The “end of fixed transit” narratives coming out of the tech industry (and sometimes also from architects and visionaries) are an increasing problem for dense cities, where, as I argued here, the primary need is to provide movement and liberty for vast numbers of people in very little space. Even where ridership is moderate, replacing big vehicles with little ones can only mean more vehicle trips, with all of their congestion and environmental impacts, and if little vehicles are made more cost-effective in labor terms (prior to automation) then this can only be because of a race to the bottom on driver compensation.
The key fact to remember: even that low-ridership suburban bus line that looks empty all the time is probably doing at least 10 riders / service hour (that is, per hour that one transit vehicle is running). No ‘door to door’ service can possibly match this; you are not going to take 10 people to their individual doors in an hour, especially if they live as far apart as they usually do in the suburbs. Ten boardings per hour is a dreadful performance for a fixed route and almost unimaginably high for anything demand-responsive to achieve.
So the only way for a low-productivity service (riders/service hour) to outcompete big buses is through a race to the bottom on wages and compensation, which has consequences for both service quality and for the larger society.
The most urgent thing transit agencies need to do, right now, is start talking more confidently about what their fixed-route, high-ridership transit service is achieving, so that they negotiate with the new players from a position of strength and confidence.
More on this soon, but meanwhile there’s a video. It’s from a presentation I did to the Board of Capital Metro, the Austin area transit agency, last month. It’s here, but you need to select “VIII, 1” on the fifth row on the right, to get to the right spot. The presentation is about 40 minutes, and it ranges across many themes, but always comes back to the spatial geometry issue.