Autonomous Buses Could Follow DART’s Uber Program

By working together, the transit agencies aim to lower the cost of testing and share best practices, the news release said.

(TNS) —  Dallas Area Rapid Transit has joined a national association of transit and transportation agencies to explore how autonomous buses could shuttle people around cities in the future.

The Automated Bus Consortium plans to research driverless buses and run pilot projects with "full-sized, full-speed buses" to better understand how they could be rolled out nationwide, according to a news release. The group will study the safety of the buses and how they could reduce congestion. By working together, the transit agencies aim to lower the cost of testing and share best practices, the news release said.

The group is made up of about a dozen members, including the transit agencies of Los Angeles County and Atlanta and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The group was created by Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM.

For the first 12 months, the consortium plans to study the feasibility of the autonomous buses, according to the news release. It will buy an initial fleet of 75 to 100 full-sized, automated buses, which it will test in 2021 or 2022 on routes chosen by the transit and transportation agencies.

DART does not have a timetable for testing autonomous buses, spokesman Gordon Shattles said. He said joining the group is another way that DART can keep up with emerging transportation technologies.

Transit agencies across the country are coping with declining ridership and pressure to manage costs. In Dallas, for example, DART ridership has decreased every year for the past five years — even though the Dallas-Fort Worth area is one of the fastest-growing regions in the U.S. From 2013 to 2018, average weekday ridership on light rail and buses dropped about 13 percent to 194,495.

In March, DART hired ride-hailing giant Uber to pick up and drop off customers in parts of the Dallas area that have low ridership. The Uber rides, which are shared by a few customers heading the same direction, are subsidized by the transit agency. The one-year contract will cost up to about $1.15 million.

Five DART stations are part of the Uber program: Buckner Station, UNT Dallas, Parker Road, Northwest Plano Park and Ride and Downtown Rowlett Station. If the DART station is the origin or destination, shared Uber rides are free. For $3, people can take a shared ride anywhere in the same geographic zone. Most of the zones are nine or 10 square miles.

Starting today, DART is offering the Uber service in almost all of Rowlett, Shattles said.

Some driverless shuttles have been tested in Texas — but not full-sized buses. In Arlington, the city offered free rides on a small, electric-powered shuttle called Milo for a year during special events in its entertainment district. The electric shuttle service was owned and operated by the French autonomous vehicle company EasyMile. It could fit up to 12 passengers. The city replaced the service with a fleet of autonomous orange vans run by Silicon Valley-based, which started in October and ended last week.

Austin's public transit agency, Capital Metro, planned to test small, electric-powered buses that could hold up to 15 passengers. It began the testing in June 2018, but halted it less than a month later — and before it was tested on city streets, spokeswoman Amy Peck said. She said it discontinued the service when it learned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's permit process would require its safety operators to be employees of Capital Metro. It uses contractors to drive and operate buses.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story said shared Uber rides are $1 if a DART station is the origin or destination. DART had planned to start charging that rate for the rides on May 10. It has extended its introductory offer, so the rides are free.

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