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’.

 
 
 
 

Urban growth, heat islands, humidity: the cost of climate change is multiplying in tropical cities

Manila. Image: Getty.

Some 60 per cent of the planet’s expected urban area by 2030 is yet to be built. This forecast highlights how rapidly the world’s people are becoming urban. Cities now occupy about 2 per cent of the world’s land area, but are home to about 55 per cent of the world’s people and generate more than 70 per cent of global GDP, plus the associated greenhouse gas emissions.

So what does this mean for people who live in the tropical zones, where 40 per cent of the world’s population lives? On current trends, this figure will rise to 50 per cent by 2050. With tropical economies growing some 20 per cent faster than the rest of the world, the result is a swift expansion of tropical cities.

Population and number of cities of the world, by size class, 1990, 2018 and 2030. Image: World Urbanization Prospects 2018, United Nations DESA Population Division.

The populations of these growing tropical cities already experience high temperatures made worse by high humidity. This means they are highly vulnerable to extreme heat events as a result of climate change.

For example, extremely hot weather overwhelmed Cairns last summer. By December 3 2018, the city had recorded temperatures above 35°C nine days in a row. Four consecutive days were above 40°C.

Cairns’ heatwave summer. Image: authors, using BOM temperature data.

For our research, temperature and humidity sensors were strategically placed in the Cairns CBD to represent people’s experience of weather at street level. These recorded temperatures consistently higher than the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) recordings, reaching 45°C at some points.

Highest temperatures recorded by James Cook University weather data sensors during the November-December 2018 heatwave in Cairns. Image: Bronson Philippa/author provided.

Local effects magnify heatwave impacts

Urban environments in general are hotter than non-urbanised surroundings that are covered by vegetation. The trapping of heat in cities, known as the urban heat island effect, has impacts on human health, animal life, social events, tourism, water availability and business performance.

The urban heat island effect intensifies the impacts of increasing heatwaves on cities as a result of climate change.

Projections of increased heatwave frequency for Cairns region using visualisation platform on Queensland Future Climate Dashboard. Image: Queensland Future Climate Dashboard/Queensland Government.

But it is important to remember that other local factors also influence these impacts. These include the scale, shape, materials, composition and growth of the built environment in a particular location and its surrounding areas.

The differences between the BoM data recorded at Cairns airport and the inner-city recordings show the impacts of urban expansion patterns, built form and choice of materials in tropical cities.

The linear layout of Cairns has, on one hand, enabled the formation of attractive places for commercial activities. As these activity centres evolve into focal points of urban life, they in turn influence all sorts of socioeconomic parameters.

On the other hand, the form the built environment takes changes the patterns of wind, sun and shade. These changes alter the urban microclimate by trapping heat and slowing or channelling air movements.

The layout and structures of Cairns CBD alter local microclimates by trapping heat and altering air flows. Image: State of Queensland 2019.

Shifting the focus to the tropics

To date, a large body of research has explored the undesired consequences of climate change and urban heat islands. However, the focus has been on capital and metropolitan cities with humid continental climates. Not many studies have looked at the economic and social impacts in the tropical context, where hot and humid conditions create extra heat stress.

Add the combined effects of climate change and urban heat islands and what are the socio-economic consequences of heatwaves in a tropical city like Cairns? We see that climate change adds another dimension to the relationship between cities, economic growth and development.

This presents a huge opportunity to start thinking about building cities that are not superficially greenwashed, but which instead tackle pressing issues such as climate variability and create sustainable business and social destinations.

In cold climates, heatwaves and urban heat islands are not necessarily undesired, but their negative impacts are more obvious and harmful in warmer climates. And these harmful impacts of heatwaves on our economy, environment and society are on the rise.

We have scientific evidence of the increasing length, frequency and intensity of heatwaves. The number of record hot days in Australia has doubled in the past five decades.

Projections of changes in heatwave frequency for northern Queensland in 2030 and 2070. Image: Queensland Future Climate Dashboard/Queensland Government.

What are the costs of heatwaves?

Increased exposure to heatwaves amplifies the adverse economic impacts on industries that are reliant on the health of their outdoor workers. This is in addition to the extreme heat-related fatalities and health-care costs of heatwave-related medical emergencies. As a PwC report to the Commonwealth on extreme heat events stated:

Heatwaves kill more Australians than any other natural disaster. They have received far less public attention than cyclones, floods or bushfires — they are private, silent deaths, which only hit the media when morgues reach capacity or infrastructure fails.

Heat also has direct impacts on economic production. A 2010 study found a 1°C increase resulted in a 2.4 per cent reduction in non-agricultural production and a 0.1 per cent reduction in agricultural production in 28 Caribbean-basin countries. Another study in 2012 found an 8 per cent weekly loss of production when the temperature exceeded 32°C for six days in a row.

The 2017 Farm performance and climate report by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) states:

The recent changes in climate have had a significant negative effect on the productivity of Australian cropping farms, particularly in southwestern Australia and southeastern Australia.

Average climate effect on productivity of cropping farms in southwestern and southeastern Australia since 2000–01 (relative to average conditions from 1914–15 to 2014–15). Image: Farm performance and climate, ABARES.

It’s not just farming that is vulnerable. A Victorian government report report this year estimated an extreme heatwave event costs the state’s construction sector A$103 million. The impact of heatwaves on the city of Melbourne’s economy is estimated at A$52.9 million a year on average.

Impacts of heatwaves on Victoria’s main economic sectors. Image: State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

According to this report, economic costs increase exponentially as the severity of heatwaves increases. This has obvious implications for cities in tropical regions.

As the next step in our research, we are examining the relationship between local urban features, urban heat islands, the resulting city temperatures and their direct and indirect (spillover) effects on local and regional economic activities.

Taha Chaiechi, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University and Silvia Tavares, Lecturer in Urban Design, James Cook University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.