (NGOs) collaborated on a document called the Shared Mobility Principals—10 principles “designed to guide urban decision-makers and stakeholders toward the best outcomes for all.”
Principle 9 states: “All transportation services should be integrated and thoughtfully planned across operators, geographies, and complementary modes. Seamless trips should be facilitated via physical connections, interoperable payments, and combined information. Every opportunity should be taken to enhance the connectivity of people and vehicles to wireless networks.”
The National League of Cities has also joined in the call for new mobility services to be planned such that they expand access to public transit for all. A recent report, “The Future of Equity in Cities,” calls for mobility services that serve more riders, including the disabled, low-income, and “unbanked.”
Unseen Economic Benefits
Many complain the public transit loses money, but public transportation is a public service as much as it is a business, and its impact reaches far beyond the farebox. The UITP points out that “investment in public transport sparks a chain reaction in economic activity up to three or four times the initial investment,” and that “while large-scale public transport investment projects are undoubtedly expensive, they are actually significantly less expensive than the direct cost of congestion, which can seriously harm the cities’ competitiveness, affecting travel time reliability and business productivity.”
More specifically, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA):
• Every dollar invested in public transit generates $4 in economic returns, with 71 percent of these returns flowing to the private sector
• Every $10 million in capital investment in public transportation yields $30 million in increased business
• Every $10 million in operating investment yields $32 million in increased business
The Last-Mile Problem and Opportunity
Public transportation plays a vital role in getting people in and out of major urban centers. In fact, one could argue that shared automated transportation already works quite well in many cities in the form of light rail, subways and commuter trains. These are mass transit services that are not likely to be replaced by autonomous vehicles or other private services. The infrastructure is already in place and working in most urban centers. The problem for most commuters is the so-called “last mile” of their journeys—the distance from transit hubs to homes and offices. When that distance is too great, people tend to drive door-to-door, with the added challenge of finding parking and getting from a parking spot to the final destination.
“Transit in the United States often suffers from the problem of inability to deliver travelers all the way from their point of origin to their destination,” said University of Illinois researchers in “Overcoming the Last-Mile Problem with Transportation and Land-Use Improvements: An Agent-Based Approach,” an article in the International Journal of Transportation. “This ‘last-mile’ problem is thought to deter transit use among riders with auto access, even when high-quality transit service is provided for the majority of the trip distance.”
New mobility services can help solve this last mile problem, as well as help reach so-called “grey zones” where it is cost-prohibitive to send traditional buses or trains to lower density communities. Autonomous shuttles, for example, can be deployed with minimal new infrastructures such as new rails, stations, or stops.
One such scenario is at the San Francisco Bay Area’s Bishop Ranch business park, a 500+ acre complex that suffers from choked highways and a train station that is too far away to be convenient. The park is collaborating with the Contra Costa Transportation Agency to use autonomous shuttles to get employees to and from the train station.
“We have a failure at the first and last mile,” said Alex Mehran, chairman, and CEO of the Sunset Development Company, which owns and operates Bishop. “This is a solution to that failure.”
Public and private transportation have the potential to dramatically improve one another. Public transit hubs offer a steady stream of customers to new mobility service providers, and these service providers can make public transit a more attractive door-to-door experience. But the systems will have to be coordinated in order to be efficient and to make improve traffic and congestion in cities. Cities and transit agencies may need to take more control over how and where services are offered to avoid overloading areas with new services, and to ensure that access is available to all neighborhoods, communities, and travelers.