Will Driverless Taxis Kill Public Transit?

©. Aprilli Design Studio

In Ottawa, Canada, self-driving cars are being touted as a reason to delay transit investment.

We've complained for years that autonomous vehicles would be used as an excuse to delay or kill transit projects, writing Who needs transit when you've got the Google Car coming down the road? As Emily Badger wrote in the New York Times,

In Indianapolis, Detroit and Nashville, opponents of major transit investments have argued that buses and trains will soon seem antiquated. In Silicon Valley, politicians have suggested something better and cheaper is on the way. As New York’s subway demands repairs, futurists have proposed paving over all that rail instead for underground highways.

And now, in Ottawa, Canada, Barrie Kirk of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence wants the city to hit pause on an investment in Light Rapid Transit. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen:

AVs will be very disruptive and are expected to lead to affordable driverless taxis...Transit and transportation in the future will be significantly different from the last few decades. Driverless taxis, or “micro transit,” will provide trips that are on-demand, and offer flexible routing and single-mode trips door-to-door. Some percentage of riders will prefer this to fixed-schedule, fixed-route and typically multi-mode trips.

There are so many problems with this, the main one being that AVs don't exist. Even the head of Volvo says people are overstating their capabilities. Quoted in the Financial Times,

Hakan Samuelsson said it was “irresponsible” to put autonomous vehicles on the road if they were not sufficiently safe, because that would erode trust among the public and regulators.

TreeHugger also recently quoted the head of Volkswagen, who compared them to a manned mission to Mars:

You need latest-generation mobile infrastructure everywhere, as well as high-definition digital maps that are constantly updated. And you still need near-perfect road markings,” he explained. This will only be the case in very few cities. And even then, the technology will only work in ideal weather conditions. If there are large puddles on the road in heavy rain, that’s already a factor forcing a driver to intervene.

Anyone who lives in Ottawa is going to wonder what Barrie Kirk is going on about; this was what it looked like just four days ago. More importantly, even if they do exist, they cannot replace transit; they simply don't have the capacity. As Jarrett Walker noted,

Technology never changes facts of geometry. However successful driverless cars become, transit will remain crucial for dense cities because cities are defined by a shortage of space per person. Mass transit, where densities are high enough to support it, is an immensely efficient use of space.

space comparison uber and AV

© Jon Orcutt

AVs take up just as much space as conventional cars, and even Ottawa gets traffic jams.

It's possible that in low-density suburbs that cannot support public transit, AVs might be useful – in feeding people to public transit. But right now, they are simply being used to delay or defeat transit by people who don't use transit.

Kirk wants Ottawa to delay its LRT, because "despite all of the background and the publicity about AVs over the last six years, the planning for the LRT has not considered the disruptive impact of AVs on the business case and design."

One might as well say they should delay the project because everyone is moving to Mars.