A streetcar, a bike path - or self-driving buses?
Lake Oswego City Councilor Jackie Manz and developer Miles Haladay co-hosted a panel discussion at the Global Tech Jam conference in Portland last week that looked at the idea of creating an autonomous transportation link between Lake Oswego and Portland.
The three-day conference brought together research institutions, federal agencies, private-sector companies and city officials interested in preparing their infrastructure for the latest technologies to provide better, more equitable services.
Manz and Haladay were joined on their panel by Omar Jaff, an associate vice president with the civil engineering firm AECOM who specializes in rail and transit projects.
Although there are multiple routes that a transit line could take, Haladay and Manz said they focused primarily on the Willamette Shore Trolley corridor, which roughly parallels Highway 43 and Macadam Avenue from downtown Lake Oswego to Portland's South Waterfront district.
"Nothing has been settled — right now, this is in the highly conceptual stage," Manz told The Review. "If it could be multi-modal, that corridor would be perfect for moving people between Portland and Lake Oswego, something we desperately need with regard to our traffic."
The single-track corridor was abandoned by Union Pacific in the 1980s, but a consortium of local governments and agencies stepped in to collectively purchase the rail line in order to preserve the corridor for future transit use.
Since the late 1980s, the line has been used by the Willamette Shore Trolley, which is operated by volunteers on a seasonal basis, and serves as an historical feature rather than a transit system.
In 2012, the consortium came very close to agreeing on a plan to use the corridor to extend the Portland Streetcar's NS line to Lake Oswego, but a last-second reversal by the Lake Oswego City Council resulted in the project being shelved.
The corridor has received little official attention since then, but a few people — such as Manz and fellow City Councilor Jeff Gudman — have been quietly exploring other potential uses for it, such as a bike and pedestrian pathway.
Haladay says he began talking with the group earlier this year after joining Gudman for a walking tour of the line, and suggested a new possibility: autonomous transportation.
Haladay said he was inspired by self-driving electric shuttle buses that have recently begun to operate in Las Vegas and Paris.
"Instead of just thinking about streetcar or no streetcar, micro transit creates other options," Haladay told The Review. "Lake Oswego needs to start thinking about these things showing up."
The group hasn't officially approached any of the various public agencies that jointly own the corridor, and Haladay and Manz say they made their presentation at Global Tech Jam as a way to get the initial word out and seek feedback on the concept.
"Our presentation went extremely well," Manz told The Review. "Given the intricacies of our project, we're not as far along or developed as some of the other groups who presented."
The autonomous vehicles would be programmed to precisely follow a set of "virtual tracks" in the corridor, according to Haladay. The electric shuttle buses would each carry 6-12 people, and could potentially be much quieter and less obtrusive than a streetcar. They could also solve the problem of being forced to choose between mass transit and multi-modal accessibility.
"My question was, why couldn't we have both?" Haladay says.
Parts of the corridor might prove to be too narrow to include both a streetcar track and a bike path, but bikes and shuttle buses could use the same paved surface at different times. The buses could potentially run only on weekdays or during peak travel times, Haladay suggests, leaving the corridor open for bikes during weekends or off-peak hours.
The group presented a few different possible configurations at Global Tech Jam, including an option where the shuttles run on Highway 43, freeing up the trolley corridor for purely multi-modal uses — although that scenario could run afoul of some of the corridor's easement conditions, which specify rail use.
That legal issue is just one of many feasibility questions that would need to be answered before the project could move forward in earnest. Haladay says the group's next step would be to officially present the idea to the Lake Oswego City Council, hopefully later this year. The goal would be to secure funding and approval for a professional study of the concept.
Manz and Haladay didn't offer a timeline for when the buses could be up and running, and pointed out that while autonomous vehicle technology is rapidly evolving, the field is still relatively nascent.
"Even if we said 'go' today, this would still be a five- to 10-year project," Haladay said.
Still, Manz and Haladay say it's important to start thinking about how autonomous vehicles might be integrated into Lake Oswego's transportation system, because they'll be hitting the streets sooner or later.
Approaching the topic from a systemwide perspective can be overwhelming, Haladay says, but the trolley corridor offers a small and specific area where planners can start to brainstorm now about autonomous technology.
"Autonomous vehicles are going to happen; it's a matter of time," Manz says. "There's much debate in the auto industry and tech world about exactly how far out it is, but it's going to happen."