- Los Angeles this week became the latest city to launch a comprehensive universal basic mobility pilot bringing electric car sharing, an e-bike library, an on-demand shuttle, an EV workforce training and jobs program, and other initiatives to South LA.
- The $17.8 million initiative combines city funds with over $13 million from the California Air Resources Board, with an aim to improve transportation and air quality for city residents.
- LA Department of Transportation General Manager Seleta Reynolds said the pilot’s holistic approach could change how public officials perceive transit funding: “We have to change the conversation about transportation investments and how they benefit cities if we hope to shake ourselves awake from zombie conversation about how much it all costs.”
LADOT’S pilot program follows in the footsteps of other universal basic mobility programs launching across the U.S., like Portland, Oregon’s “transportation wallets” for affordable housing residents, Pittsburgh’s monthly transit subscriptions, and Oakland, California’s $300 prepaid debit cards. But Los Angeles’ $17.8 million program is the largest investment yet, according to Reynolds, costing more than 70 times what the Oakland pilot spent.
The high costs are associated with a vast expansion of benefits. Instead of focusing solely on cash payments, LADOT hopes to improve transportation infrastructure in South LA through additional bike lanes, bus-only lanes, and EV charging stations, a step toward the Biden administration's goal to build 500,000 EV charging stations across the country.
The city is also deploying brand new vehicles, including 100 shared EVs and 250 e-bikes, some of which are adaptive and cargo bikes, according to Reynolds. Additional investments include a free EV shuttle that will run for the length of the pilot and a workforce training program for 200 trade students in EV and e-bike maintenance.
“We hope [the pilot] improves the pipeline for jobs in transportation that are in high demand and short supply right now, like repairing EVs and helping with the electric bike program,” said Reynolds, who is leading the pilot.
By the fall, the program will also distribute a mobility wallet for 2,000 South LA residents that will provide $150 monthly payments, a total of $1,800 for the full calendar year. Payments, likely in the form of a prepaid debit card, can be spent on a variety of transportation options that include transit passes, bike shares, EV car rentals or services from private companies like Lyft or Uber.
Participants have not yet been chosen; Reynolds said the city is working with South LA’s Residential Advisory Committee to determine how best to reach and select them. Still, Reynolds is already hoping to expand the program. At a budget hearing on Wednesday, the same day as the launch, Reynolds said she asked the city to double the pilot’s reach to fund 4,000 participants.
“South LA has a huge concentration of people living below poverty line and first-generation immigrants with no access to a car, so [it has] some of the highest number of zero-vehicle households in the city,” said Reynolds. “If you don’t have access to a car in a city like LA, you have a limit on the number of jobs, educational opportunities, and recreational activities that you can get to in a given amount of time.”
Reynolds said the universal basic mobility program is different from other cities’ efforts because of its “holistic approach focused on and led by underinvested communities.” The city will partner with the University of California-Davis for a deeper look into the holistic and qualitative benefits not typically measured in transit projects, which tend to focus on reductions in vehicle miles and carbon emissions. Reynolds hopes to show how transportation funding changes whole livelihoods. UC-Davis will compare mobile wallet users with a control group of nonusers in South LA to study their transportation habits.
“When we lower financial barriers to access to clean, affordable, direct transportation, how does that play out in people’s daily lives?” Reynolds asked. “Does it allow them to save time running errands and spend more time with their families? Does it allow them to get a job they wouldn’t have reached? Does it allow them to take a class they couldn’t get to? Can they go on bike rides with their families on weekends and get more exercise?”
Jorge González-Hermoso, research associate at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, said the pilot could level the playing field for low-income residents who might not be able to afford the higher rents of dense areas well served by public transit.
“Housing costs keep getting higher and pushing people to areas far away from jobs [and] without access to public transit because the investment in transit infrastructure has not kept up with exclusion patterns,” he said. The pandemic has allowed cities to experiment with new transit programs, he added, shaking up established transit patterns. But he said the underlying problems — housing affordability and transportation infrastructure — still exist.
“You’re not going to fix those,” said González-Hermoso. “It’s not fundamentally changing troubled patterns.”
He also said since the mobile wallet includes funds for Lyft or Uber trips, while these could be beneficial to people in need, they could add cars to the streets. “Collectively, that’s not the ideal outcome because of all the externalities that come with carbon emissions and air pollution.”
Reynolds hopes federal funding from the infrastructure bill, along with funding extensions from CARB, the state, and the city, will expand these programs. Her goal is to create a five-year pilot, eventually expanding the CARB Sustainable Transportation Equity Project, or STEP, into the San Fernando Valley, another community facing poor air quality and chronic disinvestment, and perhaps even braiding it into the universal basic income pilot the City of LA launched last year, which is providing over 3,200 individuals $1,000 per month for 12 months.
“The safety net that UBI provides, plus this lift that UBM provides, might actually begin to address some of the challenges that we face when it comes to systemic racism, poverty and the associated challenges,” said Reynolds.
Madeline Brozen, deputy director of UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, said UBM shares goals with universal basic income programs, providing people with cash supports to address whatever financial barriers they face.
“The goals of these programs are to reduce financial stress and to give recipients autonomy over how to spend money rather than a prescriptive approach, like a transit pass or food stamps card,” said Brozen. The cash method not only empowers households to make their best decision, but it’s also a simpler way to administer a benefit, reducing administrative costs, she noted.