What’s the plan?

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s “U2C” arose in 2017 came out of discussions on what to do about Jacksonville’s aging Skyway elevated people mover system. As announced, the plan would replace the Skyway’s monorail trains with a system of autonomous vehicles - essentially small, driverless buses. Though many aspects of the plan remain unclear, the proposal would replace the Skyway’s monorail cars with driverless vehicles, and also extend the system on city streets into other neighborhoods.

Four years later the U2C plan still hasn’t gotten off the ground, although the estimated cost has ballooned by more than 40% from initial claims, largely due to the fact that autonomous vehicles remain an unproven emerging technology. JTA is now proposing earmarking $379 million from the proposed gas tax increase toward the Skyway alone - a whopping 40% of the $930 million the gas tax is hoped to generate over the next 25 years.

This massive and continuously increasing cost - in fact, $44 million is already committed for the Bay Street extension, bringing the total to $420 million - is just one reason JTA’s plan to fund the Skyway via the gas tax should be seriously questioned. In 2018, Modern Cities and The Jaxson wrote a critique of the plan as it stood then. Almost all the problems we identified then remain issues today. With City Council debating the gas tax proposal, it’s time to revisit these problems before Jacksonville is committed to another potential boondoggle.

5. The name: still bad

An early rendering illustrating an extended system with elevated dedicated right-of-way.

The names “Ultimate Urban Circulator” and “U2C” are very, very bad. How do you get “U2C” out of “Ultimate Urban Circulator anyway?” This is a seemingly minor point, but it’s emblematic of the problems with the U2C plan in general. The “Skyway” name is simple, memorable and recognizable to everyone who uses the system today, while “U2C” is indecipherable marketing gibberish. At best, we’re wasting money on a pointless change.

4. Capacity and ridership: too low

A potential U2C autonomous shuttle bus.

One of the biggest recurring issues with the U2C plan is the system’s capacity. The current Skyway cars hold 56 people and can go 35 miles per hour. By contrast, the autonomous vehicles JTA has been testing to replace the system only hold 10-15 people and are regulated by the government to operate 8-12 miles an hour. And this is after four years of testing and advancing technology.

The fact of the matter is that by fixating on autonomous vehicle technology, JTA is committing to a system that doesn’t even measure up to the current Skyway, let alone to other forms of modern transit such as streetcars or buses. JTA argues that this problem can be solved by “platooning” more vehicles, but it remains to be seen whether this is truly possible. But no matter how many vehicles JTA ultimately employs, they’re limited by another major problem…

3. It doesn’t have dedicated right-of-way

A rendering of slow moving U2C vehicles traveling with cars and trucks on Bay Street through downtown.

It’s widely understood in the field of transportation planning that to ensure reliability and consistency, mass transit needs to operate in its own dedicated lanes or right-of-way rather than operating in mixed traffic. Systems that run in mixed traffic are competing with cars for limited road space, and are therefore susceptible to traffic slowdowns and buildups. Think about how often JTA buses run behind schedule. Now imagine if they only went 12 miles an hour and cars were constantly zipping in front of them to get around.

Additionally, it’s understood that mass transit systems with fixed routes inspire more development than systems with routes that can change. Many cities take advantage of fixed transit like streetcars and light rail in order to spur transit-oriented development (TOD) around the route and stations. Given that the city’s goal is to revitalize Downtown, JTA should not be receive money for a system that’s less capable of sparking economic development.

To their credit, JTA does acknowledge that running the U2C in mixed traffic is a problem. The problem in this case is they don’t control all the roads they want to run on. The Florida Department of Transportation maintains some key roads like U.S. 17/Main Street in Springfield, and within Downtown, the Downtown Investment Authority carries sway over how city roads like Bay Street are treated. However, the difficulty of navigating among other invested parties isn’t a reason to exclude dedicated rights of way - it’s a reason to put the brakes on the Skyway plan to ensure it’s worth investment.

Next page: More real talk on JTA’s Skyway plans