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More large U.S. cities are seeing their outer reaches turn into transit deserts, where demand for transportation vastly exceeds supply.

The big picture: Economic inequality and urban sprawl have contributed to the problem, which generates barriers to health care access, employment and even everyday shopping. Connecting public transit systems with automated vehicles — whether in ride-sharing or shuttle services — could offer one solution.

Context: Researchers with the Urban Information Lab at the University of Texas studied 52 U.S. cities and found that between 1.5% and 13.5% of each city’s population had unmet transit needs.

How it works: AV solutions for transit deserts could take two main forms:

  • Ride-sharing could provide financially accessible and logistically feasible transportation with relatively light investment. It has potential as both a door-to-door service or for last-mile connections to public transit, especially during off-peak hours.
  • Autonomous buses operating on fixed route may be useful, but would not necessarily provide benefits beyond those of human-driven buses. On-demand autonomous shuttles, on the other hand, could complete door-to-door routes that combine the efficiency of a ride-sharing AV with the low cost of a bus service.

What's needed: To avoid declines in the funding of public transit that could make deserts worse, AV transit would have to be designed as a complement rather than a competitor.

  • Financial and operational incentives could help AV services gain momentum. For example, public transit agencies could handle booking and subsidize the cost of trips.

Laura Fraade-Blanar is an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

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