The autonomous Relay shuttle in Merrifield has had lower-than-expected ridership, and it’s not entirely because of COVID-19 limitations.
Since its launch in October 2020 through February 2022, the vehicle has been out of service half the time, mostly due to technical glitches.
“Primary reasons for partial or no service days are due to hardware and software maintenance issues (57%), systems testing (24%), and inclement weather conditions (19%). Relay cannot operate in moderate to heavy precipitation,” Fairfax County staff said in a budget question-and-answer response released April 14.
The shuttle operates from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station to the Barnes & Noble from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
According to county staff, project engineers have enhanced vehicle and software systems, such as tweaking traffic signals to give the vehicle more time to travel through busy intersections, including Route 29.
Workers also have trimmed vegetation outgrowth along the travel route that can impede the vehicle’s sensor system, slowing it down or requiring a safety operator to manually drive.
“We expect the technology to continue to evolve and that further engineering and functionality improvements will be applied to Relay,” county staff wrote.
The technical issues have been coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, where Metro ridership at the station there was 10% of its pre-pandemic levels when the shuttle launched.
The county has also addressed problems with drivers trying to pass it illegally. It increased police patrols and added signage to urge motorists to be patient. The shuttle operates at 10 mph maximum.
The shuttle can transport up to 12 people, but because of the pandemic, the county has limited that to two passengers per trip, along with a safety operator. Masks are required, and the vehicle is cleaned extensively between trips.
Multiple researchers have been examining the shuttle’s effectiveness and impact on riders. Joining an effort that also includes Virginia Transportation Research Council and Virginia Tech, the George Mason University School of Business conducted an online “pre-deployment” survey that found:
- 63% of respondents saw Relay as innovative
- 52% thought shuttles like Relay are extremely or somewhat likely to replace current modes of transport
- 49% felt it was environmentally friendly
- 33% indicated that they would use it 1-2 times per month
“Public feedback has been positive, in general, with no major concerns expressed,” county staff wrote. “The public likes the smaller size of the vehicle, compared to standard-sized buses. They also like the accessibility features, which are designed to easily accommodate persons with disabilities as well as senior communities.”
According to county staff, GMU is currently working on an on-board survey and will conduct another online questionnaire at the end of the pilot, which has funding to last through December.
The autonomous Relay shuttle that has been puttering around Merrifield will stay in operation at least through the end of this year.
Fairfax County accepted additional funding from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation last week to extend its pilot project through December 2022, as it hopes the recent decline in COVID-19 cases will boost the shuttle’s ridership.
The $208,000 state grant is supplemented by a required local match of 20%, or $52,000, bringing the total amount to $260,000, according to county documents.
“Ridership levels have still been relatively low due to omicron and winter weather, but we are expecting an increase during the summer,” Robin Geiger, head of communications for the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, told FFXnow.
The Relay shuttle opened to passengers on Oct. 22, 2020, in the Mosaic District. It is free to ride and travels between Barnes & Noble and the nearby Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays.
A partnership between the county and Dominion Energy, which provided the shuttle, the demonstration project is Virginia’s first state-funded use of a self-driving, electric vehicle in public transportation.
The county enlisted the Virginia Transportation Research Council and Virginia Tech to conduct an independent study of the technology and the service’s effectiveness as a transportation option, but that effort has been unavoidably shaped by the pandemic.
Though the shuttle can accommodate up to 12 passengers, capacity has been limited to three people, including a safety attendant, throughout the pilot to encourage social distancing.
Geiger notes that face masks are also required on the shuttle as long as the federal mask mandate for public transportation remains in effect, which is currently through April 18. Governors from 21 states, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, filed a lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s administration yesterday (Tuesday), calling the mandate an example of federal overreach.
Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19 and some more mundane logistical issues, such as drivers illegally passing the 10 mile-per-hour vehicle, the Relay pilot “has been going well” overall, Geiger says, adding that the county has been learning throughout the experiment.
The shuttle will be on display this weekend (April 2-3) at the Mosaic District’s “Art Blooms” festival, a celebration of spring in partnership with the National Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C.
Art Blooms at Mosaic will also feature crafts and farmers markets, a beer garden from Caboose Brewing Company, a wine garden, live musical performances, and various family-friendly activities, such as face-painting and cooking demonstrations.
“[Relay] will not be operating during the festival, but we will be promoting the days and hours of service,” Geiger said.