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Left Behind? Shared Mobility, AVs, and Older Adults

Transportation experts foresee a future in which shared mobility and autonomous vehicles (AVs) sets off a revolution in the transportation sector—one in which we are no longer chained to our privately owned cars (and their designated parking spaces), and instead can move freely via a range of transportation modes and options.  While this transportation future unfolds in real time, there is a danger that the full range of the population is not considered and the harder-to-serve will fall through the cracks.

That harder-to-serve population includes people who already have the fewest convenient transportation options because of where they live (rural or less dense areas), being lower income, lacking technology literacy, or having cognitive or physical impairments.  A large number of older adults fall into these categories, and so failing to address these issues raises the risk of leaving older adults largely out of the transportation revolution. 

Over the last year, AARP partnered with Urbanism Next and the RAND Corporation to better understand the ways in which shared mobility and AVs will impact older adults.  Through a review of literature, interviews with public and private sector players in this arena, and a roundtable with over 25 experts from around the country, we developed a framework that identifies a range of factors around new mobility and AVs that will affect older adults’ transportation options, independence, and safety.  The framework is a guide for government and private-sector leaders to think broadly about impacts and understand barriers, while serving as an internal checklist for them. 

Through our research and the development of this framework, what became clear is that older adults face a number of direct and indirect barriers to fully engage in new mobility options.  The transportation revolution is not being built with them in mind, at least not yet.  While there are notable examples where companies or local government are working on issues that are critical to older adults (Uber Health, Via pilot for seniors, Lyft rides for older adults) , harder-to-serve populations are generally getting little attention. 

Developing new mobility models and AV technology is not easy.  So it is not surprising that mobility companies are mostly focused on the easier to serve and first-wave adopters.  Generally, these are wealthier, educated, tech-savvy, and able-bodied individuals.  There are significant challenges to implementing the new mobility vision—technologies are still in development, business models are in flux, user uptake is unknown, and economies of scale are still largely theoretical.  Tackling specific issues associated with harder-to-serve individuals adds additional barriers to a burgeoning and fragile industry.  But if the stated goal of the new mobility revolution is to completely change the transportation system, then that vision and that solution have to include everyone who uses that system—including the large number of older adults. 

What also became evident in this research and these conversations with experts is that a large barrier to addressing older adult issues is a lack of clarity on who should lead that effort and where responsibilities lie.  Who should ensure payment mechanisms exist for the unbanked? Who should develop and fund vehicle designs for riders with physical impairments?  Who should develop systems to help orient riders as they exit vehicles?  Is this a government or the private sector responsibility? And what levels of government (federal, state, local) should lead in each of these areas?  While there is general agreement on the topics that need to be addressed, who should be taking the lead is still up for debate. 

One thing that is absolutely clear is the need for further research and discussion.  We need a better understanding of the opportunities and pitfalls offered by AVs and shared mobility.  We need to evaluate how individuals with multiple limitations (economic, geographic, physical and/or cognitive) are able to use or not use these services.  We need to study the technology’s impact on privacy and cybersecurity and whether there are differential impacts for different population groups. And we need to develop forums to host honest dialogue about who in the public and private sector can best lead – and with what support – to address older adult issues in this transportation revolution. 

The recent publication of USDOT’s AV Comprehensive Plan is a clear reminder of why we need this research now.  This document is heavy on clearing a regulatory path for AV deployment and light on understanding the implications of that deployment—for cities, for rural areas, and for different population groups.  There is little in there that addresses issues of equity, access, or the challenges faced by different populations.  If the transportation revolution is coming, we need to shape it to improve transportation options for everyone.

Read the full report.

Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon conducts research and convenes partners from around the world to understand the impacts of new mobility, e-commerce, urban delivery, and autonomous vehicles on the built environment.

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