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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.

Go Deeper: 'Safe streets' are not safe for Black lives

Go deeper

Updated Oct 7, 2020 - Axios Events

Watch: Solving for health equities

On Wednesday, October 7, Axios' Caitlin Owens hosted a conversation on how the pandemic has worsened social and racial inequities in the American health care system, featuring Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) and Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.).

Rep. Markwayne Mullin discussed disparities in healthcare for Native Americans, who largely rely on Indian Health Service hospitals for care. Mullin, who is Cherokee, noted that Native Americans have been disproportionately hit with COVID-19.

  • On the need for health data sharing between the federal government and the Indian Health Service: The IHS should have the same access to data as states. Without it, we’re essentially running blind and not able to learn and improve how we treat COVID-19.
  • On steps Congress can take to fix these health disparities:
    • Data sharing
    • Expand telemedicine care, especially for rural communities
    • Expand education
    • Get IHS fully funded
  • Read more: Indian Health Service fights coronavirus with fewer services

Rep. Raul Ruiz unpacked the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on essential workers, like Latino farm workers, who have high occupational risk hazards and few workplace protections.

Axios Co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei hosted a View from the Top segment with Humana Chief Medical and Corporate Affairs Officer Dr. William H. Shrank who discussed Humana’s approach to health care, most notably their value-based care outcomes.

  • On the importance of social context when understanding health care outcomes: “We have a long history of partnering deeply in communities and trying to address social context needs, whether it’s social isolation, housing problems, food insecurity...we are focusing on reducing those disparities and promoting equity.”
  • On value-based care outcomes: The approach is to realign the way in which we pay our providers so that we reward them for delivering the outcomes that patients want...for taking care of people upfront and keeping them as healthy as possible.

Thank you Humana for sponsoring this event.

1 hour ago - Health

Pfizer-BioNTech: Booster doses more effective at blocking Omicron

Prepared doses of the BioNtech-Pfizer Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine in Germany on Dec. 7. Photo: Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images

Pfizer and BioNTech said Wednesday that two doses of their COVID-19 vaccine were significantly less effective at neutralizing the Omicron variant in early lab tests, but a three-dose regimen was more effective.

Why it matters: Omicron, which has been labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization after being identified by scientists in South Africa last month, has forced vaccine makers to reassess the effectiveness of their vaccines against this specific new form of coronavirus.

Mike Allen, author of AM
1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Biden unveils "Building a Better America" branding

President Biden speaks on infrastructure while visiting a bridge in Woodstock, N.H., last month. Photo: John Tully/Getty Images

President Biden today launched a new website and unveiled bold new branding as part of a nationwide tour to sell the benefits of his infrastructure package.

Why it matters: The White House says passage of the new law shows the ability to "forge bipartisan consensus and prove our democracy can deliver big wins" even in these toxic times.