How will Transit be Impacted by Driverless Cars?

I’m surprised by how many people think that driverless cars could replace public transit.  That, in fact, is my worst fear!  I’ve not run this scenario in a travel demand model, but I don’t think a model is needed.  I live in San Francisco where 25% of all trips in 2014 were completed using public transit (source). If every one of those people used their own private vehicle for every trip, the city would be gridlocked.  So – it’s pretty obvious to me that public transit is still a necessity in dense urban areas.  Will it still be needed in the suburbs or rural areas of the States? Possibly not.  Or possibly only for the highest traveled routes, but that begs the question: is public transit intended to operate where the most people use it or where the most people need it? And how does that mesh with the future driverless car business model?

Here are a few of the ways that public transit is likely to be impacted by driverless cars:

  1. Route and Schedule Changes – Depending on how and where driverless cars are impacted into our society, transit agencies will need to alter the service to address how the demand has changed.
  2. Paratransit Service Provision – Driverless cars could significantly reduce the cost of providing paratransit services – especially if incorporated with transportation network companies (in fact, I’m hoping that happens sooner rather than later).
  3. Replacement of Bus Fleet – Fixed route vehicles can all potentially be replaced with autonomous vehicles and, in fact, may be likely contenders as early adopters.
  4. Changing Labor Needs – As transit systems transition to AVs, their labor force may change drastically. While bus operators may not be needed, security enforcement may become a new requirement, resulting in potential labor union pushback.
  5. Alternate Fare Structure – In order to stay competitive with alternate providers, the transit industry will likely need to alter their fare structure.

Is the public transit industry ready?  This will likely be a topic of a future blog post!


About Lauren Isaac

I am the Manager of Transportation Sustainability at Parsons Brinckerhoff. Recently, I won the William Barclay Parsons fellowship for my research proposal to study how the United States government should respond to driverless cars. As I'm working on my research, I thought this blog would help to disseminate my findings and provide a forum for feedback.
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