At Per Square Mile, Tim De Chant has an excellent piece on how cities will be shaped by driverless “cars”. You should read the whole thing. He captures many of the pros and cons of the issue, and goes deeper than most. Specifically, he captures one advantage which I think a lot of skeptics in particular miss (emphasis mine):
At some point, though, we’ll start thinking about cars differently. If cars can drive themselves around, passengers or not, what’s the point in owning your own car? Why not lease one from a pool? Welcome to stage four. Schedule it for your daily commute—perhaps with a price break for carpooling—and request one on-demand for more unpredictable needs. If wait times are short enough, it’ll be an attractive proposition….At this point, the lines between private and public transit will start to blur.
“Yes, yes! He’s going there!” I think as I start reading this, “he’s getting past the car-transit divide and discussing what most people miss – “transit” AND “cars” will change!” But then, at the end, there’s this:
Where’s public transit in all of this? That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure anyone has adequately answered. It’ll probably still exist, though in what form I have no clue. Who will ride it is similarly up in the air, but motivations will probably remain the same—time, expense, and convenience. If mass transit can best self-driving cars at one or more of those, it’ll retain its place in the mix.
Bummer. I thought we had something there. Transit has to “best” cars in the future as well. Who will ride it? Well, if it’s cheaper than a “car” and still gets you to your destination in an amount of time reasonable for you, a lot of the same people in the same places will ride it. What Tim (and many others) don’t explore is how transit will change in a future of self-driving vehicles. And this brings me to the post title.
A vehicle pulls up to your house to take to you to work – it’s got four seats, one of which you occupy on your trip to work while the others remain empty. Is it a car? Most people would answer “yes, dummy”.
What if that same vehicle arrived, but the other three seats were filled with some neighbors who happened to work near where you worked? They rode with you to your work, some getting dropped off nearby, others remaining in the vehicle after you left for a longer trip. Is that a car? Most people would probably say “yes, dummy, that’s just carpooling”. Others might recognize this as “transit”.
What if the vehicle that arrived at your house was a larger, say with 10 seats? The route varied slightly every day to pick up passengers depending on their desire (they used their phone or computer to indicate they needed a ride that morning), but usually it took a similar route and you saw the same group of people most days. Is that a car? Now some people are saying, “um, that’s more like transit” or “get away from me with your crazy future”. Clearly lines are getting blurred.
Finally, what if the metropolitan transit agency saw a traffic and/or equity benefit to encouraging people to use shared self-driving van/cars instead of each calling personal vehicles and so they subsidized those types of trips. You usually chose the shared vehicle, which took a little longer, but cost less, only calling a personal car for special occasions or when you were in a rush. Is that a car or is it transit?
Tim does identify how self-driving vehicles will vary:
Today, vehicles are sold on the strength of their quality and features. Tomorrow, subscriptions to vehicles will be sold based on the reach and availability of their network.⁴ Within each network there will certainly be a wide-variety of vehicles available depending on how much you’re willing to pay.
But he still usually talks about “cars”. A wide variety of vehicles will mean you can share rides or not, trips may be longer, but could cost less. I can imagine car companies offering “fixed” routes that operate in certain areas, at certain times with lots of seats, but at very low prices.
Clearly many are stuck on a transit-car divide. You’re with one and against the other. The potential benefits of robot cars make transit supporters cringe because we don’t want anything to make the car more appealing. But what if both could be improved – transit could cost less to operate and be faster while we build and have to own a lot fewer cars and don’t use our downtowns as giant parking lots. The age of the self-driving vehicle (not just car) could mean a lot of positive changes for transit, as well as cars, if we plan it that way. If you define transit as at least two people sharing a ride, I wager we see a lot more transit in the future.
(As with any robot car post, I must note that I understand the many potential downsides. Many of these are based on policy decisions, not necessarily the adoption of robot cars. Let’s be careful moving forward).