June 2019

In my previous posts, I have written a lot about city design and integrating emerging forms of transit, primarily automated vehicles, into the transportation landscape of a city. I am spending this summer in Washington, DC, and am getting an up-close look at this city’s transit options. I left my car behind for the summer, so for the first time in years, I am entirely reliant on public transportation, ridesharing apps, and my own feet to navigate the city. In the process, I have learned a few things that I plan to explore in more depth over the course of the summer. For now, here are the highlights:

1. Scooters do provide important transit for at least some people:

My house is about 0.6 miles from the bus line I take to work. So far, I have walked to that stop every morning. Along the way though, I see people riding by on scooters between the metro or bus station and their homes. It may yet be the case that scooters are a passing fad, and for now they appear – at least anecdotally – to have been adopted primarily by younger people. And to be sure, regulating them has been controversial in cities across the nation, which I plan to address in a coming post. For now though, they do show promise as a “last-mile” transit option for people who prefer not to drive.

2. A wide range of transit options improves access and reliability:

I ride the bus to and from work every day. When I want to explore the city on weekends, I take the metro downtown. I was running late to meet a friend the other day, and got an Uber. Others use scooters or the city’s bike-share program to get where they need to go. All of these options will work better or worse for different people, and for different purposes. All of them operating together can create a more functional, accessible transit system that serves the entire city.

3. Walkable neighborhoods ease the burden on a city’s transit system:

I live in a neighborhood with a grocery store, a Target, and a handful of bars and restaurants within a few blocks radius. As a consequence, I can walk just about everywhere I have to go except my office. Later this summer, I plan to explore ways in which cities can encourage development of walkable neighborhoods, thus easing the burden on overtaxed public transit systems and reducing the use of personal cars in the long run.

4. Affordable housing is directly linked to transit equity:

Perhaps this goes without saying, but a good, comprehensive transit network within a city does little good for the people who cannot afford to live in that city. This week, I’ve spoken with a couple people in my office who live an hour outside the city because it’s more affordable than living here. They drive to the farthest out metro stations, park there then ride into the city. To be sure, this still reduces congestion within the city. But good, reliable public transit is primarily important for the quality of life, cost savings, and environmental benefits that come with reduced use of personal automobiles and shorter commutes. People who have to commute a long way to even get to the public transit system in the city where they work are largely left out of those benefits.

As we move towards a future of fully automated vehicles, the types of crime – and attendant need for criminal enforcement – committed with cars is likely to evolve. As our transit system becomes more automated, the danger of a hack, and the difficulty of discovering the crime through ordinary policing tactics, is likely to increase. Some experts have expressed concerns that automated vehicles would be just as easy to use for delivery of drugs or guns as for more innocuous packages. Others, such as Duke University professor Mary Cummings, say that vehicles are too easy to hack and steer off course.

Going beyond relatively ordinary crimes such as theft, an unclassified FBI report obtained by The Guardian revealed the agency’s concern that autonomous vehicles could be commandeered and utilized as a “potential lethal weapon” or even self-driving bomb.

The likelihood that automated vehicles will generally obey the traffic laws complicates the ability of police to find crimes being committed with these vehicles using traditional methods. As I have written previously, traffic stops prompted by minor violations are a point of contact at which cops often look for evidence of more serious crime. While there is some hope that a reduction in such stops may reduce racial bias in policing, it also highlights the need for law enforcement to reduce dependence on this method of tracking serious crime.

While the potential for criminal activity or even terrorism using automated vehicles is a real possibility, some experts are less concerned. Arthur Rizer, from the conservative think tank R Street Institute, argued that the lives saved by adoption of driverless technology will far outweigh any risk of criminal or terror threat from a hacking. Rizer calls the risk “minute compared to the lives that we will save just from reducing traffic accidents.”

If a significant portion of the roughly 40,000 traffic fatalities per year can be prevented by the adoption of automated vehicles, Rizer is likely correct that the benefits will outweigh any risk that vehicles will be hacked by bad actors. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that, as CalTech professor Patrick Lin warns, automated vehicles “may enable new crimes that we can’t even imagine today.” Going forward, it will be important for law enforcement to develop new techniques of tracking crime facilitated by automated vehicles.