Catalyst Spring 2019
Final Analysis

Will Self-Driving Cars Help or Harm Underserved Communities?

Photo: Cameron Davidson/Getty Images
Traffic in the Washington, DC, metro area—and many other cities in the country—could be exacerbated by an increase in self-driving vehicles on the road.
By Richard Ezike

Self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs), are being tested in cities across the United States, and could be widely available sooner than we think. In conversations about their impacts, one question that must be asked is: how will these vehicles help or hurt people historically underserved by the transportation system, such as those from low-income communities and communities of color? I joined the Union of Concerned Scientists to address that question.

My team and I used our home base of the Washington, DC, metro area—one of the most congested in the nation—as a stand-in for other American cities. Using projections of the future of transportation in the area, we studied the effects of AVs on traffic congestion, public transit, and job accessibility in the area by 2040, with a focus on impacts in underserved communities. Our overall finding: absent good planning and thoughtful policies, AVs are likely to exacerbate congestion and air pollution, especially in these communities.

For example, people living in underserved DC metro area communities would be subjected to large increases in congested driving in each of the five scenarios we studied, with 6 to 12 times as much congested driving as we might expect by 2040 without AVs. These findings underscore the need for electric-powered AVs. We also found that AVs provide the most benefits if they are used as shared, multi-passenger vehicles; otherwise, they will likely worsen traffic and pollution.

Ultimately, the effects of AVs will largely depend on how we regulate them. To maximize their benefits for all communities, AVs should not only be used as multi-passenger vehicles and powered by electricity, but also be integrated with an enhanced public transit system. Our analysis found that strong public transit in combination with shared AVs produced the shortest commute times. This means we need policies that encourage AVs as a complement to public transit systems, not as a replacement for them.

Policymakers setting standards for AVs must prioritize people over technology. Only then can they craft strong policies that incentivize drivers and ride-sharing companies to use these vehicles in ways that reduce congestion, cut emissions, and promote equitable access. I invite you to read our full report.

Richard Ezike is a Mobility and Equity Kendall Science Fellow at UCS. Read more from Richard on our blog, The Equation, and hear his podcast interview on the ethics of self-driving vehicles.