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Public transport

Should transport be free?

Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Can the concept of universal basic mobility (UBM) really take off? In the USA pilots are underway to test the theory that making a certain level of access to transport a basic right will pay dividends across economies

By Jack Roper

The theory of universal basic mobility (UBM) is that better transportation options improve socio-economic outcomes for disadvantaged communities. Subsidized mobility may cost in the short-term, but ultimately pay for itself by creating healthier, better-paid citizens. Pilots intended to prove this compelling but untested hypothesis are underway in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

‘Transportation is the essential tissue which connects people to opportunity,’ says Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) Interim General Manager, Connie Llanos. ‘In LA, ten times more jobs are accessible to those with a vehicle. But in some neighborhoods, 40% of households have only one vehicle or none at all. Often, they’ve been effectively cordoned off by transportation planning choices.’

The $17.8m South Los Angeles UBM Pilot Program will provide a smörgåsbord of transportation options to 2000 lower-income Angelenos and measure the socioeconomic impact. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, a comparatively modest $250,000 trial will provide 50 residents with access to Move PGH services including public transit, POGOH bike-share, Zipcar car-share and Spin scooters.

Reurbanization has filled walkable city neighborhoods with wealthy people,’ says Spin Senior Vice-President for Policy and Partnerships, Kyle Rowe. ‘Low-income folks in sprawled suburbs are forced into costly car ownership, while those without a car struggle to access resources. Giving those most in need free transportation solutions could break that cycle, allowing them to achieve better employment, health and social outcomes.’

This will involve residents from Pittsburgh’s Manchester and Chateau neighborhoods, where median income is 14% below the city average. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) will quantify the effects of free mobility on socioeconomic outcomes.

Our pilot is what social scientists call a randomized control trial,’ says CMU Professor of Economics and Public Policy, Dr Lee Branstetter. 

We recruit low-income residents and randomly sort them into two groups of 50. Our treatment group receive additional transportation resources, whereas our control group don’t. Crucially, we obtain their permission to collect their data, which we de-identify prior to analysis.

It is a dispositive test: one designed to demonstrate that UBM works by comparing outcomes between ex-ante identical groups with and without free mobility. While a sample of 50 may be insufficient to prove the theory conclusively, the results may justify funding for tests on a wider scale.

‘But we must remain open to the possibility it won’t matter much,’ he adds. ‘People face so many barriers. One plausible conclusion could be that transportation is a necessary condition for social advancement, but in itself insufficient unless paired with other social supports.’ But at LADOT, UBM is no dispassionate hypothesis.

For us, universal basic mobility is an operating principle,’ says Llanos. ‘It’s a way we measure every grant, project and initiative. How does it help close the gap and better connect all Angelenos to opportunity? This pilot is a concentrated illustration of that concept.

While initially focused on a 2000-resident cohort, it will simultaneously test the theory and lay groundwork for implementation at scale. LADOT will install safe street and EV charging infrastructure, build public-private partnerships and foster digital access to transportation – all prerequisites to wider provision - and contribute $1m in pilot funds to the Rail-to-Rail Active Transportation Corridor Project.

‘Rail-to-Rail will reimagine a former railway as a multimodal connector to downtown LA,’ Llanos explains. ‘Underutilized infrastructure becomes a blight and reminds the community it isn’t getting the same investments as elsewhere. We want South LA residents to see and feel that their choices have grown.’

LADOT is also building digital infrastructure to support universal mobility. It still sees gaps in smartphone adoption and will provide phones as part of the pilot. It is developing two parallel mobility wallet mechanisms to deliver $150 monthly subsidies, based on the METRO Tap system and Angeleno Card respectively. The goal is integrated and scalable payment and access via a single application.

 ‘The smartphone makes all this possible,’ says Branstetter.

With a smartphone, we can communicate with residents and provide resources with smartphone-enabled payments. With a smartphone, they can access transportation options and – with their permission - we can track their mobility. Technology in almost everyone’s hands gives us incredible reach

Equally crucial is community engagement. In Pittsburgh, the Manchester Citizens Corporation will help identify the correct target population, onboard participants and educate them in using mobility options. LADOT has partnered with the SLATE-Z community organization and created a Residents Advisory Committee to articulate citizens’ own investment priorities.

‘We’re not prescribing options this community should have,’ says Llanos. ‘Since we first submitted the application, we have co-designed the pilot with local residents. It makes a tangible difference, because transportation policy has neglected these neighborhoods over time and we have to rebuild those relationships.’


Private mobility providers have also tended to neglect communities where lower median incomes equate to uncertain return-on-investment. Llanos is excited about the involvement of private partners in South LA and believes the pilot’s scale will demonstrate to private enterprise that UBM is a future investment priority. 

‘Research shows that those who use transportation most efficiently use a variety of options,’ says Rowe. ‘Obviously, free public transit is within the purview of city authorities. In Pittsburgh, the pairing of public services with those of private companies like Spin and Zipcar is pretty unique and may enable individuals to better access their community.’

Both pilots must quantify the relative socioeconomic progress of participants to understand the impact of UBM provision. University of California, Davis (UC Davis) will assist LADOT and CMU is responsible for progress-tracking Pittsburgh’s treatment and control groups.

‘Participants agree to download a smartphone app which tracks their movements,’ says Branstetter. ‘We can measure the movements of our treatment group relative to our control group. Do they go to new places? Or just commute to the same places more reliably? We de-identify that data to safeguard privacy.’

Partnership with Allegheny County Department of Human Service (DHS) enables CMU to interrogate rich public datasets. Each year, the US unemployment insurance system requires all companies to report the identities and incomes of employees – data which Allegheny DHS can use to track the employment status and income of individuals in the pilot.

‘My research team does not have access to individual records,’ Branstetter notes. ‘Instead, we have a relationship whereby we present this agency with questions about two randomly-assigned groups. We can directly see what difference transportation resources make to income and do more sophisticated analyses.’

The possibilities are not limited to employment. Allegheny DHS can describe individuals’ interactions with the US justice system. School records enable it to detect spillover effects on the academic progress of children with parents involved in the study. It can monitor reliance on publicly-funded health insurance, income support and nutritional assistance.

The possibilities are not limited to employment. Allegheny DHS can describe individuals’ interactions with the US justice system. School records enable it to detect spillover effects on the academic progress of children with parents involved in the study. It can monitor reliance on publicly-funded health insurance, income support and nutritional assistance.

'We’d love to be able to tell government: If you provide lower-income citizens with additional transportation, their economic circumstances improve so much that it pays for itself in reduced outlays and increased tax revenues,’ says Branstetter.

 ‘Medicaid records allow granular analysis of health outcomes (with the same iron wall around privacy). It may show that short-term transportation expenditure makes for a healthier society and reduces long-term health expenditure.’

The continuity of administrative records allows the persistence of study benefits to be measured into the indefinite future. Potentially, this approach is easily repeatable across or beyond the US. Branstetter believes UK researchers could access equally rich datasets by partnering with the Office of National Statistics, while statistics are even more centralized elsewhere in Europe.

Both pilots target net-positive carbon impacts. In South LA, which suffers high concentrations of air pollution and respiratory disorders, LADOT will promote clean mobility through street safety and EV infrastructure. The package offered in Pittsburgh reflects a sustainable modal mix, with Zipcar use rationed to a few hours per month. 

‘Transportation accounts for 30% of average American household expenditure,’ says Rowe. ‘For low-income suburban residents forced to maintain an old clunker of a car, it becomes far more. By providing options to use other modes, perhaps we can bring them along on the sustainable mobility movement already underway in walkable neighborhoods.’

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