BY DANIEL COMEAUX
Whether by car, train, foot, wheelchair, bike, or any of the other ways humanity has invented to move through the places we call home, just about everybody relies on transportation systems as part of their daily lives. This is not new and is not likely to change. But if the headlines are to be believed, we are on the verge of a transportation revolution. Indeed, the rise of ride-sharing, e-scooters, bike-share systems, and autonomous-vehicle technology have led many to conclude that the future will be a more connected, mobile, and accessible one.,
But will it?
To take just one example, the explosion of Uber, Lyft, and other so-called transportation network companies (TNCs) demonstrates an obvious gap in existing transportation systems. But their widespread popularity has in some ways worsened mobility. Many TNC users would have previously walked, biked, or taken transit, so their decision to take a car instead worsens congestion for everyone—drivers and bus riders alike., These effects could be magnified if autonomous vehicles make TNC operations cheaper and more widespread. Beyond the potential for increased congestion and further sprawling cities, these new systems might also undermine the options that currently exist for residents who cannot access them, whether because of higher prices, inadequate accommodations for people who rely on wheelchairs, privacy concerns, or smartphone access.
These barriers are nothing new; today’s transportation systems impose plenty of barriers on their own. Far too many residents do not have adequate access to the opportunities that should be available to them, whether personal or professional, simply because they do not have the means to reach them. In the largely auto-oriented United States, researchers have found that households without a car are poorer than households with at least one—and increasingly so. While the overall US poverty rate has sharply declined since 1960, it has increased among those households without a vehicle. Why? For one, transportation provides access to employment, and that access varies by mode. A study of San Diego found that residents of low-income neighborhoods who commuted by transit could access only 1/30th the number of jobs as those who commuted by car. Transportation also provides access to health care. A 2013 study found that roughly a quarter of lower-income patients had missed or rescheduled appointments due to transportation problems., Transportation can even impact access to education. In addition to considering which school is the right fit academically or socially, parents must often grapple with the question of whether, and how, their child could even get there in time to sit down before the bell rings.
A fundamental question facing society is which resources all of its residents should have affordable access to. At least in principle, the United States has aspired to provide basic nutrition, retirement income, and education, among others.,, Transportation and mobility are too important not to be on that list. The United States should ensure that all residents have access to transportation at a reasonable cost and regardless of income, class, or ability. When policy makers are considering how and whether to implement new transportation technologies, they should do so mindful of whether those changes are consistent with this principle, one of Universal Basic Mobility.
A Principle for the 21st-Century City
Universal Basic Mobility (UBM) derives its name from proposals for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). A UBI would guarantee all citizens some regular financial support, with some recent proposals even arguing that it should cover basic subsistence. Similarly, by adopting UBM, policy makers would commit to provide every resident with access to the transportation services they need to achieve a baseline level of success. UBM would not represent an unlimited commitment for everyone to have free transportation. Governments should still make decisions about what types of service should be prioritized, from shared versus single occupancy, to public versus private, to carbon intensive versus carbon neutral. These debates are crucial. But by adopting the UBM framework, policy makers would commit to having those debates and to do so as part of a larger conversation on how this baseline level of mobility should be attained and improved upon.
What would this still-nascent concept of UBM look like in practice? Governments could provide a universal subsidy dedicated only to transportation expenses. Cities could specifically subsidize transit for low-income residents, while public-transportation providers could in tandem increase the amount, reliability, and frequency of their services. Governments could further implement requirements on private mobility providers (such as TNCs) to provide a minimum level of service across an entire city or region in order to ensure equal access. In all likelihood, a successful adoption of UBM would take on several of these approaches, and others, with differing degrees of public subsidy.
Transportation costs differ from one place to another. Consequently, some places would find UBM cheaper to implement than others. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19 percent of US household expenditures go toward transportation, as opposed to 16 percent in the United Kingdom and 10 percent in Japan. The cost differential is driven by increased reliance on the automobile in the United States. But the development patterns that make owning a car more attractive here simultaneously make alternative services like public transit more difficult to operate. Destinations are farther apart, as are potential riders, making services more expensive to provide., Thus, any commitment to UBM must be implemented in a way that is sensitive to the local context. And because this context varies so dramatically, it is certain that the guaranteed level of mobility would need to vary between places as well. The same math that makes it expensive to provide transit in low-density suburban and rural environments makes it cheaper to provide in denser ones: a bus route can serve many more people for the same cost, when its riders are all in close proximity to one another, than it can when houses are spread a mile apart. Nevertheless, a commitment to UBM entails a commitment to universality. Even if the level of mobility differs, the guarantee that such mobility is available should not.
Historical Precedents for UBM
While radical in scope, UBM would not be a total departure from past practice. Transportation is a highly subsidized sector. A 2015 study found that 98 percent of US transit systems had higher operating costs than fare revenue. Globally, only a small handful of agencies regularly bring in enough fares to cover operating costs, let alone capital expenses., But transit is not alone in this subsidization. Researchers also found that fees paid by drivers—including gas taxes and registration—only cover a little more than half of all costs associated with building and maintaining highways. Even the more recent developments, such as TNCs, appear to be significantly subsidized by venture capital and private investors.
A commitment to UBM would also build on other, more targeted efforts that governments have taken to improve access to mobility for particular populations. In many cities, such as Boston, students and the elderly are eligible for lower transit-ticket prices. Seattle also provides these discounts to low-income residents as does London for unemployed residents looking for work. London even “caps” fares for riders, giving them the lowest possible fare for the number of rides taken. And Bogota, Colombia, created a Bus Rapid Transit system that is most useful to its lowest-income residents.
Some cities have gone even further, making transportation of one form or another entirely free. Tallinn, Estonia, eliminated all fares for transit taken by registered city residents in 2013. Although this fee elimination did not significantly impact congestion, research suggests that mobility may have particularly improved for lower-income residents. Opportunities to expand on that research continue to arise: Luxembourg recently made all transit free; officials in car-centric Los Angeles have mooted the idea of free transit in time for the 2028 Olympics; and in Boston, City Councilor Michelle Wu recently called for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to shift toward fare-free operations.
Transportation providers have also experimented with UBM-like approaches across other modes. US transit systems offer paratransit options for individuals of different abilities who might not be able to use the existing transit system. Many publicly operated bike-sharing programs, such as Chicago’s Divvy and New York City’s Citi Bike, offer deeply discounted rates for lower-income residents., Some transit agencies have begun to experiment with subsidizing “last-mile” connections to train stations using TNCs, improving access to transit in areas currently not well served.,, The TNCs themselves have also begun to position themselves as mobility providers, rather than just ride-sharing platforms, by acquiring bike- and scooter-share companies and by integrating multiple modes of transportation into their mobile applications., This concept, Mobility as a Service (MaaS), has even been adopted at a citywide scale in Helsinki, Finland, where residents can purchase monthly passes through Whim, a single app that integrates public transit, taxis, and car-sharing options.
UBM in Practice
When considered as a whole, the initiatives and investments outlined above, from discounts to infrastructure investments to seamless integration of modes, add up to most of the components needed for a UBM system. Indeed, the breadth of previous experiments in mobility policy demonstrates that solving today’s mobility challenges does not require radical new inventions; it can be accomplished with today’s transportation technologies, if sometimes deployed in nontraditional ways. But UBM would require many of these technologies at once, in concert, and across borders throughout a broader region.
Consider the case of Boston. Although notorious for its bad traffic, the region also has a well-developed subway, light rail, commuter rail, bus, and bike-share network. Among major US urban areas, only three have a lower share of commuters who drive alone to work. The region has a strong basis from which to start. But more would need to be done for basic mobility to be universally available in Boston.
First, regional leaders could adopt a consolidated MaaS app. This would allow governments to seamlessly offer a comprehensive suite of mobility options (such as an unlimited public-transit pass, ten Bluebikes rides, and five TNC rides monthly). These packages could further be subsidized for residents below a certain income threshold. Regardless of subsidization, such an app could ease traveler decision-making in this more multimodal world.
Public transit would be a crucial component of any UBM system. It could be improved, at relatively low cost, by adding more dedicated bus lanes and enforcing their operation,, reducing the spacing between bus stops to increase overall speed, shifting toward all-door boarding on buses to reduce time at bus stops, increasing frequencies on the commuter rail system so that it is more useful outside of peak commuting hours, and closing key gaps in the urban rail system.
But public transit alone would not be enough. Some individuals, such as those who live in areas not covered by frequent bus or rail service, but still relatively nearby, might need connections to transit. Toward that end, the region could partially subsidize “last-mile” connections to those services via TNCs if current pilots of similar programs elsewhere succeed. Governments could also set baseline availability levels, not only for TNCs but also for services like dockless e-scooters. They could even assume responsibilities for keeping sidewalks clear of snow, just as they do for streets and highways.
For other individuals, however, public transit might not be a part of the solution, at least without substantial changes to existing infrastructure or land-use patterns. This might be because the transit system is not yet fully accessible to those of different abilities. For those residents, one crucial step would be to bolster existing paratransit options. For instance, the MBTA is currently piloting a partnership with TNCs to improve paratransit access, which could be implemented at scale if successful. For other residents, transit may not adequately reach their home, workplace, or school. Consequently, governments might consider subsidizing car-sharing programs for lower-income residents or even providing some financial support for the use of a private automobile. Embracing UBM would still require a broad societal shift away from exclusively car-oriented development, but even a wholesale adoption of the vision would be no solace, in the short term at least, for residents for whom a car might be today’s only viable option.,
The region could also follow the example of others around the world and implement congestion pricing to reduce private car usage and fund UBM initiatives. Through such a program, drivers would be charged more to drive on the roads at peak times. This would simultaneously alleviate congestion by discouraging drivers during busy periods and raise revenue, which could be directed toward these new transportation investments.
Any such proposal would undoubtedly encounter significant opposition, from libertarians like anti-transit advocate Randal O’Toole to suburban residents wary of increased tolls., And yet, the principle that mobility should be a right, rather than a privilege, seems too important to give up without a fight, one that will only become more important in the coming years. As governments around the world have begun responding to the rise of TNCs (and preparing for the much-ballyhooed arrival of autonomous vehicles), policy makers have been given a choice on whether to change those cities to adapt to technology or instead to insist that the technology be adapted to serve the needs of residents. They had the same choice when the automobile emerged in the 20th century; far too often, they made the wrong one—cities worldwide are still dealing with the consequences of urban highways built atop the rubble of once-thriving neighborhoods. But the rise of new technology presents policy makers with an opportunity to correct some of those wrongs.
Opponents like O’Toole have decided that autonomous vehicles portend the end of transit. But no matter how efficient, a UBM system should not be predicated on the elimination of high-capacity public-transit systems. There is simply no substitute for the number of people that can be moved by a train or a high-quality bus network, especially in dense urban cores. The UBM approach might also need to leverage more than just traditional fixed-route public transit, particularly in lower-density contexts, such as in rural areas or late at night. If the role of existing systems like transit is ignored, though, a push toward UBM could ultimately undermine a transportation system as a whole, shifting travelers away from shared-use systems into single-occupancy vehicles, bringing cities to a grinding halt.
Despite the challenges, the promises of UBM remain great. Providing all residents with a baseline level of mobility, in practice as well as in theory, should lead to cities that are more mobile not only physically but also socioeconomically. Depending on how such a system is structured, it could also lead to cities that are more vibrant, healthy, and sustainable. Although its implementation remains unclear, as policy makers decide how to evolve the cities of today into those of tomorrow, it is in our collective interest to foreground a new fundamental right. Universal Basic Mobility is eminently achievable. Policy makers can, and should, seize the opportunity to put it into practice.
Daniel Comeaux is a master in public policy student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who previously worked on a range of urban policy issues as a consultant with the Civic Consulting Alliance in Chicago. He is interested in how cities allocate scarce urban street and curb space as well as the broader regulatory and policy implications of current and pending developments in transportation technology.
Edited by: Nikhil Kumar
Photo by Franck Charles
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