2021 Conference Panel 2: Transportation Equity and Emerging Technologies

By Christopher Chorzepa and Phillip Washburn


Week 2 of the 2021 Law and Mobility Conference opened with a discussion, moderated by C. Ndu Ozor, focusing on a variety of topics: inequalities and equity issues in our transportation system, how to prevent new transportation tech from exacerbating these issues, and how new tech can potentially help correct injustices. 

Dr. Regan F. Patterson began the panel by highlighting that automobile-dominated systems have destructive impacts on Black people and communities, and that we must explicitly consider impacts on racial violence during the transition to other technologies. Dr. Patterson highlighted how cars are frequent sites of violence against Black people, as seen in the interactions between police and George Floyd, Sandra Bland, and countless others. Citing pieces by Tamika Butler and Brentin Mock, Dr. Patterson stressed that policymakers and developers of shared electric and automated vehicles (SEAVs) must explicitly think about whether this technology can make transportation safer for Black people and diminish racial violence. 

Sadly, transportation planning has long not accomplished these goals. It has been used as a tool of oppression, deliberately targeting Black communities. Highway construction destroyed Black neighborhoods and placed heavily trafficked highways closer to communities of color, resulting in environmental justice concerns due to high levels of emissions contributing to poor health outcomes. Further, Dr. Patterson framed climate change as a racial justice concern, since its impacts fall unevenly on the most vulnerable communities. She expressed a desire for a transportation system that reduces Black harm, affirms Black life, and ensures livable Black futures.

Dr. David Rojas-Rueda focused on how transportation policies and technologies shape public health. Dr. Rojas said that emerging transportation technologies should consider impacts on human health, focusing on how they impact urban design (surroundings and ability to get places affects health), human behavior (physical activity affects health), disease, and mortality from accidents. Examining micromobility, Dr. Rojas found that substitution to e-scooters — from bikes, public transit, or cars — may result in different impacts on health based on the current transportation composition of the city. 

In Atlanta, substitution to e-scooters was harmful because of increased risk of traffic fatalities and reduced physical activity. In contrast, it was beneficial in Portland because e-scooters were associated with fewer traffic incidents. Examining SEAVs, Dr. Rojas said that human health impacts will vary based on how we handle the transition. He highlighted that SEAVs might affect health by increasing autonomy of those who cannot drive (children, elderly, and disabled folks), reducing road deaths and injuries (although this would result in reduced organ donations), present presently unknown risks from increased exposure to electromagnetic fields, reducing stress from driving (but potentially increase stress through time spent working while commuting), and increasing use of alcohol and drugs (through reduced need for designated drivers). Dr. Rojas emphasized that we need to prioritize the deployment of SEAVs in low-income areas because road injuries and deaths tend to be more common in disadvantaged areas, and these communities have traditionally been underserved by transportation planning. Thus, the increased autonomy and reduced risk of road accidents from SEAVs would greatly benefit human health in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Robin Chase stressed two problems: (1) there is an “unseen fifty percent” of the population that does not have access to safe and reliable transportation because they do not have a driver’s license or access to a car, or they do not have the money to gain access to a car or other form of transportation; and (2) whereas we used to have a background reality of a right to mobility, we have now made it safer to cross the ocean in a plane than to cross the road in an automobile, so that the unseen fifty percent is now unable to move without being subjected to high risk of injury or death. 

Ms. Chase proposed that we fix these problems by increasing access to shared mobility. She added that shared mobility would also have equity benefits, since using shared mobility would increase physical activity (putting a dent in the obesity epidemic, which disproportionately affects BIPOC), reduce the volume of traffic accidents (which also disproportionately affects BIPOC), and reduce emissions (climate change disproportionately affects BIPOC). Thus, she proposed that the government shift spending priorities away from SEAVs to public transit. Ms. Chase finished her presentation stressing the equity benefits derived from the implementation of emerging transportation technology while emphasizing the potential abuse for user data surveillance purposes assembled from digitized travel.

In discussion, the panelists highlighted that transportation inequities often exacerbate housing and employment inequities, and stressed that transportation and housing must be planned together to achieve the best outcomes for racial, health, and economic equity. Dr. Patterson noted that transit systems have often been used to facilitate gentrification and suburbanization, and stressed that there needs to be a solution like van-pooling services to get between housing centers and transit hubs to deal with these problems. 

The panelists agreed that disadvantaged communities need to be prioritized during transportation planning because transit improvements need to benefit everyone, not just affluent communities. Because public transit is used more intensively than SEAVs, government spending priorities need to shift if we want to do the most good for the most people. To that end, the panelists set a goal of allowing poor and Black people to safely live car-independent lives, rather than our current focus on providing subsidies to already rich people. For instance, we provide tax incentives to put solar panels on your home (benefitting homeowners) and buy an electric vehicle (benefitting car-owners).

The final issue considered by the panelists was how much startups and smaller companies should be regulated to pursue equity goals. Dr. Patterson stated that equity needs to be inserted into business models from the beginning because it traditionally has been ignored and led to inequitable outcomes. Otherwise, biased outcomes can be programmed into automated systems. Dr. Patterson firmly believed that switching course mid-stream is not feasible, and equity needs to be a primary consideration at the outset. Further, Dr. Rojas felt that policymaking should be proactive and made in an interdisciplinary function, incorporating equity and innovation concerns.

On the other hand, Ms. Chase felt that there should be a two-tiered regulation scheme with more onerous equity regulations for large companies and less red tape for startups. Ms. Chase emphasized that part of the problem faced by transportation startups is that they are not financially rewarded for their positive externalities on equity, while cars do not have to pay for the emissions, parking, and road damage they cause. Thus, she stated that companies with low volume and slim profit margins should receive less regulation so that they may grow and innovate. 

The question of when the government should require companies meet certain transportation goals is an important one. Soft-regulation can foster innovation, but may leave blind spots that persist past initial stages. Early and consistent regulation may end some startups before the get going, but would ensure the companies that survive have the right goals. Regardless of when it enters the stage, it is important that equity be part of all transit solutions.