How will autonomous vehicles affect commuting?

August 8, 2015 Stuart Lerner

Growth in autonomous vehicles could halt the recent rise in commuter rail ridership


When the concept of commuting (which derives from a “commuted” rail ticket for any repetitive travel routes) first came into being, it was the railroads that were the predominant form of travel for any substantive commuting distances. It was not until after World War II when car ownership became relatively commonplace due to its affordability that the mode of commuting transformed from the railroad to the automobile. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the automobile quickly became the prevalent mode of transportation and the passenger railroads experienced a significant decline in ridership and it is only in this current generation that rail ridership has climbed back up to record levels as recently reported by APTA. This resurgence is largely a function of a growing North American population and the increase in urbanization of that population. However, we are now in the early stages of another transformation in the transportation industry; one that will have a profound effect on all suburban commuting patterns. With a possibility that the autonomous vehicle will be prevalent within the next generation, the auto industry may once again dramatically impact the way in which people in suburbia commute to work. As autonomous vehicle technology advances to offer improved safety, reduced traffic congestion and more free time for commuters, the auto industry may have an adverse effect on commuter rail ridership for the first time in nearly 100 years.

Consider the busiest commuter rail market in North America, the NYC region. Currently there are three major providers (LIRRMNR and NJ Transit) that provide access to NYC from the suburbs. There is the very real prospect that the same number of commuters that make the trip to NYC today via auto and rail will all be able to commute in autonomous vehicles on the current roadway network to urban transit hubs at roughly the same cost and time as they do today, with far greater comfort, convenience and safety. This prospect should cause the commuter rail agencies to consider a strategy to address how they will avoid potential financial struggles with the oncoming of autonomous vehicle market. However, it should also be noted that given the efficiency/ density of inner city travel, the autonomous vehicle impacts will not likely extend significantly into the transit market within the dense urban areas and therefore the urban transit agencies should not need to develop strategies similar to their commuter rail agency counterparts.

Atlantic Yards

So what strategy should the commuter rail agency consider? One approach could be to collaborate with the autonomous vehicle market given the typical commuter rail agency financial constraints. This collaboration may in fact help the commuter rail agencies reduce operating costs.

The next question then becomes, how can the commuter rail agencies collaborate with the autonomous vehicle market? There are several possibilities:

  1. Instead of investing $25,000 to $30,000 per parking space for new parking structures, the commuter rail agency could outsource the use of an autonomous vehicle taxi like service to transport people from their residences to a commuter rail station. This has the potential to increase commuter rail ridership without any capital investment. Ultimately this could lead to a reduced demand for parking at a station and free up rail agency owned land for urban infill developments and serve as an additional source of revenue for the rail agency.
  2. One of the major impediments to establishing a new bus service is the annual cost of a bus driver. However, with the advent of autonomous vehicles, it is possible that new bus routes can be established in areas that otherwise could not be financially validated.
  3. Underutilized rail lines that currently create a financial burden on a rail agency can be converted into a dedicated ROW that facilitates an autonomous bus operation that operates with reduced headways thereby increasing the quality of service provided to their prospective ridership.
  4. Share the use of excessively wide underutilized Railroad Rights of Way that originate from earlier generations when more tracks were in service, with a dedicated automated vehicle lane that can operate integrally with the rail operations.

For the railroad agencies, an incremental approach to collaboration with the autonomous vehicles is likely the most practical approach. The implementation of point one could be as simple as suspending the evaluation of an additional parking garage structure. Instead, the rail agency could negotiate with a service such as Uber or Lyft to make arrangements for them to establish a fleet of autonomous vehicles that can service a station area and obviate the need for additional parking adjacent to a commuter rail station.

Regardless, of the approach that a commuter rail agency takes, they need to give consideration as to the impact on their ridership that the on-coming of autonomous vehicles presents. If done correctly, it can serve as an overall enhancement to their service. If done incorrectly, a repeat of the ridership trends of the 1950’s and 1960’s could occur 100 years later.

About the Author

Stuart Lerner

A decades-long professional engineer, Stu Lerner is the executive vice president and business leader in Transportation and sector leader not only within Stantec but throughout the industry. Stu keeps a watchful eye on the future of community infrastructure, promoting solutions that embrace sustainability, such as building to accommodate autonomous vehicles and the other game-changing innovations that will change the way our cities and towns live, work and play.

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