Self-Driving Vehicles Could Worsen Inequity in the DC Area—Unless We Act Now

New Report Offers Recommendations for Making Driverless Cars More Equitable

Published Feb 22, 2019

WASHINGTON (February 22, 2019)—Automated vehicles, or “self-driving” cars, are coming soon to the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, but if thoughtful policies are not implemented, these vehicles could bring more congestion, increased air pollution, and other risks for low-income communities and communities of color, according to a study released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 

The study, “Where Are Self-Driving Cars Taking Us? Pivotal Choices That Will Shape DC’s Transportation Future,” analyzes how automated vehicles may impact congestion, public transit and job access in the region by 2040, focusing on what these impacts will mean for low-income communities and communities of color. The study makes projections about the future of transportation in the area using a model developed by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, the body federally tasked with planning the future of the DC-area transportation system. The analysis looks at different scenarios for how self-driving cars and public transit could evolve.

“One way or another, this technology is coming. These cars are already being tested in cities,” said Richard Ezike, the lead author of the study and a Kendall fellow at UCS. “If we do not plan and set out thoughtful policies, driverless cars could exacerbate the challenges we see in transportation today—especially for underserved communities.”

Washington, D.C. is one of the most congested cities in the U.S., and on average, area commuters experience six hours of congested road conditions each weekday. The study found that automated vehicles bring the biggest benefits if they are used as shared, multi-passenger vehicles.

On the other hand, if these vehicles are only carrying a single passenger, they will only add to the area’s congestion, worsening traffic.

According to the report, local governments could help ensure that self-driving cars carry multiple passengers by expanding high-occupancy vehicle lanes, charging a fee to vehicles that only have one passenger, and adapting street design to emphasize passenger pick-up and drop-off instead of parking.​

The study also found that even if automated vehicles are shared by multiple passengers, they still are not a replacement for high-capacity public transit. While automated vehicles could in theory help people living further from jobs improve their access, the increase in congestion they would cause could cancel out 80 percent of the benefits of increased job access.

“Automated vehicles need to work in tandem with an expanded mass transportation system, not against it,” said Ezike, whose analysis found that a strong public transit system, in addition to shared,  automated vehicles, produced the shortest commute times. Mass transit is more efficient and less costly than private vehicles, and must play a central role in transportation in the decades to come.  Automated vehicles will need to complement, not replace, public transit systems.

“We need to make sure that the region offers multiple transportation options,” said Ezike. “Even as self-driving vehicles hit the road, we need to expand high-capacity transit so that everyone has affordable options to get where they need to go.”

Automated vehicles could also potentially increase pollution. If their arrival puts more cars on the road, this could result in more emissions that cause climate change and unhealthy air quality.

The study found that this increased pollution will likely impact low-income communities and communities of color in areas such as Dumfries, Virginia, as the busy roadways near these communities will only get more congested. Therefore, electrification of these cars will be key.   

“One of the big take-aways is that automated vehicles must be electric,” said Ezike. “Otherwise, low-income communities and communities of color could be hit with large increases in air pollution, not to mention the increase these vehicles will cause in global warming emissions. Like any other technology, what results from these vehicles will largely depend on how we regulate them.”

To maximize the benefits of automated vehicles for all communities, the report recommends that automated vehicles must be electric-drive, used as multi-passenger vehicles, and integrated with an enhanced public transit system.

“We need to think carefully about how we will integrate automated vehicles into our daily lives,” said Ezike. “We need to prioritize people, not vehicles, and craft strong policies to incentivize drivers and ride-sharing companies to use these vehicles in a way that reduces congestion, cuts emissions and promotes equitable access.”