There is no doubt that motorized vehicles are becoming self-driving, but it is uncertain how quickly fully driverless automation will become significant or pervasive. Throughout North America, we are often advised to prepare for this change —to incorporate driverless vehicles into the next round of infrastructure and transit planning. To build less of certain kinds of infrastructure and focus on maintaining what we have. Municipal and regional planners have been criticized for not including autonomous vehicles in their ten- or 25-year plans.

I took a different lesson from last month’s TTC Staff Report, which said the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) would wait for further technology maturity before taking any material steps. This was for lack of clarity of exact steps to execute and for large variations in expected advantages and risks.

The TTC report framed automated vehicles as an equipment upgrade with expected service improvements. But it is far more likely that automation will mean a total transformation of the movement of both people and goods. There is every reason to consider that transit systems — especially bus-transit — will be entirely disrupted during the same time-period that a bus system such as the TTC’s would be mid-upgrade.

In other words, upgrading current bus transit to operate without drivers would risk a massive, wasted investment for the GTHA — unless we could predict something reliable about the diffusion of robotic vehicles — which we cannot.

The TTC is right to wait.

This same observation applies to planning infrastructure. Unless we understand how we will design, own and use automated vehicles, there is no bankable answer to the question “what infrastructure should we build?” Given the same or growing demand for passenger kilometers per capita, the current Canadian or American circumstance of 700 or 800 motor vehicles per 1000 population is dramatically different from a world of 100 or 150 per thousand. This can change everything about infrastructure planning. If you gave these two extreme problems to independent sets of planners, you would get two wildly different GTHAs.

Bus transit operators face a considerable threat from digital mobility on four fronts:

First, self-driving will enable a formidable, competitive fleet of cheap robo-taxis;

Second, the value of data will dominate the value of hardware putting public operators at competitive disadvantage;

Third, technical change will demand rapid fleet refresh and service adjustment, putting public operators at further competitive disadvantage;

Fourth, demand projection for autonomous bus-transit in traditional delivery formats is currently impossible.

Here are five things municipal and regional transit agencies can do:

First, introduce fully automated micro-transit vehicles that operate in limited passenger environments — to gain both service and passenger experience;

Second, begin the transition from an acquire-and-operate regime to one of organize-and-regulate either through contracts with Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) or P3 operators. Starting this coming Monday, Innisfil, Ontario provides an early example for a smaller municipality. If you are concerned about Uber — and you may be right — pick a different supplier.

Third, acquire any additional, traditional bus transit vehicles cautiously; start attrition planning;

Fourth, plan for mobility digitization to convert traffic management to the cloud. As vehicles become fully automated — during the 20s and 30s — traffic management by signs and signals and enforced by the Highway Traffic Act will transition to the cloud by way of automated and connected vehicles and an automated, optimized ground-traffic control system. As that happens, inefficiencies diminish and using motorized vehicles whether private, FHV, or transit becomes cheaper — hence more demanded. Whichever segment(s) take advantage first (private, FHV or transit) wins more market. This poses a major challenge for today’s transit. In other words, the new racetrack is open to everyone, but it will only benefit the racers.

Fifth, plan to mitigate our transportation-funding crisis with performance-based P3 robo-transit contracts; configure these regionally and ensure that profit is linked to social performance.

This fifth point can be achieved through a fleet licensing framework in lieu of fuel taxes and taxi medallion systems. This harmonization framework uses time-distance-and-place pricing and subsidies to manage regional performance for:

  1. Access
  2. Availability
  3. Emissions
  4. Integration with transit hubs and rail stations
  5. Jobs
  6. Occupancy
  7. Social equity, and
  8. Vehicle sharing

Licensed vehicle fleets subscribe to the performance harmonization framework, provide services with measured attributes such as just listed, and can operate profitably with the proviso that they contribute significantly to the requisite social performance metrics.

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