Public transit could thrive and possibly lead as technology improves the efficiency of transportation. Pixabay

The rise of driverless cars and autonomous vehicles has led many to believe that the end of public transportation is nigh. From improving driving conditions to safer roads, the innovative technology promises to revolutionize how people move in modern cities.

But even though driverless cars may offer relief for many of the problems plaguing individuals in cities, they will not resolve the biggest rising issue in urban transportation: gridlock. The issue of city congestion goes well beyond who’s behind the wheel, whether man or machine. Having more cars on the road, even if they are autonomous, will generally lead to higher congestion. And with traffic in many U.S. cities becoming increasingly worse, the idea of solving the problem by adding even more vehicles seems counterintuitive.

Instead, the problem of too many cars on the road should be approached from a different angle: finding ways to reduce the number of cars without impacting mobility. For this, public transportation is uniquely suited, though if it will survive this technological wave, the sector must make comprehensive changes relating to its operation and perception amongst citizens.

When Less Is More

As more residents purchase cars, hail cabs, and utilize ride-sharing services, streets become crowded and slow the pace of movement. In the city of Los Angeles alone, the average driver spends 104 hours a year waiting in traffic. Experts have hailed ride-sharing applications such as Uber and Lyft as uncomplicated ways to reduce traffic, pollution and congestion in cities. The assumption is that as more people opt to take shared rides instead of driving, their use of cars will be reduced drastically and produce a net positive effect on traffic.

However, in reality, this is not the case. Instead, it seems that while Uber and its competitors may be a boon for individual riders, they tend to put excessive strain on a city’s transportation infrastructure. Most rideshares still own private cars, and their use of these applications diverts attention from alternatives like bicycles, walking, or taking public transportation. While ride-hailing can solve individual problems, it burdens the transportation infrastructure by adding more cars and miles driven on roads without significantly reducing the core problem of gridlock.

Instead of looking at these short-term solutions, cities and urban planners should focus on an existing solution that could be improved to offer a better outcome: public transit.

Making the Old New Again

Even as other solutions clamor for the title of the next big transportation revolution, public transit remains the best alternative cities can deploy to combat rising traffic and gridlock, as well as reduce the number of cars on the road. Unlike ride-sharing and hailing applications, buses, subways, and other mass transport systems lead to a reduction in the number of vehicles on the road.

However, the current model for public transportation in many cities has proven insufficient or simply ineffective. In New York, for example, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority counts on a $15 billion budget but finds itself constantly navigating between crises. For many, the problem with public transportation is more of a perception than it is about practicality. Many urban dwellers still view public transportation as a means of affordable transit for lower socioeconomic classes. The problem is visible in the US, where only 5 percent of the population uses public transit, a number that is significantly lower when discounting New York City.

The view is perfectly illustrated by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently remarked that “public transportation is painful… Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start, doesn’t end where you want it to end?” Musk also lobbed the idea that other transit-users could be dangerous, perpetuating outdated perceptions. This view does not have to be the prevailing one. In several major metropolitan cities, the challenges are increasingly addressed by using a hybrid funding model that takes both public and private investment to deliver better systems.

The truth is that for most cities, having a healthy public transport system can be effective, and reduce the need for applications such as Uber. Tokyo has been a real challenge for Uber thanks to its ease of access to public transit, which has even forced cab prices down. While it might seem that autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing will spell the end of public transport, the competition could lead to the adoption of some innovative features and improvements of others. Implementing autonomous technology, IoT innovations and better tracking systems leads to tangible improvements in reliability, security and accountability for public transportation.

Cities on the Go

Cities need to embrace changes and how they approach transport systems. By ensuring that all the existing transit options can work in unison, letting riders switch between choices seamlessly (cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul stand out in this capacity). It’s vital to develop systems that can satisfy mass transit demands without collapsing, which can be achieved by incorporating emerging technology.

Autonomous cars may be billed as the death-knell of public transit, but the technology is widely applicable to public transit. While it may seem the two are at odds, autonomous cars will need to work in tangent with autonomous mass transportation to deliver better services and mobility for the citizens. Big data generated within a city will also have a big role to play, ensuring that both these modes of transport better match the changing demands.

More than simply survive the autonomous revolution, public transit could thrive and possibly lead as technology improves the efficiency of transportation.

Amos Haggiag is the CEO and Cofounder of Optibus.