Can ride-sharing apps and autonomous vehicles help bridge the gap between mobility haves and have-nots?

A self-driving Uber. The horror, the horror. Image: Getty.

“Grace” is a single mom with two kids living in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Because high rents have put car ownership out of reach, Grace endures a hellish daily commute. Each weekday, she rises at 5:30 a.m. to dress and feed her children and walk them four blocks to her cousin Lydia’s apartment; Lydia then walks Grace’s daughter to daycare and her son to elementary school while Grace makes a 75-minute, two-bus trek from Koreatown to her job as a teacher’s aide in Westchester. The trip home in the afternoon is just as bad, and Grace struggles to get dinner on the table by 7:00 p.m.

Transportation, like so many aspects of American society, is divided between haves and have-nots. While the mobility “haves” enjoy a wide array of travel choices, for the have-nots everyday travel – trips to work, daycare, the grocery store – can be lengthy, complex, or even impossible in a car-dominant society. “Grace” is fictional, but her plight – and that of the “mobility have-nots” – is real.

While just eight percent of American households are without cars, carlessness is spread unevenly across the population and concentrated among some of the most vulnerable travelers. More than one-fifth of households earning less than $25,000 a year don’t own a car; African-American households are car-less at nearly four times the rate of whites.

At the same time, the current status quo – with a sharp divide between auto-mobility haves and have-nots – is being upended. The much heralded mobility revolution – which includes ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and (down the road) automated vehicles (AVs) – could make traveling much easier for people like Grace. Or they could make it worse.

In the dream scenario, on-demand vehicles are affordable and widely available, expanding access and mobility for those currently struggling to get around. But there’s an equally plausible nightmare scenario: that new technology exacerbates mobility inequalities. We’re now at a crossroads where policy actions can help to determine whether the dream or the nightmare prevails.

The primary issue is whether these transportation revolutions will change the cost and access calculus for car travel. The evidence, so far, is mixed. Early studies show that ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft may improve mobility for low-income and car-less travelers. In San Francisco, one-third of Lyft and Uber users earn less than the median income. In New York City, ride-hailing provides better service to the outer boroughs than taxis. But research from other cities also shows that higher-income adults with more education comprise a disproportionate share of ride-hailing users, suggesting that these services may be out of reach for some low-income travelers.

With car ownership out of reach for many mobility have-nots, it’s likely that future automated vehicles will also be too expensive for many households to own. But fleets of AVs owned and operated by mobility providers may sharply reduce per-trip costs, greatly expanding auto access for disadvantaged travelers. Because they can offer point-to-point services on demand, AVs may extend mobility to those too young, old, or physically impaired to drive. The cost of such services is expected to be well below today’s Lyft and Uber-like services, since fully automated vehicles will save money by not requiring a driver.

Automation and ride-hail services are well suited for the short point-to-point trips that are common in dense urban environments. New services could also supplement scarce or non-existent public transit service in suburban and rural areas, and greatly expand access for those without auto access. Automation may also benefit lower-income users, as ride-hail services and transit agencies could save on labour costs, enabling them to offer trips at lower prices.


But, without the right public policies, shared and automated services can further disadvantage mobility have-nots. One immediate problem is that Lyft, Uber, and other services require users to have a smartphone and a credit or debit card. About one-third of all Americans did not have a smartphone as of 2015, so it is possible that large shares of the population are excluded from these services. Even more troubling, substantial overlap exists between the car-less, who are already vulnerable and face transportation hardship, and those lacking smartphones or credit cards.

As shared and autonomous vehicles spread, they could undermine existing public transit services by diverting transit riders to new services. With fewer riders, transit agencies could lose fare revenues and the justification to provide transit service as frequently or at all. Public transit currently provides important mobility options for the car-less. While supplementing or replacing fixed-route, fixed-schedule transit with shared or automated cars might provide more access for some, it could also reduce mobility for the elderly, wheelchair-bound, sight-impaired, and other travelers who rely on lift-equipped transit vehicles, or the assistance of experienced paratransit drivers.

Travelers can be excluded if they do not have access to new technologies, or cannot afford new services, or cannot physically access automated or shared vehicles. But they can also be excluded through discrimination. Studies find that Lyft and Uber drivers cancel rides requested by African-Americans at higher rates than they do for other riders. Presumably, automated shared ride vehicles would address this sort of discrimination.

Public policies can address these equity challenges and help reduce mobility costs for have-nots. There are some encouraging signs that policymakers are taking seriously the potential perils of shared and automated transportation. But more must been done to regulate shared and autonomous services to move transportation equity in the right direction.

For example, streamlined fare-payment systems can integrate all regional modes, from transit to ride-hail to carshare, and subsidise low-income travelers. Requiring that ride-hail companies share passenger data with local governments can help monitor service delivery and cut down on discrimination. Cities such as Ottawa and Portland, Oregon have implemented rules for ride-hail companies to provide a certain amount of wheelchair-accessible service, and levy small fees on rides to fund accessibility programs.

Policymakers can also encourage the development and deployment of tools and apps to make vehicle sharing more affordable. Recent apps that compare prices and times of travel options, such as RideScout and Citymapper, offer more transparency for users and incentivise services to lower their prices in order to compete with other modes.

The wheels of government move slowly, but some local and regional bodies are beginning to plan for the impacts of the mobility revolution on their transportation future. The widespread use of shared and autonomous vehicles may still seem distant – but experience tells us that the time for policy innovation is in the midst of transition, before stakeholder positions harden and change becomes more difficult. Without early policy interventions, the mobility gap between the haves and have-nots might well widen into a chasm.

Anne Brown is a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies and a PhD student in urban planning at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. Brian D. Taylor, PhD, is a professor of urban planning and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies and the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies in the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. Both are contributors to the new book ‘Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future’.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.