P E N D E L

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For many years, the promise of self-driving vehicles has sparked unprecedented interest from the industry, venture capitalists and urban mobility planners alike.

However, reaching mass scale has been taking much longer since initially foreseen: Technological progress has not been able to keep up with that hype and truly viable business cases have yet to be identified.

The question that is many are now asking is “Do we actually need autonomous vehicles?”

 

The answer might lay in suburban public transport.

Demand-responsive transport services with automated shuttles offers an unparalleled opportunity to  substitute private car usage in suburbs through an effective public transport system.

More than 30% of all Europeans live in the suburbs of bigger cities, and are heavily dependent on private cars due to highly inadequate public transport offerings and car-oriented developments. And this share is expected to grow strongly within the next decade – mainly due to the high cost of living in the inner cities and trends induced by the COVID19 pandemic of 2019-20. The high dependency on private cars in these areas are associated with significant economic and environmental consequences.
For one, the European Commission estimated that most traffic congestion is concentrated around urban areas and costs nearly EUR 100 billion, or 1 % of the EU’s GDP, annually (link). This adds up to the fact that over 22% of all CO2 emissions generated in the EU come from the internal combustion engines of private cars. A number, that is not expected to shrink any time soon, even with the increased availability of electric cars. The only alternative to commuting with private vehicles is are adequate public transport options.
 
The reasons why public transport connections to suburbs are currently so inefficient are complex and mainly connected to its financial unsustainability.
Compared to the movement within city centers, the amount of ridership throughout suburbs is generally lower. Low ridership makes many services financially unsustainable, particularly in suburban areas. Despite significant subsidies and cross-financing (e.g. tolls), almost every public transit system cannot generate sufficient income to cover its operating and capital costs (link). This is especially the case for longer travel distances where the labour-intensive bus operations have an even higher impact.
 
There is a growing sense among experts and investors that a solution to this inadequacy is automated, demand-responsive transport (DRT)- also known as microtransit, ride-pooling or on-demand service with autonomous shuttles. This IT-based, shared transport service is characterised by not having a fixed schedule, not necessarily fixed stops, and dynamic routing. Demand-responsive transport can either by run as part of the DRT is either run as part of the public transport operator services or in competition with existing public transport lines by private companies. . A promising practice is when public actors, that is a municipality, a Public Transport Authority or even a traditional Public Transport Operator work in partnership with entrepreneurs to increase mobility options for the citizen, contributing to the car-lite city vision.
 
While DRT is not a new mobility concept and has been developed to serve rural areas in the UK already in the 1960’s,  the integration of automated vehicles has the potential to ease the implementation of these service the the near future (link to momentum deliverable).