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Driverless cars could be the attractive future but public transportation is the vital present

By Alex Highley, GOPC Project AssociateMany states across the country,including Ohio, have begun to embrace the idea that driverless cars will soon represent an exciting, safe, and more efficient alternative to human-controlled vehicles. Last year, Columbus was awarded the federal Smart Cities grant, which pledges millions of federal dollars to be invested in new technologies for driverless cars. While autonomous vehicles may eventually solve some of the transportation challenges Ohio faces once their usage is proven to be safe and effective, leaders in the state should focus their efforts today on expanding and strengthening public transit. Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) believes that Ohio must prioritize investment in the existing transportation system, where the technology already exists to safely and efficiently transport people to jobs, doctors, and grocery stores.

While autonomous vehicles may one day rule the road, it is imperative that Ohio develops transportation solutions for residents who seek a means of mobility in the short-term. Public transit is a proven form of transportation that if invested in properly, can produce a number of economic development benefits for residents and businesses within communities of all types. Ohio’s population is aging and many residents, especially those living in rural areas, do not have reliable access to a car to get to job opportunities, medical appointments, family, and the grocery store. Because Ohio’s land usage pattern is defined by sprawling communities, residential areas are often located far from job sites and thus qualified individuals are unable to fill positions at companies seeking their talents. Improving transit service through, for instance,regionalization, will ameliorate these difficulties by connecting workers with key destinations and allow them to participate in Ohio’s economy.

Cota on high st
Cota on high st

However, there is a glaring shortage of good-working public transportation buses and vans in Ohio. As theOhio Department of Transportation Transit Needs Studynotes, 27 counties in Ohio do not even operate a public transit network, which means that many people rely on health and human service transportation functions to get to important destinations. Even within the transit agencies that do offer service, over a third of the 3,240 vehicles are beyond their useful life, yet they are still on the roads. As demand grows among all age groups, investment in the system is even more crucial. By 2025, the Transit Needs Study estimates that an additional $562 million in annual funding will be needed to meet the future demand for public transit statewide.

Given the general level ofuncertainty surrounding driverless cars, leaders at all level of government and business should concentrate efforts on existing transportation systems. At the moment,74 percent of Americans simply do not believe driverless cars will be safe to use. Until the public has demonstrated it trusts the new technology, it would be premature to pool resources into a system with so many lingering questions. Even if Ohioans do at some point accept autonomous vehicles as a viable alternative to driver-operated cars, it is unlikely that their costs, at least initially, will make them accessible to a wide cohort of citizens. Thus, the proliferation of the technology would likely do little to help residents who struggle to find a way to get to doctor’s appointments. By supporting a robust, modernized public transportation system, Ohio’s leaders can build a successful, fluid network of travel for workers and residents throughout the state.

For more resources on transportation policy affecting Ohio’s cities and regions, please visit GOPC’s Transportation Modernization webpage