Urbanism Next
University of OregonUniversity of Oregon


Transit is the most efficient way of moving people, but many transit systems are facing challenges. What happens when AVs arrive?


Many public transit riders and providers dramatically changed their behaviors as a result of the pandemic. Read about how public transit changed in response to Covid-19 on Urbanism Next's Transit Covid Impacts page.

Urbanism Next's two new reports in the Covid-19-- Impacts to Cities and Suburbs series, Key Takeaways Across Multiple Sectors and Impacts to the Urbanism Next Framework, explore how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing different elements of urban living, including to transportation, urban design, building design, and e-commerce.

What is driving change?

Change in Vehicle Miles Travelled

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) may increase or decrease total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the future, although most researchers predict the former, citing research on the impacts of transportation network companies (TNCs) on VMT. VMT may also rise if, for example, AVs circle blocks continuously waiting to pick up their passenger rather than parking.

Change in Congestion

Several studies examining the impacts of transportation network companies (TNCs) on congestion have concluded that TNCs are contributing to increased congestion. On the one hand, autonomous vehicles (AVs) could contribute to increased congestion resulting from a combination of induced and latent demand, mode replacement, and increased circulation (e.g., continuously circling the block when waiting to pick up a passenger rater than parking). On the other hand, the potential exists for AVs to help decrease congestion if they are able to travel in closer proximity than human-driven vehicles, resulting shorter headways and narrower travel lanes.

Change in Ease of Travel

While autonomous vehicles (AVs) have been predicted to induce trips and increase congestion within central cities, some studies have predicted that AVs might increase the speed of travel to and from suburban and exurban areas as they take advantage of faster and more efficient travel on arterials, highway, and freeways. This may allow travelers to reach further into the periphery of cities while maintaining their current commute time.

Shift in Modes

The growth of transportation network companies (TNCs) in the past several years has impacted travel behavior, with preliminary research suggesting that TNCs are among the factors impacting transit ridership. If AVs lower travel costs, potential modal shifts may occur depending on trip distance and purpose.

Competition for the Right-of-Way

Much of parking is currently in the right-of-way (ROW); already, transportation network companies (TNCs), micromobility devices, and expanding goods delivery spurred by e-commerce are increasing the competition for once stagnant curb spaces primarily dedicated to storing individually-owned vehicles. Increased competition for curb space raises questions about whether parking should remain in the right-of-way, or if curb space is better dedicated to other modes or uses, including loading zones.

Future Changes

Two signs with arrows pointing at train tracks on both sides

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

What Could Happen?

  • Public transit could see ridership decrease and some routes entirely eliminated. This could be particularly true in cases where public transit options are considerably slower, less convenient, or more expensive than TNC or AV service, or if AVs and other related technologies result in cities sprawling out further, making effective transit coverage more difficult and costly as a result. The loss of ridership and routes could result in a decrease in funding available for transit agencies and a subsequent reduced ability to provide service elsewhere, which may in turn lead to further loss of ridership and routes. This could potentially be mitigated through partnerships with TNCs and fleet-operated AVs by utilizing these services to cover first- and last-mile gaps in transit coverage.
  • Public transit could see ridership numbers increase as cities densify. A combination of reallocated street space coupled with land use densification could increase opportunities for transit-supportive development patterns. This may lead to an expansion of transit service and frequency. Some transit vehicles are also likely to move toward automated operation, which reduces operational costs and therefore increases opportunities for increased transit frequency and extended hours of operation.
  • Micromobility options could be directly integrated into the services offered by a transit authority. Transit apps or passes could be designed to work for shared-use systems, such as bikeshare, as well as conventional mass transit such as buses and light rail. This could increase overall ridership and usage of public transit.
City bus driving down paved road at sunset

Photo by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash


  • Nationally, an increase in TNC usage has been correlated with decreased public transit usage. According to research findings, bus services have been the most affected, followed by light rail. This trend is likely to continue alongside increased TNC market penetration if the current status quo remains in place.
  • Investing in transit infrastructure on core high-capacity routes can increase transit ridership. The relationship between population density and transit ridership is well-established and supported by research. This has been seen in cities that have adopted this approach, such as Seattle and Las Vegas. Meanwhile, cities such as Denver and Los Angeles have continued to struggle with declining ridership despite making transit investments, due in part to lack of density along new routes and lack of general transit network connectivity overall. While not all cities will net the same results, this suggests that transit could see ridership increase or  decrease based on whether urban areas become denser or more dispersed.
  • Micromobility options are already being included in the transit passes of many cities. Cities such as Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, and Helsinki have already integrated microbility options into their passes. As micromobility options become more popular, the number of transit authorities incorporating them into their existing transit offerings is likely to increase.

Quick facts

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What to do

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Not sure where to start? Below are four What to Do pages that we think are especially relevant to Transit:

More about what to do »


Policies, pilots, and approaches

Communication tools

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