I want to talk about something a little bit different for my last week of going car-free - what the “Texas of Tomorrow” could look like.
On Tuesday I attended an Automated Vehicle Briefing hosted by Stantec, Mobility E3, and Chad Edwards, the City of Fort Worth Innovation Officer. It was an exciting discussion about what sort of Autonomous projects are currently happening in the US and what that might look like here in Fort Worth. Now, I’m certainly no transit expert, I’ve just sat in a few lectures, but I wanted to share my thoughts on this new technology.
A big, bright Autonomous Future
It’s no secret that transit ridership is on the decline, with ridership lower in 2016 than it was in 2006 in some cities. If buses aren’t popular and trains are expensive, it makes sense that many cities are being lured by the siren song of autonomous vehicles to help solve their transportation woes.
Allow me to put on my space goggles for a second and envision the“Texas of Tomorrow” - How fantastic would it be to no longer worry about a car payment or servicing your family vehicles? How great to be able to get around town if you are elderly, or have mobility issues, or are inebriated and shouldn’t drive(with air-conditioning to boot)? Think of all of the space for activities(or more boxes of stuff & things) you would have without a vehicle in your currently occupied garage! What if your apartment complex had a certain number of vehicles you could check out like a bike share bike? Or retirement communities? Or hospitals? Or large corporate campuses? Or universities? In the urban core, think of all of those surface parking lots suddenly become developable real estate. Our city could become denser, more walkable, and the first mile/ last mile issue becomes a thing of the past. Technology for the win!
Will it Replace Public Transit?
However, I don’t think it is reasonable to assume that small, privately owned autonomous vehicles will be the solution that replaces public transportation. While these smaller vehicles certainly solve the first mile / last mile problem mass-transit faces, like uber, they don’t exactly do much to solve congestion issues. From a person-per-square-foot perspective, nothing is as efficient as a bus or train in moving a great number of people from point A to point B. Instead, might I propose a system where trains and busses act as the main arteries that connect city center to city center, neighborhood to neighborhood, with autonomous micro-transit shuttles branching off to get you to that final destination. Heck, we could even automate the busses.
Its all about The Money
However, as far as I can tell, all of these projects are still in the testing phase, and no public or private entity has really figured out how to pay for a full-time AV service. While the technology is here, and beginning to improve, it seems like the question of funding is our modern-day elephant in our virtually hologramed, 3D-Printed room.
But won’t AV save us money? Depends on who this“us” is that you ask about. Currently, the largest expense of a transit system’ operating costs is labor. At the moment, there are very few vehicles out there that are at “level 4” that allows them to drive without a human. Additionally, in most places where AV pilot projects are happening, you have to have a paid human in the vehicle, just to make sure everyone is safe, to encourage buy-in from robot-weary passengers, and to avoid the liability associated with the“who does the robot car murder” conundrum. All that being said, eventually it could mean that we remove drivers from the equation (which takes away jobs), which would potentially save the city or the transit provider money. But does that guarantee that the savings will be passed on to the user? Who really wins in this scenario?
The Problem with Private
Relying on private companies to provide transit services has its risks as well, as we are beginning to see with the communities that rely heavily on Uber for their primary transit services. Investing more in private companies over our public services has the potential to undermine the existing public transit system. Starting to move your city’s investment dollars to private companies means less money to support current public infrastructure which leads it to further decay. Private companies require making a profit, so they squeeze the cities for more money or increase fares to the detriment of the most fragile in our community. People who once relied on buses to get around the city, and then AVs, suddenly find themselves stranded in their neighborhoods when their bus route is terminated due to lack of funding and the AV company increases fares once again.
This scenario is worth considering, especially since we have already seen a similar situation take place with all of the privately owned streetcars that used to cross the city of Fort Worth streets. Let’s just say that history has a tendency to repeat itself, and we need to tread lightly when thinking about where to place our next city investment dollar.
So, where does that leave us?
We have an exciting road ahead of us and I dream of the day that it makes sense for me to totally get rid of my personal vehicle and enjoy the myriad of options available. With smart and considerate investment that not only takes into account our city’s budget, but also the needs of our community, that dream could be achieved. Just removing drivers isn’t going to solve our connectivity issues. We owe it to our community to continue to make incremental improvements as these futuristic options prove themselves in the testing grounds, and to not wait for future tech to ensure that the current system works for our collective needs. Autonomous Vehicles could absolutely work in the City of Fort Worth, but only if it actually serves the needs of our community.
Opportunities for YOU to engage
If you are interested in learning more about what the city is planning for the future of transportation in our region, I highly recommend you take a look at TransitMovesFortWorth.com. This website is where the City’s Transportation Task Force and Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates have posted their findings and will post their proposals. They also have some upcoming Public Engagement Meetings on May 22nd and 23rd that you should absolutely attend. Find out more by clicking on the button below.
Car-Free Counter - 04/26/2019 Miles Walked = 45.7 mi Bus Rides = 17 Rides Received / TNC Rides = 41