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Autonomous Vehicles' Disruptive Potential for Transit

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In discussions about the ultimate effects of fully autonomous vehicles (robo-taxis), the least attention is being paid to their likely impact on traditional mass transit. To be sure, some suggest that robo-taxis could serve the last-mile function, taking people from home to a transit stop and from a transit stop near their destination to the place they actually need to get to. But once inexpensive (zero labor cost) robo-taxis exist, why wouldn’t most people prefer door-to-door service?

The first steps toward this private transit future can be seen in the carpooling services now offered by Lyft and Uber: Lyft Line and UberPool. MIT Technology Review (Vol. 116, No. 6) has the most insightful article I’ve seen on this subject, “Lyft’s Search for a New Mode of Transport,” by Ryan Bradley. It relates the story of Lyft’s founder and CEO, Logan Green. As a student at UC Santa Barbara, Green got himself elected to the Santa Barbara Transportation Board and the UCSB Parking Rate Payers Board, as well as starting a campus ride-sharing service using six Priuses.

After graduation, on a vacation trip in Zimbabwe, Green discovered the informal, private transit system in Harare, in which drivers use their own large vehicles and establish their own routes. This inspired him, with a partner, to start Zimride in 2007, the predecessor of Lyft. Actually, what Green observed in Zimbabwe is a widespread phenomenon in developing countries—including the Jeepneys of Manila, the Matatu of Nairobi, the Bakassi of Khartoum, the Publicos of Puerto Rico, etc. These are all basically jitneys, and the phenomenon was well-documented decades ago in a book by Gabriel Roth and George Wynne, Learning from Abroad: Free Enterprise Urban Transportation (Transaction Books, 1982).

Lyft Line, the company’s shared-ride service, predates UberPool, which began operations only in 2015. Today, Lyft Line is available in a growing fraction of the 189 U.S. cities where Lyft operates, compared with only eight for UberPool thus far. Lyft in 2014 launched a new variant called Lyft for Work, under which a company can hire Lyft to bring groups of employees to and from transit stations. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has recently mentioned a new Uber service called “Perpetual Trip” under which UberPool drivers would “pick up and drop off passengers continuously along the way,” which is essentially a jitney service. Juan Matute of the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies considers both Lyft Line and UberPool as 21st-century versions of jitneys.
Predictably, Streetsblog has criticized the “Uberizing of public transit,” seeing a threat to political support for transit expansion as jitney-like services proliferate. It cites transit advocate Jarrett Walker arguing that there is no way the economics could work, with small vehicles being uncompetitive with large buses and rail transit. While that may be true for the handful of metro areas with traditional (pre-auto) central business districts containing a large fraction of a metro area’s jobs, that is not where most jobs are in most metro areas. And since the economics are strongly affected by the cost of drivers, the potential to disrupt mass transit increases enormously in a future in which fully autonomous robo-taxis have been perfected.

One emerging obstacle to private services like Lyft Line and UberPool is the availability of legal spaces to pick up and drop off passengers. Eno Transportation Weekly (Dec. 4, 2015) published a proposal from Gary Rogers and Patrick Smith of The Autonomer. Their idea is that cities create Shared-Use Mobility (SUM) Zones, in which carefully selected curbside parking spaces would be designated for the pick-up and drop-off of passengers of such vehicles. Here again, this idea is not new. I first came across it in Curb Rights (Brookings Institution, 1997), by Daniel B. Klein, Adrian T. Moore (my Reason colleague), and Binyam Reja. This book should be required reading by those planning the future of shared-ride services.
(This article first ran in the January issue of Surface Transportation Innovations)

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