Self-described “transit geeks” from around the world are starting to think about driverless cars, and what they might mean for their vision of a less car-dependent world. Ron Kilcoyne, manager of a public transport system in Eugene, Oregon, has some interesting points to make, though not ones I would all necessarily accept.
I agree with one of his most fundamental points – that no matter how much more efficiently driverless cars will make traffic flow, conventionally sized vehicles carrying a single person can never be as efficient a use of space as bicycles, heavily loaded public transport, or pedestrians. But that doesn’t mean that current transit architectures will continue to make sense in a world where all motorized transport is controlled by computers rather than a person. While a detailed analysis of the possibilities would be a very large work and will undoubtedly be made to look foolish by history, there are some fairly obvious examples of how the relative advantages of transit, and transit modes, are altered by autonomous vehicles.
For instance, minibuses are not heavily used by public transit systems in most of the developed world – though they are ubiquitous in some parts of Asia. While transport unions and the taxi companies play some part in this, it’s basically a simple question of economics. If you have to pay a bus driver, you may as well pay for a bus that can take large numbers of people. If the bus driver is no longer part of the equation, smaller vehicles that match demand better, and allow more point-to-point runs, might make more sense.
Or, to take another example, if buses can run in tightly-spaced platoons, the capacity per unit of space advantages of trains are rather less compelling than they once were.
On the other hand, if mode-shifting becomes less of an issue, minimising congestion might well mean that transit of one form or another into really heavily trafficked areas – CBD’s, for instance – will become even more popular than it already is.
One thing’s almost certain. When they arrive, driverless taxis will render obsolete the irregular and minimally-patronized bus services of the outer suburbs catering for those too young, old, poor, or otherwise unable to drive themselves.