Equality of opportunity in travel behavior prediction with deep neural networks and discrete choice models

TitleEquality of opportunity in travel behavior prediction with deep neural networks and discrete choice models
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsYunhan Zheng, Shenhao Wang, Jinhua Zhao
JournalTransportation Research Part C

Although researchers increasingly adopt machine learning to model travel behavior, they predominantly focus on prediction accuracy, ignoring the ethical challenges embedded in machine learning algorithms. This study introduces an important missing dimension - computational fairness - to travel behavior analysis. It highlights the accuracy-fairness tradeoff instead of the single dimensional focus on prediction accuracy in the contexts of deep neural network (DNN) and discrete choice models (DCM). We first operationalize computational fairness by equality of opportunity, then differentiate between the bias inherent in data and the bias introduced by modeling. The models inheriting the inherent biases can risk perpetuating the existing inequality in the data structure, and the biases in modeling can further exacerbate it. We then demonstrate the prediction disparities in travel behavior modeling using the 2017 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) and the 2018-2019 My Daily Travel Survey in Chicago. Empirically, DNN and DCM reveal consistent prediction disparities across multiple social groups: both over-predict the false negative rate of frequent driving for the ethnic minorities, the low-income and the disabled populations, and falsely predict a higher travel burden of the socially disadvantaged groups and the rural populations than reality. Comparing DNN with DCM, we find that DNN can outperform DCM in prediction disparities because of DNN’s smaller misspecification error. To mitigate prediction disparities, this study introduces an absolute correlation regularization method, which is evaluated with synthetic and real-world data. The results demonstrate the prevalence of prediction disparities in travel behavior modeling, and the disparities still persist regarding a variety of model specifics such as the number of DNN layers, batch size and weight initialization. Since these prediction disparities can exacerbate social inequity if prediction results without fairness adjustment are used for transportation policy making, we advocate for careful consideration of the fairness problem in travel behavior modeling, and the use of bias mitigation algorithms for fair transport decisions.