A self driving Uber car drives on Liberty Ave. through the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016.

Credit: AP Photo

A New Report Urges Smarter Transportation Thinking Before Driverless Cars Arrive

October 14, 2016

A new report from a leading local advocacy group urges policymakers to consider the environmental and social impacts of travel innovations like autonomous cars—and not just the motivating, but potentially harmful, almighty dollar.

The report from Transportation for Massachusetts, entitled "Fast Forward: The Technology Revolution in Transportation and What it Means for Massachusetts," looks at the state of "innovative mobility" in the Commonwealth. The policy recommendations the group puts forward call for "a healthier, more equitable and cleaner transportation system," utilizing the best innovations brought on by a new generation of smart travel apps, data sharing and autonomous automobiles.

"We want to be sitting in an autonomous vehicle that does not pollute on the way to utopia," said Joshua Ostroff, interim director of Transportation for Massachusetts said. "We don't want to see an autonomous vehicle that is belching smoke, you know, driving towards dystopia."

The report says that "innovative mobility can play a role in solving many of Massachusetts’ biggest transportation challenges, if intentionally shaped by public policy to protect the public interest." The group envisions data-sharing between private services, governments and road infrastructure itself to create a network of information on how people get around. As travel becomes more autonomous, this could result in less congestion on the streets, public health benefits and social equality when it comes to mobility, the group says.

The report outlines several policy goals TFM hopes lawmakers will consider when crafting the next decade of transportation policy as more and more for-profit companies expand into the manufacture of autonomous cars and services that offer them.

"At the end of the day, you know, these companies are out there to make money," Charlie Ticotsky, TFM's policy director said. "But under a good public policy framework, you can ensure that they can make money but also make people's lives better and achieve the goals that we're talking about here: social equity, safety, climate, et cetera."

The group wants want policy frameworks to encourage the integration of standardized and open data into public networks and systems. Another big goal is the development of "fleets of electric, shared and autonomous vehicles that serve everyone," not just the rich.

"We think that we need to plan around our future infrastructure needs because even if we have ride-sharing vehicles, they still need to use public streets that are in disrepair today," Ostroff said.

It also warns of the pitfalls that can come when new travel methods or technology disrupt or damage the traditional modes of transport.

"A transition to autonomous vehicles could reduce quality of life in our communities if autonomous vehicles are given priority over pedestrians and bicyclists, or are implemented in ways that make it harder for those who do not use automobiles to get around our cities and towns," the report says.

Even worse, the report warns of a "two-tiered transportation system" where poor residents remain on outdated, if cheaper modes of travel and the rich take advantage of pricier systems targeting the wealthy.

The group wants state and local government to pilot autonomous vehicle tests and to craft regulations and laws to govern the new era of automobile travel as it dawns.

Other policy recommendations from TFM include limiting zero- and single-occupancy use of autonomous vehicles, empowering municipalities to take advantage of and maximize their local transportation network, updating parking requirements to reflect a more autonomous car system, and adopting "pricing policies to discourage a rapid increase in vehicle travel following the introduction of autonomous vehicles."

Environmental policy is also a concern, and the group encourages not only cleaner electric cars for the autonomous fleet, but more robust regulations from the state and local authorities to limit occupancy and emissions.

"The environment needs to be front and center," Ostroff said. "We face a climate crisis and transportation is now the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions. So the solution to our climate crisis is also going to be part of solving our transportation challenges."


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