The coming ‘transit apocalypse’

Is Minnesota locking in the wrong future by constructing expensive and obsolete technology?

The Feds may have recently approved $2.003 billion for the Southwest Light Rail project, but wise transit policy goes beyond fixed rail systems, especially when those systems—pegged as the wave of the future—will soon become a relic of the past.

Transportation expert Randal O’Toole predicts light-rail transit is headed for a “transit apocalypse,” partially thanks to shared-ride services such as Uber and Lyft and their impending expansion into autonomous vehicles.

Declining ridership in rail services across the U.S. is compelling municipal governments to decide between continuing to invest in their current transportation infrastructure or prepare for autonomous ride-sharing vehicles. Shared driverless cars are most likely to affect high-end systems, including rail transportation especially, that don’t deliver on their promise to relieve congestion, save energy, or be cost-effective (light-rail lines are expensive to maintain).

When measured in per-passenger miles, transit is the country’s most expensive and most heavily subsidized form of travel, O’Toole explains. Today’s ride-hailing services tend to be more expensive than transit because they still require users to pay a driver. But once the driver is no longer a human, these services will reflect costs similar to those car owners incur, making self-driving services just as affordable or even cheaper than transit fares and collapsing the “third class” stigma often associated with public transportation.

There is also the convenience element to consider. Self-driving cars provide a door-to-door service: riders are picked up from a starting destination and dropped off at their end destination, no stops or transfers. Transit requires a means of transportation to get the rider to a central location (the station) at scheduled times with stops or transfers, and then requires passengers to find another means of transportation before arriving at their final destination. Driverless cars eliminate the intermodal overhead.

The future of transportation is flexible, not fixed. Autonomous vehicles will not replace light-rail transit overnight. Too many taxpayer dollars have been invested for supporters to admit it is a misuse of money—even after total cost is known—and there’s huge inertia to keep light-rail projects moving forward. But Minnesota needs to focus its dollars on making transportation more efficient instead of spending two billion dollars on a system that will soon join the dinosaurs.