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BJCTA CEO Charlotte Shaw Unveils the ‘Future of Transit’ in Birmingham

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BJCTA CEO Charlotte Shaw in downtown Birmingham in front of the May Mobility autonomous vehicle (Photo: Antonio Boswell)

By Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson

The Birmingham Times

Pointing to the “future of transit,” Charlotte Shaw, Executive Director/CEO Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority on Tuesday announced changes to the way riders travel in the Magic City.

“Autonomous vehicles are definitely going to be the innovation of the future,” said Shaw during presentations at the Birmingham Museum of Art held both in the morning and late afternoon. “And a lot of cities and transit agencies are already using them and have put them in their fleet. So, in Birmingham, we have to do the same thing.”

The CEO began the day announcing a partnership with May Mobility to bring autonomous vehicles to Birmingham and ended with BJCTA’s inaugural State of Transit address at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

May Mobility is an Ann Arbor-based company that manufacturers the vehicles.

“We’re talking about our new modes of transportation,” said Shaw. “We can no longer wait for things to happen, we have to be a part of that innovation … in fact, we have to be in front of that innovation.”

“If you’ve been tracking autonomous vehicles, you may have an impression that this is some point off in the future,” said Birmingham City Council President Darrell O’Quinn, chair of the council’s transportation committee. “Well, I’m here to tell you, that’s not the case. Autonomous vehicles are here and now.”

He added, “It’s fitting for us to be doing this in the City of Birmingham because of our history of innovation and creativity and questioning how things are done and always pushing for innovation and creativity.”

A May Mobility vehicle was on-site to provide complimentary rides for members of the media.

Daisy Wall, Senior Director of Government Business at May Mobility, accompanied some at the press conference for demo drives.

With autonomous vehicles “you have technology which is a combination of hardware and software, and sensors,” she said.

To prepare for the demo rides an autonomous vehicle operator mapped the route and remained in the driver’s seat and drove about half of the distance of the short route in the car around downtown Birmingham.

The trips left from in front of the Birmingham Museum of Art, passing by the Boutwell Auditorium, Birmingham City Hall and the Jefferson County Courthouse, before winding back around to the Museum of Art.

May Mobility’s vehicle accurately sensed pedestrians, oncoming traffic, stopped vehicles, stop signs and stop lights.

The vehicles “brain trust,” so to speak, is in the front passenger seat which helps direct all travel and anticipates crucial next steps.

There’s also a computerized screen for the passengers to track the vehicle’s route.

Wall said that May Mobility “primarily works with cities and government transit agencies that are federally funded” and said sometimes those grants have stipulations that do require an operator inside the autonomous vehicle.

Users of May Mobility’s autonomous vehicle vary from university students attending class; to those who need transportation to their jobs; or even seniors who are traveling to church or the local Wal-Mart, according to the company.

During the State of the Transit address, Shaw spoke about the agency’s 70/30 plan and how 100 percent of the fixed routes will cover major corridors with faster times for 70 percent of its routes and “the remaining 30 percent (routes) with lower ridership, will be supplemented by the new microtransit and on-demand services.”

Other services include new executive services for those who wish to get to their destination by simply calling up a ride and a new integrated transportation application that can be used across different modes of transportation options, services and opportunities.

Ted Smith, Chair of the BJCTA board, said another benefit like executive services to pick up patrons directly from their home is “to make sure that you have transportation that is more personal, not just a crowded vehicle. It’s a more personal experience for that person.”

For more information on BJCTA, visit https://maxtransit.org.