Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment

An On-Demand Public Transit Leapfrog

Via's on-demand shuttle transporting seniors when and where they need to go. Image courtesy of Via.
Via’s on-demand shuttle transporting seniors when and where they need to go. Image courtesy of Via.

Is the largest city in America without a public bus transit system laying the groundwork for an autonomous, on-demand shuttle network? Arlington, Texas, a city of 400k in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, is reportedly planning on spending $9M per year to serve its entire 99 square miles with 70 shuttles operated by Via.

Via’s on-demand shuttles are an alternative to traditional buses. Unlike buses, the Via shuttles pick up and drop off riders within 2 blocks of the rider’s location, making their solution much more accessible than traditional fixed-route bus service.  The price to the rider is about $3 to $5 per ride.

Three times, the citizens voted down tax proposals to fund a traditional bus system. In its initial trial, which covered 65% of Arlington, Via provided 113k rides and the cost from Via to the city was $1.7M.  As a simple metric, this translates into a subsidy of approximately $15.04/ride.

Compared to the Home of Dial-a-Ride #

This is a cruel message for someone waiting for a bus.
This is a cruel message for someone waiting for a bus, particularly when the bus is empty.

Compare this to Santa Clara County’s VTA, which serves a population of 1.9M, covers 363 square miles of incorporated cities.¹ With approximately 4,000+ people per square mile, Arlington is about 75% the density of the incorporated portions of this California county which also happens to be the epicenter of Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley’s public transportation system, VTA, had a fleet of 469 buses in 2019 (page 40, PDF).² VTA’s pre-pandemic 2020-2021 biennial budget suggested approximately 26.3M bus rides (page 46 PDF). Fares account for about 7% of the budget (page 47). VTA’s subsidy per ride is approximately $16.60 to $20.60 per ride.³

Granted, at $3 to $5 per ride, the Arlington/Via cost to the rider is a bit more than $1-$2.50 per ride for VTA. Still, even if Arlington increased its per-ride subsidy to match the VTA fare (say $2.50 per ride), the subsidy would be less than VTA, while providing a higher quality experience (on-demand, closer to origination/destination).

The idea of an on-demand transit system providing door-to-door transport goes back to at least the mid-1970s, as Silicon Valley’s pioneered such a service, Dial-a-ride. Dial-a-ride used the old school telephone to beckon a mini-bus directly to one’s residence. Dial-a-ride shuttered after 5.5 months due to an “inadequate customer communication system, starting the entire system at once, an inadequate number of vehicles, and taxicab buyout.”

The Foundation for Even Better Mobility & Built Environment #

May Mobility's electric, shared autonomous shuttle autonomously transporting people.
May Mobility’s electric, shared autonomous shuttle autonomously transporting people.

Long-term, subsidies might not be required if the operating costs drop to 1/5 of today’s cost, as predicted by Local Motors’ Jay Rogers at the February 11th, 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit. In the SmartDrivingCar interview below, May Mobility’s Edwin Olson suggests that in addition to affordability, on-demand transit provides a higher-quality experience than traditional buses. He indicates that this is borne out by May Mobility’s Net Promoter Scores (NPS).

This bodes well for the City of Arlington, as Olson states in the same interview that May Mobility is working with Via to bring their on-demand technology/service to that city’s streets. In their experience, community acceptance and trust take time. The value is the service and how it helps people get around better and improve the way they live; autonomy is secondary.

Added 3/23/21 – The City of Arlington announced that the addition of five autonomous vehicles with safety drivers will be added as part of a test serving its downtown and University of Texas Arlington campus. Four will be hybrid vehicles, while one will be electric with special loading for wheelchairs. RAPID is the name of the service. May Mobility and Via are supplying the technology and service. The trial is anticipated to last until March 2022. Pictures from the launch event are found on Tom Bamonte’s Twitter account.

May Mobility’s vision is even bigger than providing better mobility for individuality. They want to use shared autonomous transit to transform cities and make them better. Olson states that their early work with cities gives May Mobility an advantage in that they have a good understanding of the city’s limitations.

Boards of transit agencies would be well-served to closely look at the Arlington approach, as it seems to provide an on-ramp to the emerging driverless evolution.

Footnotes #

¹Although the county is 1,312 square miles, the incorporated portion is 363 square miles. The 14 smaller municipalities cover 181 square miles, almost matching the largest city by area and population, San Jose, with its 182 square miles.

² What’s interesting is that it is estimated that 334 and 210 buses would have been needed during peak commute and average mid-day demands in 1974 (PDF). This was at a time when the population was approximately 1.15M or approximately 60% of the current population.  Scaling this to today’s population would mean 558 buses, compared to VTA’s current total of 469 buses. Whether the 19% increase in vehicle count and associated bus drivers would surely be offset by the lower cost of capital for right-size vehicles (e.g. instead of 40-person buses, 4-to-8 passenger vehicles) is a question for further exploration. The 5 to 10 minute wait time and removal of bus stop would clearly be a quality advantage over today’s service.

[Added 3/22/21 – VTA has expanded what might be considered a dial-a-ride service for seniors in certain parts of West San Jose, Saratoga, Campbell, Monte Sereno, Cupertino, and Morgan Hill. Pricing is based on income and not net assets and is open to those 65+. Interestingly, these are some of the wealthiest areas in the valley. It would be interesting to understand why they chose these particular ZIP codes.

It would also be interesting to see how this program compares, both in quality and cost, to ITN America’s program which has a seniors-helping-seniors approach. In many ways, it seems to have many of the limitations of the early dial-a-ride programs (passenger must reserve rides, via telephone, 2 days in advance, companions have to apply to ride with). It may be inexpensive for short distances ($0.90) but can get expensive ($18) for longer distances. Plus, it is limited by geography to the zip codes it serves, except for a few exceptions (VA, Sunnyvale train station).]

³ This is based on $441M revenue (page 56) and 26.5M rides. It doesn’t include depreciation on capital costs, which it should as the biennial 2020/2021 budget appears to be $220M ($110M per year) for capital improvements, repairs, and maintenance. This could add up to $4+ per ride, as it is a real cost. Granted, some of this budget might be for one-time capital expenditures, but there is no reason to think that capital expenditures will be lower in 2022/2023 unless their funding sources are cut.

It’s important to note, that Arlington doesn’t have capital costs with its approach. Their expense is variable, although there could be administrative costs not accounted for in the Gov Tech article.

Smart Driving Cars Episode 200 – Princeton’s Alain Kornhauser & Techstination’s Fred Fishkin Interview May Mobility’s Edwin Olson #

Author Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

By Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

Ken Pyle is Marketing Director for the Broadband Forum. The mission of this 25+-year-old non-profit “is to unlock the potential for new markets and profitable revenue growth by leveraging new technologies and standards in the home, intelligent small business, and multi-user infrastructure of the broadband network.”

He is also co-founder of Viodi, LLC and Managing Editor of the Viodi View, a publication focused on the rural broadband ecosystem, autonomous vehicles, and electric aviation. He has edited and produced numerous multimedia projects for NTCA, US Telecom and Viodi. Pyle is the producer of Viodi’s Local Content Workshop, the Video Production Crash Course at NAB, as well as ViodiTV. He has been intimately involved in Viodi’s consulting projects and has created processes for clients to use for their PPV and VOD operations, as well authored reports on the independent telco market.

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6 replies on “An On-Demand Public Transit Leapfrog”

Denton County, Texas, a city north of Arlington, may replace 6 of its 8 bus lines with Via on-demand vans by September 2021. This would complement Denton’s Micro On-Demand and Lyft programs.

The Transit Center is highly critical of the plan, particularly having to do with the cost of labor for Via compared to the unionized bus drivers. They are also concerned about its ability to scale. The agency points out that the lines that are being cut serve fewer than 10 passengers per hour.

Here is an update to the City of Arlington’s on-demand shuttle service, including its one square mile test of autonomous vehicles.

This “RAPID” system has given over 15k “free” rides (this is supported by a federal grant and other monies) since its March 2021 launch and has been rated a 4.9 out of 5 by passengers. This author would probably not take it, as with “wait times have stayed an average of under 12 minutes and rides have arrived on time more than 90% of the time,” I would probably just walk.

At the end of August, about 67% of rides on RAPID were shared between different passenger parties. The article states that there were issues with the plastic barriers between passengers making the experience uncomfortably hot. Additionally, the noise of the computers for autonomous driving was annoying. Both of these issues were fixed.

The article cites the inordinate amount of construction in downtown Arlington (didn’t realize there was such a thing) limiting autonomous driving to 75% of the time with the onboard attendant doing the other 25%.

And it looks like the Arlington testing will continue as it expects a new grant award from the local council of governments begins funding another two years of service. The service will feature modified Toyota Sienna vans that carry 4 to 5 passengers, are wheel-chair accessible, and have devices to communicate to emergency vehicles. The presence of emergency vehicles account for some of the approximately 20% of the time where a human had to intervene in the driving process. This article notes that the service reached a peak of almost 200 rides per day and 60 to 70% of those rides were shared. Although the human operator will remain in the vehicle for now, the long term plan is to make these truly driverless with tele-assist or tele-operation in the backend.

More examples of the benefits of on-demand versus fixed route from Via. In this case, they are highlighting rural areas. In Georgia, they replaced a $25.27/ride fixed-route service with their on-demand service at $12.76 per ride. Wait times went from 45 to 12 minutes, while the number of rides increased to 465 from 386.

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