In the past, if students living in Downtown Gainesville wanted to get to class, they would have to drive to campus, ride a scooter, walk more than a mile, or wait for the bus.
However, starting in May, those students will have yet another way to get to the University of Florida campus.
“The Gainesville Autonomous Transit Shuttle, or GAToRS, is the first of its kind in the country, and it is being introduced to Gainesville as part of the city’s initiative to begin Smart City policies,” said Dan Hoffman, the assistant city manager for the city of Gainesville.
According to Hoffman, Smart Cities use physical devices and information and communication technology to collect data in order to better deliver a service or improve the quality of life for all residents.
The autonomous shuttle is expected to decrease the number of crashes and pollution while increasing mobility for the public and improving traffic flows, according to a press release published by the University of Florida’s Transportation Institute.
Hoffman said transportation is always prioritized in Smart Cities because it is the lifeblood of our economy, and without it, cities cannot do much.
“If people can’t move, they can’t function,” he said. “Nonfunctioning transportation can make a city a bad place to live.”
Jeffrey Gordon, a traffic engineer at the city of Gainesville’s Public Works Department, said the city will have three shuttles, which will be funded by a state grant of $2.6 million.
Students and residents will be able to ride the shuttles, which will fit 12 people each and run in a loop every 10 to 20 minutes. The shuttles will be on their own route with stops in parts of SW 4th Ave., SW 13th St., SW 2nd Ave. and S. Main Street, Gordon said.
Hoffman said these shuttles would most likely be able to carry more people in the future. However, he also said many people, including him, believe that small vehicles running more frequently will be more efficient.
With the autonomous shuttle comes the concern for how Smart City policies will affect jobs.
Jesus Gomez, the transit director for Regional Transit System, or RTS, said he’s had informal conversations with Union representatives about how future autonomous vehicles would replace bus drivers.
However, he said the autonomous shuttle would be a way to provide transportation to citizens and adopt new transportation trends while creating jobs.
“Some drivers already have expressed concerns,” Gomez said. “The concerns are always there, but I would prefer to see it as a way to create new jobs.”
These new jobs include positions as a service attendant, control center technician and support staff, he said. These jobs would be held by new hires or existing employees trained to adapt to new responsibilities.
Gomez also said the turnover rate in the transit industry is usually high. The current turnover rate in Gainesville is 15 percent, meaning RTS has to hire more than 30 drivers per year.
He said if RTS has to deviate resources to an autonomous type of service, they would not need to lay off any employees.
Zefnia Durham, the president and business agent for Gainesville’s Amalgamated Transit Union, said the introduction of autonomous shuttles should be a concern for all of America, not just the transit industry.
Durham said he believes current bus drivers will be protected under their contracts, but he is still concerned about how these shuttles will affect future employees.
“Our cities are growing, so we need to make sure our transit industry is also growing to support these changes,” he said. “I would prefer the industry grows with human labor as opposed to autonomous labor.”
Gomez said if successful, the autonomous shuttles would not replace RTS, but will be an additional transportation alternative for all citizens.
Hoffman also said there are no current plans to expand the routes for the shuttle. The objective, for now, is to test the technology in a real-world setting so that the routes could eventually be expanded to include other parts of Gainesville.
The autonomous shuttle is only the first of a series of Smart City initiatives the city of Gainesville will begin to see in the years to come.
City Commissioner David Arreola said the city will also be upgrading the streetlights to include fiber technology turning them into data-capturing and communication devices that will help run a more efficient and safer city.
Upgrading the streetlights would cost the city $6.8 million and would include sensors that can detect air quality, car accidents, and gunshots, he said. The funding for the streetlights would be coming from municipal bonds, which the city will vote to approve once they approve next fiscal year’s budget.
Arreola said the city commission plans to make the transition to Smart City policy by emphasizing the democratic process and addressing data privacy concerns, as well as implementing curriculum to Alachua County Public Schools that would prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.
“Our ambition is to be able to attract the jobs of the future,” he said. “We need to advance our city into what will be the natural course of human economy and do it in a way so that everyone who is currently in the workforce, or will be joining the workforce, is fully equipped to handle those changes.”
Arreola said Smart City projects, like the autonomous shuttle, will open people’s eyes to the possibilities of the future and will prove that Gainesville is a city that is preparing for a rapidly changing society.
According to Hoffman, there are four pillars to complete a Smart City strategy: infrastructure, workforce development, policy and planning and economic development.
Infrastructure is the tangible hardware in the built environment. He said the purpose of Smart Cities is to combine the physical and cyber components to create a useful device.
Workforce development is the process of training people for the future jobs that will replace those eliminated by automation. Hoffman said Smart Cities need to have a team that can understand how to maintain and manage new technology so that cities do not rely on contractors and consultants.
Policy and planning involves creating legislation that will support Smart City initiatives. He said all projects are subject to state law—some state laws make sense, but others are outdated. The goal is to use information and expert analysis to create policies that will allow a city to take full advantage of Smart City projects.
Finally, economic development is the process of making Gainesville attractive to new companies that will create future jobs.
Hoffman, who used to work in Washington D.C. in a jurisdiction of 1.1 million people—almost nine times the size of Gainesville—said he came to this city because it has the size and the talent to see Smart City projects through the full-scale deployment without it taking too many years.
Arreola said that Gainesville would benefit from being a Smart City by becoming a safer, citizen-centered city that responds to the needs of its residents.
“The conversation of ‘let’s stop progress and keep things the way they are,’ isn’t a realistic conversation,” Arreola said. “A realistic conversation is: What does it mean to raise a child in a city where we can detect gunshots and monitor the most dangerous intersections? What does it mean to live in a city where we’re building up?”