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Los Angeles Metro Tests Universal Basic Mobility Program

A newly unveiled pilot program at L.A. Metro gives $150 a month to 1,000 residents to be used for transportation across the region’s public and private networks. The program is similar to work being done in some other major cities.

Passengers board and exit an L.A. Metro subway train at the Hollywood and Highland station.
A small pilot project in Los Angeles is testing the waters of funding a universal basic mobility program.

One thousand low-income households in south L.A. are part of a program to receive $150 per month for a year to be used toward public or private transportation. The Mobility Wallet, as the program is known, issues a refillable debit card to the residents to cover the cost of public transit, Uber rides or even bike rentals.

“We wanted to have this one account, one ticket, one card to rule them all — all modes, uniting them,” said Avi Shavit, senior director of the Los Angeles Metro Office of Strategic Innovation, during a Sept. 27 webinar. The discussion was led by Optibus, a transit technology company.

Because of the ubiquity and interoperability of banking systems like Visa, a bank card seemed to be the most obvious delivery mechanism for the program.

“We can use the same payment card to pay for public transit as we can to pay at a bike shop to get your bike fixed, or to buy a new e-bike,” Shavit pointed out.

The program is not unlike universal basic mobility programs launched in other cities like Pittsburgh. L.A. Metro has already taken other steps toward transportation equity by making rides on its vast rail and bus transit system free for students and income-qualified riders. Other systems like the transit network in Kansas City, Mo., have made trips free for all users.

In Germany, the €49-per-month Deutschlandticket that gives unlimited ridership across local and regional transit networks has been heralded as a huge success for its wide adoption and ease of use.

“This is the attitude that we want to achieve with the Deutschlandticket. You just have it in your pocket, or on your smartphone … . And you don’t need to think about it. You can just have this hop-on, hop-off attitude,” said Corinna Salander, head of the department railways at the German Federal Ministry of Digital Affairs and Transport, during the discussion.

“It was a huge success,” she added. “There were 52 million tickets sold within these three months. And in fact, it was an open random experiment with the public.”

All of these programs are similar in their goal to reduce barriers to transportation by making the systems easier to use — and more affordable. The special ticket did not allow for travel on high-speed trains or long-distance trains, but was an option for more regional travel.

“It was clear that the political goal to attract more people to the public transport system can be reached by an interesting offer,” said Salander.

In Los Angeles, transit officials are working on developing a Mobility Wallet program to be used by some 2 million low-income residents across Los Angeles County. Funding the program is still an open question and could come from a range of sources, including a revenue collected from a congestion-pricing program the region is studying.

“I think the future vision is looking at how we use multimodal integration and seamlessness to think about how we might do user charges or road congestion charges, and to have equity built into those programs,” said Shavit.

“We want to see more people riding public transportation. We have serious congestion issues in L.A. County. We have air quality and pollution issues that we need to address,” she added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.