Can smart mobility solutions answer transit’s first/last mile challenge?
Many municipalities are hoping to avert the ‘hell’ of personal autonomous vehicles for the ‘heaven’ of mobility-as-a-service
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In a business park on the northwest side of Denver, an autonomous all-electric bus has been shuttling commuters from the 61st and Pena commuter rail station to the building that houses the offices of Panasonic and EasyMile.
The first of its kind in Colorado, the shuttle moves people from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday, as part of a six-month pilot project between the Regional Transportation District (RTD), Denver’s transit agency; EasyMile, a driverless mobility company; and many other project partners. RTD is evaluating the shuttle’s reliability and availability.
“RTD wanted to see how easily and effectively it could be integrated into the overall service,” says Lauren Isaac, EasyMile’s director of business initiatives.
The ultimate goal, she says, is to solve the last-mile challenge for the workers who get off at 61st and Pena, and who might otherwise not take public transit.
“Transit agencies often cite the first and last mile as the biggest reason why people are using a personal vehicle instead of transit… because very few bus or train stops are within a 20-minute walk of your ultimate destination,” Ms. Isaac says. “If you can fill that gap, you really have the potential to drive more ridership.”
The project shows the direction that many municipalities have in mind for autonomous vehicle technology. MaaS, or mobility-as-a-service, is a concept that envisions a future where many modes of transportation – from buses and subways to ride-hailing fleets to bikes and even scooters – will be easily accessible with clear and integrated fares.
The hope is that residents will start to take advantage of the entire transportation ecosystem, perhaps biking part of the way before catching the subway and then walking the last 10 minutes to the office.
Many proponents of MaaS also see it as way to ensure that autonomous vehicle technology is implemented in a way that benefits society, rather than creating a world where personal driverless vehicles allow people to lose track of the time they spend sitting in traffic.
“What’s often cited is this notion of heaven and hell,” Ms. Isaac says. “[A personal autonomous vehicle] seems like an incredibly great opportunity, but the reality is, for society as a whole, it’s a nightmare because you have the potential for adding a ton of vehicle miles travelled to the road,” she says.
In this “hellish” world, roads are designed exclusively for cars rather than people and public transportation becomes a thing of the past.
MaaS, on the other hand, would help cities achieve a “heaven” scenario, where residents of dense, urban environments have access to multiple modes of transportation, and streets would be designed to prioritize people.
If you increase the number of modes, and if you integrate information about the options, people may change their travel behaviour.
“MaaS is fundamental to the heaven scenario,” Ms. Isaac says. “Heaven relies on people leveraging shared technology. If you increase the number of modes, and if you integrate information about the options, people may change their travel behaviour.”
Rod Schebesch, senior-vice president and transportation sector lead at Stantec, says the heaven scenario is certainly within reach – and there are already factors pushing society in that direction, including increasing traffic congestion in cities, declining car ownership among young people and more people choosing to live in urban centres.
“We love our cars … [but] worldwide, car sales peaked three or four years ago,” he says. “People are starting to look at other ways of getting around. Connected vehicles and autonomous vehicles are definitely a big part of that, and so are other transportation technologies that have emerged in the last few years,” such as bike and scooter sharing companies.
Connected Vehicle (CV) technology – using either dedicated short-range communications or mobile data communications (for instance, 5G) will be key to furthering this transportation revolution, he says.
People are starting to look at other ways of getting around.
The technology allows vehicles to communicate with each other, and with infrastructure such as traffic lights, road weather stations, and a centralized traffic management centre.
This system could “make the most of the transportation network,” Mr. Schebesch says, by suggesting real-time alternatives to heavily congested routes, recommending optimal speeds, or even providing critical safety alerts. “Some limited congestion and incident information is available on Google Maps and Waze, but CV technology is far more powerful and built on a standardized platform.”
While the technology isn’t yet broadly installed in vehicles in Canada, some major vehicle manufacturers are announcing plans to include CV technology as a standard feature.
“When you have a fully connected-vehicle network, what’s really powerful is that the traffic management centre can see where all the vehicles are, where the issues are,” he says.
The “ultimate endgame” for MaaS, Mr. Schebesch says, is a revolutionary one: “You no longer own your own car, because there’s no reason to.”
Cities need to implement public policies that support the best use of technology.
We’re thinking more about the world we want to live in and accommodating more innovative forms of transportation over all.
In order to get to the heaven scenario, with MaaS supported by autonomous and connected vehicle technology, cities will need to implement public policies that support the best use of technology, says Susan Shaheen, an adjunct professor in transportation engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. She says cities could consider congestion pricing of roads or curbs or restricting access to certain roads or during certain times of day to further encourage people to take public transit.
“These [conversations] are not exclusive to automation,” she says, “but what’s important to recognize is that we’re thinking more about the world we want to live in and accommodating more innovative forms of transportation over all.” She points to Seattle’s management of dockless scooters and bikes and Los Angeles’s consideration of road pricing as notable positive policy-making examples.
The enthusiasm for adopting new technologies is also understandable given that it will pave the way for noticeable physical changes on the road, according to Kelley Coyner, the chief executive officer and founder of Mobility e3, a Virginia and Detroit-based company that plans and executes autonomous vehicle pilots.
Cities would have the opportunity to make changes such as eliminating parking spots and redesigning the curbside to include broader sidewalks and bike lanes. They could even close whole streets to traffic or turn them into daytime pedestrian-only parks, she says.
Ultimately, designing for people over cars will push us towards increasingly efficient systems that accommodate all modes of travel, she adds.
"You think about smart mobility, and it should be accessible, automated, connected, electric and shared. That impacts the way a city is designed, and the built environment, toward a focus on human-centred design instead of machine-centred."
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.