How Connected and Automated Vehicles Might Change Public Transportation

Innovative mobility services continue to emerge in urban centers, leveraging the latest GPS, fare integration and detection technologies. While much of this innovation has been spurred by the private market, the tools also provide transit agencies with an opportunity to redefine public transportation.

These new tools and technologies could not have come at a better time. In 2018, Inrix reported that five out of the 10 most congested cities in the world were in the United States, and as TransitCenter pointed out in its “Private Mobility, Public Interest” report in 2016, new mobility services “will not replace high-quality, fixed-route transit as the most efficient means of moving people along dense urban corridors.”

While some competition is inevitable and beneficial to efficiency and customer experience, transit agencies are uniquely positioned to examine the overall needs of their user base, and create an efficient transportation system to respond to them. Considering the purpose of public transportation—to move people safely, efficiently and economically between locations—transit agencies may consider reevaluating their current service models, using automation, connectivity and partnerships as tools for gaining efficiencies while improving services.

In this article, we will showcase some areas in which automation promises to change public transportation service delivery.

Potential Safety and Reliability Benefits

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, bus-related crashes due to human error caused $87 billion worth of damages in 2013. As an estimated 95 percent of crashes are due to human error, the safety and cost benefits are potentially immense.

The Federal Transit Administration’s Strategic Automated Research Program identified several driver assistance programs to help buses in the here-and-now. These programs improve smooth acceleration and deceleration, provide automatic braking and pedestrian collision avoidance, curb avoidance, precision docking, narrow lane/shoulder help and platooning of vehicles.

In addition to safety, the user experience can also be enhanced through connected vehicles; reimagining buses to include conveniences beyond WiFi, such as real-time commuter information and interaction with local businesses and customers for such services as appointment wait times, business discounts and reservation systems.

The passenger experience can be made virtually seamless across modes, as the vehicles—and not the customer—track connection times and distances between first/last mile solutions, such as bicycles, autonomous shuttles and buses. Highly utilized buses provide economic, environmental and efficiency benefits. With dedicated curb space for boarding and alighting, they function more fluidly in public spaces than many emerging mobility options such as transportation network companies (i.e., Uber, Lyft). If electrified, the environmental benefits increase immensely.

Reduced Congestion and Increased Throughput

Shared autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to increase throughput at fixed-route transit stations, and even greater potential to reduce overall congestion if vehicles carried six to 16 passengers.

Researchers from the University of Virginia Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering developed a microsimulation of shared autonomous electric vehicle fleet operations, based on vehicle range and charging infrastructure through a microsimulation of first/last mile trips to a Seattle transit station. They found that 40 to 45 percent of the fleet’s vehicle miles traveled would carry more than two passengers, reducing the fleet size necessary for station throughput to 53 percent.

Many commuter rail stations are faced with demand for building more expensive parking structures for largely single occupancy vehicles (SOV). These results show that parking demand may decrease, allowing that funding to go back into capital improvements.

A recent study by the International Transport Forum simulated two styles of shared vehicles, both with internal combustion engines. The simulation found that removing SOVs entirely, and replacing them with six- to 16-seat shared vehicles, had immense benefits on multiple levels. These included no congestion, one-third reduction in emissions, 37 percent less vehicle miles traveled even during peak hours, 50 percent reduction in cost of trips, and a 95 percent reduction in need for parking space.

Mobility platforms can be an asset to agencies when instituting new traffic calming measures. For example, in an effort to increase safety and decrease congestion by 30 to 50 percent on the Market Street corridor, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency banned private vehicles from several blocks of the street, including Uber and Lyft. Market Street cuts diagonally through the city’s downtown area, and was bustling with all forms of transportation including buses, bikes, taxis, pedestrians—and until recently, private vehicles. Uber and Lyft integrated the ban into their app by creating a geofence blocking riders from summoning rides on that section of Market Street.

As agencies become more familiar with the potential for this type of technology, it is possible that geofences could be used to levee fees for driving in bus-only lanes, or other types of congestion mitigation and enforcement tactics that allow for higher- performing bus service.

Opportunity to Improve Accessibility for All

Mobility needs for the disabled today are largely supported through costly and challenging-to-use paratransit services. If autonomous shuttles are designed with the needs of people with disabilities in mind, the system could start serving all people equally. Researchers at Texas A&M University are working on designing vehicles that can identify the best place to stop the vehicle for those who need a wheelchair ramp, improving seating arrangement and rider assistance programs, and making sure those who are vision impaired can utilize these vehicles on their own.

Similarly, a new look at vehicle size provides an opportunity to provide faster, more efficient service in low-density areas. Right-sizing vehicles for occupancy, including offering lower ridership routes via shared micro transit or shared four-passenger vehicles, allows greater capital investment in main line transit systems with greater demand, while protecting transit dependent populations regardless of location. Many agencies are exploring these capabilities with micro transit pilots.

Achieving this potential requires action today. Partnering and piloting to build expertise in these technologies and their capabilities will provide a deeper capacity from which to achieve transit’s core mission: to move people safely, efficiently and economically between locations.

Collaborative multi-agency and multi-disciplinary working groups are a great first step toward following this advice, staying educated on the latest issues, and having deliberate and measured conversations without jumping to inaccurate or incomplete conclusions. Many agencies are doing just that, assembling with the intent of increasing dialogue. And it’s that dialogue that will be an important enabler of any future regulation, legislation or policy.

Sahar Shirazi, planning and policy lead for automated vehicles and emerging mobility at WSP USA, helps clients develop and implement plans, policies and projects that incorporate emerging mobility solutions, creating more efficient and beneficial built environments and transportation systems.

Rachel Zack, innovative mobility lead with WSP USA, helps clients consider the impact of new and emerging technologies, identify grant opportunities for on-demand and shared-use mobility, develop policy criteria, and establish partnerships with private mobility providers to achieve transportation goals.

[Editor’s Note: To learn more about how WSP supports the planning, deployment and maintenance of intelligent transportation systems and connected and automated vehicle projects across the U.S., visit ]

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