Autonomous Shuttles Are Beginning to Close Real Transit Gaps + LAX Considers No Security Lines for Transit Riders

Smart Cities Dive, Feb 2020

Programs in Ohio and Arizona are showing signs that the technology could be a real-world solution to first-mile, last-mile gaps in traditional city transportation offerings, like buses and light rail. BY SKIP DESCANT / FEBRUARY 19, 2020, Govt Tech

An electric, autonomous shuttle sits outside the Smart Columbus Experience Center in downtown Columbus, Ohio, in August 2019. Columbus has launched a second AV shuttle program along a 2.9-mile route in a residential neighborhood.

Small self-driving shuttles are evolving from being a piece of shiny demonstration technology to serving real transit needs and providing transportation to destinations like grocery stores and community centers.

The autonomous Linden LEAP launched in Columbus this month — LEAP is shorthand for Linden Empowers All People — serving a roughly 3-mile route through the Linden neighborhood. Two electric shuttles serve the route, with another to join the fleet in about a month, said Alyssa N. Chenault, communications project manager for Smart Columbus. 

“The primary goal of the pilot is to pilot self-driving technology in a neighborhood setting,” said Chenault. “The secondary goal of the project is to provide and first-mile, last-mile solution to connect residents to community resources.”

The Linden neighborhood project follows an autonomous shuttle demonstration route which circulated through downtown. That project concluded in September 2019 and provided more than 15,000 rides.  

Another autonomous shuttle is set to launch this week in Peoria, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. Known as Robo Ride, the free shuttle will run a one-mile route in the city’s entertainment district, operating from noon to 6 p.m. daily for a two-month pilot. The 10-person shuttles are manufactured by NAVYA, a French company. The project will be managed by Beep, an autonomous vehicle technology provider in Florida.

Both of the shuttle programs in Ohio and Arizona will include onboard human operators.  “This program is designed to understand the feasibility of using autonomous vehicles alongside current transportation options as well as ridership adoption behaviors and patterns,” said Kristina Perez, communications manager for the city of Peoria.

The Columbus shuttle program will include stops at locations like the Rosewind Estates Community Center, a centralized stop in a dense public housing community; Douglas Recreation Center, which provides access to activities like basketball, swimming and leadership training; St. Stephen’s Community House, which provides day care services, homework help, food pantry, health care and senior breakfast, said Chenault. 

The shuttles in Columbus operate much like those in Peoria and other cities: electric EVs which can accommodate about a dozen passengers and travel roughly 20 mph. The shuttles used in Columbus are manufactured by EasyMile.

EmpowerBus, a local mobility startup, is managing the operations of the vehicles including hiring eight operators to serve as customer service ambassadors to ride on the shuttle, assist passengers, and be able to take control of the vehicle should they need to,” Chenault explained.

The city of Columbus is taking the lead on the project, which is being funded by the 2016 U.S. Department of Transportation Challenge grant to create a smart transportation system. 

“The LEAP brings us one step closer to addressing the mobility challenges that many of our residents face each day,” said Marilyn Mehaffie, CEO of St. Stephen’s Community House, in a statement.

Skip Descant

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

Los Angeles considers plan to let transit riders skip lines at LAX

Credit: AECOM

Jason Plautz@Jason_Plautz Feb. 20, 2020

  • The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to advance exploration of a plan that would give travelers priority at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) security checkpoints​, if they arrive by public transit. 
  • The vote directs Los Angeles World Airports, the authority that oversees LAX, to write a report on the feasibility of establishing such a program. Under the motion from Councilman Bob Blumenfield, the priority entry could apply to people arriving by Metro rail and buses, the LAX Flyaway bus and privately-operated scheduled bus services. 
  • Boston’s Logan International Airport implemented a similar plan in May 2019, and within months ridership on the Logan Express bus from the Back Bay doubled compared to the previous year. Fares for that bus also decreased.

As traffic at LAX has increased in recent years — passenger volume boomed from 63.7 million in 2012 to 87.5 million in 2018, according to the Los Angeles Times​ — the airport has explored strategies to reduce congestion,  such as eliminating curbside pickup for Uber and Lyft. The airport is also constructing an automated people mover to help with congestion, but it will mean cutting some 30% of inner-lane curb space currently used for pickups and dropoffs.  The 2.5-mile elevated system will feature electric driverless cars, which will carry passengers between a light-rail station, terminals, a transportation center and a consolidated rental car facility, according to the Los Angeles Times. The system is expected to be operational in 2023. LAX will pay for $3.8 billion of the project from airport revenue, and LINXS will pick up the balance through an issuance of tax-exempt bonds. LINXS won the contract, one of the biggest in city history, by submitting a bid that was 4% less than airport officials estimated and $700 million less than other firms bidding on the project. LAX will then make annual payments to LINXS as part of the 25-year operations and maintenance contract.

Blumenfield told Smart Cities Dive that his proposal is part of an “ongoing effort to promote transit and be smarter about how our city operates, while dealing with the existing problem of heavy congestion at LAX.” He added that the “common-sense proposal” has received mostly positive reviews, despite some grumbling from people who don’t want to be cut in line. 

“Congestion is so bad at that central terminal that if we can get more cars out of there, it not only helps the people taking transit, but also those who have to drive through there for whatever reason,” Blumenfield said. 

Details of the plan — including what transit will be eligible for the privilege and how it would work — still have to be discussed, if LAX deems it viable. At Boston’s Logan Airport, passengers get a special voucher that gives them permission to bypass security lines. The program has been so successful that it was extended to ferry and water taxi passengers, and transit officials are considering other dedicated express bus routes, according to the Boston Globe

The plan also comes as Los Angeles is working to overhaul its notoriously car-focused transportation network ahead of the 2028 Olympics, both to accommodate more visitors and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The city’s Vision 2028 plan calls for improving bus travel speeds, increasing opportunities for rail transit and improving connectivity across modes.

Mayor Eric Garcetti also signed an executive directive this month to kick off action on a Green New Deal plan that includes a commitment to increase transit speeds 30% by 2028. 

SMART CITIES DIVE LAX to stop curbside pickup for Uber, Lyft