Technology is reshaping cities and societies and changing the way we travel. Real-time information coupled with on-demand mobility are redefining ‘auto mobility.’ Rather than rendering cars obsolete, the convergence of on-demand shared, electric, and automated technology will make the autos more cost effective, efficient, and convenient – especially when shared. But the convergence of sharing, electrification, and automation in itself is not a silver bullet to solve our transportation challenges. To maximize the potential opportunity and minimize the challenges associated with shared automated vehicles (SAVs), we should consider 5 key issues in managing the transition toward an automated future.
1. Equity Challenges and Opportunities – Earlier this year, we wrote about common equity challenges impacting our transportation network. Suburbanization has been one of the great underlying trends impacting transportation in the Western hemisphere during the 20th century. While early suburbs were often built around railroad and streetcar lines, post–World War II suburbanization has become primarily an auto-driven phenomenon. In many cities, our urban centers declined as development patterns focused on mass personal vehicle ownership; the marketing of suburbia as a residential location; and the building of highways that manifested in strip malls, suburban retail and employment centers, and very low-density housing. This development pattern has resulted in an overreliance on private vehicles that has come at a high cost to household budgets, public health, and the environment. It is not uncommon for low-income households to spend upwards of 30% of their income on transportation. For those without a private vehicle, limited access to jobs, education, and health care can be a barrier to upward mobility.
A shared, electric, and automated mobility future has the opportunity to enhance access and mobility for underserved communities, but it could also exacerbate existing barriers and increase inequality. SAVs may be able to address spatial inequality in areas with limited alternatives to private vehicle ownership by providing additional mobility options for an entire trip or first- and last-mile connections to public transportation. The strategic placement of SAVs in communities underserved by public transportation could reduce inequities by providing innovative mobility options that have greater coverage and service availability than existing options. However, not all users may have access to a smartphone or debit/credit cards that are commonly required for payment as part of app-based and on-demand mobility services. In the future, it will be critical that policymakers ensure equitable access of SAVs for all neighborhoods and users with special needs, including access options for digitally impoverished and underbanked communities.
2. Environmental and Travel Behavior Impacts of Automation – While SAV impacts remain uncertain, many practitioners and researchers predict higher efficiency, affordability, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, the number of personally owned automated vehicles may determine to some extent SAV demand. More importantly, SAV impacts will also depend on sharing levels (concurrent or sequential) and the future modal split among public transit, SAVs, and pooled rides. It is possible that SAV fleets could become widely used without very many pooled rides. Thus, single-occupant vehicles will continue to dominate the majority of vehicle trips (e.g., users could access a shared fleet without pooling). It is also feasible that pooled rides could become more common, if automation makes route deviation more efficient, cost effective, and convenient. While the environmental and travel behavior impacts of SAVs are unknown, proactive public policy is key to guiding how SAV adoption unfolds.
3. Urban Planning (Rights-of-Way Management and Zoning) – With the growth of on-demand and flexible transportation options (e.g., ridesourcing or transportation network companies, e-Hail, microtransit, etc.), public agencies should consider policies to guide shared mobility and SAV development through the allocation of public rights-of-ways (e.g., parking, curb space, and loading zones). The allocation of public rights-of-way for shared mobility today can support the development of intermodal mobility hubs today, which can be transitioned for SAVs in the future.
In the longer term, automation will likely result in fundamental changes to our built environment. Reduced vehicle ownership due to SAVs could impact parking needs, particularly in urban centers. The repurposing of urban parking has the potential to create some opportunities for infill development and increased densities. While SAVs may compete with public transit, infill development could create higher densities to support more public transit ridership in urban core locations.
4. Public Transportation in an Automated Future – Concerns that the introduction of SAVs could reduce demand for public transportation and may encourage increased vehicle use are real. However, just as SAVs have the potential to reduce driving costs, automated transit vehicles have the opportunity to reduce operational costs and pass these savings onto riders through lower fares. Reduced operational costs and lower fares could allow public transit agencies to increase the number of routes or service frequency, making public transit more competitive than other modes. While the impacts of automation on public transportation are uncertain, leveraging it to reduce overhead costs and improve public transportation efficiency is an important consideration.
In addition, vehicle automation could further change the nature of traditional notions of public and private transportation services. In the future, public transit agencies may opt to provide more flexible demand-responsive service in smaller vehicles, while others may opt to pursue such systems through partnerships. The emergence of SAVs could give rise to the development of hybrid quasi-public-private transportation systems that could result in a range of partnerships that vary by region.
5. Occupancy Pricing – Underpriced and overcrowded roadways create a “tragedy of the commons” where individual users acting independently and rationally, according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of maximizing road efficiency. In the future, single-occupant SAVs could continue to dominate the majority of vehicle trips, if users access SAVs without pooling. To minimize the risk associated with this scenario, policymakers should consider pricing policies that adjust prices based on vehicle occupancies. Public agencies may be able to improve roadway performance by providing discounts for pooling and varying prices by the time-of-day, roadway demand, and congestion.
SAVs will not inherently solve today’s transportation challenges. To solve these challenges, AVs require prudent planning and public policies that balance societal goals with commercial interests. To harness and maximize the social and environmental benefits of highly automated vehicles, we need to prepare for the transition today. This includes focusing on social inequities (the digital and income divide), public transit declines, land use barriers, and pricing strategies.
Susan Shaheen and Adam Cohen recently co-authored the article “Is It Time for a Public Transit Renaissance? Navigating Travel Behavior, Technology, and Business Model Shifts in a Brave New World” and the U.S. Department of Transportation Mobility on Demand Operational Concept.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.