Driverless buses and two-tiered transit

Big changes are coming to public transportation.


A quick speculation on the possible future of bus transit.

A lot of people see the obvious potential in combining easier route planning, connected passengers and real-time fleet flexibility to create the next generation of bus systems. The consensus vision seems to be high-volume bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, served by demand-responsive local transit that adjusts its routes to pick up passengers on the fly and deliver them to the trains and BRT, with ride-app cars meeting the need for other trips — all, of course, underpinned by deep walkability and bike routes.

The major problem with this vision, I’m told, is not the technology, which is zooming ahead, but the labor issues. Transit agencies in the developed world are almost all unionized. Almost all of those unions have fought for workplace rules that protect their drivers by limiting the number and frequency of route changes — thus making transit-on-demand really hard to implement. (There are other political issues, too, of course: some neighborhoods resisting change to irrational or even nonproductive legacy uses of transit resources; other neighborhoods using outdated environmental impact laws used to keep transit out; tight budgets, and so on and so forth.)

Driverless buses (soon to hit the streets of Singapore and a city near you) offer one gigantic advantage over buses with drivers: they don’t care how their routes are planned (or even if they have routes) and so they can be flexibly assigned to respond to demand. They can also be (for reasons I’ve written about before) much cheaper to use than private vehicles — and potentially much cheaper than current buses.

In ten years or so, I would not be at all surprised to see companies launching “deluxe” transit services using driverless buses, where the app layer serves as a social control to access; on-board surveillance works as a guarantee of appropriate behavior; AI-planned individual routes maximize ridership and minimize trip times; and the main focus is slow, comfortable “edge-of-walkshed” travel (trips that are just past an easy walk), especially neighborhood-hopping trips and connections to more rapid long-distance transit. I wouldn’t be surprised to see services compete not only on service but on style (playing against the current suburban stereotype of buses being dirty and dangerous). I also wouldn’t be surprised if these trips were cheaper than current ride-sharing trip prices, but sold as modestly upscale/ an affordable luxury— the Starbucks of buses.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if they hit transit agencies as hard as Uber and Lyft have hit taxis, leaving cities with a two-tiered transit system, segregated by class.

I doubt this would be the best outcome. It’s certainly not inevitable.

Alex Steffen is a planetary futurist and creator of the books Worldchanging and Carbon Zero. His latest project is The Heroic Future. Follow Alex on Twitter or to sign up to get his free weekly newsletter.

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