Whether or not self-driving cars are the future of public transportation, at the very least they will change the logic of large public transportation projects: a fleet of robo-cars could one day deliver personalized, decentralized public transportation. But what does that mean for our cities’s buses and trains? The Atlantic Cities reports:
We make billion-dollar investments in new transit infrastructure because we expect to use it for decades. Metropolitan planning organizations are in the very business of planning 30 and 40 years into the future. The Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority recently released its dream map of subway service in the city for the year 2040. By then, autonomous cars – in some form – will surely be commonplace.The question of what they’ll mean for transit was actually on the program this year at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington, where several thousand transportation officials and researchers met to talk about state-of-the-art asphalts, biker behavior, and the infrastructure of the future. In one packed session, I heard Jerome Lutin, a retired longtime New Jersey Transit planner, say something that sounded almost like blasphemy.“We’re just wringing our hands, and we’re going to object to this,” he warned the room. “But the transit industry needs to promote shared-use autonomous cars as a replacement for transit on many bus routes and for service to persons with disabilities.”
A recent study by IHS Automotive predicted that nearly every car on the road in 2050 will be self-driving; in that kind of world, in which our nation’s highways are populated by hordes of self-driving vehicles packed tightly together at higher speeds and with greater fuel efficiency, massive investments in rail infrastructure or new bus networks won’t make much sense. But these investments are already being made in places like California, which is already massively over-budget on a high-speed rail project that will be obsolete from its first day of operation.The pace of technological progress is accelerating, and city planners can’t keep up. Self-driving cars are the latest and greatest transportation option, but who can guess what will replace them in the coming decades? A nation criss-crossed with Hyperloops? Ubiquitous telepresence technology? In this respect, we’re more uncertain about the future than we ever have been, and that’s a huge problem for those making decisions about public transit. One thing is obvious, though: we shouldn’t be building for the future with technology that’s already outdated. Looking at you California.