The robot cars are coming. They’ll be self-driving and fully autonomous and shared by city-dwellers who’ll no longer need to own a private car. Or maybe they’ll remain private vehicles, filling streets beyond capacity, sometimes with passengers and sometimes without. Or maybe they’ll just be more advanced versions of our existing vehicles, using their computers to communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles to reduce human error. The details are still hazy, but with Ford, GM, Google and others working to get their autonomous vehicles on the road in just a few years and the U.S. House of Representatives pushing looser regulations for manufacturers to speed up implementation, it’s likely our near-future transportation systems are going to look quite different than they do today.
The Seattle Department of Transportation doesn’t want to wait for all those details to shake out, however. Published yesterday, SDOT’s New Mobility Playbook looks at the potential good and bad of emerging transportation and establishes goals for integration into Seattle’s existing network without compromising the agency’s stated values of safety for all road users, social justice, environmental health, satisfaction and dignity for customers, and more.
“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve by asking what kind of city do we want, rather than what will this technology do for the transportation system?” says SDOT Deputy Director Benjamin de la Peña. “The technologies are changing so fast, we can only focus on the outcomes. It’s not a policy, it’s not a plan, it’s a playbook to allow us to adapt to the technologies that are coming.”
The Playbook outlines SDOT’s best-case scenario: Autonomous vehicles are shared, vastly reducing the congestion from private vehicles on increasingly crowded streets. The new technology complements the existing transit network, increasing people’s mobility options. It allows for more on-demand service, making for less empty, inefficient buses and trains and cars. It’s more equitable because it increases mobility in neighborhoods currently underserved by transit, helping people get to work and school without requiring a costly personal car. And by taking much of the driving out of the hands of error-prone humans, new technology could make streets safer.
The worst-case scenario is essentially the flip side to that. People trade their current private car for a private self-driving car, further clogging the road. Private ride companies with no incentive to make social justice central to their work further entrench inequity by making their service available only to those who can afford it, own smartphones, speak English, are able-bodied, or live in a certain part of town. Successful for-hire private companies could erode support for and ridership on public transit, leaving city agencies short on funds.
Using a sports metaphor throughout, the Playbook sets five “plays” for SDOT to use to try to get to the best-case scenario. For example, play 1 is ensuring new mobility “delivers a fair and just transportation system for all.” The strategies for doing so include requiring a multitude of payment options for services, and that all new mobility services are ADA compliant. To accomplish play 2 — enabling safer, more active, and people-first uses of right-of-way — the Playbook suggests SDOT repurpose street space for bike lanes, bus-only lanes and wider sidewalks as demand for private vehicle space is reduced. The agency is also thinking about the massive quantity of data generated by ride-hailing companies, on-street sensors, bike-share companies, and others and how to better manage it, analyze it, and use it to make improvements.
Shefali Ranganathan, Transportation Choices Coalition executive director, is encouraged by the work. “I think it’s positive that rather than being reactive to it, the government is thinking about how to be partners in that innovation,” she says. “As the Playbook gets implemented, it will provide more certainty and clarity for the private sector and make sure we’re getting a public good that gets people where they need to go.”
Of course, as an advocate for many modes of transit, Ranganathan is hoping for SDOT’s best-case scenario of successfully integrating private companies into the public transportation network.
“I don’t necessarily see private companies turning a profit and providing a public good as being at odds with each other,” she says. “There are places where it’s not efficient for the public sector to provide transit. A 40-foot bus is really inefficient in low-density areas. Is there an opportunity for private sector to provide that mobility?”
Though the Playbook outlines clear goals and strategies for accomplishing them, it does not answer the “how” of accomplishing some of those goals. How does a government ensure autonomous vehicles are shared and not private vehicles occupied by a single rider most of the time? How can SDOT ensure equitable access to a private company’s ride services?
SDOT’s de la Peña reiterates that since the technology is changing so fast and much of it has yet to arrive, the goal of the Playbook was not to set any sort of policy framework. Still, he imagines they’ll establish incentives and disincentives to try and shape behavior. For example, there could be financial incentives for shared rides, financial disincentives for “zombie” autonomous vehicles driving without passengers or heavy taxes on privately owned autonomous vehicles. To make private ride-hailing more equitable, he says they might subsidize rides for low-income residents.
Many advocates have voiced concern that a transportation future centered around private mobility service companies will lead to a two-tiered system that further segregates rich and poor. It’s a very real possibility. But de la Peña thinks a proactive approach to new technologies presents an opportunity to avoid that.
“What we have now is a two- or even three-tiered transportation system,” de la Peña says. “Those that can afford cars do. We need to figure out how new systems can be reliable and accessible to everyone.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.