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Why the Country’s First Driverless Bus May Come to Beverly Hills

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Mayor John Mirisch talks about the California city's long-range play for autonomous transport

Early last month, the Beverly Hills city council passed a resolution that, over time, may "change the paradigm of Southern California," according to Mayor John Mirisch. What municipal action would have the power to make such a shift? The action—beginning to develop a driverless bus system—is still in the very early stages, but it makes Beverly Hills the first city in the country to embark on such a plan. And in car-centric California, that could potentially be a big deal.

"Currently, public transportation here is a second-class system of transportation here," he says. "It’s something you have to do, not something you want to. Point-to-point, on-demand transportation will make it a first choice."

The need to change the city’s transportation system, as well as the eventual arrival of a heavy rail stop in Beverly Hills in 2023—the first of two stations on the Purple line will open at La Cienega and Wilshire—has led Mayor Mirisch and the city to embark on plans to develop an autonomous shuttle system. Mirisch envisions mid-size, 8-12 person vehicles ferrying passengers around town and to-and-from rail station, what he sees as the ultimate first and last mile solution.

"Part of it comes from the question, ‘How are we actually going to be able to take advantage of the multi-billion dollar investment?’ in heavy rail," he says. "But there are tremendous benefits for the city itself without the rail connection. It takes cars off the streets, decreases traffic, increases mobility for seniors, the disabled, and children. It will also save lives; imagine less distracted driving, texting, and drunk driving."

As the first city to introduce such a plan, Beverly Hills is now in talks with companies such as Tesla and Google, as well as California transportation officials, to begin the long process of building the technology and drafting the regulations necessary for such a system to get off the ground (both of which don't exist yet, and are far from figured out). Mirisch, who had previously written about his desire to develop such as system, is confident that by laying the groundwork, this development plan will benefit other cities. Such a hyperlocal solution helps increase mobility relatively inexpensively, since it doesn’t require the costly infrastructure of rail lines, and labor is often a massive cost for public transportation systems.

Mirisch, who spent time overseas living in Sweden, Germany, and Austria, and understands the advantages of a European-style transit system, believes that making roads more effective is the solution for his city’s mobility and transportation challenge. Transit advocates may not want to hear it, he says, but efficiently using roads can make a difference and help expand multi-modal transportation in myriad ways. While the city has made strides in walkability, more than 70 percent of the traffic in Beverly Hills in through traffic, a number Mirisch believes can change with a better system and an updated biking infrastructure.

Currently, city officials are talking with car companies, transportation network companies, and policy makers, and plan to hold a meeting next January to discuss plans and technological options. Mirisch admits it’ll take a long time to develop the technology, but thinks it’ll be a quicker process than most people think.

"We feel the tech will be there before people expect," he says. "It’ll be ready before the station opens in 2023. It’s not decades away. If you’re building for the next hundred years, don’t look at the last 100 years of technology."

Fixing the American Commute [Curbed]

How Driverless Cars Can Reshape Our Cities [Curbed]