Environmental and Equity Implications of Electric, Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs) in Urban Transportation: A Case Study of San Francisco

Allanté V. Whitmore, Ph.D.

November 2023

High levels of air and noise pollution are a fact of life for many people living and commuting in urban areas, but these problems are more than just an inconvenience for city dwellers—they’re a major social justice issue. Lower income populations and communities of color are disproportionately burdened by the air and noise pollution caused by society’s overreliance of single-occupancy personal vehicles. This case study unpacks how the broader adoption of electric, Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs) can improve air quality and reduce noise pollution for neighborhoods across a city, and especially in disadvantaged communities.

The implications of this research extend far beyond San Francisco—SAVs have the potential to improve the quality of life for tens of millions of urban residents by reducing unhealthy and harmful air pollutants and noise. City officials and policymakers should consider the full scope of benefits and enable further deployment and study of electrified SAVs to help realize the potential of this technology.
The research involved the development of a data model utilizing state and federal datasets on noise pollution, air pollution, and equity metrics. To project the potential environmental improvements a decade from now in San Francisco, the model incorporated a series of assumptions regarding the expansion of SAV fleets and shifts in vehicle ownership trends. This approach allowed for the exploration of the potential outcomes associated with scaled SAV deployment in the city, offering insights into future transportation and environmental scenarios.
If just 6.6 percent of vehicles on the road in 2033 were SAVs, San Franscico would see massive reductions in air and noise pollution, equating to:
  • 40% decrease in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations
  • 61% decrease in noise polluting vehicle trips
  • The greatest reductions in air and noise pollution will occur in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

This research builds on SAFE’s long-standing transportation work and aligns with ReMo’s mission, showing how widespread deployment of AVs can provide a safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable mobility option while making the transportation system more resilient.

Download a summary of the case study here. 

Download the Case Study