Autonomous vehicles could lessen social inequity in transportation systems—or make it worse

Autonomous shuttles in Yellowstone
An electric driverless system was demonstrated in Yellowstone June–August 2021. Photo: National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) have the potential to transform transportation services and improve mobility for many people. But according to U of M research, these technologies could worsen equity issues embedded in the existing system rather than solve them—unless careful design and planning are part of the rollout.

The research project, led by Professor Yingling Fan of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, aims to help transportation practitioners understand the potential of one deployment option—shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs)—in mitigating existing transportation inequities. The final report identifies policies and strategies that could guide an equitable rollout.

Fan’s team used a rich and varied dataset to examine equity concerns and considerations around the launch and regular use of a hypothetical SAV system in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. This system would likely be a fleet of shared driverless cars or buses funded through a public-private partnership and integrated into already-existing public and private regional transportation networks, she says.

To begin their work, the researchers conducted a survey of the literature surrounding equity considerations and SAV technology. Next, they conducted interviews with several public agencies in the Twin Cities to gauge their priorities and concerns about the rollout of an SAV system.

Through these interviews, researchers identified three groups of people who should be considered equity stakeholders when designing and implementing SAV programs: people who are not well served by the current transportation system, people who may be negatively affected by SAVs, and people who may benefit from SAVs.

Research team at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair
Researchers surveyed visitors at the 2021 Minnesota State Fair.

The researchers then designed three surveys to gauge public attitudes and preferences around SAV systems and identify differences based on demographic factors including race, age, household structure, gender, income, and health. One online study targeted Twin Cities metro-area residents, and a second online study targeted users of the ABC Ramps in downtown Minneapolis. A third survey expanded the research scope with an in-person survey of participants visiting the 2021 Minnesota State Fair.

From their analysis, the researchers found that SAVs have the potential to enable smart and connected communities in which everyone benefits. SAVs could address the serious transportation equity issue of spatial mismatch—not only between home and work, but also between home and other activity destinations, Fan says.

SAVs could also promote racial transportation equity. “Black and Hispanic individuals in the Twin Cities currently face the highest rate of transportation difficulty and expressed the highest valuation of an SAV service compared to other groups,” Fan says.

Gender equity also surfaced in the analysis. Women significantly preferred security cameras or onboard attendants to an option with no security.

The report also recommends that SAV systems allow for differences in access to technology. “Systems should be designed to ensure flexibility in booking and paying so that populations without smartphone access can use the systems,” Fan says. And to ensure widespread deployment, state agencies should consider the extent to which SAV systems could serve people outside of the Twin Cities urban core.

“If well-designed,” Fan concludes, “communities employing pools of SAVs of varying sizes with efficient connections to high-quality public transit could bring about far-reaching societal change—providing inexpensive mobility services to all people, building stronger family and community ties, and boosting economic productivity and equity by removing mobility as a constraint.”

This research was funded as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Smart and Connected Communities grant (award no. CMMI-1831140)—Leveraging Autonomous Shared Vehicles for Greater Community Health, Equity, Livability, and Prosperity. Other contributors to this research were Noah Wexler, Frank Douma, Galen Ryan, and Chris Hong at the Humphrey School; Professor Zhi-Li Zhang at the U of M’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering; and Professor Yanhua Li at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Computer Science Department.

“This research provides valuable insights into creating a shared, autonomous transit service that is not only functional, but desirable,” says Douma, a researcher at the Humphrey School. “Such a service is not going to be successful if it does not account for, and respond to, the needs and desires of the traveling public.” 

Writer: Megan Tsai


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