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The Vision for Universal Basic Mobility

The head of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation is using the concept to call for a remake of transportation that is more equitable, affordable, accessible and generally more “joyful.”

The comments were recently made by Seleta Reynolds at the CoMotion MIAMI Transportation and Urbanism Conference. Reynolds is the General Manager at the Los Angeles Department of Transport (LADOT) and she added that:

“The idea that no matter where you live, how much money you have, or who you are, you have access to dignified, frequent, affordable transportation that serves all of the needs that you have”.

Beyond outlining this vision and emphasising the underlying importance of not leaving any section of society behind, curtailing the single-occupancy car use, and making a sizable effort to combat climate change, Reynolds did not go too deeply into the practicalities of what “universal basic mobility” means or how to bring it about. However, she did connect the vision to the context of the corona virus pandemic and the inequalities that this revealed, along with the US’s national reckoning around racial and social justice:

“The people who had the privilege to stay home were on the west side of Los Angeles, the wealthier side, the whiter side,” Reynolds reflected. “These are the folks who had the jobs that allowed them to work from home. But if you lived in South L.A., or you lived in Watts, or you lived in Boyle Heights, you were still stuck in traffic.”

Adding to LADOT’s comments about Universal Basic Mobility, the CEO of CoMotion (the organiser of the conference) pointed out that right now there is an opportune “alignment of political forces at a federal level” together with major technology shifts and an unprecedented focus on equity and inclusion in cities. Presumably the reference to an “alignment of political forces” is referring to the Biden administration’s budget proposal that includes billions for provisions to boost transportation infrastructure.  

Personal Comment:

LADOT has been one of the more proactive transport authorities in the US in responding to the pandemic with a pivot towards more progressive changes, such as electrifying its bus fleet, introducing EV car-sharing, rolling out new bike lanes and bus-only lanes, as well as repurposing streets for outdoor dining and retail. However, let’s not forget that LA is still perhaps one of the most quintessentially car-centric cities in the US – with multi-laned highways not only wrapping around but also criss-crossing its urban core. And that’s not even mentioning the infamous suburban sprawl. That is why it being LADOT that is putting forward this vision of Universal Basic Mobility (UBM) is perhaps just as intriguing as the very concept of UBM itself.

But is what is being suggested here actually something new? Well, yes and no. Reynolds’ description of UBM being the idea that “no matter where you live, how much money you have, or who you are, you have access to dignified, frequent, affordable transportation that serves all of the needs that you have” is actually not that different from the approach that a lot of European countries already take towards transport (health care and education too for that matter). For example, take Sweden’s transport policy which states that its functional goal is to ensure that “the design, function and use of the transport system must contribute to giving everyone a basic accessibility with good quality and usability and contribute to development power throughout the country.” So the vision of UBM that Reynolds articulates doesn’t actually sound that radically different. But context matters. The thing worth appreciating is that when a car-centric metropolis in the US with a population of 13 million people decide to adopt nearly the same transport policy as social-democratic Sweden, that IS indeed radical.

So if UBM means guaranteeing everyone access to some form of mobility that is able to meet their basic needs (such as work commuting and grocery shopping) without relying on car ownership, an important thing to keep in mind then is that mobility is intrinsically connected to land-use and the design of our cities. A new analysis by the Urban Institute of a half-century of transportation patterns in US cities shows how the share of transit commuters has plunged dramatically in the majority of those metro regions since the 1970s. According to the author of the analysis, Yonah Freemark, the “fading usefulness of public transit is a result of the fundamental lack of integration between federal transportation and land-use authorities”. This suggests that without considering land-use in US cities, focusing on mobility provision after the fact could be a lost cause. 

Written by Bobby Chen
RISE Mobility & Systems (Elektromobilitet)