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How Will Self-Driving Cars Affect Public Transit and Public Transportation?


How Will Self-Driving Cars Affect Public Transit?

Recently, Google's self-driving car celebrated it's 1,000,000th mile with no at-fault accidents. Nevada and California have recently passed laws allowing for self-driving cars, with other states sure to follow. While it may take ten to fifteen years for self-driving cars to become commonplace, the fact that the long-range plans of most transit agencies reach out to thirty years means that we need to start taking this into account now by answering the question: how will self-driving cars affect public transit?

Self-Driving Cars From the Demand Side

Self-driving cars will likely reduce the demand for public transit by providing a means of transportation for groups of people - seniors, disabled , and the young - who currently take transit because they are unable to drive. Due to the expense of automobiles and self-driving automobiles in general, despite the availability of an alternate to transit many senior, disabled, and young people will continue to take transit due the expense of owning a car.

Self-driving cars will also reduce demand for transit by making taxis significantly cheaper. Cheaper taxis will certainly attract demand for transit, especially for shorter trips. While self-driving transit vehicles will also be cheaper to operate, since transit fares already make up such a low percentage of the total cost of operating transit and savings in operation costs will likely be reflected by lower government subsidies.

Self-Driving Cars From the Supply Side

In the transit industry, self-guided rapid transit is not new, extending from self-guided systems in Vancouver, Lille (France), London and other places with no onboard personnel at all to systems that are technically self-guided in San Francisco and Washington (D.C.) but have employees at the control for reasons of safety redundancy or union regulations. Assuming self-guided buses will be technically possible, what kind of issues could arise?

Fare Payment

Due to the limited space aboard a bus, it seems unlikely that fare gates - the usual method of enforcing fare payment in the absence of a coach operator - would be able to be installed. As such, while on-board fare payment in the form of a farebox or a ticket vending machine could still be available, enforcement would need to be done by roving fare inspectors.

Identifying Passengers at the Bus Stop

While the bus would probably be able to scan the sidewalk for pedestrians, it may prove difficult for the bus to identify pedestrians who would like to take the bus. One would assume a heuristic would be implemented which would tell the bus to stop if anyone is within a certain distance of the bus stop. Depending on the distance chosen, the bus may either pass up passengers or unnecessarily stop at a stop, causing delays to the service. To avoid this problem, self-driving buses may be directed to stop at every stop like a rapid transit line.

New Modes of Transit

Without the cost of an operator, self-driving vehicles allow for new forms of transit. For example, dial-a-ride services, previously unaffordable, could become widespread in areas that do not have enough demand for conventional transit.


Overall, there appear to be no technical obstacles for the adoption of self-driving vehicles in the transit industry. However, the widespread adoption of this technology is likely to encounter union opposition, as union jobs would be of course threatened by vehicles that do not need drivers. As opposition is likely to publicly revolve around issues of safety, it would likely require the acceptance by the general public of self-driving cars before self-driving buses could be put into service by transit agencies. Even so, the labor issues suggest that it may take a financial crisis before transit agencies could implement this technology, as unions are not likely to allow any reduction in the labor force absent a catastrophe.

While the reduction in labor costs in theory should allow for transit expansion, continuing pressure on government budgets makes it more likely that the reduction in labor costs will allow for a reduction in government subsidies - thereby keeping service levels the same at a higher farebox recovery.

Eventually self-driving cars and taxis will reduce demand for transit by providing alternative, perhaps more convenient, modes of transportation for people who are currently transit dependent. As a result, the socioeconomic status of transit passengers in all places except large cities with severe congestion problems is likely to be even lower than it is now.

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