Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Public transit agencies are facing gaping budget holes from the coronavirus pandemic that are likely to lead to service cuts and fare hikes, which could hurt the people from low-income communities who rely most on public transportation.

Why it matters: Access to safe, affordable and reliable public transportation is key to socioeconomic success. Yet poor communities often have little input when it comes to transportation policies.

Driving the news: As cities reopen, transit agencies are adapting on the fly while balancing daunting public health concerns and growing financial constraints.

  • They're introducing innovative ideas like "slow street" programs to reduce vehicle traffic and encourage more biking, walking and socially distant curbside dining.
  • But these programs sometimes wind up creating more congestion on surrounding streets, slowing bus traffic for those who can't work from home and don't have the option of driving or walking to their job.

The big picture: Heightened awareness of racial inequalities — from the way the coronavirus has ravaged Black communities to the outcry over police brutality — has created a unique opportunity for cities to stop and rethink the mobility revolution to ensure everyone has access.

  • Flashy, expensive projects like light rail systems and autonomous vehicle pilots don't solve racial and economic disparities or help meet the basic needs of poor people who just need to get to work, school or the grocery store.
  • Nor can scooter and bike companies be relied upon; many pulled out of cities during the pandemic, eliminating an option for essential workers.

"What this moment has done is really underscore the idea of public transportation. We need transportation that’s accountable to the public in a way that private companies aren’t," said Hayley Richardson, a spokesperson for the Transit Center, an independent non-profit focused on transit equity.

San Francisco offers a good blueprint. When the pandemic started, the city pared bus service down to the most-used routes and offered overnight taxi rides home for essential workers.

  • Now, as they begin to add back service, they are leveraging data to prioritize routes near hospitals, grocery stores and low-income neighborhoods.
  • "More and more transit agencies will have to make those choices," said Richardson.

And in Detroit, a city with majority Black residents where bus service was spotty and car ownership out of reach for many, officials were targeting improved mobility long before the pandemic.

  • They introduced a Night Shift program three years ago, adding more overnight bus routes and offering passengers Lyft vouchers to help them get home safely from the bus stop.
  • They also enlisted a neighborhood association to promote GM's Maven car-sharing service. Utilization was just taking off when the pandemic hit, and Maven folded nationwide.
  • Soon Detroit will introduce a program to provide free bikes or scooters to essential hospital and grocery store workers.

The key is community engagement — a challenge agencies are finding is harder than expected because of a lack of trust among marginalized groups, says Lilian Coral, director of national strategy and technology innovation at the Knight Foundation, which pledged $5.25 million to explore how self-driving cars could be deployed in five U.S. cities.

  • "Technology and data are helping us to rethink the way we make decisions and design these cities. But it’s not enough. You have to engage people in understanding their needs. The data won’t tell you that."

The bottom line: The pandemic and recent protests against police brutality have put a spotlight on transportation inequities, giving urban planners new motivation to get it right.

  • "I feel like everything that's happened over the last three months has really focused the entire team on solving the problems that people are having," said Mark de la Vergne, Detroit's director of mobility innovation.

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