How can AVs and microtransit be more than a distraction from the time- and work-intensive solutions needed to fix city travel ills, such as better payment systems, upgraded trains and vehicles, more frequent service, and road pricing schemes?
MOD/MaaS may be impacting bus ridership. The continued adoption and expansion of Uber and Lyft have led many to begin thinking about the systemic impact of autonomous vehicles, from declining private vehicle ownership to the look of our roads and potential impact on real estate. Many cities, such as Altamonte, Florida, have seen ride-hailing services as the future last-mile solution, subsidizing rides with these services as an affordable way to increase the efficiency of transit system.
According to Jeffrey Tumlin, a principal and transportation planner at Nelson\Nygaard, the biggest issue raised by these services’ rising popularity may be their increased presence on roadways.
“There’s a big concern that ubiquitous, cheap, door-to-door mobility will result in a significant increase in vehicle miles traveled, as well as decreases in walking and biking,” he says.
Tumlin’s assertion, supported by a recent study that found ride-sharing usage increased the number of trips and travel in major cities, reinforces a view he shares with other transit planners: Buses, not cars, may be the way to go when it comes to adopting autonomous transportation in cities. He believes that as cities get denser and more crowded, and the need for greener transport grows, the future of urban transportation is “high-capacity, rubber-wheeled, autonomous vehicles.” In other words, a new generation of buses.
“Cities have a much higher density of travel demand,” he says. “Transit agencies need to be the first adopters of AV technology, or public transit dies in America.”
Autonomous buses and shuttles, he says, like those being trialed in Helsinki, can help transport riders from major transit hubs in an efficient, organized, and less congestion-prone manner. While services like UberPOOL and Lyft Line encourage beneficial car-sharing and can cut emissions, larger vehicles will be needed to truly achieve reduced congestion and pollution on a massive scale.
“These conversations need to happen immediately, and be informing the debate and laws right now,” he says. “Otherwise, we’re making the exact same mistakes we made in 1933, when cars were first introduced to our cities.”
Plugged in and pushing forward with electric buses
Matt Horton sells buses to transit agencies around the world, so he’s pretty well versed in what people don’t like about the product. For him, a key pain point is perception. “A lot of what people don’t like about buses is due to the diesel engine at their heart,” says Horton. “Buses are seen as noisy and polluting.”
Horton, the chief commercial officer for Proterra, a U.S.-based manufacturer of electric buses, doesn’t worry about that problem anymore. As recently as five years ago, the idea of mainstreaming electric vehicles, and creating even a small personal car with enough battery life for an American driver, seemed like a far-off scenario. Now, however, with the rise of Tesla, increasing concerns (and actions) over urban pollution, and a budding, if still small, EV marketplace, 100 percent electric buses are not just a reality, but, as Horton sees it, are ready to takeover the market.
“We believe buses will be the first market to go 100 percent electric,” he says.
While that’s the confidence one would expect out of a salesman, his optimism is also supported by rapidly advancing technology and big bumps in sales. In 2017, Proterra has seen major cities begin to go electric in a major way, with Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, and New York purchasing electric buses for their fleets. Dallas, located in deep-red Texas, has become one of Proterra’s biggest clients. He believes almost 10 percent of new U.S. bus sales will be electric this year, and that electric buses will become a best practice in the industry. And that’s just in the U.S.; China purchased 20,000 electric buses last year.
Electric buses cost upward of $700,000, significantly more than their diesel peers, but Horton says the fuel savings and lower maintenance costs, which save $400,000 over the lifetime of the vehicle, make them cheaper long-term investments.
“We believe transportation will change dramatically over the next 10 years, and think electric buses will be a viable, critical piece of the transportation industry,” he says. “EVs will be seen as the workhorses. Think how this can impact other city fleets, from maintenance crews to garbage trucks.”
An increasing number of transit agencies agree. Terry Williams works for the San Joaquin Regional Transit District in California, which includes the city of Stockton. Located in the Central Valley, the region has some of the worst pollution in the state, as air becomes trapped by the surrounding mountains. It made sense for the agency to adopt electric buses a few years ago, and using grants from the state, it installed a pair of chargers in the central transit hub in Stockton.
Recently, it kicked off the country’s first all-electric-bus rapid-transit route, creating a high-speed means of getting between the city and Arch-Airport Road via a special roadway giving the buses right of way. Bus rapid transit, when done well, like Los Angeles’ Orange Line, can create high-speed public transport for a fraction of the cost of light rail. Adding electric power to the mix makes it a cleaner, potentially greener alternative for cities.
“People feel alternative systems like light rail are more attractive,” Williams says. “But with BRT, you can create a transit route that’s almost as efficient as light rail, at the fraction of the cost.”
There are still plenty of perception issues to fight, as well as the preference for personal vehicles. But there’s just no way to reduce noise, emissions, and traffic with single-passenger vehicles. And buses, especially electric ones, offer enormous economic advantages, Williams says.
Displacing the driver and dispersing the route
Many transit experts believe that electric buses become even more valuable when combined with AV technology. These vehicles can charge on their own when not in use, and operate on flexible routes based on passenger demand. And, Tumlin adds, they can help cities pay for bigger and better transit systems, since 40 to 80 percent of transit operating costs are labor.
More importantly, this new generation of vehicles can change how we think of shared mobility. A bus, perhaps, may not even need to be what we normally consider a bus; instead of a fleet composed of larger vehicles on fixed routes, adding smaller autonomous shuttles as a kind of feeder system opens up the possibility of a network as responsive as an app-hailed driver, yet still public and efficient.
Chris Pauly is the director of business development for Navya, a French company that manufactures autonomous shuttles (and just opened up a U.S. factory in Michigan). The company currently has 57 shuttles operating around the world, and has transported a quarter of a million passengers in vehicles without drivers.
He says the company’s vehicles aren’t competing with traditional transit, or even operating on what we would think of as traditional routes across busy city neighborhoods, but instead complementing traditional transit, working on campuses, business parks, and small trial routes. Smaller, niche vehicles can solve the last-mile problem and augment existing rail and bus lines, giving them more value by offering a service that, in the end, is more personalized.
Navya vehicles run smaller routes on campuses, in specific developments, and in controlled travel areas. But Pauly and others have a vision of a more expansive system. Imagine a hub-and-spoke system, operating day and night, and rolling itself into a charging station when it needs more power. Much of the technology is already developed or in development—think of it as borrowing from the advances of ride-hailing services—and tech companies are already at work on creating apps that connect on-demand services with city transit systems, such as MaaS Global (mobility as a service), a Finnish concept that knits together different urban transportation networks to create a single solution to urban mobility.
These smaller, microtransit services face many challenges. Some recent attempts at kickstarting these services, such as Ford’s Chariot system and Bridj, an on-demand busing service, have stumbled or shut down. But that hasn’t deterred cities from trying: Austin tested out the Pickup app last year, and Los Angeles recently announced plans to start its own micro-transit system with the help of a private partner.
Transportation is moving fast, Pauly says, but technology is moving a lot faster than the regulatory environment. Cities need to both embrace and set the rules for transit.
“AV will add more flexibility to serve more riders,” says Hiott. “There are a lot of policy questions that need to be answered as AVs become part of our world.”
The route to better bus service
As technology continues to shift transportation systems, it becomes even more important that cities make it a point to take control, says Tumlin. Electric vehicles, autonomous technology, and driverless shuttles could all combine to create a new vision of what bus service looks like, operating more quickly and more efficiently without the infrastructure investments needed to expand light rail. These kinds of changes could even include making public rights of way for dedicated AV shuttles (increasing traffic congestion hurts the performance and public adoption of buses). But that means public transit agencies and cities need to take the lead, expand investment in technology, and favor the most space-efficient modes of transportation.
“Street capacity is a limited renewable resource,” he says. “We need to manage all our limited resources to achieve the public good.”
7 Nov 2017 https://www.wired.com/story/la-rideshare-public-transit/
…Now, the sort of on-demand transit Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing companies have made so popular might finally make it to the masses—maybe even to those without smartphones or bank accounts. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority just announced it’s looking for a friend to help it build an on-demand transit program, which would supplement the services the agency already runs.
Metro kept its demands vague in the interest of sparking creative solutions, but it does have a sense of the sort of experimental service it would like to roll out in 2018: You’d use a smartphone app or phone call to beckon a ride from a smaller vehicle, something between a sedan and a full-size bus, which you would share with other riders. That vehicle would run on the same kind of platform you’ll find on UberPOOL, or Lyft Line, dynamically creating routes based on where customers are and where they want to go. You might have to walk a block or two to an assigned pickup and drop-off point (a “virtual bus stop”), but the ride should come with a free transfer if your next move is a bus or train ride. You’d pay a subsidized, fixed-rate fee that’s competitive with today’s ride-sharing services, and would be able to take these vehicles wherever you want within the pilot’s service area.
Yes, on-demand service is finally coming to public transit, and it could reshape the way Americans get around. Just in time too. American cities are growing, traffic is getting worse, emissions are surging, and public transit systems are suffering from years of underfunding and neglect. (LA has poured money into improving its system but has seen a 16 percent drop in bus ridership in the past three years.) On-demand, shared microtransit might gift entire cities with faster, cost effective service and move drivers out of personal cars.
Or it could be the latest shiny object (oh hey, hyperloop) distracting from the time- and work-intensive solutions needed to fix city travel ills, such as better payment systems, upgraded trains and vehicles, more frequent service, and road pricing schemes.
LA thinks it’s worth a shot. “We can’t sit idly by and see new technologies come and go without trying to figure out how they fit into the public transit landscape,” says Joshua Schank, the chief innovation officer at LA Metro’s extraordinarily named Office of Extraordinary Innovation.
And yes, so many details are up in the air. The agency can’t say where the pilot will happen, though it will probably be confined to one part of the county. It doesn’t know how much an on-demand trip will cost or how much the agency will spend on the service. It wants unionized drivers to be behind the wheels of the vehicles, but it’s not committed to the idea. The pilot could run up to four years, or maybe fewer. LA Metro will say that if the experiment is a success—if it proves a cost-effective way to move many people around the city—it will think about making the service permanent all over the county.
Proponents see this type of public-private partnership as the key to a new kind of public transit service, where agencies are more like travel agents (remember those?) than airlines. “We want to see transit agencies become mobility conveners and brokers,” says Sharon Feigon, the executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, which promotes relationships between agencies and private mobility companies. “They should run the trains and buses as they always have and continue to improve and accelerate those by being a mobility convener. The idea is that they become the organizer of all that and ensure they’re all connected to each other.” For example: use your bus fare card to access the bikeshare docks near your stop; take a publicly subsidized Lyft ride to the closest carshare lot and climb inside.
But there are pitfalls, and we know about them because Los Angeles is not the first city to experiment with microtransit. In Kansas City, a one-year pilot program sent agency-owned vans driven by agency-employed drivers to pick up passengers along routes calculated on the fly. It canned the experiment in March, after just one year, since just 1,480 people tried it out of a city of 2 million. Public officials concluded they hadn’t advertised enough. In San Francisco, the private, Ford-owned van service Chariot has gotten into scrapes with local transit authorities because drivers idle in bus stops and in the middle of the street. If you’re going to have microtransit, you gotta find safe places for vehicles to park.
You have to teach your residents to use the services too. St. Petersburg, Florida’s Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is still running a pilot program that connects residents with Uber and taxi rides for bus-equivalent fares, but it discovered soon after it launched the program in February 2016 that it needed to do more than set up a few billboards. “Our ridership is transit-dependent, with minimum wage incomes, so they’re not familiar with Uber because they haven’t used it before,” Christopher Cochran, the senior planner who oversaw the project, told WIRED in April. (He has since left the agency.) “You need to educate the people on how to use Uber and why that’s the best choice.” His agency ended up creating leaflets that taught residents how to use the app.
Then there’s the money question. “Transit’s real strength is economies of scale, carrying large numbers of people in a very straight line from place to place,” says David Bragdon, the executive director of the think tank TransitCenter. “I think the caution of this proposal is, how could it possibly be economical?” On-demand paratransit, transit services that agencies must legally provide to disabled and senior riders, accounted for a whopping 12 percent of all American transit spending in 2013.
If ambitious private transportation companies believe they can get all sorts of people around traffic-choked LA County quickly and cheaply—well, this is the time to step up. LA Metro starts accepting proposals October 25.
- Aarian Marshall breaks down what went wrong during the microtransit experiment in Kansas City—and why it might have been a success anyway
- Hosting the Olympics could be a golden opportunity for Los Angeles to fix its public transportation system
- Alex Davies outlines what New York City will need to repair its struggling subway—and it’s more than a $1 billion check
The Bus is Back: Salem experiments with an on-demand bus
31 October 2017, Salem, Oregon Business
Salem’s experiment with on-demand bus service didn’t work out, but the innovative service yielded valuable lessons for future transit projects.
More people might ride buses if they worked like Uber. That was the thinking behind PSU planning student Matt Berggren’s flexible on-demand bus plan for a 2.4-square-mile affluent neighborhood in West Salem.
Cherriots, Salem’s transit agency, asked PSU’s planning master’s program to solve its West Salem transit woes. Over five months in 2014, Berggren and several classmates designed the Connector as their second-year workshop project.
The transit agency later hired Berggren as a transit planner, and in June 2015 implemented his plan as a pilot program. It was an elegant idea: Cherriots overlaid a “battleship grid” of stops in the neighborhood. Users requested rides through a smartphone app, website or by phone. Once an hour, a driver in a 14-seater cutaway bus collected ride requests. Using an iPad equipped with Demand Trans software, the driver charted a course.
A Connector driver uses Demand Trans software to plot a route
If running an on-demand bus network sounds like a headache, that’s because it is. As a Salem-Keizer planner, Berggren juggled competing bookings, anemic ridership and other challenges until the Cherriots board voted to discontinue his system. Cherriots will replace the Connector in January 2018 with fixed-route buses.
The project wasn’t a loss, however. Berggren has shared two years of insights with transit agencies around the country: LA Metro, ODOT and the City of Sacramento. The Los Angeles transit agency recently requested proposals for a “microtransit” Connector-like system.
“People call all the time to ask about it,” Berggren said. “I’ve talked to 30 or 40 agencies over the past few years.”
On a Connector ride through the hills of West Salem, Berggren and I talked about the Connector experiment, and the lessons learned.
The conundrum: On-demand bus systems are an attractive option for suburban residents, but they also need density to pencil out.
We took the 17, a fixed-route bus, to the Glen Creek “Transit Center”: two glass booths outside a strip mall. This was the gateway to West Salem.
Before the Connector, some West Salem residents waited nearly two hours for a bus. They walked uphill for a half-mile or so through a neighborhood built for automobiles: large, two-car garages flanking affluent homes perched on wide lots. The last time one of these neighborhoods, Eola, had bus service was in 2009.
The Cherriots board thought the Connector fit West Salem, board President Robert Krebs said, because of the area’s low density, narrow streets, and non-grid-based street pattern.
But with only one bus, the Connector booked up too quickly.
Theoretically, riders could book a trip up to 30 minutes in advance. In reality, if one person a half hour away from the Transit Center requested a ride two weeks in advance, subsequent riders faced a trip of at least an hour.
“People who book two weeks in advance or are subscribers end up creating this custom route for two or three people,” Berggren said.
The Connector is smaller than Cherriots’ fixed-route buses
On-demand transit works best in dense urban cores, with faster turnover between trips. That’s why Uber started in San Francisco.
While a Connector would work well in downtown San Francisco, rural areas are in dire need of flexible transit systems. Several Oregon public officials called Berggren asking how to adapt his system for rural routes. He said it would suffer from the same booking challenges.
Krebs said an on-demand network could work in South Salem, a neighborhood that has seen increased development but still lacks good transit coverage.
“I think it has a purpose,” Krebs said. “But it’s for areas with very light traffic.”
Map from Connector evaluation showing the most-used stops
A few people depend on it
On average, about four people board the Connector every hour. During our 20-minute ride, we picked up and dropped off two riders.
At least 13,275 people have ridden the connector since it began. The flexible bus service sees about 52 boardings daily, compared to estimates of around 86 boardings for the fixed-route buses that served the same area.
Do West Salem residents who can afford cars opt for the Connector? Berggren answered with a resounding “No.”
“Essentially everyone wants a car,” he said. “We had nowhere near the level of service to compete with the private automobile.”
A Connector driver
I spoke with a housekeeper who schedules rides between job sites. Like her, 54% of Connector users ride to and from work. Another third are high school students, whose only public transit option is the Connector.
“It’s a low ridership, but these people need the service,” Krebs said.
Others are non transit-dependent senior citizens going to the library or store.
“A lot of the riders I talk to they ride once every three months,” Berggren said. “Like if they have a doctor’s appointment or their car broke.”
A flexible route provokes anxiety in some riders…
At one stop, we spotted a thin pole with a Connector sign. Cherriots had to add the poles because riders got stressed out just standing on a curb with no signage, Berggren said.
Cherriots also started taking walk-ons every hour at the Glen Creek Transit Center and sending texts five minutes before rides.
“Flexed route service has a little more angst to it than fixed route,” Krebs said.
Picture a continuum with “freedom” plotted on one side, and “certainty” on the other. The Connector experiment proved that most people hug the “certainty” end of this spectrum. Though it’s nice to request a ride whenever you want, it’s better to know the bus will come no matter what every 15 minutes.
“Wherever we could we put certainty into this thing,” Berggren said.
…But it also feels cool to ride
Berggren hails from Chicago, where he said people judged you for taking the bus instead of the train. At school in Portland, he found a different culture.
“In Portland, people are respected for taking the bus and biking,” Berggren said. “Salem hasn’t really gotten to that point. There’s still a stigma for some people.”
In some ways, with its iPad software and mobile booking options, the Connector overcomes that stigma. In other ways, users feel less valued than they did on fixed-route. They have to wait longer for service. They can’t travel on a whim.
“Is this a premium service or a last mile service for people who really need it?” Berggren said. “We struggled trying to define that.”
Cherriots downtown transit center, where the fixed-route 17 departs for Glen Creek
Rebranding the bus might not require iPads and apps. It could be as easy as providing better fixed-route service.
Around $7 million in funding from the recently passed $5.3 billion state transportation package will “change everything,” for Cherriots, Berggren said. The agency will put the money toward Saturday, Sunday and evening service; 15-minute service in more areas; and computer aided dispatch for real-time tracking and electronic fare options.
Flexible transit is not yet cost-effective
The Connector costs $234,352 to operate, compared to $365,277 for the planned fixed-route replacement. Cherriots saved money by using smaller buses and contracting labor to a private company.
Taking ridership into account, however, a fixed-route system proves more efficient.
Connector Costs and Efficiency
Total operating cost
Boardings per revenue hour
Cost to Cherriots per ride
As with most U.S. bus systems, about 10% of the Connector’s funding comes from fares, the rest from taxpayer dollars paid into a general transit fund.
Adding another bus would solve many of the Connector’s problems, but that would pull too much money away from Cherriots buses that serve more riders per hour.
“If we kept adding service, since we’re subsidizing it so heavily with tax dollars, we would just blow our budget immediately,” Berggren said.
“Being innovative is not a reason to use a service,” Berggren. “You have to think about the needs of your riders. If you can get what you want out of Fixed-route, or just a smaller bus, that’s way easier to manage.”
With adaptations, bus on demand may work.
Berggren hopes the transit agencies that receive his report will find a way to make on-demand bus service work. As the LA Metro RFP suggest, the experiment has already gained traction.
“The thought is spread that knowledge around and eventually it will come back to us,” he said.
Follow me next week as I learn about expansion of the Columbia Gorge Express and other transit routes.
Click here to read “The Bus is Back, Week 1: Eugene expands ‘Emerald Express’ Bus Rapid Transit System”