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Autonomous vehicles may change the face of transportation

Let’s not waste energy trying to make significant improvements to public transit in Lake Oswego.  In the short term TriMet won’t change; in the long term everything will. 

There is, on balance, good news:  Autonomous vehicles (AV’s) are coming, but you won’t have to buy one.  They will drastically reduce traffic carnage and transportation costs (i.e. employment) while providing mobility to millions.   

The key is AV’s inherent capability to be shared.  When someone drives to work, the car usually remains parked all day, unavailable to anyone else.  Households require two or more vehicles just for routine needs.  That changes when cars can drive themselves.

Imagine being able to share AV’s beyond households.  Think of fleets of “robo-taxis” or autonomous rentals spread across the region.  Once computer-chauffeured vehicles are a smartphone swipe away, mobility very close to that provided by personally owned cars becomes universal.  

A Columbia University report, Transforming Personal Mobility, suggests that shared AV’s could provide metro area transportation at a total cost per mile between 15 and 41 cents.  They will offer safer, faster, more convenient and usually cheaper trips than public transit.  If just one out of every 500 cars registered in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties were shared AV’s, they potentially could provide more than three-quarters of all TriMet rides.  Will TriMet’s payroll taxes survive the inevitable ridership plunge?

If it doesn’t go belly up first, shared AV’s would enable TriMet to drop less productive services to concentrate on commuter runs and circulators in congested areas.  Converting its own fleet to autonomous operation would save well (more than) $100 million annually, and make buses cheaper per ride than rail. Even so, Lake Oswego would almost certainly lose bus routes 36, 37, and 38; the 78 would be iffy; and the 35 could be reduced to commute hour services only.  

The disabled who qualify for TriMet’s LIFT service and who can safely get from their homes into AV’s without assistance will find their mobility greatly improved.  However, under current rules, those who need assistance will lose LIFT unless their homes remain within 3/4 of a mile of a TriMet route.  

Renault/Nissan and Volvo promise to produce cars having autonomous capability within six years.  Other carmakers are doing everything they can to stay competitive.  The consulting firm IHS predicts that road vehicles without human-driver operated controls will be available within about 15 years.  Specialized off-road AV’s including 8-passenger Navia transports and huge Komatsu ore trucks are already in service.  To its peril, TriMet publicly ignores AV progress.   Will it survive the arrival of fleets of shared AV’s?  For all that it gets wrong, TriMet gets a lot right - and vice versa.

We do need to stay on top of developments that could impact local transit.  Metro’s Southwest Corridor Plan will probably affect line 38 through-service to Portland from Westlake and Mountain Park.  The new Sellwood Bridge will foster more congestion on Macadam.  That might trigger renewed calls for a Johns Landing streetcar extension to the detriment of Lake Oswego and West Linn transit users. Gladstone and Oregon City allowed themselves to get blindsided by Milwaukie light rail.  Let’s not permit that to happen to us.

RA Fontes is a resident of Lake Oswego.




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