New York

Instead of Building De Blasio’s Streetcar, What If We Had Self-Driving Uber Vans?

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A new report from a team of New York University civil engineers says Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar, known as the BQX, could be replaced with a fleet of 150 to 450 self-driving, on-demand vans.

There’s just one problem: the technology, still in its development phase, isn’t street legal in New York and has never been deployed on a large scale. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it.

The report is an exercise in technical modeling, so the researchers didn’t question the wisdom of the de Blasio administration’s desire to improve transit along the gentrifying East River waterfront. Nor did they consider how much a fleet of self-driving vans would cost, how much riders would pay, its impact on traffic congestion, or whether it would worsen air quality and traffic safety.

Then, there’s the prospect of a privately-operated autonomous service cannibalizing public transportation until the only thing left is low-quality transit for the poor.

“We didn’t really look at any of that,” said Professor Joseph Chow, who produced the report with two graduate students. “There’s a lot of other issues involved.”

Instead of looking at the broader policy picture, Chow and his students asked how many self-driving vans, carrying up to 12 people each, would be necessary to replace the proposed streetcar, which would have 39 vehicles carrying up to 150 people each. The vans would operate along the same route as the streetcar, but would instead be summoned on demand.

After crunching the numbers, Chow and his team found that with 150 vans, the average rider would have the same total travel time as with the streetcar, but would have to wait longer to be picked up. With 450 vans, wait times would be the same as the streetcar, but total travel times would be cut by more than a third.

Of course, there aren’t any self-driving cars on New York streets — yet. Chow pointed to test deployments, including vans in Paris and the San Francisco Bay Area, to indicate the technology could play a role in New York.

“I do have hopes to work with some companies to bring pilot vehicles here,” Chow said. NYU, along with partner universities, just received a $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to “develop innovative solutions that focus on disruptive technologies,” including autonomous vehicles.

Getting those vehicles on the road would require changes to state law and, the de Blasio administration argues, a stronger role for cities to determine how autonomous vehicles work within their streets and transportation networks.

Some transportation experts question the focus on autonomous vehicles when the technology hasn’t been proven. “Where’s my robot van?” said Jon Ocrutt, BQX skeptic and director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter. “What driverless vans are we talking about?”

Others think the technology should be taken more seriously. “You can’t just say this is ridiculous,” said Bruce Schaller, a transportation policy consultant who worked with Orcutt in the Bloomberg administration. The streetcar will take years to plan and build, he said, and “there are alternatives that nobody is thinking about that will be very real in the timeframe of the BQX.”

Autonomous vehicles will not replace all transit, Schaller argued, since there is nothing on the horizon that could replace heavy rail in dense places like Manhattan. But especially in less crowded environments, he said, app-based carpool services like Uber and Lyft are the first step on our way to on-demand, self-driving vans.

The shift raises all sorts of questions, including the cost and equity of access, labor protections, and fare integration with other transit services, whose own viability could be threatened by the new competition.

The debate will only accelerate as autonomous vehicles move off the test track and onto the streets. “This is not future tense,” Schaller said. “There’s a huge value to raising an important question, even if you don’t have all the answers.”

Until our self-driving future arrives, New Yorkers still have good old-fashioned buses.

Chow’s study noted that Select Bus Service, New York City’s brand for improvements like bus lanes and pre-paid boarding, would cost about $1.23 million per mile, instead of the $97.7 million per mile planned for the $2.5 billion streetcar. Both would operate at about 11 mph. In other words, beefed-up buses would offer the same speed as the streetcar for just 1.2 percent of the cost.

“I found it to be a pretty good value,” Chow said of Select Bus Service. “It would make sense for them to look at that.”