Self-driving cars coming to Washington, D.C. metropolitan area could create congestion, lead to increased air pollution, and worsen inequality for low-income communities and people of color, if the vehicles are not regulated by thoughtful policies, according to a new study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The study titled “Where Are Self-Driving Cars Taking Us? Pivotal Choices That Will Shape D.C.’s Transportation Future” analyzes the impact of self-driving cars on public transit and job access in the region by 2040. The report also looks at how these vehicles will affect the lives of low-income communities and the communities of color.
“One way or another, this technology is coming. These cars are already being tested in cities. If we do not plan and set out thoughtful policies, driverless cars could exacerbate the challenges we see in transportation today—especially for underserved communities,” said Richard Ezike, the lead author of the study and a Kendall fellow at UCS.
The study uses a model developed by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board to analyze different scenarios of how self-driving cars would evolve and impact the public transit system in the area.
In Washington, D.C., which is one of the most congested cities in America, about six hours of commuters are being spent in road congestions each weekday. The study stresses that self-driving cars can be highly beneficial if they are used by commuters as “shared vehicles”; otherwise, it would lead to traffic congestion with single passengers in each car.
Ezike added there’s a need for the region to offer various transportation options. “Even as self-driving vehicles hit the road, we need to expand high-capacity transit so that everyone has affordable options to get where they need to go,” he said.
Increased pollution from automated vehicles will likely affect low-income communities and communities of color in areas such as Dumfries, Virginia, the study found, adding that it can cause much busier roadways near these communities.
For the self-driving cars to benefit all communities, the report recommends that the vehicles must be “electric-drive, used as multi-passenger vehicles, and integrated with an enhanced public transit system”.