Are Autonomous Vehicles the Solution to U.S. Cities’ Transportation Woes?
As advocates for autonomous vehicles pitch them as the solution to our transit troubles, they also assume a vision of transportation entirely reliant on cars. That assumption often becomes a reason to underfund modes of transportation that are safe, efficient, sustainable and cheaper. It also discounts the opportunity to leverage the same technology to move larger numbers of people.
As a recent Fast Company article noted, advocates for autonomous vehicles (AV) pitch AVs as the solution to many of our transit woes and assure us of a future in which “traffic congestion never slows vehicles down, and cars never collide with anything.” However, this forecast rests on a vision of urban transportation that is entirely reliant on cars, an assumption that often becomes a reason to underfund modes of transportation that are safe, efficient, sustainable, and cheaper.
It’s also an assumption that doesn’t reflect reality. Even in Texas, a significant number of urban residents rely on public transportation. Some of those are riders of choice. But for many, public transportation is their only affordable means of mobility.
Consider this: The cost for AVs, with all their technology, will be at least as much as traditional vehicles, and likely much more. If AVs are the future, what mobility options will exist for people who can’t afford them?
Let’s say AVs do become reality in the near term. Why would we assume the technology only applies to single-occupancy or low-occupancy vehicles? The same technology could be employed to move larger numbers of people.
The point is that AVs don’t replace public transit, they can – and should – become a part of it. There’s nothing to limit the use of AV technology in other modes of transportation unless it’s the predisposition to sell AV cars.
In San Antonio, where we work with VIA Metropolitan Transit, the strategy is to give people mobility choices by capitalizing on technology. That’s why VIA is expanding its VIA Link mobility-on-demand service, accelerating Advanced Rapid Transit and consistently enhancing its goMobile app. Then, as AV technology comes online, VIA will capitalize on that technology as well.
An example of what this might look like can be found at Brooks City Base, where VIA has a transit center. Brooks plans to test AVs as a “last mile” solution. Riders would take a VIA bus or Advanced Rapid Transit to the Brooks transit station. They then take an AV to circulate around the Brooks campus to go home, work, shopping, and other nearby destinations.
Overall, no matter our progress toward AVs, there are still major technical obstacles to overcome. As the horizon for AVs becoming a universal transportation option keeps shifting, what do we do in the interim? We continue to invest in public transit. We cannot in good conscience put mobility on hold for those who depend on it.
Jonathan Gurwitz, a Vice President at KGBTexas, serves as board chair of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, and KGBTexas is the designated marketing agency-of-record for VIA Metropolitan Transit.