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‘Universal Basic Mobility’ Speaks to a City’s Values

Josh Cohen, host of The Movement podcast, shared some thoughts about Pittsburgh’s experiment with “universal basic mobility” in a new demonstration project to ease barriers to all forms of mobility.

Pittsburgh Light Rail Car
The questions around making transportation more available for more people are not only for transit agencies to address, but communities as well.

Pittsburgh is undertaking an experiment to explore the concept of “universal basic mobility,” which aims to make a range of transportation options available to residents who are nowhere near the top of the economic ladder.

The city — through a number of private, nonprofit and other partners — is making it nearly free for a set number of residents to access not only transit but also shared bikes, scooters and cars. Those behind the effort want 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 Move PGH universal basic mobility demonstration project got the attention of Josh Cohen, national director of policy at TransLoc, the transit technology company operated by Ford Mobility. Cohen is also host of The Movement, a TransLoc podcast focusing on transportation. Early last month, Cohen sat for an interview with Government Technology to discuss that pilot, along with some of the larger debates circling trough the world of transportation and transit.

“I think when we can use mobility — and the power of access to jobs, to community, to health care to education and so forth — when we can use that as a tool to help everyone in the community, especially those who need it the most, get access to that … that’s where we can truly transform our cities,” said Cohen.

Because too often, bus fare — generally about $1 or $2 across a number of transit networks — can still be a challenge for a number of riders when placed against all of the other financial demands.

“If you’re low income, it might be all that you can do to scrape together your pennies to buy a monthly transit pass. And then you don’t have anything left over to use any of those other modes anyway,” Karina Ricks, the former director of the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, told GovTech in an August interview. Ricks is now the new associate administrator for research, innovation and demonstration at the Federal Transit Administration.

“Even if you’re middle income, it may be all that you can do to buy a car and have that car available to you, and you still don’t have anything extra for all those other modes,” she added.

Pittsburgh deserves credit for experimenting with new approaches to expand mobility to more residents, said Cohen.

“What is so exciting about what Pittsburgh is doing, is they’re trying. That’s the hard part, is trying, especially in the public sector where you can sometimes get flak if you try something and it doesn’t work,” he added.

We talked about what some of the other cities are doing as well to lower barriers to transportation. In some cases it comes down to fares and simply making it cheaper or free for some or all riders.

The transit system in Kansas City, Mo., has been made free for all riders. Steps like these start to define a community’s values, said Cohen, who admits he’s on “team free.” This goes back to mobility as a basic human right, he added.

But having said that, it’s not enough to simply slash fares. The region has to invest in the system, said Cohen.

“Free crappy service is maybe not helping anyone,” he added. "To me, it’s more of a signaling mechanism, maybe more than anything else. It’s more of a signal about what the community values.”

And in turn, Pittsburgh is “signaling to the world, and to their local residents, about mobility and how they can make mobility open to as many people as possible,” said Cohen.
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.