AVs have real potential to provide easier and more convenient transportation options for people. They have the potential to provide seniors and the disabled access to the world outside of their homes in ways that are now often too expensive to widely adopt. The cost for paratransit, provided by public transit systems, is quite expensive. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that ADA compliant paratransit costs an average of $29.30 per trip in 2010, this is “an estimated three and a half times more expensive than the average cost of $8.15 to provide a fixed-route trip.” And the GAO additionally reports that the cost of paratransit increased by 10% from 2007 to 2010. Consequently, ADA paratransit has the potential to greatly benefit from AVs—which we presume will have substantially lower operating expenses. In the current model of public transit operating expenses are roughly twice that of the capital expenses. And while operating expenses are likely to drop dramatically if we no longer need drivers for paratransit, there still may be a need for assistance on-board AVs that are ADA compliant and utilized for paratransit—but this is an open question.
Some discussions we’ve had in our workshops over the last 9 months circle back to when elevators switched from being operated by a human in the elevator, to when they were automated. For about 20 years, so I’ve been told, buildings with elevators continued to staff elevators because people were not comfortable riding an elevator without an operator. Today it seems sort of creepy (most of the time) to have an elevator operator—though some places like the Space Needle in Seattle have an operator, this is less about needing someone to operate the actual elevator and more about the experience. Some of the concerns that have arisen in our discussions of AV busses generally is that the bus drivers provide more services to riders than just driving. They assist riders get to where they need to go. They provide a sense of safety to the riders that there is a public employee looking out for them. The general sense that we have gotten from most people we are talking to is that we will likely need to have employees on AV fixed route buses to act as guides, babysitters, and general monitors to provide riders with a sense of comfort on the busses. It is easy to imagine a woman or child (or anyone really) riding a bus getting scared when a creepy person approaches them—the bus driver (now) or transit employee (in the AV) can help provide a buffer between creepy folks and the rest of us.
While AVs have the potential to enhance public transit by providing more efficient fixed route and paratransit services, AVs also have the potential to decimate demand for public transit. Transit systems, bus ridership in particular, are already seeing declines in ridership because of the TNCs (Uber/Lyft)— “Compared to other public transit options, buses are used more for short trips—the kind of trips that ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft tend to make.” The utilization of TNCs for shorter trips need to be part of our planning for transit in the long-run with the increasing presence of AVs or we will have to subsidize all riders on public transit even more. Change is coming…change is already here.