Autonomous buses, huh?

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For nearly a year, Cap Metro leaders have emphasized that the focus of Project Connect, the long-term plan to bring high-capacity transit to the Austin metro area, should not be on the mode (trains, buses etc) but on the routes. Last month, they doubled down on that narrative, stressing that whatever mode(s) is put in place, what really matters is whether it has dedicated right-of-way that prevents it from interacting with car traffic.

Yesterday, Cap Metro finally released a plan that proposed certain kinds of modes. It includes four Bus Rapid Transit lines, a new commuter rail line and two Autonomous Rapid Transit routes.

What is Autonomous Rapid Transit? Err…

From Austin Transit Blog:

What is Autonomous Rapid Transit? I don’t know actually, and neither does anyone else. It’s some kind of bus that uses bluetooth to talk to other buses, which apparently our transit agency thinks sounds like it will solve our transit issues better than something like light rail, which carries millions of passengers per day around the world.

UPDATE: Somebody who knows more about technology than me says that the characterization of ART as depending on bluetooth is inaccurate.

Local wonk (and power user) Julio Gonzalez has a helpful list of technology around the world that may resemble what Cap Metro envisions. The key takeaway from Julio’s analysis, however, is that nowhere has the concept actually been implemented on a wide scale. The closest thing we’ve got is a pilot project in China.

The transportation players in Austin have been hinting at this approach for a while. Sen. Kirk Watson suggested a couple months ago that transit supporters shouldn’t get hung up on rail, and stressed the importance of putting in place modes that are “future-proof.”

But I don’t really understand what makes autonomous buses much better or more “future-proof” than rail or even conventional bus rapid transit. It’s still going to demand dedicated right-of-way. What are the future innovations that would render BRT or light-rail obsolete but would leave ART unscathed?

Also, while labor costs are a big deal for transit agencies, I don’t think that that the appeal of reduced labor costs is as high when it comes to a high-capacity system. The appeal of driverless buses, for instance, is that we could deploy smaller ones more frequently, even on a route that is not heavily-trafficked, without having to pay a bunch of drivers. In contrast, high-capacity transit is aimed at transporting a lot of people at once.

It also seems strange to think that Austin, a city that has never had high-capacity transit, should be the place to implement an unproven transit technology. For some reason the Cap Metro leaders seem to think that this will be more politically palatable than rail, which was twice failed at the polls, but I can’t imagine why Austin voters would be friendlier to an idea for which no evidence of success exists.

Of the handful of dedicated transit tweeters in town, most of them appear downright furious about the proposal. Julio suggests that ART might be a worthy idea, but that rail is probably a better bet for Austin’s most-trafficked corridors:

If the promise of ART is used by CapMetro and Austin elected officials to secure better amenities and right-of-way for corridors that are a good long-term fit for conventional BRT, then the ART concept will enhance the productivity of transit system when it eventually arrives. However, if ART is used to preclude light rail in corridors that can benefits from rail’s operational efficiency at scale, then the ART concept runs a substantial risk of permanently undermining CapMetro’s system-wide productivity.


One thought on “Autonomous buses, huh?

  1. Well written, totally agree. One small but very important correction. Their map shows BRT “light”, which is a much toned-done version of true BRT.

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