These Carnegie Mellon students want self-driving cars to help underserved areas of Pittsburgh access public transit

The class will give its policy recommendations to city council later this year.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Update, Dec. 5: The CMU students will present to Pittsburgh City Council at a post agenda at 3 p.m. Dec. 13.

Catching a bus in Duquesne sometimes means walking half a mile to a mile on a street without sidewalks, said Nickole Nesby, mayoral candidate for the city.

The Democrat unopposed in the November election added that the time between buses and long rides to Pittsburgh and to job centers in Braddock, Forest Hills and McKeesport all make traveling out of Duquesne difficult.

“I found a lot of people are deterred from joining the workforce due to a lack of transportation,” she said.

Advocates of self-driving cars, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, have touted the technology for its ability to increase mobility with door-to-door service. This semester, a class of Carnegie Mellon University students are creating local policy recommendations encouraging the use of autonomous vehicles as a way to help those underserved by public transit.

Those students and transportation experts said there are things Pittsburgh and surrounding municipalities can do now to prepare for a future when fully autonomous ride-sharing vehicles are accessible to the public.

Each fall, CMU seniors in its ethics, history and public policy program spend months researching an issue and present a series of policy recommendations for local implementation to Pittsburgh City Council at the end of the semester. A date has not yet been set for the class’s presentation.

Last year, students recommended ways the city could use vacant lots todeter the negative side effects of gentrification, especially displacement of low-income residents, while also promoting broader equitable development goals.”

This year, Danielle Wenner, assistant professor of philosophy and associate director of CMU’s Center for Ethics and Policy, is teaching the capstone course and chose the topic of autonomous vehicles because there’s a lot of news around self-driving cars, the regulatory background is muddled, and it’s still not clear what can be done at the city level.

Questions around self-driving cars range from policy to job loss to ethical concerns and more, City Council Member Dan Gilman told The Incline. He’s a graduate of the CMU ethics, history and public policy program.

After some research, the students narrowed their policy focus to using autonomous vehicles to address areas underserved by public transportation.

As they work on those ideas, the students are talking with CMU experts, community advocates and leaders about things such as public-private partnerships and infrastructure changes. They’ve also looked back at how Pittsburgh changed when cars became popular, student Margaret Edwards said. She and classmate Cameron Dively said they’re also looking at ways to use self-driving cars to improve transit access both within Pittsburgh and in nearby areas like Duquesne.

Self-driving vehicle technology is evolving quickly, but there are things the city can do — such as making sure necessary infrastructure exists — to make sure it’s ready for when self-driving cars are the norm, students Edwards and Dively said. There has to be room for flexibility as things change, they added.

“The policies we might propose in December could be outdated in May,” Edwards said.

Transit partners

One way to increase mobility with self-driving cars is to use the technology for a first-mile/last-mile approach, the students said. In that scenario, autonomous cars or shuttles get people to and from bus stops that are too far or not safe to reach by walking.

Laura Wiens, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, said if that were to happen, the autonomous cars or shuttles should be publicly funded so it’s both accountable and affordable for users, as well as in the areas of most need, adding that she doesn’t want to see self-driving cars compete with public transit.

Adam Brandolph, spokesman for the Port Authority of Allegheny County, agreed and said while other transit agencies might view ride-sharing as competition, that’s not the case for Port Authority. He said the idea of public-private partnerships is on the authority’s radar.

The city’s director of mobility and infrastructure, Karina Ricks, said establishing partnerships with ride-sharing companies now would create a base for when those companies have self-driving cars to use in those partnerships.

But two things need to happen before the city could consider partnerships with self-driving car companies, she said:

  1. More ride-share companies need to have wheelchair accessible vehicles to increase on-demand service to people who use wheelchairs and want that on-demand service.
  2. Both able-bodied people and those who need wheelchair access can use ride-sharing as a convenient and affordable way to increase their access to transit.

Overall, Ricks said she liked the idea the students are investigating.

Nesby agreed.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Nesby said, adding that not only would autonomous cars offer door-to-door service for those who don’t drive, but kids in Duquesne would be exposed to technology they could be using in future jobs.