Jun 19, 2020

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

Today is Juneteenth, marking the ending of slavery in the U.S. We'll examine the role that transit police can play in healing our country's racial rifts.

  • Today, Axios will host a virtual event in honor of Juneteenth at 12:30 pm ET. Markets editor Dion Rabouin will interview Valerie Jarrett, BET co-founder Bob Johnson, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Campaign Zero co-founder DeRay Mckesson.
  • Smart Brevity count: 1,767 words, a 7 minute-read.
1 big thing: Transit cops could lead police reforms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Urban transit agencies are rethinking how they prevent crime and maintain order following nationwide protests over racial bias and police brutality in the death of George Floyd and others.

Why it matters: Transit police — an often overlooked arm of law enforcement — are the ultimate beat cops. They're positioned as potential leaders in the effort to defuse anger and rebuild trust in cities where there's renewed interest in the concept of community policing.

  • Instead of treating fare evasion or homelessness with arrests and prosecution, some transit agencies are experimenting with more compassionate responses to try to address the root causes of those problems.
  • At the same time, agency officials argue a strong police presence is necessary to prevent serious crime and to boost declining ridership.

Context: Even before COVID-19, public transit ridership was falling, due in part to competition from Uber and Lyft, but also because of safety concerns. Many transit systems have sought to beef up their police presence to soothe passengers' worries.

But critics say a crackdown on fare-jumpers and homeless individuals looking for shelter in stations often targets people of color and low-income people.

  • One example: In February, Metro Transit Police in Washington, D.C., came under fire for handcuffing and arresting a 13-year-old boy, renewing complaints that they unnecessarily target black passengers for detainment and questioning.
  • "Fare enforcement essentially is criminalizing being low income. And you can say exactly the same thing about transit police who are charged with clearing out homeless passengers," said Hana Creger of the non-profit Greenlining Institute, which focuses on economic and racial justice.
  • "These are just Band-Aid solutions for much deeper, much more entrenched problems than policing can actually solve."

What's happening: Some transit agencies agree and are taking steps to defund their police budgets or adopt new approaches.

TriMet, Portland, Oregon's tri-county regional transit agency, announced this week it is cutting six police officer positions and shifting $1.8 million of its $16.2 million police budget to other community-based public safety efforts.

  • It will launch community-wide listening sessions and create an expert advisory panel on how to provide bias-free transit security.
  • TriMet will also begin piloting non-police solutions, such as mobile crisis intervention teams for mental and behavioral health issues.
  • The changes came after an independent review board recently found a lack of accountability by its multi-agency Transit Police and after Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler yanked the city's officers from the transit agency's police force.

In Philadelphia, transit police have begun using smartphones to stop fare evaders, a common problem that often leads to more serious offenses, Tom Nestel, chief of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), tells Axios.

  • How it works: When someone jumps a turnstile, the cashier alerts a SEPTA officer, who downloads video footage of the offender and blasts it out to the cell phones of other SEPTA officers waiting at stations downstream for the train to arrive.
  • If the accused gets defensive, the officers show them video proof, which Nestel called "a tremendous deescalation tool."
  • Instead of a $300 penalty, fare-jumpers get a $25 fine, and another chance. If they're caught skipping the fare four times, they're banned from the SEPTA system, and funneled into social service agencies to help with underlying problems like poverty or drug addiction.

The bottom line: As with any beat officer, transit cops' daily engagement with the people who pass through their stations can keep more serious problems at bay, says Nestel.

2. The subway has a bad rap

New York City subway. Photo: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Most people have been avoiding public transit if they can, but a new report in The Atlantic says there's no evidence subways and buses are to blame for coronavirus outbreaks.

Why it matters: Public transportation is essential to the resumption of normal economic activity in our cities, but surveys show people would prefer to drive their own car than risk being cooped up on a subway or bus with strangers who might infect them with the virus.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling people it's better to avoid transit and ride alone to work, if possible.

It's all overblown, according to the article's authors, including Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.

  • Despite scary stories pegged to an MIT economist's report about New York's subway system, some of the biggest U.S. outbreaks have been in meat-packing plants and nursing homes, far away from public transit, they write.
  • Hard-hit cities like Milan, Tokyo or Seoul that have reopened their transit systems have not seen subsequent infection spikes.
  • Of note: In Asia, it's common for people to wear masks, which could help explain why Japan and Korea haven't seen new spikes.

Yes, but: There's still a lot we don't know about this virus, and it's too early to draw conclusions about how — and where — it spreads.

The bottom line: Until then, convincing Americans to get over their fears about public transit will be difficult.

3. Ride-hailing developments

Uber and Marin Transit are teaming up to provide a new, on-demand public transit option. Photo: Uber

Uber and Lyft both announced interesting moves this week as they look for a profitable path forward.

The big picture: Both companies have been devastated by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, delaying their efforts to achieve profitability. But they are adapting for the long haul.

Uber licensed its ride-hailing software to a public transit agency in Marin County, California.

  • Uber app users in Marin County will see a new option called Marin Connect that will allow them to book a ride on a shared or wheelchair-accessible van operated by Marin Transit.
  • It's the first time Uber has licensed its software and could represent a bigger push into mass transit as an added source of revenue.

Lyft is pledging that every vehicle on its platform will be electric or powered by another zero-emission technology by 2030.

  • Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas, in a note to clients, reminds that EV adoption will be driven by cities and ride-sharing fleets, and he expects similar announcements to come.
  • Yes but: As my Axios colleague Ben Geman noted earlier this week (and former Obama Energy Department official Julio Friedmann reiterated in a Twitter thread last night), Lyft's plan requires substantial national policy changes and incentives.
4. Hands-free driving coming to Ford's Mustang Mach-E

John Gilchrist, Ford Mustang Mach-E engineer, demonstrates Active Drive Assist, which allows for hands-free driving on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways in the U.S. and Canada. Photo: Ford

Ford is preparing to launch a hands-free driving feature on certain 2021 models, starting with its upcoming electric crossover, the Mustang Mach-E.

Why it matters: The plug-in Mach-E is Ford's Tesla fighter, which means it needs assisted driving capability to compete with Tesla's Autopilot. Like the Tesla system, Ford's new Active Drive Assist has limitations.

  • "You are always in charge and you must pay attention to the road ahead," Darren Palmer, Ford's global director for battery electric vehicles, told journalists this week.

Details: Ford's hands-free driving system is actually more like GM's Super Cruise technology, now available on select Cadillacs.

  • An infrared camera mounted on the dashboard keeps track of the driver's gaze and head position, even if the driver is wearing sunglasses or a face mask. (Tesla doesn't have a driver monitoring system, which is why GM's system gets higher marks from Consumer Reports.)
  • Ford's technology will enable hands-free driving on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways in the U.S .and Canada, under the right circumstances.

There is one way that Ford is copying Tesla, though: Buyers need to pay for the hardware up front, because the software that enables the hands-free feature isn't ready yet and will have to be added later.

  • In Ford's case, starting later this year Mach-E buyers can pay for the Active Drive Assist hardware as part of the Ford Co-Pilot 360 Active 2.0 Prep Package.
  • Then in late 2021, they'll pay another fee to add the software that enables hands-free driving either via an over-the-air update or installed at a dealership.
  • Ford has not announced pricing for the hardware or the software.
  • Tesla buyers pay $7,000 — and starting July 1, $8,000 — for "full self-driving" technology that is not yet available, not is it clear when it will be.
5. Mobility stocks attract Robinhood's speculators
Data: Robintrack; Table: Axios Visuals

Mobility stocks dominate the most popular companies held by the army of small individual investors on Robinhood, writes Axios' Felix Salmon.

  • Robinhood, with more than 10 million customers, is the platform of choice for younger investors looking to get rich quick in the stock market.

Why it matters: Shares of Boeing, airlines, and cruise companies were devastated by the coronavirus crisis, teeing up a "what goes down must come up" rebound trade that worked surprisingly well.

  • Tesla — that perennial speculative favorite — is also on the list.
  • The most popular company of all is Ford, which has the advantage of having a universally-known brand and also a very low nominal share price of just about $6 per share. That makes small bets a lot easier to make.
6. Driving the conversation

FAA chief acknowledges agency, Boeing made mistakes on 737 MAX (David Shepardson and Eric M. Johnson — Reuters)

  • Details: At a hearing Wednesday, senators accused the FAA of acting like "a dog watching TV" when it came to policing Boeing's development of the 737 MAX. The planes have been grounded since March 2019 following two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.

We're never going to get meaningful data on self-driving car testing (Andrew J. Hawkins — The Verge)

  • Why it matters: Absent federal laws on self-driving cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a new voluntary program to collect and share testing data from AV operators, but safety advocates denounced the program for having no teeth.

Nikola's Milton scraps with startup's media critics (Alan Adler — Freightwaves)

  • My thought bubble: When you have a $24 billion market capitalization and no revenue, the CEO should expect to get some scrutiny from the media.
7. What I'm driving

2020 BMW X6 sports activity vehicle. Photo: BMW

This week I'm driving the 2020 BMW X6 xDrive40i, what the German automaker calls a "sports activity coupe."

  • It's what you get when you blend an SUV with a coupe — a slope-roofed crossover with less utility and less headroom.
  • That distinctive look of the X6 costs almost $6,000 more than the traditional squared-off BMW X5, and some people won't mind paying even if it's less practical than an SUV.
  • Personally, I'm not a fan of the X6's rear end. It's neither fish nor fowl, and just looks awkward to me.

That said, the X6 is an excellent ride, as you'd expect from BMW, and loaded with useful technology.

  • With the $2,300 Premium package you can get gesture control which allows you to wave your hand at the instrument panel to adjust the radio volume, for example. (It takes practice, but I'm getting better at using this function.)
  • A new back-up parking assistance feature takes over steering to maneuver the vehicle out of a parking space, mirroring the path most recently used in the forward direction.

There are many assisted-driving features available, including a system that will relieve the driver in stop-and-go traffic up to 40 mph, and a highway lane-keeping system that will actively steer away from a potential collision.

The bottom line: Built at BMW's huge factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the X6 starts at $64,300 and goes up to $85,650 for the high-performance V8 version, the X6 M50i.

Joann Muller