June 23, 2022 | Brooke Shetler and Ricquel Williams
Transportation Affects Every Aspect of Life
Transportation is the highest annual cost on average for low-income Americans. Low-to-moderate income (LMI) households spend a greater percentage of their income (28.8%) on transportation than wealthier households (9.5%). The average household spent most of their transportation budget on purchasing, operating, and maintaining personal vehicles.
Although public transit is often treated as the more affordable solution to owning a vehicle, this is often still too expensive for very low-income families. While the overall poverty rate in the United States has declined since 1960, it has increased among households without a vehicle. In Pittsburgh, more than 65% of low-income residents lack access to a vehicle compared to 20% of all individuals.
A lack of reliable, affordable transportation can disrupt nearly every aspect of one’s daily life. Without it, employment opportunities are severely limited. For example, a study in San Diego found that residents in low-income neighborhoods who used public transit could only access 1/30 of the number of jobs compared to those who commuted by car. For Pittsburghers, residents only have access to about 40% of jobs in the region within a 90-minute commute. Inaccessible transportation translates into difficulty getting groceries, missed medical appointments, and greater barriers to education.
Universal Basic Mobility
Over the past decade, low-income Pittsburghers have increasingly relied on public transportation to survive. According to recent studies, commuters below the poverty line in the city have been steadily increasing their use of public transportation. From 2010-2019, low-income workers have increased their use of public transit, bikes, and ride share services to travel to and from work. In Pittsburgh, Black residents have increased the rate by which they walk to work by a staggering 113%. These facts tell an important story: low-income and Black Pittsburghers have a heightened need for diversified modes of mobility and may also be experiencing barriers to transportation that are causing them to walk to work. This is precisely the kind of situation where Universal Basic Mobility (UBM) can help those in need of stable, reliable, and affordable methods of transportation.
UBM is premised on the principle that access to transportation is a basic human right. UBM establishes a system of policies that provide a base level of mobility to all members of society. The theory is that removing the transportation barrier increases one’s access to employment opportunities, services and resources, thus increasing their economic mobility and improving health and wellbeing. UBM does not advocate for 100% free transportation. The concept is intended for policy makers to decide what basic mobility services should be provided, how they should be attained, and how they can be improved.
UBM in Action
While UBM is still a relatively new theory, some cities have begun conducting research on its benefits and analyzing implementation options. In fact, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation recently launched their own pilot after recognizing that barriers to transportation severely limited employment opportunities for residents. To combat this, the pilot will provide participants with a variety of zero-emissions mobility options for little or no cost. Additionally, the Oakland (California) Department of Transportation recently wrapped up their own pilot which launched in November 2020. According to the evaluation, the pilot successfully reached low-income Hispanic/Latino and Black participants. Furthermore, 40% of participants said they changed how they travel and 23% said they drove alone less often.
The UBM pilot planned in Manchester – a majority-Black, low-income neighborhood in Pittsburgh – also aims to understand the impact on residents’ quality of life once they no longer experience barriers to transportation. Specifically, this study will measure if reliable access to transit, plus a wide variety of micromobility options, improves economic and health outcomes for low-income workers. To ensure credibility and measure outcomes, the city, community organizations, and a local university have come together to carry out the pilot. The pilot is also providing ride coaches to decrease barriers for participants when planning trips, navigating the various modal options, and completing surveys.
As we wait for the study’s research findings, we hope that this pilot program will deliver on UBM’s promise of assisting disadvantaged groups by improving their access to resources and opportunities. We imagine a future where all people, regardless of income, class or ability, will have greater access to transportation and improved quality of life. UBM may be the first step toward that future.