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Local View: Shuttle can't overshadow StarTran

Local View: Shuttle can't overshadow StarTran

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A recent Journal Star editorial that focused on the city's tests of an autonomous shuttle ("Shuttle shows potential for Lincoln transit," July 11) needs a bit of further analysis.

I rode a test run of the shuttle and approached this experience with an open mind. My impression after the ride and question-and-answer session is that the driverless shuttle has limited potential for Lincoln.

I see the shuttle as being practical on a downtown or Haymarket loop. I can also see applications as internal circulators at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's City and East campuses.

Another possible application would be to use the shuttles as collectors for the regular StarTran routes. Since the route and schedule changes of November 2016, a number of riders have complained that putting the StarTran routes on arterial streets and away from residential streets creates problems. Shuttles circulating through neighborhoods could provide better transportation access so riders could get from home to StarTran routes.

In their euphoria about driverless vehicles, city officials should not fail to continue upgrading StarTran, as recommended in the update of Lincoln's Transportation Development Plan.

The seats in the demo shuttle are designed for short trips and would be uncomfortable for the longer StarTran bus routes. The maximum speed of the shuttle, slightly faster than 20 mph, would not mix well with traffic on arterial streets with speed limits of 35, 40 or 45 mph.

A major issue yet to be addressed regarding bus service in Lincoln is the lack of shelters and benches at designated bus stops. Of the approximately 800 such stops on the system, only about 100 currently have a bench or shelter.

A letter to the editor last winter ("Lincoln bus stops need shelters," Jan. 27) bemoaned the fact that bus riders have to stand out in the wind, rain and cold waiting for a bus without a shelter or even a bench. A more recent letter ("Dogs get more than bus riders," May 16) noted that we treat dog owners and dog runs better than StarTran riders. At least they have benches!

The mayor's budget proposal for 2018-2020 proposes $135,000 for new benches and shelters. This would provide about 19 more benches and 17 more shelters -- leaving 650 bus stops without either amenity.

Citizens for Improved Transportation proposes doubling that amount so the problem with benches and shelter can be more quickly addressed. We hope that bus riders and concerned citizens will come to the Lincoln City Council meeting on July 30 to support an increase that will allow StarTran to speed up bench and shelter placement.

Another troubling issue is the proposal by the city's Urban Development Department to build two more downtown parking garages. That's the last thing Lincoln needs. While Public Works and Utilities tries promoting bus ridership, Urban Development wants more subsidized downtown parking, which will encourage citizens to keep driving private cars rather than using public transit.

A study by Omaha Streetcar found that as the number of downtown parking facilities increased the number of workers employed in downtown Omaha decreased. A parking garage creates fewer jobs than space used to erect a new office building.

The notion that autonomous vehicles may eliminate congestion is questionable. Studies in Spain and Portugal postulate the widespread use of autonomous vehicles could actually increase congestion, as their convenience may allow riders to fail to plan all their tasks in a single trip and require multiple trips.

The proposed downtown shuttle in Lincoln is a wise way to edge into the new technology. It's still in its infancy, and we can anticipate teething problems.

It's unfortunate that the amended version of Sen. Anna Wishart's bill, which allowed driverless vehicles across Nebraska, was passed. It's too much, too soon and has many holes in it that need to be corrected. The implication of mixing driverless vehicles with conventional cars and trucks on city streets and Interstate 80 is still unknown.

In the meantime, Lincoln can edge into driverless vehicles carefully but continue to expand StarTran bus service, which will be needed long into the future. As home to Nebraska's capitol and flagship university, Lincoln deserves no less than first-class bus service.

Richard Schmeling is the president for Citizens for Improved Transit. He lives in Lincoln.


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