Driving Public Transit into the Next Generation

Imagine the next time you need to go to the grocery store or to work, that you pull up your iPhone instead of searching for your keys. At the touch of a button, you request a car which appears right in front of your driveway. But when you get in the vehicle, it’s empty.

Grayson Brulte, with the Beverly Hills Mayor’s Autonomous Vehicles (AV) Committee, described it as subscribing to a car – a phenomenon that could remove 90 percent of vehicles on city streets and 80 percent of off-street parking according to a recent study.

Beverly Hills is betting that driverless cars are the solution to Los Angeles County’s mind-numbing traffic problem, and now many other city leaders are anting up as well.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors at the end of June unanimously approved a resolution by Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch, which was co-sponsored by West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister, to adopt policies that encourage the testing and development of AVs in municipal transit, bringing hundreds of other cities more closely in line with Beverly Hills’ ambitions. The resolution also called for legislative changes at the national, state and local levels to support research and development of driverless cars.

“I was delighted that the other mayors overwhelmingly support the concept of autonomous vehicles as public transportation,” Mirisch said. “AVs could be a game changer for cities. They will provide solutions to perennial urban issues such as traffic congestion, parking and air pollution. [The resolution’s approval] shows that this is a technology that, if used correctly, can transform cities.”

The city of Beverly Hills is in the process of creating a Municipal Autonomous Shuttle System (MASS) to address “first and last mile” issues for those who wish to use regional public transportation, and to provide citywide, on-demand, point-to-point mobility. Last week, the city council considered next steps to lay the foundation to accomplish that. Staff realizes that having a city-owned fleet of AVs will take time and require considerable investment of resources.

The city council approved paying $71,500 for AV committee members to attend conferences around the country to help inform policy and to find out how to take advantage of the technology without being overwhelmed by it.

Their goals include influencing the regulatory environment at state and local levels and exploring potential partnerships with manufacturers and transportation network companies to help establish pilot programs and to develop structured and enforceable policy.

“How we get there is a question of technology, regulation, policy,” Mirisch said. “We’re trying to follow all of the developments that are happening at a break-neck pace.”

The AV Committee has been working almost daily with leaders in the AV arena and have participated in nearly 30 meetings and committed hundreds of hours of time, with several more meetings on the calendar.

“[AVs are] going to dramatically change the way our cities function,” said AJ Willmer, on the mayor’s AV committee, referring to how the changes in parking requirements will change land use policies.

Before the city develops the system, they also need to figure out how it will coexist with existing systems, as well as residential and commercial development.

“If we’re going to be leaders in this, we are going to have to craft some of those answers,” said Councilman Julian Gold, acknowledging that the city is also currently in the process of approving plans for developments that they expect to be there for a long time. Gold pointed out they don’t know where the future of those buildings are “in the face of autonomous vehicles.” He said they should first work toward “some sense of a business plan,” and he called for broader vision to develop the framework and timeline.

“We will in fact be a model for those that come behind us,” Gold said. “We have to frame it more fully.”

Vice Mayor Nancy Krasne said she was concerned that they didn’t have a plan “in totality” for building that framework.

“Do I think people are going to get out of their Rolls Royces and get into an autonomous shuttle? I don’t think so,” said Krasne. “But who could have predicted what Uber and Lyft have done to taxi cabs?”

Willmer explained they need to get information into the city’s hands, and the best way would be for them to get in face-to-face conversations with industry leaders.

“I agree with Julian on developing a business plan,” Willmer said. “We’re going where no one has gone before.”

He said the city will continue to take the lead instead of waiting to see what other cities do first.

City Manager Mahdi Aluzri said they will work on coming up with a plan to begin addressing policy issues, and regulations from state and federal governments before implementing them into the transportation system.

After a recent accident with a driverless car in Florida that killed a passenger, Mirisch said he still believes AVs will lead to significantly safer roads.

He explained that there will be glitches with the technology, but that 94 percent of accidents now are caused by human error. If you eliminate that – including drunk driving, falling asleep while driving or texting while driving – he said, AVs will save lives.

“In a number of years, drivers will be banned from the road because they’ll be too dangerous,” Mirisch said.

He also said after talking with a lot of other mayors, he can tell they’re excited about the possibilities.

“We see autonomous vehicles as one of many potential solutions, and part of a comprehensive approach to mobility,” said Meister. “The mobility landscape is evolving rapidly.”

West Hollywood is not currently exploring shared driverless vehicles, but the council expects Beverly Hills to keep them informed.

“Our WeHoX innovations and technology program team is also looking at what’s being done in other cities as well,” Meister said. “For example, there are shared driverless buses being tested by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) in Northern California.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was one of the mayors who approved the resolution. Garcetti’s press secretary, Carl Marziali, said transportation and technology in Los Angeles have always gone hand in hand, from the early Pacific Electric Red Car system, to the revolutionary ATSAC traffic management system developed for the 1984 Olympics, to the recent opening of the Expo Line Phase II.

“Autonomous and connected vehicles are a logical next step,” he said. “Mayor Garcetti welcomes any innovation that improves safety, convenience and reliability for commuters and visitors to our metropolis.”

Marziali said Los Angeles will be a leader in AV technology, but that it is too early to say when the city will have a driverless car or shuttle system. He said the city partners with the Coalition for Transportation Technology, which provided input to the California Department of Motor Vehicles on rules that would govern autonomous vehicles. LADOT general manager Seleta Reynolds serves as president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials and helped write its policy on autonomous vehicles. She also hired the city’s first transportation technology strategist fellow.

As featured in the July 14, 2016 issue of BEVERLY PRESS

Image courtesy of Google