In November 2020, Oakland, California, piloted a yearlong universal basic mobility program to increase transit, walking, biking and shared mobility across the city. The program provided 500 restricted and prepaid debit cards, each containing up to $300, that participants could use to purchase trips on public transit, bikeshares, and e-scooters between November 2021 and November 2022. It was the first time the Oakland Department of Transportation marketed discounted transportation programs to Oakland residents and collected data on the results, the city said. Roughly 1,000 Oaklanders applied for the cards, and those who weren’t selected were placed on a waitlist.
OakDOT launched the program with a $215,000 grant from the Alameda County Transportation Commission (ACTC) received in 2017 plus a $28,000 local match from the City of Oakland. The pilot ended on Dec. 31, 2021, and OakDOT published an evaluation of the results in March.
According to a program evaluation, the pilot was successful in reaching low-income participants who identify as Hispanic/Latino or Black/African American. In a mid-program survey, 40% of participants said they changed how they travel, with 23% saying they drove alone less often. “Participants rode transit more and drove less as their primary mode of transportation for [commuting] and other trips,” according to the survey.
Smart Cities Dive caught up with OakDOT Transportation Planner Quinn Wallace to discuss lessons learned from the pilot and how it affected the city’s efforts to decrease single-occupancy vehicle use among residents:
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: The project overview says Alameda County and the City of Oakland chose to pilot the universal basic mobility program to increase transit, walking, biking, and shared mobility. What other reasons did the OakDOT have for piloting the program?
QUINN WALLACE: It originally came about in support of a new bus rapid transit line that opened in 2020 called AC Transit Tempo.
So that gave us our project area, generally, of East Oakland. Then, during COVID, we shifted to expand that project area in light of new transportation challenges that were coming to the forefront during the pandemic and to provide relief for both existing transit riders and potential transit and shared mobility users in East Oakland. So we chose to pilot out the restricted prepaid debit card… that allows program participants to use the $300 that they’re eligible [to use] for either trips or passes on the bus, [Bay Area Rapid Transit], bikeshare, e-scooters and so on.
The other part of our project goal, in addition to increasing shared mobility, is reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips [as] part of our transportation demand management program at the city, and we found, through our second survey of folks using the cards, [that] about 40% reported driving less as a result of this program.
One of the lessons learned is to prioritize equitable selection of participants. Where did that lesson come from, and who in the Oakland area would have benefited most from the pilot program’s implementation?
In developing and designing our program, we knew we wanted to prioritize equity and not solely target individuals who own a car or who have consistent access to a car who would be the more traditional targets of a transportation demand management, or TDM, program.
We wanted to instead select participants to create a representative sample. In our project area, because car ownership is generally lower than [it is in] other parts of the Bay Area and other parts of Oakland, it would’ve been inequitable for us in this program to prioritize folks [who own cars] explicitly. What we know about car ownership generally is that that group would’ve skewed Whiter and more wealthy. Instead, we asked in our first survey for interested prospective program participants to identify their race and approximate household income, and then we selected a random representative sample with those two factors using census data.
What lessons have you learned from the program so far?
Our DOT-wide prepaid card contract was a lesson learned and something we wanted to share specifically for other practitioners in other cities who are interested in launching a similar type of program. We developed a new administrative process internally for being able to sign this kind of contract and have it in place. It provides a benefit not just for our program, but to my colleagues in DOT who are interested in compensating community members for time in community engagement. [There is] an avenue for that to happen now that we have this contract in place.
If we wanted to move away from [a] physical prepaid card, we could explore a virtual option for distribution, like something people could add to Google Pay or Apple Wallet on their mobile phone. We’re also exploring the possibility of distributing Clipper Cards [which can be used to travel on bus, rail ferry, and train in the San Francisco Bay area].
Another key lesson is that there’s a lot of potential for a long-term program and a citywide iteration of this program. In our initial survey asking for participants, we saw that demand was quite high and that residents and employees of Oakland are interested in this kind of program. We’re building our capacity to be able to scale this citywide, and that’s been really exciting.
Since the grant is over, will another funding mechanism come through to continue the project? What will happen next?
We’re exploring ways to fund a future universal basic mobility program. There’s a suite of parking proposals that the city council heard last year and they are still considering. In that suite of proposals, we’ve proposed setting aside a portion of the parking system revenues and saved expenditures to fund a long-term program, so that’s one possibility that's being considered. Besides that, we’re looking at different grant opportunities. But now that we have the evaluation results, we’re able to showcase what the program can do, and where we have potential to grow with the program, especially as it relates to reducing vehicle use and reducing vehicle miles traveled.
Are there models Oakland looked at in other cities?
Inspiration was drawn from quite a few other outstanding programs that are happening in the country. The term “universal basic mobility” came out of the shared mobility space, and I want to say it dates back to a previous micromobility conference and publications that came out of that work. For the prepaid card as the instrument for distributing funds to program participants, we had a few conversations with folks in Sacramento [California], who have a similar kind of program, but specifically for car-share. They have a low-income focus in their program as well, so even though their program has a different flavor, they use prepaid cards as a way to get funds out to their participants.
Besides that, we’re aware of similar programs that we shared ideas with along the way in Los Angeles. We’re hearing rumblings of a program coming out of Stockton [California], and [from] Pittsburgh a couple of months ago.
Do you have advice for other cities looking to implement a universal basic mobility program?
My first piece of advice is to absolutely do it. I would love to see a universal basic mobility program in every region and every city across the country. This program is so much about not just shifting travel behavior and patterns, but also reducing financial barriers to accessing opportunities and providing relief and rewards to existing transit and shared-mobility users who already help cities and regions meet clean air goals, in addition to folks who want to shift to those more sustainable modes.
Then, I think a key consideration is the instrument of how you’re getting funds out there... We put the choice all in our program participants' hands. They can use any of these modes, and the $300, however they wish, rather than [giving them] up to $50 in coupons for this scooter brand and x amount of money for the bus and the train. That [more restrictive approach] wasn’t a good fit for our program, but it’s an important factor to consider if organizers are trying to juice demand on certain modes.
The other piece I would emphasize is [that] the distribution of funds really matters. A key challenge for us in this pilot was figuring out an effective distribution method. In our original plan, we mailed out the cards to everybody. There were, unfortunately, some challenges in receiving those cards through the mail, so we had an in-person pick-up option available, and that’s still available to our program participants if they need a replacement or if they never received a card in the mail. It’s something we’d tweak in a future pilot.
Anything else that was key to your program we haven’t talked about yet?
The other really critical piece was our community partners and the community-based organizations we worked with in the program. One organization that comes to mind is Cycles of Change, a local nonprofit in Oakland that specifically engages youth in one of their key programs. We were able to work with two of their high school bike clubs that they run near and within our project area. We distributed cards to three students in each of those bike clubs who qualified. So that’s a relationship and a connection that we’re looking to strengthen in a future pilot or program iteration.
Our other community partners include the Vietnamese-American Community Center, which distributed about 3,000 flyers for this program through their mobile meals program to primarily Vietnamese- and Chinese-speaking older adults, which is generally considered a harder-to-reach population for OakDOT. There were a countless number of organizations that included us in their newsletters and had conversations with us during the program design phase. The libraries were a huge partner to us and trusted pillars of the community.