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Pittsburgh, Pa., to Test Universal Basic Mobility, MaaS

Pittsburgh has launched two transportation innovations to make multimodal trips easier to book and navigate, and a program to make a package of transportation options more accessible for low-income workers.

Pittsburgh has launched two transportation innovations to make multimodal trips easier to book and navigate, and a program to make a package of transportation options more accessible for low-income workers.
Pittsburgh is making public transportation nearly free across a number of modes for a select number of local workers.

The initiative is part of a pilot project to examine the concept of “universal basic mobility” where access to transportation can help to improve quality-of-life metrics in areas like economic opportunity, education or health care.

“If we give people the ability to get to work on time, every day, all the time, even with the episodic things that happen in life, will we see them climb up the economic ladder?” asked Karina Ricks, director for the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. “And isn’t that the goal, overall?”

The foundation for the program is Move PGH, a project to bring various mobility providers under one digital roof. Riders use the Transit app, or one of 50 mobility hubs around Pittsburgh, to access various mobility operators like Healthy Ride bikes, a bike-share provider in the city, or Zipcar.

“Industry leaders began speaking about mobility as a service about five years ago, and here in Pittsburgh with great partners like Highmark Health and the Allegheny Health Network, we are able to bring that vision of multiple mobility modes and trip routing into a single digital experience,” said David White, executive director of Healthy Ride.

Integrating various public and private mobility providers into one app — no more jumping from the bus app to the scooter app to book rides — is often seen as a must-have among transportation planners, given the increasing number of transportation modes and providers.

“What we want is a system that is easy for the user,” said Ricks.

“And, we don’t want something that is just transit adjacent. We want something that is really transit integrated, system integrated,” she added.

To entice operators to function on the integrated Move PGH system, the city offered “exclusivity,” meaning the e-scooter operator agreeing to the arrangement would be the only one in the network.

“That’s the price of entry, basically,” said Ricks.

“The good news is, if you enter, you don’t have to worry about your competitors. You’ll be here, and you’ll be fine,” she added.

Also a part of the condition is the requirement to work alongside other transportation providers, and help the city expand service options to all riders, across a range of abilities or even income brackets.

The idea took hold. Today, Move PGH is a conglomeration of Spin e-scooters, Scoobi electric mopeds, bikes from Healthy Ride, Waze Carpool, Zipcar and the local public transit system. Transit app users in Pittsburgh can trip-plan and book across these different modes or access any of them at one the physical mobility hubs. Still to come, says Ricks, is fare integration, where a single payment covers the whole trip.

A second piece of Move PGH is the Move PGH Universal Basic Mobility demonstration project which will make a low-cost monthly subscription package of transportation offerings for 50 to 100 low-income workers. The aim is to see what happens when a range of mobility offerings are made available to workers who have generally been left with few transportation choices.

“The intent of it is, how do we satisfy the different kinds of trips that people need to take without consigning them forever to one mode or another,” said Ricks.

“You don’t have to choose, this one or that one. You can use the mode that’s most appropriate to your needs at that time,” she added.

Both the Move PGH and the Universal Basic Mobility demonstration projects are funded by a grant from Richard King Mellon Foundation. Spin is also providing funding for researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, who are studying the project.

The Universal Basic Mobility project is seen as a form of fare integration since it makes the whole package of mobility options available as a single subscription. Researchers and city officials will be closely monitoring how riders interact with the service, taking note of how many modes participants use, how often, how multimodal the trips are, and ultimately — how significantly are lives improved by an unfettered access to transportation?

“If we liberate people so that they can use the system that is sitting right outside of their front door … we let them make those decisions. And then we’ll track: If people are essentially allowed to make their own decisions, if they’re allowed to do these things without this cost burden and trade-offs, what will they do?” said Ricks.

Other transit agencies have taken steps to removing barriers to transportation. The bus network in Kansas City, Mo., no longer requires fares to ride. Los Angeles Metro is currently developing a fare-free program for students and low-income riders.

Some 80 percent of riders of Kansas City Regional Transit “are people who really need us,” said Robbie Makinen, CEO of RideKC, in comments during a “listening session” with the Federal Transit Administration in late July.

“As far as I’m concerned, a fare is a regressive tax on them,” he added.

“You can’t run away from the people that need you the most,” said Makinen. “We’re going to run toward them.”
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.