Planning Magazine

Oakland's Universal Basic Mobility Pilot Is Eliminating Transportation Barriers

As cities work to greenlight programs that increase transportation access, Oakland shares the initial data from its first UBM pilot. Here's how and why it's working.

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Pittsburgh’s soon-to-launch universal basic mobility pilot aims to create easily managed connections between active transportation options, including bike share and buses. Photo by arlutz73/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus.

"No matter where you live, how much money you have, or who you are, you have access to dignified, frequent, affordable transportation that serves all of the needs that you have."

That's how, in a speech last year, Los Angeles Department of Transportation general manager Seleta Reynolds summarized universal basic mobility (UBM), a concept centered on eliminating the barriers — financial, logistical, informational — to transportation and ensuring a baseline level of mobility for all.

The past few years have seen the initiation of a variety of efforts either explicitly focused on UBM or incorporating some of its principles. While most of these programs are nascent, longstanding transportation demand management (TDM) initiatives — broadly defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation as "a set of strategies aimed at maximizing traveler choices" — demonstrate how behavior can change in the long term as mobility barriers are reduced.

Seattle's Commute Trip Reduction Program, for example, was initiated by a 1991 law and requires large employers to use a mix of information and amenities, subsidies, and parking management strategies to encourage alternatives to driving alone to and from work. Workers covered by the program use sustainable modes at a rate higher than the citywide average: since 2007–08, participants have slashed their rate of driving alone by nearly a quarter, and greenhouse gas emissions per employee fell by nearly a third.

This spring, as Pittsburgh prepared to launch a UBM program, Oakland, California, released an evaluation of its first pilot. The results are already encouraging.

Signs of success

With over $200,000 in grants from the Alameda County Transportation Commission, Oakland's pilot launched in November 2020 with 500 prepaid cards that could be used for public transit, bikeshare, and e-scooters.

The cards were distributed to residents along a new bus rapid transit corridor in East Oakland that serves neighborhoods where people of color and low-income residents are the majority. The area has a history of inequitable access to transit and essential goods and services, as well as a disproportionate share of health and environmental impacts from fossil fuel infrastructure. According to the pilot evaluation, nearly 80 percent of survey respondents reported that they could not always afford their preferred transportation options before the program.

The pilot sought to address these access issues. Quinn Wallace, a transportation planner for Oakland's DOT who led the program, says its objectives were to retain extant riders, reduce the financial burdens they experience, and attract new users.

The data indicates these aims were met. About 40 percent of survey respondents said it changed the way they traveled. The pilot saw a 12 percent rise in bus usage and an eight percent increase in using Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), while six percent of respondents reported a reduction in driving as their primary commute mode.

"This was an effective way to shift trips from cars and onto transit," Wallace says.

Building partnerships

The transportation departments in both Oakland and Pittsburgh — neither of which operate their own transit systems — have focused on partnerships with public and private mobility providers as part of their UBM pilots.

Pittsburgh is building on Move PGH, a program that enables seamless planning, booking, and payment for all transportation providers on a single digital platform, an offering known as Mobility as a Service (MaaS). In pursuit of that goal, the city brought together a wide array of entities, from the area's transit agency and bike-share operator to car-sharing and micromobility services. Transit-focused navigation and payment app operators also play a part. To further break down barriers, the pilot will employ "trip coaches" trained to offer guidance on how to use the services and help plan itineraries. Fifty mobility hubs are planned for locations across the city to help users access an array of transportation options at a single location.

"That city-led convening of these mobility services is what has enabled [this pilot], because we have these working relationships with these partners, and they have these working relationships with each other — and a common vision," explains Kim Lucas, acting director of Pittsburgh's Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. "That is the foundation for better mobility for all our residents and visitors."

In Oakland, collaborations with community groups have been just as essential. The city engaged more than 30 organizations working in the pilot area. A key lesson highlighted in the program's evaluation is to "seek your partners' input in the program design phase — don't wait until implementation."

"Consider partnering with libraries, community-based organization, community events and meetings, key stakeholders, and other trusted voices in the project area."

Universal Basic Mobility Pilot Overview Evaluation

"We had a lot of really phenomenal community partners . . . who we worked with in program design stages as well as in helping us get the information out there and inviting folks to apply," says Wallace. This coalition was "vital" to encouraging participation; ultimately, around 1,000 residents took a survey to join the pilot, more than twice as many people as spots in the program. A partnership with the Vietnamese American Community Center, headquartered in the project area, resulted in the distribution of around 3,000 informational flyers.

Pittsburgh's pilot team has also worked "hand-in-hand" with community organizations. "Having those dialogues, early and often and consistently . . . has really helped us avoid pitfalls," says Lucas.

A small focus group of residents was likewise important in surfacing challenges. While the project team anticipated that smartphone access would be an issue, they learned that those with smartphones still experienced other barriers, like insufficient data and software incompatible with the Move PGH app. "You don't know until you do it," Lucas emphasizes. "That's the point of a pilot."

System-wide impact

UBM could become a guiding framework for transportation in both cities.

In Oakland, Wallace says the pilot has underlined how the city "can support accessing transit through first/last mile connections and also reducing the cost of transit and shared mobility." A second pilot is being planned in a different area to build on the lessons of the first, and the long-term vision is to implement a UBM program citywide.

Pittsburgh's pilot, meanwhile, is slated to launch later in 2022. Lucas hopes the reduction in barriers will initiate a virtuous cycle of greater transit and micromobility usage, bolstering the case for investment in nonvehicle modes and redesign of streets for sustainable mobility. The city also aspires for its pilot to yield findings on impacts to health, finances, and access to services that could be replicated by other jurisdictions.

As both cities seek to ensure mobility for all, they're sharing ideas with and drawing inspiration from one another, as well as peers engaged in similar efforts worldwide.

"In the public sector," points out Lucas, "there is no theft."

David Kaner is marketing communications specialist for Sam Schwartz, a planning and engineering firm.