It’s not always easy to get where you need to go, but for people who have disabilities and seniors who rely on public transportation, this first segment of a journey can be even more challenging.
For these riders, many transit agencies offer programs, called paratransit, that offer door-to-door pickup and dropoff, but these programs sometimes have limited availability or may require additional scheduling flexibility due to it being a shared service.
Could autonomous driving technology help complement this complex system and make it even more efficient and accessible for those who depend on it?
Two entities in Metro Phoenix put this question to the test: Valley Metro, Phoenix’s public transit provider, and Waymo, an autonomous driving technology company operating in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, the world’s first fully autonomous ride hailing service. Arizona State University recently published a study of a pilot between the two organizations.
During the pilot program, which operated between September 2019, and March 2020, Waymo deployed its autonomously driven vehicles within Valley Metro’s RideChoice paratransit program.
The Valley Metro RideChoice program is a subsidized curb-to-curb individual mobility service (via taxi or ride-hailing services) for paratransit-certified people under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and for older adults aged 65 and over living in Greater Phoenix.
During the pilot project, RideChoice riders were able to select an autonomously driven vehicle with an autonomous specialist present as their transportation option at the same price point as existing RideChoice fares. More than half of participants in the pilot program were aged 51 and older, and 40% of respondents stated they could not get around independently.
Overall, participating riders gave Waymo positive ratings. Participants overwhelmingly rated Waymo highly when it comes to safety, with 70% agreeing with the statement that Waymo’s autonomous driving technology is safe. Only 29% agreed with the statement that traditional options were safe.
Participants were also satisfied with the wait time, travel time, cost and comfort of their autonomous driven rides. In fact, they even said they would prefer to ride in a Waymo as opposed to other for-hire RideChoice options.
Riders in the pilot program also said they were using RideChoice more than they were before Waymo was introduced, and they used Waymo significantly more than other options between midnight and 6 a.m. A majority said autonomously driven vehicles could enhance mobility for people with special needs.
And while riders in the program always rode with an autonomous specialist in the vehicle, between 70% and 80% said they would be willing to ride without an autonomous specialist and 93% said they would like to see autonomous driving become an ongoing RideChoice option.
The pilot program shows how autonomous driving technology like Waymo’s could be used in the future to complement existing public transportation programs and expand mobility for paratransit riders.