Ensuring Transportation for the Whole City

Whenever connected and autonomous vehicles are considered, some people envision a mobility paradise. They see current parking areas making way for more productive buildings or green space, pedestrians and cyclists sharing the roads with vehicles that can seamlessly respond to every move, and a dramatic decrease in traffic fatalities. Such visions are behind much of the push towards autonomous vehicles, and the hands-off regulatory approaches I’ve written about before in states like Arizona.

Grand visions of the future of mobility frequently focus on socioeconomic segments of our society from the middle class up. This focus is rarely stated explicitly. However, it is generally assumed that autonomous vehicles will be hailed with a smartphone. Major beneficiaries of the CAV revolution will be information sector employees who could work from a laptop during their commute. Reuse of space currently dominated by parking is primarily an issue for affluent downtown business districts. While CAVs could ease transportation for many people, it is important that affirmative steps be taken to ensure access to adequate transportation for poor and minority communities in the new world we are building.

The advent of CAVs would not be the first time a new transportation technology has left disadvantaged communities behind. The rise of the personal automobile led to a transportation boom for the middle class, while many poor neighborhoods were forgotten or paved over to facilitate the creation of new highways. Many poor and minority communities today are in “transit deserts,” areas of a city with high demand for public transportation but poor service.

Some of the problems stemming from past transportation shifts were borne of malice. The history of redlining and efforts to design cities in such a way as to keep minority communities segregated from middle and upper-class white residents is well documented. Much of the problem may have also been simple negligence. People with disposable income, cars, and cell-phones are better able to make their voice heard in corridors of power. Without an active effort to reach out to other parts of their constituency, government officials may only hear the needs of those with the means to participate.

There are early signs that cities are considering how to make new transit systems accessible by the whole community. While light on detail, a recent document from the National Association of City Transportation Officials lists “mobility for the whole city” as a key principle of the coming urban transportation environment. The World Bank has noted the importance of transit opportunities to the economic prospects of impoverished city-dwellers. To follow up on that high-minded vision, city leaders will need to not only engage the usual stakeholders and governmental departments, but the entirety of the effected community. Mayors, council members, and planners must actively reach out to poor and minority communities to discuss their transportation needs, and develop concrete plans. Such outreach may not be easy, particularly given the need to account for the time constraints of people who work multiple jobs or lack disposable income. It is the type of work that is necessary though if the CAV revolution is to fulfill its potential for all of a city’s people.