Business Insider

Should Boise put millions into a Downtown trolley? A business leader has another idea

French company Navya has created an autonomous shuttle.
French company Navya has created an autonomous shuttle. Navya

Since 2005, Boise’s mayor and City Council have favored The Downtown Circulator, a trolley system that would circulate passengers within the Downtown core and connect it to Boise State University’s campus.

Last month the city allocated $3.2 million for another study, a search for financing and possibly preparing to build.

The system would cost $120 million.

Old Boise owner and Downtown developer Clay Carley, who sat on the steering committee that initially recommended the trolley over buses, says that it might not be the only option going forward.

Carley says he expects that in the near future cities will choose autonomous, driverless vehicles — not rail —for routes like The Circulator.

It’s an option we should be looking into now.

“I hope the city will make this a parallel option and keep any investment in rail minimal during the next 18 months,” he says.

Driverless cars are closer than you think.

French company Navya is testing 15-passenger autonomous shuttles in Paris, Singapore and at the University of Michigan. Navya will begin manufacturing for the U. S. market in Michigan by year’s end.

One Navya shuttle bus costs $300,000, compared to $4.5 million for a trolley. It’s not as simple as that cost comparison, of course.

The question is will safe, self-driving vehicles be ready and more attractive in the next 5 years when Boise could complete its rail system? Besides being less expensive, autonomous vehicles could command the Wow! factor buses lack but rails are thought to have.

Rail would generate higher property values than a bus system, but the study also said “perceived quality differences are beginning to blur.” Self-guided vehicles should be added to the study.

Boise spends millions on subsidies and improvements on a bus system that still has too few passengers. A fleet of less expensive Navya vehicles (drivers being the greatest expense) could run more frequently to more places, a godsend for those of modest income. Less expensive housing could then be built farther away from the Downtown core.

Dream on, you say? Remember what your phone was like 10 years ago. Smartphones completely took over in nine years. Another disruptive technology may be driving up on us even faster.

Jerry Brady is a member of Compassionate Boise.