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AV Benefits to Cities: More Than Just Safety

October 27, 2017 Robert Fischer, GTiMA President & Heath Davis-Gardner, Technology and Digital Culture Editor

Let’s not devalue the potential benefits to safety offered by autonomous vehicles. In an era where distracted driving is on the rise, so too are crash fatalities, which have spiked over the past two years after a decade or more of steadily declining. AVs have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives per year. That’s extremely important, but it also tends to be the main positive thing we hear about AVs.

We know that urban centers will be the first hosts to autonomous vehicles, and we’ve written a bit about the hurdles planners face in preparing their cities for the technology — and a bit about the improved land use that could result from careful preparation.

But what are some of the other benefits to cities that are less-reported? For answers to that, we turn to a recent Bloomberg Insights report, “Taming The Autonomous Vehicle: A Primer for Cities”, which tells us “the low-cost mobility of AVs could be an important tool for reorganizing and reinventing human services in the future.”

And when we look closely at the data, we can see that this is true across a variety of human services that we wouldn’t typically associate with autonomous vehicles.

Take children and schools, for example. There is a recurring theme in cities around budget shortfalls for educational programs, which, it could be argued, are essential for the nation to grow and stay competitive. According to Bloomberg, 25 million students are transported by a school bus twice a day. It seems like a lot, and it is — and it comes at a cost. In fact, the annual cost for bus transportation per student is close to $1,000 a year! While Bloomberg acknowledges that parental acceptance of automated buses taking their kids to school is an open question, it does underscore the fact that education dollars would be freed up in large numbers by such a transition. In most cities, bus service to and from school is provided free of charge. Imagine what an extra $1,000 per student could do to offer competitive teacher salaries and host innovative educational programs.

There’s more than just the cost-saving element here. As Bloomberg puts it, “AVs could support the restructuring of how education is delivered. Policy reforms that seek to increase choice and specialization in local school systems will increase school-related travel,” which obviously will be a much easier job to handle with an automated bus system. The study also notes that magnet schools, which draw from a much larger area than neighborhood schools, face issues getting their students to school efficiently, especially since they have “lower rates of walking, bicycling, and commuting by car and higher ra s of busing.” Many students attend magnet schools that would amount to a 30-minute commute by car, or more. Rather than being tethered to the end of a bus line that begins dropping off students near the school and ends up in the suburbs where the last students are dropped off hours later, it would be reasonable to have smaller buses or vans for those students, thus allowing more family and homework time for them.

Then there’s health care. Bloomberg cites a recent report by the Ruderman Family Foundation and Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), which says “an estimated 11 million medical appointments are missed annually in the United States due to insufficient transportation. If AVs could fill this gap, an estimated $19 billion could be saved annually, mostly from entitlement programs.”

It’s obviously about more than just the money here, too – though saving entitlement dollars from going to waste would be a great thing for any city. Bloomberg lays out a chart of the type of appointments that are missed, and here we see the human element: half a million diabetes-related doctor’s appointments per year. Close to two million end-stage renal cancer appointments per year. One and a half million missed congestive heart failure-related appointments per year. And, stunningly, two and a half million missed mental health-related appointments per year. So the money wasted is really nothing compared to the degree of suffering that is caused to millions of people who lack the ability to secure transportation to these appointments.

Bloomberg suggests some ways that medical services could be restructured in the AV era: “unattended medical shuttles are unlikely, as many passengers will still require assistance boarding and de-boarding the vehicle, but the driver might be replaced by a more skilled medical technician who could perform triage and preventative care. As AI-enabled diagnostics, telemedicine, and other innovations improve, many patients could be treated on-board and discharged back at their home. If significant amounts of care could be decentralized in this way, hospitals could be smaller and/or more specialized.”

Hospitals are clogged in many urban centers, so the possibility that mobile, autonomous medical vehicles could actually be the point of care for non-emergency medical issues would be a total game-changer for public health in cities.

Finally, there’s the part of the day that everyone loves to hate: the commute. People are commuting longer distances than ever to work as urban sprawl increases. But with autonomous vehicles, where a person would be able to do some of their work in their car while getting to work much more quickly than they do today, the commute could actually become part of the workday.

And the radius of what could be considered a reasonable commute would improve, too. It’s estimated that the amount of time someone spends on a 30-mile commute to Chicago today would be equivalent to an 84-mile commute from the state of Wisconsin in an autonomous vehicle. Not only will that make workers more efficient, it will expand the job market for everyone.

These are just a few of the benefits that AVs promise to cities and their residents. For more, we recommend you check out the Bloomberg Insight report. And we hope planners are listening: while, as we’ve reported, the amount of work on the horizon for them is significant, the benefits could be truly transformative for the citizens they serve. And that’s what all the talk about AV benefits should focus on. Not only are they expected to be exponentially safer, they also will touch every aspect of city services, freeing up money in budgets and improving the quality of a city top to bottom.