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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Steering the Future of Mass Transit

By Rand Stephens (Houston)

Mass transit in major metropolitan areas may be reaching a fork in the road. Over the last few years, ridership has declined in both rail and bus services across the country. Factors such as lower gas prices, increased telecommuting, rising car ownership, and of course, Uber and Lyft have all contributed to this national trend. Commuter cities, including Houston, are now faced with either continuing to invest in their current transportation infrastructure, or, preparing for a variety of scenarios and outcomes that include fast-approaching technology such as autonomous buses and driverless ridesharing vehicles. 

Although Amazon has not publicly stated why they dismissed Houston for their second headquarters, its dismissal has spurred an internal reflection of what this great city has to offer and what can be improved upon. Lack of digital talent and relative lack of public transportation are two factors that many believe kept Houston off the shortlist. ­Our last blog addressed the first claim. This month, public transportation is our focus.

Rapidly-changing transportation technology is headed towards a disruption in the transportation industry that can translate into huge opportunities down the road. Arizona’s relaxed driving laws has put them at the forefront of driverless testing with companies such as Google’s Waymo and Intel’s Mobileye. Keolis, a transportation company, has already begun public transit service on open roads in Nevada, and Transdev is launching operations of their autonomous shuttles on open roads this year. The advancements are happening fast and furious. How will public transportation agencies respond?

Investing in traditional modes of public transportation and infrastructure is pointless when the future of transportation is shifting towards driverless technology. Houston Metro recently spent $2.1 billion dollars on the expansion of the Houston light rail system, including new park-and-ride lots and new buses for “controversial dedicated lanes along Houston’s posh Post Oak Boulevard.” (“Metro drawing up long-term Houston regional transit plan”, Houston Chronicle, Feb. 17, 2017)  The Woodlands Express is also planning to add new routes to accommodate increased population growth and increased job dispersal. Yet, ridership is down for both The Woodlands Express (18.7% decrease from the daily average in 2014) and for the Houston Metro  (7% decline from last year for all mass transit). In fact, nationally, the trend is the same, with 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. reporting a drop in public transportation ridership. (“Falling transit ridership poses an ‘emergency’ for cities, experts fear”, Washington Post, March 24, 2018)  Alternative forms of mobility are undoubtedly a factor, and mass transit systems should embrace the innovations and get onboard the transportation revolution.
   To remain relevant, transit agencies must have a vision for the future, including the role that driverless technology will play.”   - Lauren Isaac, Director of Business Initiatives for the North American Operation of EasyMile
When you’re the fourth largest city in the country, with a population of 2.4 million, you’re going to have traffic issues. However, Houston’s freeways overall are very well-designed with multiple lanes that are spacious and have lots of access roads for convenient turnarounds. This makes it perfectly positioned to support a system of ACES (Autonomous, Connected, Electric and Shared) vehicles. The technology for them to communicate with each other is already here. (“Self-Driving Taxis, Electric Trucks Arrive in 2019”, Houston Chronicle, Nov. 21, 2017)  The fact that Houston does not have a heavily equipped mass transit network may turn out to be a blessing. It is an opportunity for transit agencies to keep their eye on the road and work toward producing pilot programs and plans that re-imagine public transportation. The traditional public transit business model has already been disrupted. It seems senseless to continue investing in what will soon-be an outdated infrastructure…even if it means we lose an Amazon HQ2 in the process. 

(Rand Stephens is a Principal of Avison Young and Managing Director of the company’s Houston office.)

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