Urbanism Next
University of OregonUniversity of Oregon


How will the impacts of emerging technologies impact vulnerable and low-income populations? What opportunities are there to improve services and reduce inequities?

The impacts that emerging technologies could have on equity, either positive or negative, are profound.

New mobility, autonomous vehicles (AVs), and e-commerce have the potential to transform how we live, how we travel, and how we use land. These transformations could potentially support a more equitable society where everyone benefits from the mobility and conveniences provided by these technologies. However, they could also lead to an even less equitable one, where certain groups are unable to take advantage of new technologies as they simultaneously lose access to the conventional technologies they replace. The extent to which these technologies address or exacerbate existing inequities is closely tied to how they are implemented.


Access to Mobility

New mobility technologies could have positive equity implications, but it is also possible that these changes could further exacerbate existing inequities in transportation and mobility access. On one hand, AVs have the potential to expand mobility for people who have been underserved in the past, such as people with disabilities, seniors, low-income populations, and people living in areas with limited modal options. On the other hand, technological barriers, such as smartphone access and banking access, exist; both are necessary to hail new mobility services. According to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation survey, 8.4 million U.S. households were unbanked in 2017 and an additional 24.2 million were underbanked, meaning that they obtained some financial services outside of the traditional banking system. Without access to smartphones, data plans, and credit/debit cards, new mobility technologies could widen the existing mobility divide rather than shrinking it. Ensuring that travelers with special transportation needs—such as wheelchair accessible vehicles—will also be imperative to ensure that all people have robust travel options.

Effects on Transit

How the relationship between for-hire vehicles and transit unfolds will prove critical for equity. Transportation network companies (TNCs), AVs, and other such services may improve transit access, boosting mobility for transit-dependent populations; or they could undermine services by contributing to diminished ridership. Efforts to better integrate these services with transit have been increasing, with a number examples of TNC and transit agency partnerships. However, there is some evidence to suggest that the growth of TNCs is correlated with a decrease in transit ridership.

Shifting Housing Affordability

Shifts in vehicle and parking use and geography could also alter the urban footprint, land use, and real estate; such alterations would likely affect housing costs and shift the landscape of housing affordability. One risk is the continued suburbanization of poverty, which could exacerbate the combined housing and transportation financial burden that low-income households bear and limit transportation options for those living in far-flung suburbs. Alternatively, changes in parking geographies could lower housing costs in job-rich areas and may enable lower-income individuals to better afford areas with the most multimodal travel options.

Labor Impacts

The commercial deployment of AVs may have serious and far-reaching labor impacts. One group of workers that may be displaced by AVs are truckers and for-hire drivers. Depending on the rate of adoption, autonomous trucks and cars could directly eliminate 1.3 to 2.3 million workers’ jobs over the next 30 years in the U.S. Groshen and colleagues estimate that this could raise the annual unemployment rate by 0.1% and lower the overall labor participation rate annually. Even if technological advancements have the potential to create thousands of new jobs, many of the new roles that are created will require higher skills and education, which could be a barrier to retraining displaced employees for those positions.

Environmental Justice Issues

The location of fleet storage and electric charging infrastructure may pose access challenges or environmental justice issues. Low-income neighborhoods may not receive an adequate share of charging infrastructure to have access to EVs and AVs. Further, if fleet storage is concentrated near low-income neighborhoods or communities of color this could disproportionately burden these populations with vehicle traffic, emissions, and noise. Other technologies such as e-commerce could also contribute to this disparity through the development of last-mile delivery warehouses and other types of freight infrastructure in these areas.

Key questions

  • How can new mobility services be implemented in a way that provides universal benefits, rather than catering primarily to higher-income populations?
  • How can the barriers to access presented by new mobility technologies be mitigated through regulation or other methods?
  • How can new mobility technologies be integrated with transit to provide complementary services rather than competing services?
  • How can issues of accessing technologies with primarily digital interfaces be addressed, whether through providing alternate options or by increasing online and digital capabilities for those who currently do not currently have adequate access?

What to do

Interested in doing something practical with this information? The Nexus has two “What to Do” categories, Governance and Design, with suggestions of where to start, as well as examples of what’s been tried before.

  • Pages within the Governance category deal with policy, planning, regulation, and everything else a government agency of any size might need to consider.
  • Pages within the Design category, meanwhile, focus on the nuts and bolts side of things, from how streets should be designed to how new opportunities for infill can shape future developments.

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