By Frank Douma, Director, State and Local Policy Program, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota
As part of its research into the policy impacts of new transportation technologies under the Transportation Policy and Economic Competitiveness Program, the State and Local Policy Program at the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs hosted a series of roundtables examining this question in 2015-2016. The events focused on the impacts of the digital infrastructure, specifically self-driving vehicles.
The roundtables examined opportunities and obstacles for improved mobility and access for people who cannot drive, possible impacts on urban form, opportunities for freight transportation, and broader impacts of the digital infrastructure on the physical infrastructure. Roundtable participants included U of M faculty and research staff, key members of state and local governments, and interested citizens.
While the roundtables raised a number of intriguing issues—several of which will be discussed in forthcoming papers and other products—one item that cut across all of these sessions was the potential for changing how we might define “winners” and “losers” in the developments of 21st century transportation. Much has been written about the disparate impacts of the development of the railroads and then the interstate highway system in the 20th century, pointing out how these developments favored those with jobs and money—and therefore the ability to use these systems—at the expense of poorer people, others that could not drive, and residents of inner-city neighborhoods. However, recent developments in the ability to do work and be entertained over digital media, and the increasing abilities of vehicles to drive themselves, are leading this description of “haves” and “have nots” to change.
At first glance, it appears that these technological developments will bring great benefits: people with disabilities will be able to “drive” the same vehicles as those who can drive themselves, transit will become more flexible, many trips will not even be necessary, and the cost of the trips that remain will become cheaper. But as the discussions in these roundtables made clear, we cannot assume these advantages will come about automatically—or easily. A clear example of this is the realization that just because a self-driving vehicle can transport a person that is physically unable to drive, it does not mean that the person will be able to easily enter and exit the vehicle, or easily interact with it, unless the vehicle has been specifically designed to meet the needs of these users. Specific examples of this issue include expecting a visually impaired person to operate a touch screen and a person in a wheelchair being able to enter and exit a conventional vehicle, but many others also exist.
Beyond physical distinctions, however, lie potential changes in economic impacts. As private, unregulated ridesharing organizations like Uber and Lyft continue to expand, policy questions about impacts on taxi drivers arise, but also—and perhaps more importantly—questions about ensuring that people in lower-income neighborhoods and other “less-desirable” origins and destinations continue to receive service. Further, many of these services only work if the user has access to a smartphone and credit or debit card, raising the question of how those without this access might benefit, if at all.
Another distinction may be by job class. Knowledge workers are able to use laptop computers, tablets, and smartphones to not only improve their transportation options, but also to do their jobs. People in the service sector and other positions that require a physical presence will not see similar benefits. This issue is compounded by the fact that many of these jobs are likely to be lower income, which restricts where workers can afford to live and, as noted above, their ability to access new transportation services.
Finally, it is not clear that rural communities are positioned to benefit from these developments, at least not to the degree that can be expected in urban areas. Many of the new developments, such as ridesharing and carsharing, depend on higher-density neighborhoods to turn a profit, making rural communities unattractive markets. Similarly, broadband connectivity has been slow to come to many rural communities, preventing their residents from accessing the telework, teleshopping and telemedicine opportunities that those in higher-income and more desirable communities are already enjoying.
It is not clear that the demographic groups that will enjoy the advantages and suffer the disadvantages of this 21st century transportation system will be different from those similarly affected by the 20th century system. Further, all of these questions are by no means reason to oppose or slow down the advance of new transportation technologies, nor do they mean that existing efforts to address current inequities should be curtailed. There is nothing inherent in the technologies that will bring about these undesirable results.
These technologies could allow aging rural residents to live in their homes longer, provide access to new economic opportunities for residents of poor neighborhoods, and remove barriers for people with disabilities. Without due attention from public officials, advocates, and this wide and varied group of stakeholders themselves, however, these benefits may not be realized. It may be quite true that self-driving vehicles and other developments of the digital economy are already legal—and need little additional public support to speed towards maturity—but it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a role for public policy to ensure that the benefits are enjoyed as widely as possible.