Universal Basic Mobility and the Road to Transportation Security

By Karina Ricks

One in four American adults are transportation insecure — meaning they lack the ability to regularly move from place to place in a safe and timely manner. According to a forthcoming paper in Socius by leading University of Michigan researchers, transportation insecurity is 2.5 times more prevalent than food insecurity and afflicts more than half of all adults in poverty. While staggering, that finding is sadly unsurprising.

Transportation mobility is fundamental to economic mobility. Low-wage workers commonly occupy entry-level positions where they must commute to work. But their commutes are fragile — one missed bus, one flat bicycle tire, or one deferred car repair can easily spell job loss…again. Transportation insecurity traps them in a game of Chutes and Ladders in which there are only chutes. Repeat tardiness denies them opportunities for raises or promotions. Over the course of a working life, this amounts to thousands of dollars of foregone earnings and wealth-building. And it affects more than individuals. The destabilizing effects of transportation insecurity cascades through families, communities, and the economy as a whole.

While a handful of studies have examined the utilization and effectiveness of fledgling Universal Basic Mobility (UBM) pilots, few have tabulated and quantified the social and economic costs of the status quo: lost wages, missed medical appointments, school tardies or truancy, social isolation and incohesion, or the host of other consequences of transportation insecurity.

That is about to change. Earlier this month, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) released a notice of funding opportunity to develop a program to quantify, in economic terms, the cost of transportation insecurity (and conversely the return on investment of UBM) to both individuals and society. The FTA research program is modeled on pioneering pilots and research in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

Cities and states from coast to coast know the high price of transportation insecurity and are leading an array of diverse pilots to test mitigations. In March, Boston launched a two-year, three-route, fare-free transit program. Last month, Chicago launched a free bicycle distribution program for income-eligible households. In 2019, Portland, Oregon launched a demonstration of a transportation wallet for residents of affordable housing. CalTrans’ Integrated Travel Project (Cal-ITP) has developed a suite of tools to aid transit and shared mobility use and payment. Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification (OFME) is building on all these efforts in its mobility wallet challenge.

Meaningfully addressing transportation insecurity, and capturing the social and economic benefits of reliable mobility, requires user-oriented and mode-agnostic solutions. Our mobility system is fragmented and one mode can rarely do it all. Transit is the unequivocal backbone of any viable, affordable, and effective urban transportation system…. and sometimes the bus is late, or doesn’t run late enough, or a trip requires too many transfers for timely travel. Trip demands are different with different needs at different times. Transportation security demands an “all of the above” approach that integrates and unlocks all shared mobility services. Use of the multimodal system should be simple and straightforward — available in a single place while combining trip options across modes. Program design must contemplate how forms of subsidies would encourage or obstruct desired movement, and then trace the actual performance of the subsidy through auditing and reporting. Accordingly, payment channels must be simple, but flexible; accommodating stored value, credit, passes, subsidies, benefits, and incentives. Funds need to remain maximally liquid — not prematurely and permanently turning U.S. dollars into exclusive transit, scooter, or bike currency. Finally, solutions to address transportation insecurity can’t forget the informal transportation services such as jitneys or gypsy cabs, that are a trusted and essential mode of travel for many women and low income travelers in the U.S. and around the world.

Cityfi has been on the forefront of strategies and systems to break the cycle of transportation insecurity. We are proud of our contributions in bringing together cities, mobility providers, platform providers, open data integrators, and users themselves to craft integrated mobility, payment, and incentive systems through human-centered design that work for all users.

The ability to regularly move from place to place in a safe and timely manner is a basic human right. We cannot alleviate poverty if we do not first alleviate transportation insecurity. The return on investment in UBM is huge. The time to do it is now.

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