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August 31, 2021

Addressing transit mobility gaps: What Waymo, Valley Metro and ASU learned from serving paratransit riders and seniors

  • Waymo One
A fully autonomous, white Waymo Pacifica with the 4th generation Waymo Driver in Metro Phoenix, Arizona
A fully autonomous, white Waymo Pacifica with the 4th generation Waymo Driver in Metro Phoenix, Arizona

In 2018, we shared our plans to work with Valley Metro, the Phoenix Metro area’s regional public transportation authority, to explore mobility solutions in a first-of-its-kind study that would use autonomous driving technology to complement the city’s existing transit network.

Transit agencies around the country struggle to provide high-quality, safe and affordable mobility options to riders for whom traditional public transit modes present barriers. Working together, our goal was to explore how autonomous driving technology could fill transportation and mobility gaps for a unique group of riders: ADA paratransit certified people with disabilities and seniors aged 65 and above. This group currently has access to the Valley Metro RideChoice program - a subsidized, door-to-door mobility service that enables easier access to a larger network of rideshare transportation providers.

This pilot provided RideChoice participants the option to choose Waymo for their transportation needs, and was made possible through a grant received by Valley Metro as part of the Federal Transit Administration Mobility on Demand program. It represents a first-of-its-kind partnership between an autonomous driving technology company and transit entity exploring the use of autonomous technology to meet the needs of citizens in otherwise transit-challenged areas by providing point-to-point transportation to facilitate greater access to opportunities and services. The resulting joint research study was completed in partnership with Arizona State University.

The partnership pilot took place over six months (September, 2019 - March, 2020) and deployed Waymo’s autonomous fleet as certified vehicles for Valley Metro’s RideChoice program, and included autonomous specialists in the driver's seat during this pilot. (It’s worth noting that our fully autonomous service had not yet launched at this time). These vehicles allowed this mobility-disadvantaged population to access autonomous technology in the same way- and at the same price point- as existing RideChoice options. While diverse age groups and mobility levels were represented in the project, more than 50% of participants were aged 51 and older, and 40% of survey respondents stated they would not be able to get around without assistance. A majority (70%) of Waymo RideChoice participants reported a household income of $50,000 or less.

So, what were some of the things we discovered?

  • Participants felt safe riding with Waymo.

    • Participants felt autonomous driving technology would improve safety on the roads and meet the mobility needs of all travelers, and specifically for those with special needs, such as people with mobility limitations, and said it would be good to see more AVs on the roads.

    • Among participants who used autonomous driving technology and other services during the pilot, only 29% strongly agreed that traditional RideChoice services were safe, while 70% strongly agreed that autonomous driving technology was safe.

  • Participants found Waymo’s service convenient.

    • Participants indicated strong satisfaction with the wait time, travel time, cost and comfort in their autonomously driven rides.

    • Participants indicated preference for riding in Waymo vehicles compared to other for-hire options in the RideChoice program.

  • Participants engaged in more out-of-home activities as a result of the Waymo option, researchers concluded.

    • 59% of participants indicated that they were taking more trips in the RideChoice program since autonomous driving technology was introduced.

    • Between midnight and 6 a.m., participants used autonomous driving technology significantly more compared to other RideChoice options.

    • Autonomously driven rides were used considerably more than non-Waymo RideChoice options during the core months of the pilot program, suggesting participants in this pilot study embraced autonomous driving technology as a mobility option.

  • Participants felt Waymo’s autonomous driving technology can enhance mobility for people with varying needs as well as in transit-challenged areas.

    • The majority of participants felt autonomous vehicles can enhance the mobility of people with special needs.

  • Many transportation subject matter expert focus group participants commented that they felt smaller capacity Waymo autonomous vehicles (compared to buses or larger vehicles) could potentially fill transit gap needs.

  • Participants felt they would be comfortable riding alone in Waymo vehicles in the future, without an autonomous specialist in the front seat (this pilot took place prior to our fully autonomous offering)

    • Although participants in this demonstration project always rode with an autonomous specialist present, between 70 and 80% of respondents consistently indicated they were willing to ride without an autonomous specialist.

    • 93% of participants would like to see autonomously driven rides become an ongoing RideChoice option.

These results were an important step for us to gain valuable insights that support developing a product and service that delivers on the promise to enable mobility for all.

Our complete study can be found here.