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How Autonomous Driving Could Progress Mobility Equity

February 18, 2021

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When we think of transportation and the way we move as a society, we may think of it as a singular monolith that works the same way for everyone. In truth, not all mobility access is equal. Some people and communities have fewer transportation options and face greater risks while getting from “point A” to “point B.” These difficulties are often due to a systemic injustice called transportation inequity. It can affect every aspect of life, from accessing health care to getting to school and work. It also affects how long some people can expect to live.

The symptoms of transportation inequity, such as higher pedestrian fatalities and fewer transit options, often affect low-income and minority communities the most. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Autonomous driving technology has the potential to provide safe mobility options for road users and pedestrians and complement existing public transportation networks to close transit gaps, enabling more people to get to school, work, and healthcare.

Problem: Higher pedestrian fatalities in communities of color

From the moment they walk out of the door, people of color may face more obstacles in reaching their destinations and threats to their safety while in transit. A 2015 study by Portland State University in Oregon and the University of Arizona found that drivers are less likely to stop for Black pedestrians trying to cross the street.

Because of factors like lack of pedestrian infrastructure and poor road design, there are more pedestrian fatalities in poor communities and communities of color. According to research by Smart Growth America, the pedestrian fatality rate for Black people is twice as high as white people in the U.S. on average, and up to three to nine times higher depending on the state. And the poorer a community is the more likely pedestrians are to die, according to an analysis by Governing.

Complicating everything, as a transportation planner pointed out in Bloomberg CityLab, planners do not always consult representatives from communities of color when implementing street safety programs, failing to get buy-in while also failing to address the root causes of transit inequity. 

Opportunity: Autonomous driving technology holds the potential to improve road safety 

Autonomous driving technology holds a strong promise for road safety. It can be designed to be constantly vigilant, follow traffic laws, and predict what other road users may do next. All this means autonomous driving technology can, in a split-second, make billions of driving decisions that take the safety of road users – including pedestrians to cyclists – into account. 

Problem: Communities of color have fewer transit options, face larger distances between transit hubs

Where local transit, especially public transportation, options are limited, residents face bigger challenges in  reaching the places where they learn, work, and seek healthcare. The Urban Information Lab at the University of Texas-Austin estimates up to 4.5 million people in 52 U.S. cities live in “transit deserts” where residents, who are largely low-income people of color, need more transportation than what is available to them.

People in these communities often face what planners call the “first-mile, last-mile” problem, or difficulty reaching the first public transit stop in their journeys or getting home from the final stop because they lie outside the range of what is considered walkable, which is typically defined as a quarter mile. This problem may also be compounded by a lack of safe infrastructure for them to reach the stops.

Opportunity: Autonomous driving technology could help with first-mile, last-mile transit

Autonomous driving technology could help local transit agencies address the “first-mile, last-mile” problem by complementing existing public transportation networks. For example, planners in Phoenix have explored partnerships with companies like Waymo to provide more people with safe, reliable, and convenient options to reach public transportation stops. Waymo currently operates an autonomous rideshare service in Phoenix, called Waymo One

According to the Mobility Equity Framework from the Greenlining Institute, making transportation accessible means improving affordability, accessibility, efficiency, reliability, and safety into account while reducing air pollution.

For transit agencies and passengers, fully autonomous driving technology could help expand on existing infrastructure, bring new mobility options to underserved populations and neighborhoods, add greater convenience and reliability through on-demand models, and improve road safety. Autonomous driving technology could help bridge the "first-mile, last-mile" gap to connect more people with transit. It may also one day reduce emissions and improve air quality by providing more efficient passenger and freight transportation.

Transit equity and long-term environmental impact

Long term, shared mobility through autonomous fleets could have a positive environmental impact. Climate change-fueled heat waves and air pollution hit communities of color the hardest. People of color are three times more likely to live in a community with fewer parks and green spaces that could absorb heat and mitigate increasingly common heat waves, driving a phenomenon called the urban heat island effect. 

Where autonomous ride-hailing continues to advance, it could eventually free up spaces in cities that are currently used for large parking lots for housing, grocery stores, healthcare facilities, and parks. Low income communities would benefit disproportionately from this.

In its 2017 Framework for Equity in New Mobility, TransForm urged cities and planners to take autonomous driving technology, which they refer to under the umbrella of “new mobility,” into consideration when planning for the future. All these potential opportunities mean that autonomous driving technology could be part of reducing air pollution in the future while allowing cities to transform urban heat islands, resulting in positive benefits for many different communities.

While autonomous driving technology is not the only answer for issues affecting transit equity, it could hold the promise to make roads safer and more accessible for all.