The Mercury News
By Erin Baldassari
In one version of our autonomous vehicle future, the wealthy have driverless cars that double as offices, hotels or entertainment centers, whisking them to their destinations on-demand, while the working class live far from city centers, commuting long hours and suffering from worsening pollution.
In another, urban areas offer affordable housing to working class and low-income residents, and everyone has access to self-driving cars at reasonable prices. Nearly all the rides are shared, all the vehicles are electric and public transit is both reliable and ubiquitous.
Transportation experts say the latter vision could be a green alternative to the soul-sucking traffic congestion already forcing Bay Area residents to spend long hours on gridlocked highways, while also improving access to jobs, housing, health care and education.
But right now, we’re heading in the wrong direction, said Hana Creger, co-author of a report released Wednesday from the Oakland-based public policy advocacy organization, the Greenlining Institute. Still, it’s not too late, she said, to shift toward a greener, more equitable future.
“There’s no doubt autonomous vehicles are not only coming, but they’re already here,” Creger said. “If we’re not intentional about shaping this autonomous revolution, then all the existing inequalities will be exacerbated.”
To do that, autonomous vehicles need to be shared and electric, she said. But getting there isn’t as easy as it sounds, says Susan Shaheen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley.
Although the Bay Area’s first bike-share operator, Motivate, was a public-private partnership, it didn’t take long for purely private players to enter the scene and “disrupt” years of planning and community outreach with dockless bikes and scooters — and cities are still scrambling to keep up. Some transportation advocates have complained that those bikes and scooters have not reached low-income communities in the Bay Area.
Now companies such as Waymo, Apple and Tesla are leading autonomous vehicle deployment in much the same way, she said, leaving the public to wait and see what happens.
In the Bay Area and across the nation, low-income communities of color saw freeways physically segregate their neighborhoods from the rest of the city, making it harder for those residents to reach jobs, education and health care, said Richard Ezike, with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Those same freeways encouraged middle and upper class white residents to move to suburbs, spurring housing developments that were much more difficult for public transit to reach.
Now, he said, the reverse is happening as wealthier people move back to cities and low-income communities of color leave urban centers in search of cheaper housing in the suburbs and exurbs.
Will autonomous vehicles result in the wealthy moving outside the city or further exacerbate the development of low-income housing along urban fringes? No one can say, but transportation experts agree: Autonomous vehicles are likely to make car travel more attractive, and that will induce sprawl.
Whether autonomous vehicles end up being a salvation or a scourge depends on what policy makers do to prepare for the driverless fleets of the future, Creger said. That means reclaiming streets for pedestrians, cyclists and scooters while at the same time discouraging single-occupancy car use.
Controlling access to the curb, such as with drop-off spaces or parking, is one way to do that, said Dan Sperling, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, by prioritizing multi-passenger vehicles, charging a fee for single-occupants or limiting the ability to park.
Charging higher tolls during peak commute times for solo passengers is another way, Ezike said, as is offering discounts to pooled rides and clean-air vehicles or dedicating lanes to their use — an extension of the way the Bay Area’s Express Lanes now operate. And maybe it also includes making hard choices about where people are allowed to live by prohibiting the development of forest or agricultural land, he said.
“People look at autonomous vehicles as this magical solution, when in reality, it’s our car-oriented culture that’s the problem,” Creger said. “But all that hype and focus on the technology is becoming a distraction. We need to focus on the human implications.”