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Autonomous Shuttles Have the Opportunity to Improve the Bus Experience

Research in Chamblee, Ga., is focused on how to make the rider experience on an autonomous shuttle an enjoyable one.

NEWARK, N.J. — The personal autonomous car may be years away, but communities are already preparing for and testing the concept of small, electric, self-driving shuttles to fill gaps in public transit, or even improve street cred among millennials.

And if the autonomous shuttle is going to take off, cities and transit agencies need to focus on improving the overall user experience, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of urban design at Georgia Institute of Technology. Dunham-Jones is involved in a research project in Chamblee, Ga., where an AV shuttle pilot project has been about a year in the making.

“For all the research that’s going into the design of the vehicles themselves, and the infrastructure to support them, there’s not a whole lot really going into, what is the experience going to be like for riders? What is the experience going to be like for neighbors? What is really the impact going to be?” said Dunham-Jones, in a presentation Oct. 15 at the 2018 MetroLab Network Summit at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, N.J.

The project is building on earlier research related to work Dunham-Jones and her students did for Atlanta, which focused on a 25-year, aspirational vision for that city's downtown.

“I’m really interested in leveraging technology to figure out, how do we make better places,” Dunham-Jones said. “Because there’s all sorts of possible downsides. And we know about all that. But we should at least be trying to leverage the upsides.”

Chamblee, a city of about 30,000 residents in the metro-Atlanta region, is not alone when it comes to testing the AV shuttle concept. More projects have emerged in Texas, California, Florida and other states.

Chamblee benefits by being on the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority line, and sees AV shuttles as not only the answer for first-mile/last-mile concerns, but also a hook to grow an already robust millennial population, said Dunham-Jones.

“And they’re quite open about the fact, the reason they want an AV shuttle bus is they think it will help attract more millennials,” she explained. “And they’re pretty open about the fact that that’s really their goal.”

Chamblee recently entered into a partnership with the Stantec Urban Places studio to explore possible routes, fares and other factors to operate a circulator shuttle in downtown.

Where transit agencies and cities have an opportunity, said Dunham-Jones, is to rethink the bus experience, and elevate it from one that’s not simply boring — to say nothing of miserable — but exciting.

“They’re here,” she added of autonomous shuttles. “This technology is here. Whereas the private car autonomy, that’s still some years away.”

“But, what I’m worried about is the experience,” said Dunham-Jones.

“We really need better urban design, better station design, better vehicle design and better app design,” she added.

Research shows current AV shuttle projects average about 1.5 miles per trip, carrying about nine passengers at a time. If there is one new form of mobility that may directly compete in this space, it’s the electric scooters that have landed in cities all over the country.

“Could we, instead, actually learn from scooters,” Dunham-Jones offered. “Scooters are incredibly fun. They’re cheap. And they’re very popular, in good weather.

“I see them as pretty direct competition. And they’re already here,” she said.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.