Driverless buses solve a major transit headache: labor costs

Capital Metro is beginning to experiment with driverless buses. From Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear:

Capital Metro and a private company will begin two weeks of testing of driverless electric shuttles on a 1.1-mile route. The podlike vehicles, sort of a cross between a VW bug and a small bus, will run both directions on Third Street, between Trinity and West streets, officials said.

Wear suggests this may have something to do with Cap Metro’s apparent reluctance to endorse rail as the long-term solution to Austin’s transit woes. He notes that Cap Metro CEO Randy Clark has said that he wants to focus on developing “future-proof technology.”

What this might mean in a transit context is automated, electric buses, a digitally connected string of them, running in dedicated street lanes, or perhaps on completely separated right of way not subject to the vicissitudes of traffic. The idea is that such a system would be much cheaper to install in the first place — no track, no overhead electric lines, less expensive vehicles — and more easily altered to match routes to evolving city development.

Light rail, under this line of thinking, is not only wildly expensive — well over $100 million a mile — but also possibly more of a wave at transportation’s past than the wave of the future.

Wear neglected to mention what is arguably the greatest advantages of automated buses: you don’t have to pay a driver.

That’s one of the things I learned in a conversation with UT’s Kara Kockelman a few months ago. She said she’d like to see smaller, automated buses. Indeed, I wondered, if we want more frequent service, why not just deploy a bunch of smaller buses instead of a few big ones? That’s easy, she replied: more buses = more drivers. Right now it’s cheaper to build one of these enormous buses than a couple smaller ones simply due to labor costs.

Bus

Of Cap Metro’s $264 million operating budget in 2017, $122 million went to pay the companies that the agency outsources bus operations to. It’s hard to figure out from looking at the document what percentage of that went to salaries and benefits but it’s fair to assume it was the great majority. In 2012, the last fiscal year that Cap Metro paid its bus drivers in-house, more than half of the agency’s operating budget ($173 million) was for salaries and benefits ($88 million).

Suffice it to say, if we freed up a few extra tens of millions of dollars a year, we could put a lot more buses in service and deliver much greater frequency and greater coverage in Austin.

I am not eager to endorse a proposal that would put hundreds of people out of work. And as long as we have drivers, I support their right to zealous union representation and good pay and benefits. I support well-compensated public servants. But what I will not support is obsolete public servants. Taxpayer dollars should be used to maximize the public good. Right now bus drivers are a great use of public resources. In a few years though, that may no longer be the case.

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