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The Future Of Transit Is Nigh, And It’s Probably Autonomous

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
A 3-D printed map shows the density of populations across Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Viriginia. The maps were used in the region's successful bid to be selected as a semi-finalist in the Hyperloop One challenge.

Excitement permeated a big ballroom in Alumni Hall on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus Thursday afternoon, where companies and public agencies gathered to share new ideas and innovations for transit.

The mobility showcase was organized by the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. The department hopes to prepare people for big changes in how they move around the region, said assistant director Alex Pazuchanics.

“A lot of the new technology that’s coming in transportation is imminent,” he said. “It’s on the road in other cities and could be on the road in Pittsburgh.”

Much of that technology involves autonomy. Vehicle manufacturer Local Motors 3-D prints self-driving shuttles called Olli, aimed at solving transit’s “first mile, last mile” problem, said David Woessner, general manager of the company’s National Harbor, Md. facility.

“To get you from your door to the train station or the train station to your office where mass transit often struggles and even Ubers and Lyfts aren’t optimal,” he said. “To be candid, Uber and Lyft haven’t quite figured out how to make their vehicles accessible to the disabled. Our vehicle will be accessible.”

Another Maryland-based company, Robotic Research, is expanding its work on autonomous systems for the military into commercial applications. At North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, the company deployed a self-driving shuttle to transport wounded soldiers from their barracks to medical appointments. Engineer Daven Bhatt said the platform, called Robotic Research Driven, could address some of the problems associated with paratransit, such as long wait times or inconsistent service.

“It’s unfortunate that someone in a wheelchair has to wait that long just to get a ride from point A to point B,” he said. “We’re trying to really fill that niche.”

Tables around the room displayed everything from new navigation apps to futuristic transportation possibilities such as hyperloop: a system of passenger or freight trains that would travel through low-pressure tubes to allow for speeds up to 670 m.p.h. In September, the Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago route was selected as one of 10 semi-finalists in the Hyperloop One challenge.

“Now we’re moving on to further study and implementation,” said Nathaniel Kaelin with the Columbus-based Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, which is coordinating the megaregion’s hyperloop project. “This next year we’ll be working on a feasibility study and some environmental studies and start to think about that implementation strategy.”

To accommodate innovations in transit will require the city to leave room for change, said Pazuchanics.

“Building infrastructure that’s resilient, that’s adaptive and that we’re not going in any one direction too far down the path without understanding what the lay of the land is going to look like in a few years.”

For instance, a street-lighting project is being rolled out in Pittsburgh that Pazuchanics said could act as a backbone for smart and electric vehicles. He and others in both government and industry talked about the importance of creating clear operating agreements between cities and the companies that use their streets to test and implement their technology.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.
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