The Beginning of the End of Public Transport Has Started

When self-driving cars are easy and cheaply available and comfortable, then nobody will take the effort to switch to streetcars for travel in town or even trains to move between cities. Why should anyone enjoy dragging luggage through the train station, searching for the train and the seat? Or walking through shady tunnels to the subway, when you are already comfortably sitting in the self-driving, electric Uber.

Trains and public transport get competition from multiple sides: autonomous trucks don’t need to load cargo onto trains. Greyhound-style buses in Europe started to snatch passengers from trains. And it’s anyway stunning, why subways still need drivers. They could be safely operating today without them. And if there were an alternative to running up and down subway tunnels, then robotaxis would not only give women a heightened sense of security.

Furthermore it makes economical sense to get rid of public transport. It’s extremely expensive to build subways. In the US only two lines are being built: one in New York City and one in San Francisco.

Some smaller communities started their infrastructure planning with autonomous vehicles in mind. Babcock Ranch in Florida just constructed a new district with sustainable energy generation, as well as a public transport system that relies on autonomous minibuses and cars. All units are within walkable distance. With that in mind, it changes the way houses are constructed without garages or parking spaces on the street.

The traffic planers of Los Angeles, a city especially plagued by bad traffic, have basically given up on planning for new public transport. Although the city had an extensive streetcar network in the 1920, the railway was – as shown in the movie Who framed Roger Rabbit?  – bought by the car industry and demolished. Those who have taken the LA highways and seen the traffic jam on the eight lanes realized the severity of the traffic problem.

Pacific Electric Railway at a junkjard
Pacific Electric Railway cars piled atop one another at junkyard on Terminal Island, California, 1956

That’s why Los Angeles decided to simply leapfrog public transport after years of neglect and instead put their money on autonomous vehicles. Another US state, Wisconsin, is trying to cut costs, and one factor is traffic infrastructure investments. Autonomous cars promise governments and administrations to save money on expensive traffic infrastructure. Alone that could be motivation enough for them to push for autonomous cars and forbid manual driving. We are encountering a situation where governments are open to adopting new technologies faster than the population.

Public transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland is generally very excellent. Even though the locals don’t think so and often find reasons to complain, public transport there is reliable, clean, on time and fast. Especially the Swiss and Japanese lead with their punctuality and predictability. of course one can always argue about frequency and the last mile, but they are mostly seen as acceptable. But that impression changes for those who used a transportation network provider like Uber. In many parts of San Francisco for instance, where public transport is old and unreliable, Uber has waiting times between one to three minutes only – and that without having to cross a busy road to get to a station.

With that the need to cross streets to get to streetcar or bus stations disappears. Also no need to take escalators, elevators or staircases to get down to dark subway platforms. Especially women are loyal Uber customers. The digital trail that an Uber ride leaves is seen as protection, not as a threat.

Self-driving electric Ubers require to reconsideration of the usefulness and performance of public transport. In contrast to buses and streetcars robotaxis are not limited to fixed routes. Thanks to digital technologies waiting times can be optimized individually and don’t need to follow a schedule. If those promises are kept, then the requirements for the usefulness of public transport changes drastically. Lanes that were reserved for them will get questioned and their upkeep and buildup as well.

The administrators of Charlotte, a town of 800,000 in North Carolina, are wondering if they should even spend the six billion dollars for the planned construction of new streetcar and light rail systems. Those are scheduled to start operating earliest in 2025, but at this point they could already be obsolete, given the rapid progress with the development of self-driving cars. Los Angeles has answered that question already with NO and eagerly awaits the arrival of autonomous vehicles to solve their local traffic problem.

City administrations in every country should start considering autonomous cars in their own planning for traffic infrastructure and public transport projects. Its possible to predict a time line of 10 to 15 years that autonomous cars will dominate traffic. And this will create a dramatic change of paradigm with today’s city and traffic planners.

This article has also been published in German.

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