Good question: “What Will Happen to Public Transit in a World Full of Autonomous Cars?”

The fate of mass transit is unclear in a world of all autonomous cars:

The question of what they’ll mean for transit was actually on the program this year at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington, where several thousand transportation officials and researchers met to talk about state-of-the-art asphalts, biker behavior, and the infrastructure of the future. In one packed session, I heard Jerome Lutin, a retired longtime New Jersey Transit planner, say something that sounded almost like blasphemy.

“We’re just wringing our hands, and we’re going to object to this,” he warned the room. “But the transit industry needs to promote shared-use autonomous cars as a replacement for transit on many bus routes and for service to persons with disabilities.”…

The implication in this raises (at least) two more questions: Exactly where (and when) will it make sense for people to use buses or rail instead of autonomous cars? And if autonomous cars come to supplement these services, should transit agencies get into the business of operating them? In my initial daydream – where shared self-driving cars are whisking us all about – it’s unclear exactly who owns and manages them.

Lutin sounds skeptical that transit agencies will be able to move into this space. “They don’t adapt well to change,” he says. They’re also governed by rigid mandates that limit what they can do. A mass transit agency can’t overnight start operating something that looks like a taxi service. Public agencies also must contend with labor unions, and labor unions likely won’t like the idea of replacing bus routes with autonomous cars.

This does seem to trade a public good – mass transit paid for by taxpayers and users – for private goods, autonomous cars owned by individual users. While we haven’t seen prices for driverless cars yet, I can’t imagine they are going to be too cheap at the beginning. Even a less appointed driverless car, say a Chevrolet Aveo, is going to need more complicated gadgetry to be autonomy. But, as this planner notes, Americans do tend to like more private transit options if they can afford it.

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