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Autonomous Vehicles Can Open Up Economic Opportunities For Low-Income Communities: SAFE Study

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“The biggest factor in upward economic mobility is actual mobility, and for many Americans, today’s transportation system simply isn’t an affordable or efficient option”: SAFE CEO

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) hold significant potential to open up wider economic opportunities currently beyond the reach of many low-income households due to inadequate transportation, a new study by SAFE finds. The report, “Fostering Economic Opportunity through Autonomous Vehicle Technology,” concludes that on-demand, point-to-point AV transit can cut financial stress by providing reliable, affordable and efficient transportation that is a crucial factor in determining the upward social mobility of low-income households.

Although the post-pandemic priority for transit agencies is to get current transportation systems back up to speed, AV trials are still necessary to incorporate low-cost, autonomous transit into the future transportation mix as soon as possible—at per-mile costs far lower than today’s transportation options. As a result, low-income communities would be able to access opportunities that are out of reach due to enduring gaps in current systems, particularly outside of traditional business hours.

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“The biggest factor in upward economic mobility is actual mobility, and for many Americans, today’s transportation system simply isn’t an affordable or efficient option. It is important that the immediate focus be on getting America up and running again, but today’s AV pilots will become tomorrow’s automated, integrated transportation system that serves everyone equally and effectively, regardless of location or time of day,” said Robbie Diamond, President and CEO of SAFE.

SAFE’s report notes:

  • The most conservative cost-per-mile estimate for an autonomous, shared and electric car in 2030 is 50 cents. In contrast, the cost per mile for buses today is $1.31.
  • More than 75 million households—almost two-thirds of U.S. households—live in neighborhoods with housing and transportation costs above 45 percent of typical household income, a level that forces many families to make difficult choices and which is also hard to sustain over time.
    • For every 1 percent reduction in the cost of transportation with a fixed housing cost, approximately 750,000 households enter affordability.
  • AV transportation could reduce household costs by as much as $5,600 per household, or $3,800 per American. SAFE found that reducing average transportation costs by $5,000 per year in urbanized neighborhoods brings more than 25 million households within the 45 percent threshold.
  • Employment growth areas in our modern economy—such as job opportunities in e-commerce—remain accessible only by car. For instance, SAFE found that Amazon’s 60 largest U.S. fulfillment centers and facilities are inaccessible to those who work there, unless commuting by personal vehicle, which makes it hard for people to benefit from these new economic opportunities.
  • Transportation is a typical household’s second-largest expense, behind housing, and low- and middle-income populations find the lower housing costs when they move to suburbs and exurbs are often offset by the higher amount they spend on transportation. As their housing costs decrease, their transportation costs can increase by as much as five times, as measured by a share of income.
  • The necessity of owning a car to access jobs forces millions of low-income Americans to make difficult choices to keep a personal vehicle. Seven million Americans are at least three months behind on car payments, and many that do make car payments often do so instead of paying rent or mortgages.

A diverse array of stakeholders—working in equity, city governance, and urban planning—favorably reviewed the report, recognizing a need for more equitable transportation options for underserved populations.

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Malcom Glenn, Fellow at New America and Senior Fellow at the Center for Workforce Inclusion and the former head of global policy, accessibility and underserved at Uber, said, “Far too often, we hear stories about America’s underserved populations and low-income communities losing out on economic opportunities because of a lack of transportation options. The everyday reality for millions is that transportation is frequently either too expensive, inconvenient, and inaccessible, or it does not run at all.”

“Autonomous vehicles hold considerable potential to redress that imbalance through on-demand, door-to-door mobility at costs lower than public transit or owning a car—and promises a future in which low-income households do not have to choose between buying food or gasoline, or missing rent to make a car payment,” Glenn added.

Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, the director of Georgia Tech’s Urban Design Program and co-author of ‘Retrofitting Suburbia’, added, “For years, the American Dream has been built on cheap land on city peripheries—but the savings promised by this ‘drive until you qualify’ housing affordability model are often wiped out by the rising cost of cars, commutes, and time in traffic.

“Low-cost, shared autonomous transportation offers an equitable solution for this struggling model by allowing disparate urban areas to be connected far more efficiently, cheaply and conveniently than current options allow. Autonomous transportation–whether door-to-door robotaxis or first-last mile AV shuttles–relieve the need for households to own a car to access jobs and other opportunities.”

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