Waymo vehicle in a downtown setting with pedestrians crossing the street
Courtesy of Waymo

In a report just released by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), seniors and ADA riders in the East Valley found autonomous vehicles (AV) preferable over traditional taxis or rideshare options. For the disabled and senior population who may lack consistent mobility options, there is significant evidence that AVs provide a safe, convenient travel solution.  Participants in the study were also engaged in more activities outside of the home and believe they would be comfortable riding alone, without an autonomous vehicle specialist.

“It is exciting to see how well autonomous vehicles were accepted as a viable travel solution for seniors and persons with disabilities. It is always beneficial to provide additional passenger options to our citizens. With a growing demand for affordable transportation, we are on the brink of a new era,” said Valley Metro RPTA Board member & Valley Metro Rail Chair, Mesa Councilmember Francisco Heredia.

As part of an effort to develop innovative ways for transit to complement new modes and technologies, Valley Metro collaborated with Waymo and Arizona State University (ASU) to understand how autonomous vehicles can be used for the Valley Metro RideChoice program. RideChoice provides critical transportation to seniors and passengers with disabilities using taxis and rideshare providers.

“Through our autonomous vehicle technology, Waymo offers a safe and easy way for people to get where they need to go,” said Nicole Gavel, Head of Business Development and Strategic Partnerships for Waymo. “The insights gained through this first-of-its-kind partnership support developing a product and service that holds the promise of enabling mobility for all, offering a new kind of freedom for individuals to go where they want, when they want.”

The six-month study, which began in 2019, focused on how autonomous vehicles can enhance customer experience, meet accessibility needs and help improve affordability and safety to a key rider demographic. The study was funded by the FTA to understand where autonomous vehicles can fit within a program of transportation services provided for Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit-certified people with disabilities and seniors aged 65 and over. The vehicles operated in an area of approximately 100 square miles.

“The ASU team was delighted to have the opportunity to partner with Valley Metro and Waymo to study the potential for an autonomous vehicle future,” said Ram Pendyala, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU and director of the Center for Teaching Old Models New Tricks (TOMNET), a multi-university transportation research group. “The research findings show that the future is bright, with study participants expressing a strong desire to adopt autonomous vehicle-based transportation services.”

ASU researchers conducted surveys and focus groups while also analyzing trip data to gain an understanding of how AVs affect rider perceptions. They discovered that AV riders showed strong satisfaction in regards to comfort, wait time, travel time and ease of requesting a ride.

“Incorporating new technology into our transit system is a leap that we are ready to take,” said Scott Smith, Valley Metro CEO. “There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to offering transit services. We will continue to seek out feasible solutions that make sense for every age and ability of our riders.”

Looking ahead, there is interest in further exploration of how transit services might facilitate and support point-to-point mobility. In addition, local elected officials who participated in roundtable sessions about the program felt there was a need to expand the trial use of AVs for mobility-challenged residents. 

The opportunity to ride with Waymo was available in the East Valley (Chandler, Mesa and Tempe) service area between September 2019 and March 2020. The final report, written in association with ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is titled An Evaluation of the Valley Metro-Waymo Automated Vehicle RideChoice Mobility-on-Demand Demonstration (Report 0198).

About Valley Metro: Valley Metro exists to connect communities and enhance lives each day by providing eco-friendly public transit options in Maricopa County, the fastest growing county in U.S. In Fiscal Year 2021, at just over 27 million riders, transit ridership experienced a sharp decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the call for essential trips only on both bus and light rail. While life in metro Phoenix returns to a new normal, progress continues on five, high-capacity transit extensions that are either in planning or under construction to create a 50-mile rail system by 2030. In late 2021, Valley Metro will open the region’s first streetcar line in Tempe that features the Valley’s first off-wire operations in the system. Valley Metro also offers alternative transportation programs including paratransit services for seniors and people with disabilities, commuter vanpools, online carpool matching, bus trip mapping, bicycle safety and telework assistance. Two Boards of Directors from 18 local cities and towns and the county set the policy direction for the agency with the intent of advancing the regional public transit system in Maricopa County. In additional federal and local funds, Valley Metro receives critical capital and operations funds from Prop. 400, the 20-year, regional half-cent transportation sales tax that is set to expire in 2025. Stay up-to-date by following us on  Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter or by visiting valleymetro.org.

About Waymo: Waymo is an autonomous driving technology company with a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to get where they’re going. Since our start as the Google Self-Driving Car Project in 2009, Waymo has been focused on building the Waymo Driver - the World’s Most Experienced Driver, to improve access to mobility while saving thousands of lives now lost to traffic crashes. The Waymo Driver powers Waymo One, the world's first fully autonomous ride-hailing service, as well as Waymo Via, our trucking and local delivery solution. To date, Waymo has driven over 20 million miles autonomously on public roads across 25 U.S. cities and driven over 20 billion miles in simulation. For more: http://www.waymo.com/

About the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University: With nearly 25,000 enrolled students, it is the largest engineering school in the United States, offering 47 graduate and 25 undergraduate degree programs across seven schools of academic focus. With students, faculty and researchers representing all 50 states and 135 countries, the Fulton Schools of Engineering is creating an inclusive environment for engineering excellence by advancing research and innovation at scale, revolutionizing engineering education and expanding global outreach and partner engagement. The Fulton Schools of Engineering’s research expenditures totaled $126 million for the 2019-2020 academic year. Learn more about the Fulton Schools of Engineering at engineering.asu.edu.