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U2C: Paving the Way for the Future of Transit?

Vice President of Planning, Development and Innovation
Jacksonville (FL) Transportation Authority

In January 2017, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) unveiled a vision for the future of its Automated Skyway Express (Skyway) that seeks to modernize and expand the service by converting what is currently an automated people mover into an autonomous transit network. The Ultimate Urban Circulator, or U2C, is not just an exciting new project, it is an authority-wide initiative allowing a reimagination of the future of public transportation.

The U2C will expand the existing automated people mover system, elevated above the downtown street network, into an urban circulator system with transitions to the street level and, ultimately, serving more destinations than it does today.

JTA aims to expand Jacksonville's existing Skyway into an urban circulator system with transitions to street level.

While the terms “automated” and “autonomous” are often used interchangeably, they are, in fact, different. The key difference is that an autonomous system can and must be able to respond to its surrounding environment. The challenges are significant, the opportunities are immense and the implications are far-reaching.

JTA is rapidly moving beyond its initial vision of the U2C system and working diligently toward the application of autonomous vehicles (AV) in a public transit network that operates a fleet of vehicles safely and effectively, working in unison while responding to environmental and customer demands. From infrastructure, to technology, to ridership modeling, the U2C program encompasses a wide range of implementation considerations:

* Assessment of conversion needs of the elevated structure are nearly complete;
* Evaluation of various alternative delivery strategies, including public/private partnerships, are underway; and
* Funding and innovative financing alternatives are in review, including a keen eye on the discussion of a new federal infrastructure plan.

In December 2017, JTA launched its own “Test and Learn” track that will allow AVs to be evaluated as the agency develops specifications for the U2C vehicle. The public will be able to ride various autonomous shuttles and take part in surveys to gauge acceptance of the vehicles.Perhaps the most critical part of U2C program development is an evaluation of the technology needs for an autonomous transit network. Much attention to date has been given to how, where and when an AV transit shuttle can operate, as opposed to the needs of managing a network of dozens of driverless transit shuttles.

JTA is assessing the state of technology and determining user requirements to define the U2C digital architecture, hardware and software needs. The technology stack is fairly extensive and includes such elements as:

* Vehicle scheduling;
* Dispatching and supervision;
* Mapping;
* Vehicle tracking systems;
* Diagnostics;
* Communications infrastructure;
* Cybersecurity;
* Fare payment;
* Customer information;
* Video analytics; and
* Enterprise functions.

Most importantly, all the systems must be integrated seamlessly.

The sheer clock speed of technology development will challenge the traditional project delivery framework. While we typically phase in projects as horizontal expansions of the transportation network, the technology elements essentially add layers of functionality that may be incorporated on different timelines and add significant complexity to the program.

Rendering of JTA's autonomous vehicle network.

Organizationally, JTA has established a cross-functional, interagency working group that is developing strategies not only to implement the U2C program, but transform the way the agency delivers public transportation. As functions become automated, the skills needed will become increasingly technical and stretch our organizational capacity. New demands dictate a longer-term look at workforce development and transition plans that will create new and exciting opportunities.

From a system-planning perspective, new technologies hold the promise of making public transit service more efficient, flexible and productive. Ideally, this results in cost efficiencies allowing deployment of more service more frequently on heavily traveled corridors.

At the same time, we may be able to incorporate flexible demand-responsive or dynamically scheduled services to allow more effective feeder services and first- and last-mile connections. Leveraging “Big Data” may open up new funding opportunities.

In the end, how the transit industry captures new technologies will help define the industry’s place in the emerging mobility ecosystem. With that in mind, JTA, through the U2C program, is looking to assist in establishing the roadmap to the future of public transportation.
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