September 25, 2019

Could Princeton Offer Transit on Demand For All, Even Those Who Don’t Drive Cars?

By Donald Gilpin

What if an automated vehicle could drop you off with your groceries at your front door, then go pick up someone else? One car could make about 50 “person” trips per day instead of five, so that only one car is needed for every ten that exist now, and at night only one car, not ten, would need to be parked.

Could Princeton families with a few cars cut back to one or two, or none?

Princeton Future (PF) will be exploring possibilities for changing the way Princeton residents get around at a public workshop on Saturday, September 28, from 9 a.m. to noon in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library. 

According to PF, a transit-on-demand system could use small vehicles that could be summoned by a smart phone app to a location within walking distance of a user’s home.

Raising the possibility that Princeton could become a welcoming community to new technology, PF Administrator and Co-founder Sheldon Sturges noted, “Listening to people before things happen is always a good idea. The residents of Princeton will usually agree if the information presented to them is first-rate.”

Saturday’s workshop will feature an introduction by PF Secretary and Einstein’s Alley Executive Director Katherine Kish; a presentation on “A Community-centered Network of Automated Vehicles” by Alain Kornhauser, Princeton University professor of operations research and financial engineering, director of the transportation program, and one of the world’s experts on transportation and technology; and observations on “On Demand, Affordable, and Local” by Jerry He, an urbanist with a background in computer science who is pursuing a masters degree in the School of Architecture at Princeton University.

Five neighborhood break-out workshops will consider what routes would be most valuable for residents most in need of this kind of transit.

“Developers of electric cars and autonomous vehicles are eager to see how their technologies can be applied in the real world,” Sturges said. “We want to explore the possibility of leveraging this interest to gain support, possibly including the vehicles, for such an on-demand system.”

He emphasized that such a system, if implemented, would begin with safety drivers in control. Piloted autonomous shuttle buses are already operating on fixed routes in downtown areas of Detroit, Denver, Las Vegas, and Columbus, Ohio.

“The focus is on how to provide mobility for people who need it,” Sturges said, noting that PF had been talking with state, county, and local officials, though planning was in the very early stages. “The car companies who are investing billions in this technology need to feel welcomed by the consumer,” he added. “We can help them make their way in our town.”

He continued, “The police, insurance companies, and car companies are all interested in this project. The insurance companies are quite certain that automated vehicles will drive more safely than humans can in the not too distant future. We think it’s time for the community to try it out. The big thing at this meeting is to listen to people.”    

Proposing “reducing climate impact while improving quality of life,” PF “act(s) through community engagement in open public meetings using design studies to propose a direction for Princeton to pursue,” according to its website.