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Connected and Automated Vehicles: Mobility and Equity for Disadvantaged Communities?

This article was originally published in Catalyst, November 2020.

As momentum for connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) continues to build in Minnesota, researchers in the U’s Transportation Policy and Economic Competitiveness (TPEC) program are working to understand how CAV technology could serve transportation-disadvantaged communities. CAVs offer the potential to provide greater mobility and equity for many people, but public engagement is essential to ensure all user needs are understood and addressed.

Previous TPEC efforts gathered input from local officials, stakeholders, and community members in Grand Rapids, St. Cloud, Mankato, and Fergus Falls. Building on this work, recent activities sought to uncover the needs of transportation-disadvantaged communities in the Twin Cities East Metro area and determine whether CAVs could be an appropriate solution.

The project team includes Frank Douma, director of the State and Local Policy Program; Adeel Lari, director of innovative financing; and graduate students Kim Napoline and Erika Shepard, all of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The researchers focused their work on the east side of Saint Paul, downtown, and the Frogtown area. They began by conducting “discovery interviews” with human service providers and transportation practitioners to gain an understanding of transportation challenges and opportunities, as well as potential CAV implications.

The team then hosted a virtual roundtable in May with transportation program staff from a variety of East Metro organizations to discuss the potential implications of CAVs in urban contexts, with an emphasis on equity. The roundtable included an interactive activity that built on the insights and themes from the discovery interviews to further the discussion of CAVs and equity.

Together, the interviews and roundtable produced a number of key findings involving access issues, CAV deployment considerations, and policy opportunities.

“We found that limited access to personal vehicles, combined with transit service limitations—in terms of network coverage and service hours—inhibit transportation accessibility in the East Metro area,” Lari says.

Social barriers to transportation include limited income, different ability levels, language barriers, and driver’s license documentation restrictions. A lack of access to smartphones and banks, and a spatial mismatch of jobs and residences, are additional accessibility challenges.

Regarding deployment, the researchers say CAVs should be used in delivery, maintenance, and other services—not just passenger services—to improve the quality of life for those who do not drive. Safety is also a concern for many riders who may need the additional assistance now provided by transit drivers.

The findings also point to policy opportunities. “Public policy can guide private development to address equity issues as CAV technology develops,” Lari says. “CAV service models and equitable cost structures must be part of the discussion.”

The private sector, and particularly the freight industry, is interested in the economic potential of CAVs.

“There could be ways to improve supply chains and address driver shortages,” Lari says. “A shared mobility model like that used by Uber and Lyft could be a business model for CAV implementation.”

The research continued this fall with a second roundtable focusing on government agencies that provide transportation services.

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