Urbanism Next
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Health & Safety

Will AVs deliver on the promise of making roads safer? How will new mobility technologies affect public health outcomes?
Three people ride bikes with a canal and buildings in the background

Photo by Febiyan on Unsplash

The extent to which emerging technologies help or hinder public health and safety largely hinges on how they are implemented.

On one hand, autonomous vehicles (AVs), transportation network companies (TNCs), e-commerce, and other new and emerging technologies could help promote dense, people-centric cities that facilitate active lifestyles and increase the ease of accessing healthcare and healthy food choices, as well as minimize exposure to pollution. On the other hand, they could contribute to increased vehicle use and may exacerbate sprawl, which could have detrimental impacts on public health.

TOPICS TO CONSIDER

Road SAFETY

AVs could reduce the number of automobile-related injuries and fatalities that occur annually by reducing the number of crashes, the majority of which are caused by human error. It is assumed that fully automated vehicles will be programmed to comply with all the rules of the road: they will abide by posted speed limits, strictly adhere to laws regarding pedestrians, and otherwise follow safety laws more consistently than human drivers. AVs could also improve overall traffic conditions by utilizing data from onboard sensors, “smart” road infrastructure, and other nearby AVs. However, it is difficult to assess how safe AVs are or will be given limited data about those currently in deployment, as well as the relative nascence of the technology. AVs, once commercially deployed, will also need to share the road with human drivers for the foreseeable future. In some cases this may increase congestion and vehicle usage, and could cause additional safety issues as they try to predict the actions of other human drivers on the road.

Access to services and goods

TNCs, and eventually AVs, may help facilitate access to healthcare providers, grocery stores, recreational facilities, and other services through the expansion of mobility options. For instance, Rides4Baby, a prenatal trip assistance project in Columbus, Ohio, is piloting the use of TNCs to help expectant mothers living in neighborhoods with high infant mortality rates access health care. E-commerce and the expansion of delivery options may also increase the ease of accessing groceries, prepared meals, and other goods, which could have positive impacts on health outcomes. However, these technologies generally require access to debit/credit cards, smartphones, and data plans, which have significant equity implications. The extent to which new technologies, including AVs, are able to increase access to goods and services will be dependent on their affordability.

Physical and mental wellbeing

AVs and other new mobility technologies could have positive or negative implications for public health depending on a variety of factors, including the rate and manner of AV deployment, as well as decisions made about the built environment. Some cities may capitalize on the introduction of new mobility technologies to modify street design in order to encourage active transportation, such as by adding supportive infrastructure like protected bike lanes. This could increase the levels of physical activity and the associated health benefits. Moreover, a reduced demand for parking may result in parking lots being redeveloped in ways that could make streets and cities more compact, which would further promote active transportation. New mobility technologies may also help increase access to places for social interaction and social support by increasing access to mobility, which could help mitigate the detrimental health effects of social isolation. However, if AVs reduce the cost of travel to the point where the reliance on the automobile for travel further increases, this could negatively impact physical activity and increase sedentary behaviors.

Exposure to pollution

AVs may help reduce dependence on fossil fuels if they are primarily electric. Additionally, an increase in trips made on micromobility devices could help lower CO2 emissions, which would positively impact public health and could lower rates of respiratory-related illnesses and deaths. However, it should be noted that AVs are expected to operate similarly to TNCs, and research suggests that TNCs are currently adding to congestion and vehicle usage. Since AVs will likely share the road with conventional vehicles for many years, a net increase in congestion could have negative impacts on emissions.

Key questions

  • What specific policies can local and regional governments put into place to ensure that the deployment of AVs, TNCs, and other mobility technologies does not come at the cost of health and safety?
  • How can urban planning and urban design guide deployment of these technologies toward urban densification rather than urban sprawl?
  • What legislation is needed now or may be needed in the future in order to address the potential health and safety effects of changing mobility?
  • In what ways can street space be redesigned to create supportive infrastructure for active transportation modes?

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.

Click the link below to get started.

More about what to do »

Resources

Policies, pilots, and approaches

Coming in March 2020

Suggested reports

Coming in March 2020

Communication tools

Coming in March 2020