By Stephen Kurz
Needless to say, two popular and controversial topics at the moment in transportation and urban literature are autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing apps (e.g. Uber). Yes, the possibility of getting to work in your vehicle without the heavy-weighing burden of having to control it yourself is ever closer to becoming a reality. And yes, sharing a ride with someone and paying them a fee is better both for the environment and civic infrastructure than taking your own personal vehicle.
Just like any new technology, ride sharing will open new opportunities, but may also generate new problems. Ride-sharing technologies have already witnessed their fair-share of problems and many concerns continue to arise surrounding the emergence of autonomous vehicles. Both of these fairly new innovations cater to a market that has been called “Mobility-as-a-service.”
Ride-sharing seeks to limit the carbon footprint of passengers since more people are transported per liter of fuel consumed. Autonomous vehicles, if shared, would do the same, minus a driver. Both technologies are on-demand, at-your-door services and advantageous because of convenience. They also seek to provide the same level of comfort as a personal vehicle might (the keyword being “might”).
What is surprising is the fact that these new technologies, as well as the mobility-as-a-service concept, look to serve a purpose that has already been fulfilled, or at least ought to be, by public transit. In fact, public transit is exactly that: mobility-as-a-service. If public transit systems are designed properly, ride-sharing largely becomes obsolete.
First of all, when riding the bus, tram, trolley, or subway, no rider (other than the professionally trained driver) holds the responsibility of controlling the vehicle.
Although transit systems typically do not provide door-to-door on-demand services, a properly designed transit network should have stops or stations placed in locations that are easily accessible for all, making the short stroll to the pickup location a non-issue. Furthermore, an effective public transit system requires a service that is frequent enough that the few minutes one may have to wait are negligible. In this sense, public transit holds many of the same benefits as ride-sharing or autonomous vehicles.
Where public transit often lags behind these innovations is in comfort. People do not feel encouraged to use transit when they are crammed into a vehicle that is scarred with graffiti and the odour of stale beer and sweat and sitting on seats that appear to be designed for people from the Middle Ages. Comfort appears to be a commonly overlooked element in the design of bus interiors and yet its impact on ridership can be significant. Therefore, public transit should not only be convenience, but also comfortable for its users.
This is not to say however, that public transit should not explore these new innovations. Autonomous vehicles and public transit could potentially work hand in hand. In Paris, for example, the city has begun implementing autonomous subway lines -driverless subway trains. Surely, this type of technology could also eventually be applied to bus lines and trams too.
In summary, the main reasons someone would choose a personal vehicle over public transit as a mode of transportation can be boiled down to convenience and comfort. If cities want to prevent the issues that decades of car-focused development have brought upon their communities, transportation innovation needs to be examined and eventually accepted using new priorities, rather than the same ones that brought us to where we are today.