A (hypothetical, incremental) revolution in automated transit

With automated vehicles succeeding (so far) as taxis in San Francisco and Phoenix, it’s only natural to ask: What’s next?

Pundits and researchers have long wondered whether autonomous vehicle technology can transform the world of public transit, which is beleaguered with staffing and financial problems despite a post-pandemic recovery in ridership. “Transit agencies are currently facing big financial deficits while also struggling to attract drivers at current wages and also facing pressure to add security personnel,” Matthew Yglesias recently wrote in his Substack newsletter. “So in this case, there’s no big labor market issue at all, it’s just a win.”

I called up Sarah Fox and Nikolas Martelaro, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and authors of a 2022 policy paper on automated public transit, to ask them exactly how close, or far, we might be from that “win.” As it turns out, it’s a little bit more complicated than simply taking the driver out of every bus.

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