Can Express Buses, Self-Driving Cars Cure Miami’s Traffic Woes?

The dream is for luxury buses with few stops and with electronic transponders to switch traffic signals in their favor as they fly down the road.

by Tony Doris, The Palm Beach Post, Fla. / June 7, 2016

(TNS) — With thousands of homes on the way in Palm Beach County's western suburbs, more cars will crowd roads daily as commuters head to work. And if Miami-Dade and Broward counties are an indication, Palm Beach County residents can count on that west-east commute to drastically downgrade daily routines and quality of life.

That's nothing transportation planners hadn't figured out 30 years ago, when business leaders pushed for an east-west expressway, like one built in Broward. But a combination of money restraints, insider dealing and fear that building roads would only encourage development and generate more traffic, led to the efforts' demise.

Now there's new thinking coming down the road, some involving express buses and some, self-driving cars.

The dream, Metropolitan Transit Organization Executive Director Nick Uhren said, would be for luxury buses with few stops and with electronic transponders to switch traffic signals in their favor as they fly down the road.

Currently, the bus from Wellington to downtown West Palm makes 35 stops and takes 45 minutes, Uhren said.

It's no surprise that 80 percent of Palm Tran's ridership consists of people who don't have a choice because they can't afford cars. One study from 2010 showed that 41 percent of Palm Tran riders reported a household income of less than $10,000.

In 2015, Palm Tran had 10,551,733 riders and received a total of $53,274,390 from the county from gas and property tax collections.

Turn Lights Green

But Uhren and Clinton Forbes, Palm Tran's executive director, say eliminating stops and making traffic lights turn green as buses approach could speed the trip considerably. Make the buses sexier and curvier, with features like Wi-Fi, USB ports and charger plug-ins for computers and phones on those routes, and the service would persuade people who currently drive to switch, they say.

"I understand how important it is to get ahead of this," said Forbes, who began his transit career in Miami-Dade County and joined Palm Tran six months ago.

"Like any business, we want to add customers" and the only way to do that is to win over people who drive, he said. "That's going to be our new customer base. We have to get them there quickly and directly. 'Choice' riders don't like a lot of stops. They like to whisk through traffic, look at their personal devices and get from Point A to Point B."

The MPO has given Palm Tran a $2.5 million grant for what's called a transit signal priority system. It would turn red lights green sooner and keep green lights green longer as a bus approaches. The plan is to test the system on two routes: the 43 from Wellington Green mall to the downtown West Palm Tri-Rail station and the 62, from Wellington Green mall to the Lake Worth Tri-Rail station.

It could be another year before the express service and signal system kick in, but this fall Palm Tran plans to roll out curvy, new 40-foot buses that, while not luxury coaches, are more attractive and comfortable than the current fleet.

The MPO issued another grant, of $1.3 million, for Palm Tran to research mobile ticketing, so passengers could pay by phone or with the same Easy Card system used on Tri-Rail.

"That's one of my priority projects," Forbes said. "The fare is $2 and most riders don't carry cash anymore. … Why couldn't they pull out their wallet card or phone to pay the fare?"

The next step for Forbes will be a study of the entire route system, which he said hasn't been overhauled in 20 years. Palm Tran and its Palm Beach County Commission overseers long have had to weigh philosophically whether to stretch routes over vast areas to serve customers off the beaten track, or to fulfill more of a mass transit function, serving the most densely populated areas with greater frequency and as a result gaining riders.

The county's sprawl, with few dense neighborhoods west of Interstate 95, makes bus service a challenge.

To attract people to buses, potential customers need to know even if they don't have a schedule in hand that there'll be another bus coming in 15 minutes. "'Choice' riders want quick service," Forbes said. "Most of our service is 60 minutes or more. If that bus breaks down, that's two hours that customer has to wait."

"My thought is, let's look at the entire system, make tough choices to eliminate unproductive routes and shift to make the 1, 2, 3, 43 and 62 and others more efficient and faster," Forbes said. "We're going to turn the needle toward ridership. We want increased frequency. It may take a year or two but we've already started the conversation. That's the road we're going down."

Self-Driving Cars

How far Palm Tran gets may depend on how quickly it moves. That's because, not only must it compete with such alternatives as Uber, and with drivers who will tolerate traffic rather than suffer the inconvenience of waiting for a bus, but with a new technology that supporters feel is a more promising alternative: the self-driving car.

Most major automakers, as well as tech firms like Google, are racing to put self-driving cars on the road, potentially eliminating the annoyance of having to drive oneself through rush hour traffic jams.

Palm Beach Gardens businessman Richard Brockway and two powerful partners are assembling a company called Maghicle Driverless LLC, whose customers call for a car and have a self-driving vehicle show up at their door within seconds. "The landscape is looking really good," said Brockway, whose partners are former General Motors research and development chief Larry Burns and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Look for self-driving cars on Palm Beach County roads within four years, Brockway predicts.

"Once you have self-driving cars on the road and the majority of cars are self-driving, the traffic is going to move much better. The roadways can handle a lot more traffic than they can now if they don't have humans behind the wheel.

"A lot of traffic is because humans changing lanes, slowing down, do a lot of things that don't facilitate the flow of traffic. Computers can drive in a much more efficient manner. So for east-west commutes, self-driving cars are going to be a huge boon to that. Because, people are going get rid of their own cars. And people don't like to go on buses. People want to go where they want to go."

©2016 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.