100's of M2M / IoT blog posts.

Will self-driving cars eliminate the demand for public transit?

by Larry Bellehumeur   |  Sep 27, 2018  
Hello and thanks for reading.

I have heard on a number of occasions (namely from local politicians) about how the most important form of politics is the local kind, namely your Mayor and your town council.  This blog isn’t a place to debate that one way or the other, but I do agree that their decisions often have more of a day to day impact on the average person than other levels of government.

One of the key areas of local politics in many areas is the future of the car.  Most of us love our car and don’t want to make the move to public transit if we don’t have to.  This explains rush hour in most areas of North America, often with only a single person inside each car.  In theory, most people “could” take public transit to work, but often choose not to.

This has often made it difficult for your local politician.  They want to be seen as doing things to reduce issues like pollution and traffic levels  and want to be seen as “going green”.  This is the thinking behind many of the massive plans for public transit, ranging from increased subway lines to dedicated bus and bike lanes to even wide-area commuter trains to bring people from the suburbs.  Despite their efforts, traffic does seem to be getting worse each year.

Enter in the self-driving car to solve all of the issues … or does it?

News articles from all over the US (and likely in most developed countries) have shown there is a big movement from many politicians to abandon many large-scale public transit projects as they may become obsolete with the introduction of the self-driving car and its ability to change the business model of companies like Uber.

The theory is that once drivers are eliminated (which is Uber’s biggest cost today), the cost difference between a direct Uber ride and using public transit will be so small that the vast majority of users will opt for a ride in an Uber.  As well, the thinking is that once we take humans out of the equation in driving, traffic will move so much quicker that the traffic jams of today will not be a concern.

Is this realistic?

I do agree with some of the thinking in the above statements.  I do think that Uber’s drop in cost will drive more people towards this service (and likely away from some areas of public transit like buses).  As well, I do think that self-driving cars have the potential to increase the capacity of most roads.  However, there are some flaws to this thinking if it is the basis for not going ahead with projects like light rail.  

Here is a quote from Jarrett Walker (a transportation consultant from Portland) that sums it up well …. “Highways today can carry about 2,000 cars per lane per hour. Autonomous vehicles might quadruple that. The best rail systems can carry more than 50,000 passengers per lane per hour. They move the most people, using the least space. No technology can overcome that geometry”.

The Bottom line
I think cities need to take a pause before considering eliminating many large scale projects.  Uber and other services are (and more in the future) definitely putting a damper on the demand for certain bus routes and this needs to be considered in future planning.  However, there will be a demand for subways lines and light rail for many years to come, as there will be for other solutions such as electric bikes and scooters.  We need to keep our options open to all ideas to solve these issues …