• COVID-19 acted as a stress test for racial inequities, for example by affecting Black Americans disproportionately;
  • Historic inequalities in access to and provision of transport are compounding the effects of the pandemic for communities of colour in the US, but it is often overlooked in conversations about ending systemic racism;
  • A public policy-making process that tackles some of the greatest causes of inequity for communities of colour is needed with transport as a crucial part.

In March, the US marked the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death just as the trial of George Floyd’s accused murderer began. Last year was not just a year of isolation and coping with a pandemic, it was also a year of fighting for human rights, particularly through antiracism.

In fact, the two often fed one another: communities of colour were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 with Black Americans three times more likely than White Americans to get infected and 1.4 times more likely to die once infected than White Americans.

The pandemic has been used as justification to condemn anti-racist demonstrations and has changed the rules of the global conversations we need to have. Regardless of these difficulties, for the past year, we have all talked and heard a lot about anti-racism. Hopefully, we have begun an essential learning journey that will lead to systemic, positive change; now it's time to start walking the walk too.

This idea can be taken literally. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists healthcare access as one of five crucial reasons why Black Americans have been so disproportionately affected by COVID-19. In its definition, it mentions insurance and discriminatory practices within the healthcare system, but this is missing a simple, yet fatal factor: transportation. Transportation has long been recognized by the UN as a driver of maternal and infant mortality, as issues with safety, affordability, availability, performance and digitization have made the very means for reaching vital services and opportunities inadequate for women around the world. The same logic can be applied to communities of colour.

Historically, transportation development has concentrated on building roads and highways. Even snow-ploughing begins with large roads before pavements or smaller suburban streets are tackled, to the disadvantage of parents waiting for school buses, older people walking down the block to reach their paratransit vehicle or anyone without a car, which is the case for four times more Black than White households.

COVID-19's racial disparity
COVID-19's racial disparity
Image: Statista

Most of the more innovative mobility products launched to help with first and last-mile trips that can connect users to larger transportation systems rely on digital access, which is itself only possible for users with internet access and a bank account. However, half of Black households in the US are unbanked and more than 30% of the Black community is underbanked. Only 58% of Black individuals own a smartphone or a computer, compared with 82% of White individuals. In many areas, gentrification has pushed black families outside of city centres and beyond walkable access to essential services like hospitals.

Without a car, without access to the digitally-driven modes of transportation we have come to equate with modern infrastructure and relying on public transportation that has suffered deep cuts in service and revenues over the course of the pandemic, how can Black individuals reliably and regularly get tested? Avoid crowds? Safely quarantine and self-isolate? Make and honour appointments to receive the COVID-19 vaccine?

COVID-19 is just one illustration of how racial inequities can be driven by systemic mobility gaps. Hospitals tend to be as accessible as economic centres, where most jobs, educational institutions and training hubs are concentrated. Black households are three times more likely to be at or below the threshold of poverty than White households and 2.5 times more likely than White households to live in a neighbourhood without a full-service grocery store.

Even when a Black and White household has similar levels of wealth, local studies conducted in cities such as Detroit suggest the Black household is still more likely to have to travel further to get food. In Los Angeles, White neighbourhoods have three times the number of grocery stores of Black neighbourhoods. The consequences include obesity and diet-related diseases with Black individuals being twice as likely as White individuals to have diabetes. All these issues are interconnected. Studies show that 24 jobs get created for every 10,000 square feet of retail grocery space while a large market, like a typical Whole Foods store with 25,000 to 50,000 square feet, can see up to 200 jobs created in the vicinity.

All of these issues are interconnected. So, let’s walk the walk. Let’s tackle policy one industry at a time for meaningful change. Let’s move from conversation to action.

Let’s begin a public policy-making process that tackles some of the greatest causes of inequity for communities of colour. Let’s recognize the connections between the many symptoms of inequity in the US and people’s lived experiences. Let’s begin with the walk itself: transportation. Often forgotten, it is the crucial difference between socio-economic initiatives being within or out of reach and a necessary first step towards building a better, more equitable and healthier world.

The World Economic Forum launched the Inclusivity Quotient project in July 2020 to begin this kind of change. A critical dimension of the project is precisely to tackle the data gap or the gaps in data collection and operationalization processes that have been so fundamental in letting people of colour fall between the cracks in the US and elsewhere. This brings the policy-making process back to fundamentals like language, qualitative understanding of history, and even the basics of economic theories of productivity, to map out where the labour force can come from to protect the resiliency of modern economies and societies. In close collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group, we are working with the cities of Chicago, Beijing and Berlin to expand BCG’s data modelling tool so it can visualize the impact of trade-offs in multimodal mobility systems on economic growth and equity.

This kind of effort can redefine economic development strategy and tackles the day-to-day legacy barriers that continue to keep people of colour and other underserved communities from jobs, education and vital services such as healthcare. It is also a game-changing opportunity to engage these stakeholders that have been left out from the proverbial table, so we can concretely understand the pain points and needs of marginalized communities and start building trust and accountability.

How have you experienced the impact of transportation on your capacity to commute, eat, socialize, learn and live? As decision-makers, how do you engage with underserved communities? What will you change about your decision-making process to include them? What key performance indicators will you use for your policy and deployment strategy assessments? We are taking the conversation to action. Will you?