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A Trip Downtown - Policy Considerations

By Gianluca Barletta

Innovation in technology is likely to impact the provision of accessible transportation in positive ways. Driverless vehicles, smart, accessible stations and innovative solutions in dispatching methods and mobility applications will increase transit accessibility, create a more pleasant customer experience and reduce travel time. Also, these systems will be seamlessly integrated with the surrounding environment of a smart city. In this companion piece to our previous article, we explore what policy changes would be necessary to make Susan’s future trip possible.     

In our previous post, as we followed Susan in her trip to the library and café downtown, we tried to show, step by step, what technologies would be used during her journey. An important point to notice is that all the technologies used to make Susan’s trip possible are currently available. Unfortunately the technologies and solutions presented (for example trip planning and fare integration) are not yet integrated in a seamless system. Additionally some of them (such as Autonomous Vehicles - AV) are still unregulated and/or not widely adopted, so that Susan’s trip is effectively science fiction for the moment.

A Possible Outlook on the Future of Accessible Mobility

Whereas advancements in technology (e.g.: voice recognition systems able to interpret complex queries or wide-spread DSRC[1]-enabled payment gates) are in sight, and will be discussed in greater depth in our next instalments, fundamental work on the policy side is needed for Susan’s trip to become a reality. Importantly, most (if not all) of the policies needed to help Susan, relate to mobility as a whole, affecting all categories of travellers.

The most ‘futuristic’ part of Susan’s trip is her boarding a wheelchair accessible driverless car. Work on autonomous vehicles (AV) is proceeding at great pace, with significant investments by tech companies (e.g. Google or Apple) and car manufacturers (e.g. Tesla and Volvo) alike[2]. However, surprisingly to an extent, specific work on the use AVs for the transport of people with disabilities are much fewer (examples are an interesting pilot conducted by University of Seoul, and the UK government-funded INSIGHT project). For now, let’s assume that technology will soon be ready. What about the regulatory environment? What is the role of governments?[3]

Whereas technology is by its very nature neutral in terms of benefiting society (it depends on its use), policy and regulation are not neutral. Lack of regulation could create a chaotic situation where provision of transport is inequitable and transit becomes a ‘private’ service as opposed to public. Too much regulation, on the other hand, could prevent the realization of the opportunities provided by innovations in technology and business models.

Governments at all levels around the globe have the duty to find balanced policy frameworks that regulate the use of AVs to guarantee the safety of travellers, especially under mixed-traffic conditions (manned, autonomous and purely driverless cars will coexist on the roads for a while if not forever) and social inclusion.

Regulation also needs to create mechanisms to ensure that the use of AV benefits society as a whole, instead of driving us all into a scenario of single occupancy pods that discourage active transportation and the use of transit, thus creating even further congestion. AVs should be a means to create better public realms due to increased availability of land (by requiring less space for parking and roadside [4]), to provide connection to public transit as opposed to providing an alternative to it, and, last but not least, to increase our creativity and productivity by allowing time to safely think, talk and work instead of being potentially prone to outbursts of road rage.

Some concrete measures that could support these goals include: 

  • making sure that the private and the public sectors share data (e.g. Transportation network companies such as Uber, Lyft and Didi, and routing/mapping service providers);
  • integrating fares across modes and operators and employing dynamic pricing to dis-incentivize single use of vehicles
  • implementing policies that regulate the deployment of private AV fleets.

Finally, for our Susan and regardless of AVs, governments should require full accessibility to all stations. While this can sometimes be a technical challenge, it is a societal duty.

These measures are in the hands of various levels of government. Setting sustainable policies needs to happen now, when there still is some (little) time before technology and entrepreneurship outpaces policy making. Having a public sector that works with the private sector whilst keeping a stronghold on the overall legislative framework to ensure equity, inclusion, privacy, safety and security will be the key to make Susan’s future trip a pleasant reality.

[1] Dedicated Short-Range Communication

[2] Boston Consulting Group estimates that the global market for AV will reach approximately USD 42 billion by 2025 (BCG Perspectives.  April 21, 2015)

[3] For an in-depth look at the world of driverless vehicles and interesting insights on the role of the various levels of government, check out http://www.wsp-pb.com/Globaln/USA/Driverless%20Vehicles%20Monograph/W048_Connected_Automated_Vehicle_Technology_Monograph_Template_spreads_chapters_toc_26_flip_link.html#p=1

[4] A study we conducted with architects Farrells shows that around 15% more land could be available, provided AV are pervasive in our society. This would enable further development in urban areas and more space for creating communities. (http://www.wsp-pb.com/Globaln/UK/WSPPB-Farrells-AV-whitepaper.pdf)