Autonomous Vehicles and Opportunity

Author: Robert Fischer, GTiMA President | Date: January 23, 2017

America is the land of opportunity – unless you can’t afford to buy a car and don’t live in a city that has made significant investments in public transit.

In that case, it’s the land of inescapable poverty for millions of citizens.

According to a 2015 New York Times analysis of an ongoing Harvard study, “commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty … and building a better life.” The study determined that, on average, the longer a person’s commute, the lower the pay that person will earn for their time.

To appreciate how serious this problem is, it would help to know these facts: access to reliable and affordable transportation is a bigger factor in building a better life for oneself than crime, test scores in schools, or living in a two-parent home. When certain politicians blame a poor community’s struggles on these things and leave out transportation, they’re mistaken.

It’s pretty simple when you think about it. Imagine you live in the inner city as a person in poverty. Most of your neighbors are also poor. You rely on a bus system that only has a few stops throughout the city and that sometimes takes hours to move you just a few miles, between bus changes and unplanned delays. So you can really only make it to a job somewhere that’s within a few miles of where you live. That distance isn’t likely to to be far enough to get you to work in a more affluent area. So your options are limited to low-paying jobs. Want to go to school, improve your credentials, find a new career? Good luck getting to campus for night school when you already spend half the night riding a series of buses back to your neighborhood.

If that’s not bad enough, here’s the salt in the wound: if you are in this situation to begin with, counting on unreliable mass transit for your commute, you’re spending a higher percentage of your net income on transportation than someone who works a higher-paying job and drives a car to work. It’s simply unfair and unjust, and does not reflect the ideals the nation was founded upon.
But there is hope.

A big knock on AVs has been that they’re going to be too expensive, and the tech itself will be the province of the wealthy. That’s a false premise. People won’t need to own AVs, necessarily, to reap their benefits.

Cabs cost a lot of money for one simple reason: the drivers. People driving cabs for a living need to be paid a living wage for their work, or there would be no cabs. And the same goes for city buses. Bus drivers must be paid too. When only a small percentage of a city is using the bus system, the city is drawing on a pretty limited source of income from fares, and so the rates climb higher and higher.

But in a fully autonomous vehicle, people could ride-share for a fraction of the cost of a bus ticket, and thus make it to their destination – door to door, no vehicle changes or long walks required – in an amount of time the average person would deem reasonable for a commute. In cities where ride-shares from companies like Uber have been ongoing for a while now, the cost, even with a driver, is around a quarter of what a taxi would have cost. When there’s no need for a driver, that price is predicted to drop even more.

The same goes for buses. As buses become more reliable as a result of automation, they’ll be able to cover more ground and move more quickly. They’ll have to stay competitive with private companies offering ride-shares, and the massive reduction in overhead in terms of bus driver salaries will allow them to price their services even lower.

The result of this increased mobility could be huge. The Harvard study tracked kids in the 1980s and 90s whose families moved to areas with better public transit, and the results were astounding: the average kid who moved ended up earning about ten percent more, on average, than those who didn’t. That number would be higher, by the way, if it only focused on kids who moved early in their childhoods – the younger the child was when moved to an area with easier access to educational and extracurricular opportunities, the better off they were as adults.

So AVs don’t just offer improvements to safety, even though if you searched a news database for AV benefits, you’d find mostly safety articles. By increasing mobility for the economically disadvantaged, they have the promise of bringing the American dream in reach for millions of people. Now that is good news.

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