“Ford is going to be mass-producing vehicles with full autonomy” by 2021, Ford CEO Mark Fields vowed last August. “That means there’s going to be no steering wheel, there’s not going to be a gas pedal, there’s not going to be a brake pedal, and of course, a driver is not going to be required.” These vehicles will not be for sale, at least immediately, but will be used “in a ride hailing or ride sharing service.”
And that means the end of mass transit, especially if–as RethinkX projects–shared driverless car services will cost far less than owning a car (meaning far less than 40 cents a mile, which is what Americans currently spend buying, operating, maintaining, and insuring cars). It also means an end to most congestion, even for people in human-driven cars, as new research finds that congestion will begin to decline when as few as 5 percent of cars on the road are autonomous.
Ford is far from the only company planning to provide such service–Waymo, Uber, and General Moters-Lyft are a few others–so shared, driverless cars are likely to rapidly spread across the country. Transit fares currently average about 28 cents a passenger mile, so if shared driverless cars are much less costly than 40 cents a mile, even subsidized transit will not be able to compete. Transit will survive only in places where population and/or job densities are too great to be easily served by driverless cars, which pretty much is limited to New York City and perhaps services to big-city downtowns with more than 200,000 jobs–namely Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington.
Despite this, transit agencies are furiously lobbying Congress to keep spending billions of dollars a year subsidizing the construction of streetcars, light rail, and other urban white elephants. Instead of spending more money on transit infrastructure they can’t afford to maintain, they need to start thinking about how they are going to phase themselves out of existence.
For example, too many transit agencies have huge unfunded pension and health-care liabilities. It will be hard for them to fulfill these obligations when they are no longer providing transit services. Rather than build expensive transit projects, their goal for the immediate future should be to fund those programs.
To the extent that transit agencies do build new infrastructure, it should be infrastructure that can also be used by driverless cars. That means new pavement for high-occupancy/toll lanes such as Denver’s Flatiron Flyer might make sense, but new rail transit absolutely does not. Nor do elaborate bus transit centers, which seem to be a way for smaller cities to spend federal transit pork.
Transit as we know it today will cease to exist within a decade or so. It is time to stop subsidizing an obsolete, backwards industry.