Six years ago, the Detroit Free Press published a story that I still think about often. The headline was “Heart and Sole” — that’s sole, spelled “S-O-L-E” — and it was about a 56-year-old Black man named James Robertson who walked 21 miles each day, to and from the engineering plant where he worked. Why? Because the vast majority of his commute lacked any public transportation whatsoever.
The conclusion of the story — a heartwarming one, as the media and readers saw it — was that the community raised money to buy the man a red 2015 Ford Taurus.
Obviously, generosity is a good thing. But I’ve always found the story troubling: Because the problem that people wanted to help solve was that the man lacked a car — not that a major American city lacked public transit.
Maybe that isn’t surprising in the motor city — but you’d likely see a similar response anywhere.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, two Israeli psychologists named Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a series of groundbreaking studies on the human mind, and they found that people suffer from a broad set of cognitive biases that make us act and think irrationally in somewhat predictable ways.
One of these is the “anchoring bias.” It’s when an individual’s judgment relies too heavily on the first piece of information they encounter about a topic.
When you’re looking for a home, for example, the realtor might show you the most expensive listing first so that you’re preconditioned to think all homes in the area are expensive, and pay more in the end — both in rent and in your realtor’s commission.
In the transportation world, cars are our anchoring bias. The “family car” is the first mode of transportation a lot of us encountered as children, so cars are what transportation decision-makers default to when thinking about how to help people travel.
Around the world, but especially here in America, we have a terrible case of car bias, and it has led us to make too many bad choices. Choices that don’t make sense if your goal is to build the best transportation system for a given community. Or even just to get people quickly and cheaply from points A to B.
And this is coming from a former automotive engineer, at an automotive engineering conference, I get it.
The car bias, in other words, leads us to put the car before the trip.
My own family has been a natural experiment in the far-reaching effects of car bias. My husband’s grandmother lives in Westland: a fairly well-connected Detroit suburb, with a dedicated bus system for senior citizens and handicapped individuals. It allowed her to stay in her own home, take control of her healthcare, and socialize with her friends well past retirement.
My own grandmother, meanwhile, lived in Yale, Michigan: a rural community with a population below 2000 and basically no way to get around except cars. Though she was around the same age and in as good health as my husband’s grandmother, she could not visit the doctor or even buy groceries without driving, which became harder with age. And she eventually had to move in with my aunt in Saginaw. For the elderly, such late-in-life uprooting from the place they consider home can take a huge toll. And that’s not to mention the strain it placed on my aunt.
My grandmother’s story is a prime example of what I tend to call a “first-order effect” of car bias. In many places, if you can’t afford or operate your own vehicle, you’re essentially deprived of freedom of movement, which isn’t just a convenience — it’s such a fundamental right that the United Nations included it in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Let’s pause. As a room full of peoplet hat work on automotive and transportation engineering, our work is directly impacting people’s access and experience with a fundamental human right, that’s huge.”
Then there are the second-order effects — the broader societal effects — of car bias. Cars have already reshaped the landscapes we call home. Highways cut through residential centers, exhaust from millions of vehicles makes the air noxious to breathe, and defaulting to roads has created urban sprawl.
Perhaps the most overlooked, and yet most terrible impacts of car bias are on public health. For example, traffic-related pollution may impact pregnancy outcomes and child development, according to the NIH. On the other hand, studies have shown that well-connected public transportation is directly related to better maternal and infant health outcomes.
It helps explain why disparities in transportation access have contributed to disparities in health. In Ohio, the mortality rate for Black babies is three times higher than it is for white babies – in part because majority Black communities are more likely to have inadequate transportation. In Ohio’s major cities, only about a third of jobs are accessible via public transit, and it can take residents an hour to reach a hospital by bus.
Imagine that trip.
Countless women of childbearing age find it hard to access doctors, jobs, school, and other support systems. So their children suffer – and sometimes even die.
So, what’s the solution here? Well, it’s not banning cars. It’s not tearing up roads or bankrupting the Highway Trust Fund. Cars are not the enemy.
But our system cannot default to cars as the first and only option. Because a transportation system built for cars is often built at the expense of people.
For my money, one of this century’s best transportation insights comes from the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia – a man named Enrique Penalosa. “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars,” he said. “It’s where the rich use public transportation.”
That perfectly encapsulates what we need in America and around the world: a system where everyone, regardless of income, ability, or location, has at least two ways to get where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time. And at least one of those options isn’t a private car. It may include a subway, a bike share, light rail, or even an autonomous shareable vehicle. There are dozens of possibilities. This is a major part of our work at the Coalition for Reimagined Mobility.
How can we actually build such a system? That’s going to be the work of generations, but everyone in the transportation industry today needs to take their own first steps.
If you’re a transportation policymaker or a city planner, your first step should be to step back. Our cost-benefit analyses must look beyond the bottom line. Anyone can tally up the costs of building materials and labor. It’s less obvious – but more important – to factor in the costs like the ones in the Ohio study I mentioned earlier: the cost of not expanding transportation on mothers and babies, on chronic disease, access to jobs and schools, and mortality.
If you’re in the private sector – a product manager at a transportation startup or even an engineer at a hundred-year-old company like Ford – you need to think about what inclusive transportation options should look like in your particular community. In India, that might mean paying special attention to gender and safety issues for women on public transportation. In the United States, it might entail pushing for policy changes. We have a good starting point in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s innovation principles, which were released by Secretary Buttigieg this year, strike a great balance between encouraging experimentation and increasing equity.
All of us have to go above and beyond to make the non-car options both attractive and safe. No one is going to use a bike share if there aren’t safe bike lanes, or choose to walk if there’s no consistent sidewalk.
Finally, let’s talk new technology. You can’t give a speech about transportation today without talking about AVs. In 2017, I myself co-founded a startup that brought autonomous shuttles right here in Michigan. So, I strongly believe AVs have a role in our transportation future.
When it comes to AV’s many of us are familiar with the acronym CASE: connected, autonomous, shared, and electric. We must be ready to take advantage of all the opportunities wrapped up in CASE-enabling technology.
Connectivity can help us get better information on how people travel and help us plan people’s trips more efficiently. Autonomy will help us help those who cannot drive on their own, through advancements in self-driving vehicles. Electrification can help clean up tail-pipe emissions and make a huge dent in cars’ pollution footprints, while also making transportation more resilient overall by utilizing more diverse energy inputs, like wind and solar.
The “S” in CASE is currently the most obvious blind spot, to my eyes. And it’s a huge missed opportunity, because shared transportation can change the economic model of transportation altogether, and help us use cars and other finite resources far more efficiently. Sharing is a huge opportunity for providing a wider variety of mobility options to everyone. But if we truly want to add the “S” back in, the auto industry needs to make shareability into a specific priority. From how we design the access to vehicles to the connectivity processes that allow people to hail it, there are countless little product decisions that can go a long way towards creating a better shared mobility experience.
If we’re not careful, AVs may also perpetuate or exacerbate existing transportation inequities. For instance, they can help people in food deserts access healthy food – but not if they only work with a smartphone or credit card, which many people in food deserts don’t have. It’s these types of lived experiences that also demonstrate why it is important to have a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences involved in the entire product- both hardware and software – design process.
No one appreciates what cars have done for America, and for Americans, more than the people of Detroit.
We were once at the forefront of imagining just how personalized, convenient, and fun cars could be.
Today, we can be at the forefront of figuring out a new, cooperative, and socially beneficial role for cars in part by leveraging a wider set of perspectives as we think about our future solutions.
In other words, to creating a world not for cars, but a world with cars.
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