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A white Trimet train arriving to the station in downtown Portland, with people walking on a wide sidewalk to the left.
Portland, Oregon is experimenting with a way to provide a wide range of transportation options if people surrender their parking pass.
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Free transit isn’t enough. Transportation needs to be a right.

Guaranteeing Americans universal access to opportunity would be transformative

“I believe in the concept of universality,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders at last night’s Democratic presidential debate. “And one of the crises in America today is people are sick and tired of filling out forms.”

Universality has come up a lot in the current presidential campaign. Candidates have proposals for universal child care, universal health care, universal rent control, and, what prompted Sanders’ comment, universal free college. And, of course, there’s entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s universal basic income proposal to give every American over 18 a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 per month.

What we’re not hearing much about are proposals for universal transportation access, which could arguably have a much bigger impact on the country than these other programs.

Reorganizing our transit system to be accessible, equitable, and sustainable for all could solve many of the everyday problems faced by Americans. Our current transportation system is the U.S.’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, a leading cause of death, and a massive financial burden on American households—the lower-income the family, the greater the percentage of their income is spent on transportation.

But efforts to make transportation more financially accessible, like Kansas City’s recent proposal to make all public transit fare-free, remain extremely controversial, even among transportation advocates—some of whom argue that the priority for cities should be improving service, not offering free fares.

One of the arguments against free transit is relatively similar to the free college debate playing out in the presidential campaign. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a plan to waive tuition for all U.S. families—except those that make over $150,000 per year. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren both want to offer free college to all Americans, regardless of status and income. Similarly, some advocates believe transit should only be free or deeply discounted for people who depend on it, like low-income households, people with disabilities, older adults, or students. Everyone else should pay full fare, to preserve a funding stream most systems rely upon.

But are the discounted transit programs that attempt to serve these communities succeeding? Los Angeles County’s Metro system spends $14.1 million per year on its low-income fare program, with $12.9 million on transportation costs and $1.15 million in administration and outreach, according to a January 2019 report. But only about 67,000 people are enrolled, according to that same report. LA County’s population is over 10 million, with a poverty rate of 17 percent. There should be more people signed up for this program. Why aren’t they?

Maybe Sanders’ theory about filling out forms is at play here. It’s actually quite a bit of work to apply for a subsidized transit pass in LA, and the savings are not that substantial. But it also might be because in LA, for any given census tract, only 5 percent of low-skill jobs can be reached by a 60-minute walking, biking, or public transportation trip, according to an Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) report that measures transit accessibility for residents. People may not be applying for Metro’s subsidized transit passes because they need a car to get to work, not an unreliable bus.

Simply making transit free won’t solve all American cities’ problems around job access and economic mobility. Which is why we need to think about a comprehensive, national public program that makes transportation a human right.

Helsinki’s goal is to make its transit so cheap, available, and pleasant that by 2025 no one will want to own a car.
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One idea for how to achieve this has been dubbed universal basic mobility, which mirrors Yang’s universal basic income proposal. An idea to guarantee unlimited, universal access to all modes of transportation has been championed by automotive journalist Alex Roy as a tool to improve income equality and economic prosperity—but also to help offset the growing privatization of transportation modes by apps like Uber and Lyft.

“As private companies seek to resolve the failures of overstressed and underfunded public transportation systems, we run the risk of improving mobility for some while tacitly reducing freedom of movement and increasing inequality for others,” Roy wrote last year.

In a CityLab op-ed, “Universal Basic Mobility Is a Human Right,” Roy and TransitScreen CEO Matt Caywood lay out a universal basic mobility policy proposal, using as a model an app called Whim that’s currently being tested in Helsinki. A monthly pass, which would be free, could allow unlimited access to public transit and bike share, as well as a limited number of taxi or ride-hailing trips per month. Premium passes would offer other services, like car-sharing or unlimited ride-hailing trips.

Programs like this are already being tested in the U.S., such as the “transportation wallet” being piloted in two Portland, Oregon neighborhoods, where the stated goal is to reduce car ownership, as well as the total number of cars, in its densely populated, congested downtown. It’s similar to Helsinki’s Whim in that residents pay $99 per year for access to bike share, transit, and a car-sharing program—a $700 value. However, you can get the pass for “free” if you forgo a residential parking permit. The additional costs for the program are, in a nice bit of symmetry, subsidized by local parking revenue.

The other part of universal transportation is getting that transit to serve more people. That means investing heavily in bus rapid transit and expanding bike infrastructure, and making sure underserved neighborhoods are prioritized. But it can’t just be about free bus and bike rides. We need to build walking networks the way we’ve built freeways. For people who don’t live near transit routes, we need a wide variety of shared, on-demand electric vehicles. For people who need to use vehicles for work, it’s a program for leasing right-sized electric vehicles. Calling it universal transportation also creates a nice alignment with the universal design movement to make streets and cities accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

Private companies might be part of this publicly subsidized multimodal network. But as we’ve seen over the last week, as major car-sharing platform Car2Go has pulled out of all North American cities, the better solution would be for cities to start investing in their own solutions now.

BlueLA, LA’s city-owned electric car-sharing program, is being installed in low-income neighborhoods first.
Matt Tinoco

Now, how do we pay for it? We already have the money. A right to transit would certainly require some infrastructural changes but most of the change would be structural—changing the way funding is prioritized, much like what a new transportation caucus is proposing in Congress. The key is allocating those funds to improvements that benefit publicly accessible modes, instead of the billions invested annually in highways. When we weigh the impacts of our existing inequitable transportation system on emissions, congestion, traffic deaths, air quality, debt, and how all of it disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, moving toward a universal transportation model is the only way forward.

This week, New Jersey became the latest state to allow undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses, which will provide better access to jobs and a higher standard of living for tens of thousands of people. It’s almost like a step toward universal transportation access. Except that because of the way we’ve structured our society, now those households will be forced to spend extra income—up to $6,000 a year—on cars.

Instead of the pledges to expand electric vehicle charging stations that fill their presidential platforms, the candidates should all be focusing on how to eliminate car ownership. Because right now, if our only goal were to improve individual economic outcomes, we’d just give every person in this country a brand-new car. In the same way universal health care has been made part of the Green New Deal, universal access to zero-emission transportation needs to be included, too.

A driver’s license has has become virtually required to participate in much of U.S. society. But what if the piece of plastic we use to validate our identities guaranteed access to so much more? Imagine a single card—or an app—that, like in many other countries, could unlock train rides, bus rides, bike rides, scooter rides, van rides, car rides anywhere in the nation. Now imagine what we might achieve when those services are not only funded adequately, but also free for everyone to use.

Free transit alone isn’t nearly enough to fix this country—but it could be one piece of a bigger, truly universal transportation solution that might.

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