Slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch

Recently I discovered the existence of a new kind of streetcar – the Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit tram, which has been dubbed ART. The system was developed in China and is trackless – it operates on existing streets (!!). The system has a cost of about one tenth (!!!) of railbound streetcars and it can be deployed and relocated relatively simply (paint on the pavement is the medium for guidance). Here is a view of the system as deployed in Zhuzhou in 2018.

Trackless tram in Zhuzhou

Now being used in several cities in China, the system is also being developed for use in Perth and perhaps Sydney in Australia, and has been actively used in Qatar since last summer.

In the Chinese prototype, each carriage has a capacity of 100 riders, and train sets can range anywhere between one and five carriages. All of which got me thinking.

Perhaps at last we might be able to approach a truly scalable transit system using autonomous vehicles of a variety of sizes. One of the problems of most US transit systems is their lack of scalability: big vehicles (buses) and bigger vehicles (articulated buses) and, at the other end of the scale, smaller van-like vehicles. Nothing in between. The lack of a range of vehicle types means providing equitable access to transit across all city communities is prohibitively expensive: running a 100 passenger bus on city streets to serve 8 riders just does not make sense. And running large vehicles at short headways on heavily used routes (especially other than at morning or evening peaks) just does not add up. So we get long waits.

Here in Rochester, many routes have extremely long headways – more than an hour between vehicles. And in many places in the city, and especially in poorer areas, many routes are not reachable in a walk, especially in bad weather. Further, many routes require that you go in to the center city bus terminus to go out to the metropolitan perimeter to your destination. This take so much time it just doesn’t work very well. Changes may be coming, but at the cost of service in some locales because of the economies imposed by the system’s vehicles and the increasing cost of transit labor.

But if the system were scalable, and if smaller vehicles were autonomous and did not require transit labor (other than maintenance) perhaps things may start to work more fluidly. And more comprehensively across the city’s (and region’s ) geography. Best of all the smallest vehicles, as I have said here on too many occasions, could relieve us of a need for our cars. But we will see how that works out….

So here is what is available off-the-shelf today, after a brief Internet foray:

There are some newer designs for additions in the middle range of passengers that look like this:

40 seats
Being tested as autonomous in Reno
Longeau’s Irizar bus, which can be scaled down to 50 passengers (Irizar is a Spanish manufacturer).

And the smaller vehicles have appeared on these pages previously.

Computer controlled driverless taxis proposed for Cardiff city centre.
Being used now at University of Michigan
Mid capacity autonomous transit vehicle by Navya

Slowly a scalable autonomous transit system is beginning to emerge from the mist. We may be able to get this to work yet, after we get this damn virus under control….

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