Planning For: Shared Autonomous Vehicles

Published November 1, 2019
By Sadie Wutka, Director of Content Strategy, SCUP
Planning Types: Campus Planning

Interview With Barbara Chance, President and CEO, CHANCE Management Advisors, Inc.

We may be more than a decade away from shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs), but as a recent article listed in our Sept 2019 issue of Trends in Higher Education pointed out, the time to prepare is now. But how? What infrastructure changes will give colleges and universities the flexibility to meet transportation needs now and transition to SAVs later?

We reached out to transportation planner Barbara Chance to ask her how she thinks SAVs will impact our campuses, and what higher education can do now to prepare.

Briefly describe what you do and your expertise related to transportation infrastructure.

My company has worked with higher education institutions for 35 years. We focus on planning, management, operations, and finance for parking, transportation, and other modes of mobility (bikes, scooters, walking, etc.). Campuses want to build facilities, improve operations, start new services, or develop master plans. We help them move from the current state to their desired future.

What role do you think shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) will have on campus?

I think the transition for campuses will be dramatically easier than for cities. Campuses are “closed” environments compared to cities. The populations are more known, and the groups are more homogenous.

For the general population, public transit (the long-standing “shared vehicle” mode in the US) has seen five years of decreasing ridership. 1 Many individuals cease using trains or buses when they have options that are more convenient, comfortable, reliable, and safe. They will need a compelling reason to change from these options back to shared SAVs.

However, on many campuses, students are already accustomed to riding buses, either as transportation to campus or movement across campus between buildings. Therefore, students will not see SAVs as very different from the buses they know now.

Faculty and staff members ride in shared vehicles much less often. The fact that the vehicles are autonomous will probably not be enough to move faculty and staff from their current transportation habits to SAVs; they will need additional incentives or motivations.

That being said, it all depends on location and the type of campus. Large campuses with primarily resident student populations are more likely to adopt using SAVs than campuses with primarily commuter students whose top option is to drive to campus from geographically dispersed locations.

How will SAVs impact the campus?

For the campuses with large existing bus systems, especially electric bus systems, the effects of SAVs may be minimal in terms of physical appearance and landscape.

For the bus systems that must be financially self-supporting, there may be additional costs for changing from existing systems to autonomous vehicles. Similarly, there may be costs for infrastructure upgrades (roadways, upgraded pedestrian crossings) that must be funded in some manner.

What can colleges and universities do now to prepare for SAVs?

The most important preparation is to acquire knowledge about the trends in SAVs. It is too early to plan infrastructure improvements, other than maintaining campus roadways and improving pedestrian paths and crossings.

One of the best ways to understand where we are in the development of autonomous vehicles is to watch the recent Nova program, “Look Who’s Driving”. It is a real eye opener!

Tracking the proposed charging requirements for SAVs will be important for facilities and services departments to do as far in advance as possible, since upgrades will likely be necessary to provide the power needed.

What relationships will colleges and universities find beneficial during the transition to SAVs?

Realistic planning for the operations and financing of SAVs will require cooperation between departments such as facilities, parking and transportation, finance, student affairs, and planning. Campuses may require the services of consultants regarding the transition from existing bus systems to SAVs and their requirements.

Securing the funding for infrastructure improvements and fleet acquisition or third party contracts will be difficult for most universities. Persuading trustees, state funding sources, or endowment officials will require a strong argument to be made for the benefits of SAVs over existing systems.

Any final thoughts?

In my opinion, we won’t see widespread adoption of SAVs in the next 20 years. Existing bus ridership may be replaced on campuses with some version of SAVs (if the technology and legal issues are solved), but I think we are a long way from individuals giving up the freedom found in personally owned vehicles. So, any discussion a campus has about preparing for SAVs should start with this question: “How extensively is shared transportation used now, and what is the likelihood that campus conditions will increase that use?”

Cover (Trends Inside and Outside Higher Education | Fall 2019) Read all of the trends and analysis from the Fall 2019 issue of Trends for Higher Education.

1 Florida Department of Transportation, Freight Logistics and Passenger Operations, Understanding Ridership Trends in Transit, Steve E. Polzin and Jodi Godfrey. Tampa, FL: Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida, 2019, (accessed September 25, 2019).