Asheville’s transit system is bleeding out, But Cecil Bothwell has good news.
Councilman wants to test robotic shuttle vehicles in downtown Asheville
By Roger McCredie
The City of Asheville’s bus service is hemorrhaging money at the rate of more than $5 million a year, but forget that; there’s great news on another transit front. Councilman Cecil Bothwell sees a way to relieve the city’s chronic parking problem and make it fun to get around downtown.
Bothwell has seen the future, and it doesn’t have a driver.
Viva Las Vegas
For several days last month the City of Las Vegas conducted an experiment in multimodal transportation: it put electric shuttle vehicles to work ferrying people up and down the city’s busy Fremont Street.
But these shuttles were different from conventional ones. They had no human operators. They piloted themselves by means of computer programming and electronic sensors.
Bothwell said he has been communicating with the conductors (no pun intended) of the Vegas experiment and wants “to bring the test to Asheville in the not distant future.”
“This will change everything,” Bothwell said in a recent Facebook post.
Bothwell, who just announced he will run for a a third four-year term on City Council, told Asheville Unreported, “I’m in touch with the company doing the demos out west (Las Vegas, Austin, L.A.) trying to line something up here. I contacted them via the Las Vegas transit person who oversaw the test. She was quite enthusiastic about the test and the public response.”
The shuttles tested in Las Vegas were Navia vehicles, manufactured by the French robotics company Induct. During the test they performed at a pre-programmed speed of 12.5 miles per hour, though the manufacturer says they have a top speed of 27 mph. They are powered by lithium-ion phosphate batteries.
Navia says its shuttles “are designed to provide ‘last-mile mobility’ at airports, universities, theme parks, shopping malls, historical monuments and other densely packed places.”
The models tested in Las Vegas have a seating capacity of 12, but Bothwell’s vision for Downtown Asheville involves larger capacity units.
“Even adding one such vehicle as a downtown shuttle would go some way toward relieving the parking problem,” Bothwell told Asheville Unreported.
But before somebody can hop on a driverless shuttle at Pack Square and hum on over to the Pritchard Park drum circle, two main factors will have to be resolved, particularly in light of the abysmal state of Asheville’s current transit system.
On both ends of the transaction — production and installation – a driverless public transit system for Asheville seems not quite ready for prime time.
There are presently some half a dozen robotic shuttle manufacturers in existence, including (wait for it) Google. And they’ve been turning out units in increasing volume since about 2009. Robotic shuttles are already in limited use in Washington, D.C., and Beverly Hills.
But, experts say, the very thing that makes them attractive is also their main problem: the absence of a driver. Navigating traffic is a highly intuitive and interactive process and so far no single computer program has been produced that can anticipate and deal with all its variables. Sensors, for example, detect other motor vehicles easily, but don’t do well with bicycles. And four-way stop signs, which require a judgment call, have been problematic. Robotic shuttles have been responsible for a number of real-world fender benders and even injuries.
And integrating such a system into a community’s downtown area requires considerable engineering, up to and including a complete redo of a city’s entire traffic pattern.
There are even legal considerations, such as civil and criminal liability for accidents caused by programmers or operators who are intoxicated. (For that matter, local wags have commented that part of Bothwell’s interest in the project may stem from his own 2014 DWI citation.)
The sticker price of the Navia shuttles used in Las Vegas is about $250,000 each, and the running cost is estimated at $10,000 a month per vehicle. That, of course, doesn’t include ancillary equipment, infrastructure revamping, or technicians’ salaries.
But if Bothwell sees cost as a bar to making downtown robotic, he hasn’t mentioned it. And after all, the city has a well established recent history of being able to find money for things it takes a notion to fund.
Plus, city administration recently persuaded voters to pass a $32 million transportation bond. True, driverless shuttles aren’t on the menu of that bond’s listed projects, but a sizeable loophole in the bond language allows its money to be spent on any undertaking that can be related to “transportation.”
And meanwhile, back at the bus stop …
According to the city’s most recent Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (for FYE June 30, 2016),the cost of a city bus is less than $100,000. And the average lifespan for 30-foot buses is 10 years (12 years for 35-foot vehicles).
But the city’s mass transit fund is currently operating at a loss of approximately $5.8 million. In 2016, it brought in revenue of $786,588 from its 15 city routes, plus one to Black Mountain. That’s an annualized net deficit of just over $5 million.
As a nod to public transportation, the city has earmarked $500,000 of its transportation bond for the construction of 20 new bus shelters. According to its own bond application, the city has not built any new bus shelters in three years. And according to a mass transit study conducted for the city in 2009, there are 25 existing bus stops (out of 87) where 25 or more persons board buses every day, adding up to 149,000 workday trips per year.
“For some reason, bus shelters are really expensive,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said last year
But Moving right along …
“Once I have more information I’ll take it to the Multimodal Transportation Commission,” Bothwell said. (The MTC is the body that says greenways count as transportation elements because they have bike lanes. It includes the Asheville Transit Committee.)
“Next steps would hinge on action by that Commission and support from my fellow Council members,” Bothwell said. “ My sense is that if Navia (the manufacturer) and Keolis (which actually arranged the demo) are willing, then a demonstration project could be evaluated by the Commission and the City transportation department.”
Bothwell has indicated he intends to move the robotic shuttle idea from what-if to let’s-get-r-done in the near future.
“My hope is that we can adopt this model relatively soon,” Bothwell said. “ Drivers are the pinch point in transit. We need large buses to amortize the cost of drivers over as many riders as possible. Without drivers we will be able to move to 15 passenger vehicles on 15 minute schedules for many routes, making transit much more convenient.”
Former city council candidate Mark Cates offered an alternative near-term proposal. “Seriously,” he asked, “given the poor infrastructure we have in Asheville, couldn’t we just focus on spending our limited resources on that?