Integrating CAVs into Existing Public Transportation Infrastructure

I’ve written in recent weeks about the impact of autonomous vehicles on city design. Choices made by both city planners and CAV operators in the coming decades will play key roles in determining whether our new transportation paradigm is one of compact, walkable cityscapes that accommodate traffic of all sorts, or one that spurs increased suburban and exurban sprawl and is truly designed only with car transport in mind. One particularly important aspect of this question is to what extent CAVs will integrate with current mass transit rather than attempt to replace it.

Some companies, such as Ann Arbor based May Mobility,are purposely seeking out opportunities to integrate with local transit. The company recently contracted with Columbus, OH to begin operating their CAVs on a short loop through downtown along the Scioto River. A small-scale project like this has the potential to improve traffic flow in the central city without incentivizing people to move ever farther away from the urban core. A deal was also announced between May and the state of Rhode Island to run autonomous shuttles that will connect public transit lines in the nearby cities of Providence and Olneyville.

Its certainly possible that May’s long-term ambitions are bigger. They may hope to use their autonomous technology to compete with companies like Ford, Waymo and Uber to provide people with a primary mode of transportation. For now though, services like this should be viewed as a model for cities seeking to promote vibrant urban centers.

Many cities across the country, even those without longstanding strength in public transit, have already committed serious resources to revitalizing and maintaining their urban cores. Kansas City is planning a roughly $300 million extension of an existing light rail line. Phoenix, which first opened its light rail line ten years ago, passed a ballot initiative in 2015 to raise new funds fora 66-mile expansion of the system. And public transit is not supported only by public money. In South Florida, a privately owned, high speed commuter train recently opened to carry passengers between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.

Cities investing so heavily in large-scale public transit certainly have a demonstrated interest in the economic development that comes with urban revitalization. Furthermore, they see transportation as a key factor in spurring renewed growth. If these localities are not careful though, they may see their careful plans laid to waste by the onset of CAVs. In the post-WWII era, the dominance of the automobile contributed to the emptying out of city centers and the paving over of vast swaths of land. Looking ahead, it’snot hard to see the rise of this new technology thwarting the plans of the most well-intentioned cities.

Those that hope to back up their commitment to public transit and sustainable living will need to think carefully about how transportation technologies should be accommodated. For now, the May Mobility model may be attractive for its intentional compatibility with other forms of transit. Looking ahead, as CAVs become more advanced, such companies will likely move to take over more of the transportation market. Cities need to be aware of that possibility and consider how to design their infrastructure and transportation policies to integrate CAVs into existing plans, lest they betaken over by them.