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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

More large U.S. cities are seeing their outer reaches turn into transit deserts, where demand for transportation vastly exceeds supply.

The big picture: Economic inequality and urban sprawl have contributed to the problem, which generates barriers to health care access, employment and even everyday shopping. Connecting public transit systems with automated vehicles — whether in ride-sharing or shuttle services — could offer one solution.

Context: Researchers with the Urban Information Lab at the University of Texas studied 52 U.S. cities and found that between 1.5% and 13.5% of each city’s population had unmet transit needs.

How it works: AV solutions for transit deserts could take two main forms:

  • Ride-sharing could provide financially accessible and logistically feasible transportation with relatively light investment. It has potential as both a door-to-door service or for last-mile connections to public transit, especially during off-peak hours.
  • Autonomous buses operating on fixed route may be useful, but would not necessarily provide benefits beyond those of human-driven buses. On-demand autonomous shuttles, on the other hand, could complete door-to-door routes that combine the efficiency of a ride-sharing AV with the low cost of a bus service.

What's needed: To avoid declines in the funding of public transit that could make deserts worse, AV transit would have to be designed as a complement rather than a competitor.

  • Financial and operational incentives could help AV services gain momentum. For example, public transit agencies could handle booking and subsidize the cost of trips.

Laura Fraade-Blanar is an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Go deeper

DOJ watchdog to probe whether officials sought to alter election results

Donald and Melania Trump exit Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 20. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department's inspector general will investigate whether any current or former DOJ officials "engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome" of the 2020 election, the agency announced Monday.

Driving the news: The investigation comes in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged Jeffrey Clark, the head of DOJ's civil division, had plotted with President Trump to oust acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen in a scheme to overturn the election results in Georgia.

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Biden signs order overturning Trump's transgender military ban

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

President Biden signed an executive order on Monday overturning the Trump administration's ban on transgender Americans serving in the military.

Why it matters: The ban, which allowed the military to bar openly transgender recruits and discharge people for not living as their sex assigned at birth, affected up to 15,000 service members, according to tallies from the National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender American Veterans Association.