Autonomous Vehicles & Transportation Equity

Today’s Strategies for Maximizing Future Impacts

For many, transportation is about access to employment, goods and services, recreation, and healthcare. Historically, low-income communities and communities of color have experienced inferior access to transportation choices when compared to their more affluent counterparts. While AVs harbor the risk of growing these existing disparities, they also have potential to reduce current and future transportation inequity. Policy makers and transportation planners can change the trajectory of AV impacts for the better by putting proper policies and plans in place today.

Opportunities to Reduce Transportation Inequity

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Increased access to transportation choices

With proper planning and policy, AVs could fill gaps left by existing transit systems, connect people to other modes, and provide options for those unable to own or operate their own vehicles.

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Improved safety for all modes of transportation

Offering the ability for vehicles to operate in the same space and detect and respond to pedestrians and bicycles could reduce or eliminate crashes.

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Reduced congestion & travel time

Shorter travel between commuter centers and low-income communities and communities of color would reduce disparity in auto travel time and increase accessibility to job centers and employment.

Risks for Increasing Disparities

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Increased travel costs

Rising travel costs could create further separation between the outcomes of those able to use the new technology and those left out.

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Reduced mass transit

If ridership diminishes in favor of private AV providers (Uber, Lyft, etc.) and personal AV ownership, public funding could be reduced leaving fewer choices and access for those who can’t afford vehicles. 

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Increased pollution

AVs could induce more vehicle travel causing a disproportionate pollution burden for low-income communities and communities of color more likely to be located near highways.

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Reduced non-AV infrastructure

If investments in AV infrastructure take priority over other infrastructure improvements that serve low-income communities, additional disparity could be introduced.

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Reduced driving occupations

Jobs likely displaced by automation are disproportionately filled by low-income individuals or people of color.

Minimizing Risk & Maximizing Opportunity

In a recent case study, we revealed how different AV futures could impact low-income communities and communities of color. We used AV models to consider single‑occupancy and high‑occupancy AV scenarios, as well as varying levels of transit investment in the Washington, DC region. Results confirmed potential impacts of AVs are mixed. In DC, AVs may likely benefit equity in terms of job accessibility (given their centrality) and reduce existing disparities in travel times but exacerbate an already disproportionate exposure to pollutants. Regardless of the future effect AVs have on communities, implementing the following strategies can reduce current disparities:

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Smart growth & transit investments

realize the multi-modal accessibility of dense communities. Job-housing balance and effective transportation can increase access and reduce costs for all users.

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Consolidated payment systems

for transit and AVs reduce barriers to access for the unbanked and those without smartphones.

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Ridesharing

takes advantage of our vehicles’ empty seats. Policies that incentivize or mandate shared rides could reduce congestion and increase accessibility for all road users, including those with the longest commutes.

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Inclusive planning

engages the community in decision-making, in order to ensure that our AV future meets the needs of all travelers.

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Vehicle electrification

reduces air pollution, mitigating the health impacts disproportionately borne by low-income communities and communities of color.

Learn more about autonomous vehicles and transportation equity.