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November 2018 Kate Palmer

Lack of mobility limits a person’s ability to obtain and keep jobs, access basic services, contribute to society or maintain a reasonable quality of life, and there are sections of our society that are impacted by this. Louise Baker discusses why the universal basic mobility concept is the answer.

With advances in automation and AI predicted to result in the loss of jobs, there’s been a resurgence in discussions about the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI).  Essentially, UBI is a fixed amount, at a level sufficient for subsistence, given by the state to all its citizens regardless of income or work status – basically eliminating households living below the poverty line.

While the idea of UBI remains controversial, some of the spin offs from the UBI discussion are attracting attention, including the idea of Universal Basic Mobility (UBM), which provides a minimum level of mobility to all members of society through a system of partnerships and/or policies.

I believe we’re at the beginning of a meaningful conversation about UBM in New Zealand. 

One of the objectives of the current government’s policy statement on land transport is access, and part of access is affordability and there is already positive progress on this.

The NZ Transport Agency is investigating Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and earlier this year, Martin McMullan, Director of Connected Journeys, tabled the idea that people should be able to access transport information for free. He questioned whether the Agency might pay the mobile data charges so that price is not a barrier to accessing transport information. The Agency is also a signatory of the Shared Mobility Principles for Liveable Cities which advocates for equitable, inclusive and affordable mobility for all.

At a more regional level, Waikato councils are considering a proposal that would introduce free bus transport for people with disabilities which, if voted in, would kick in from April 2019. In a similar initiative, in 2017 the Hawke’s Bay DHB expanded introduced free transport for patients to cover all routes and include, their caregivers and under 5s on its bus services to Hawke’s Bay Hospital and at Napier Health.

This is a great start. As we coax towns and cities away from car-dominated, private transport towards systems based on shared and active mobility, and mobility as a service, UBM moves within reach.

Thinking this way could help us to stay focused on policy goals and keep technology in its place – that is, as an enabler rather than an end goal.

I’ve seen the benefit of providing free bus services to areas of high unemployment in the UK, through Orange’s work with Plymouth City Council back in 2003. The communications company provided bus services to link its new call centre, offering low skills jobs with areas of high unemployment. The same was done in Peterlee, UK, this time connecting villages where pits had shut with call centre jobs via a shuttle service. We also organised people onto shifts according to their village, which was a totally different challenge than connecting city networks. 

Closer to home, Queenstown has rolled out $2 bus fares and expanded its bus network and routes. This has resulted in a surge in ridership in Queenstown (to be fair, this also coincided with an increase in parking fees) and is a crucial step to reducing traffic congestion in the resort town.

UBM has to be taken into consideration with planning for future modes of transport.

In the widening gap between the rich and the poor we need to make sure we’re not designing a transport system for the elite. For all the benefits of electric and autonomous vehicles they don’t come cheap, which isolates low-income families from the advantages of clean transportation technology.  

However, there are encouraging models emerging. Los Angeles is one of Auckland’s sister cities, and it recently won a $1.6m grant to put 100 car-share vehicles – 80 of them electric – into the low-income neighbourhoods ringing downtown LA. This car-sharing pilot project offers a glimpse of the future, and represents the type of shift in policy, infrastructure, and behaviour that we need.

Equally, as private providers bring in new modes like e-scooter and e-bike share, cities have a role in working with suppliers to making sure access to these is equitable.

By entertaining the idea of UBM, we will think inclusively and stand to bring everyone on the journey to new mobility.Isolation weighs heavily on individuals and costs society, so when a city (or country) can provide everyone with the basic mobility required to access employment, services and each other, we all win, and more equitable societies are happier societies, so we all have good reason to support Universal Basic Mobility

With the current government’s aspirations for access and the Technology Roadmap due to be released early next year, New Zealand is well-placed to lead the charge. 

Louise Baker is Sector Leader Smart Mobility & Advisory at WSP Opus.