Oct. 19 2016 12:26 AM

Coming transport revolution could derail BRT and more

Throughout greater Lansing, the reception for CATA's ambitious and costly $133 million Bus Rapid Transit plan has been as bumpy as Michigan Avenue.

Usually, investments in mass transit are good for a community. But will there be enough riders to justify the cost? Promising fewer stops, technology to avoid red lights and with platform level access for passengers, the new bus system would trim minutes from the transit times. Even better, it would eliminate some middle-of-the-road suicide lanes in East Lansing and Meridian Township. But businesses fear that a median divide for bus stations could reduce store traffic.

For it or against it, you have to wonder, though, whether CATA is building a 20th century transit system for 21st century transportation. More rapidly than we realize, computer-controlled autonomous vehicles are poised to revolutionize our automotive-centric world. Services like Uber and Lyft and the car-sharing company Zipcar are only beginning to signal what's to come. And it's not just the advance of technology. What is happening is a culture change, especially among younger people who are far less in love with cars than previous generations.

It is altogether possible that the mass transit bus system in a community like Lansing — which let's acknowledge really doesn't have a lot of mass — will be undone by low-cost, on-demand, door-to-door transport services.

Reporting on the disruptive trends reshaping the auto industry, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. noted the declining importance of private-car ownership. It found that the “share of young people (16 to 24 years) who hold a driver’s license dropped from 76 percent in 2000 to 71 percent in 2013.” It added that there has been more than 30 percent annual growth in car-sharing members in North America and Germany over the last five years.

McKinsey, like others looking 10 years or more into the future, see new mobility models reshaping businesses and communities, a new world of winners and losers. It is the result of a convergence of trends that forecasters see reshaping transportation. The growth of electric vehicles with improved battery life will continue. Mobility options like ride sharing and e-hailing have established themselves as viable transport options. And there are numerous environmental concerns.

Certainly it is possible that a BRT system of auto-piloted buses rolling between the Capitol and Meridian Mall could adapt to the technological changes in the offing. But even a good product can be disrupted by changing technology. Kodak film made terrific photos. Blockbuster ruled the video rental industry. Borders had great bookstores.

Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford in 2012 outlined to the Mobile World Congress what he called a “Blue Print for Mobility.” Looking to 2025 and beyond, he predicted the “development of a true network of mobility solutions, with personal vehicle ownership complemented by greater use of connected and efficient shared services, and completely new business models contributing to improved personal mobility.”

My son who lives in Washington, D.C., rarely if ever drives. His Uber bill is a couple of hundred dollars a month, which may seem high, but is nothing compared to the cost of owning, fueling, parking, insuring and repairing a car in that city.

And all of this really isn't a zero sum question. No one is forecasting that car ownership will disappear entirely. But people may own fewer cars. The Automobile Association of America estimates that the cost of operating the average sedan in 2015 was $8,698 — $725 a month. Do you really need that second or third car if there are easy alternatives to get around town?

Will we need gas stations on competing corners with the emergence of electric vehicles and on-demand transport? Probably not. And service stations that offer repairs may be ill-equipped to maintain vehicles with electric motors, radar and radio guidance systems.

For the insurance industry, autos are a steady source of sales and income. Today, it insures individuals. But for driverless vehicles, accountability will likely shift to manufacturers or other business entities. Subtract auto insurance from the industry and it will shrink.

Will we need massive parking lots in a world with fewer cars? What about on-street parking, blocking access to sidewalks and stores? If nothing else, self-driving cars are self-parking cars squeezing into spaces that bedevil drivers. A study by the consulting group WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff forecast that adapting driverless vehicles to cities could offer between 15 percent and 20 percent additional developable area compared with a typical central urban layout. It cited the removal of almost all parking spaces and road-space simplification as the reason.

The trucking industry that now faces a shortage of drivers will automate as quickly as technology, insurance and road regulations allow. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will disappear, another hit for the middle class. And the same for taxi drivers or, if it happens, those BRT bus drivers.