What is the Connection Between New Mobility and Transportation Equity?

, Kendall Science Fellow | May 7, 2018, 2:01 pm EST
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My name is Richard Ezike, and I work at the interface between new mobility and transportation equity. When I talk about “new mobility” in my research, I refer to what is arguably the most disruptive technology in transportation in the last century: the autonomous vehicle (AV). Already these cars are being tested on America’s roadways in Chandler, Arizona; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Silicon Valley, Companies like Uber, Lyft, Waymo, Ford, and General Motors are investing billions of dollars to bring this technology quickly to market. These companies are touting widespread adoption in less than 5-10 years.

However, more discussion is needed on the impacts of these cars on transportation equity because this nexus is often ignored in the spaces where AVs are being debated and discussed. The million-dollar question is: Will AVs help or hurt the mobility of low-income people and people of color? The pursuit to tackle that question has led me here to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

My project works to address this question from two angles. First, we are working with a transportation consulting firm to study the potential impact of self-driving technology on access, equity, congestion, and transit utilization in the DC Metro Area, where I personally live and work.  They are using a travel demand model developed by the area metropolitan planning organization (MPO), the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, to predict the impacts of vehicle miles traveled, vehicle trips, and transit trips by AVs in 2040. By modifying the inputs to the model, we can simulate the impacts of self-driving cars on the future transportation network performance. The detailed nature of the model allows us insight into specific neighborhoods that may gain or lose under a variety of future scenarios.

Second, we are engaging stakeholders to learn their thoughts and concerns about AVs. To date, I have interviewed over 40 stakeholders including local government officials, car dealers, community leaders, and policy makers. I have asked them about the potential impacts of AVs on traffic, labor, the environment, and the economy. In early 2019, we plan to convene stakeholders to discuss our research findings, get feedback, and generate policy recommendations to share with local leaders and community groups.

Using this two-pronged approach will provide our community with both technical and community-based knowledge that will assist in the planning of how AVs can be deployed safely and equitably.

Defining transportation equity

Historically, members from disadvantaged groups (low-income residents, minorities, children, persons with disabilities, and older adults) have experienced the most negative impacts of the transportation system. These groups have lower car ownership levels, the longest commute times and the highest costs for transportation. These same groups also live near inadequate infrastructure, which results in unsafe conditions for cycling and walking and therefore an increased number of fatalities involving pedestrians and cyclists.

Low-income and minority communities are also more likely to be located near highways and other transportation facilities that produce local air pollution; to suffer from negative health effects such as asthma; and to have the least accessibility to key destinations such as parks, hospitals, and grocery stores selling healthy food. Addressing these issues requires a dedicated effort to address equity in the transportation system to provide equal access for all people.

Equity is defined as the fairness, impartiality, and justness of outcomes, including how positive and negative impacts are distributed. Within transportation and infrastructure, the decisions made in the planning stages can significantly affect the level of equity achieved in communities.

Depending on how it is deployed, autonomous vehicle technology could improve transportation inequities; but without guidance, the same detrimental effects to disadvantaged groups may only get worse. Moreover, solving these problems is not a purely technical challenge, but requires meaningful engagement and input from communities with a stake in the outcomes, so they can have a voice in the way their city is developed. Historically, public engagement has been a secondary consideration, although many MPOs are stepping up their efforts. Based on work by Dr. Alex Karner, effective engagement can be broken into three steps:

  1. Identify current unmet needs from the communities this requires engaging with community groups to learn how MPOs can best serve residents.
  2. Provide funds to assist community groups in engagement – Engagement can be time consuming and expensive, and often community groups do not have the bandwidth in time or in funding for outreach. Therefore, the MPOs should provide resources to assist. Karner suggested raising money through state taxes or allocating from available transportation funds
  3. Measure progress of outreach using relevant metrics – MPOs must track how effectively they are engaging communities. They need to know how many people they talked with and if they understood the material being discussed. By tracking that information, MPOs will know if their message is getting across.

Through the duration of my fellowship I have had the opportunity to interview several stakeholders to learn about how they see autonomous vehicles impacting equity. Across the board, there is a definite interest in how the broad impacts of AVs will manifest themselves in society, and at UCS my research will help to bring these various groups together. My engagement with these groups is helping to identify unmet needs, identify relevant metrics from stakeholders, and stress the importance of safe and equitable AV deployment. 

Why new mobility and equity must function together

I have talked with transit advocates who are concerned about the impacts on transit agency jobs and public transit options in general, as they are concerned that AVs will replace public transit but may not meet the needs of transit dependent communities while eliminating thousands of transit worker jobs.

I have spoken to business owners who believe the benefits of autonomous vehicles, such as increased access to the transportation system for the disabled and senior citizens, outweigh any potential pitfalls.  I have heard varying viewpoints from several local government officials from very concerned to “we have not thought about AVs yet,” and some state departments of transportation are taking a hands-off approach.

These discussions reiterate that the paradigm shift is happening. Autonomous car technology is here, and billions of dollars are being spent to put these cars on the roads as fast as possible. However, the conversations that are most needed –potential impacts on transportation equity and accessibility, the effects on public transit, and the environmental considerations – are not happening quickly enough. They need to happen more often, and soon. Through my fellowship at UCS, I aim to increase this awareness and provide new research, analysis and recommendations to advance equitable transportation outcomes.

Posted in: Vehicles

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