One Card to Rule Them All: LA Metro’s Experiment in a Universal Transit Wallet
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One Card to Rule Them All: LA Metro’s Experiment in a Universal Transit Wallet

L.A. Metro is launching the largest experiment in the U.S. to provide 2,000 residents with a seamless transportation payment platform spanning public and private systems.

The agency is opening up applications for its mobility wallet as part of its universal basic mobility (UBM) pilot, helmed by L.A.’s Department of Transportation (LADOT). Metro is seeking applicants from South Los Angeles to apply by November 1. After applicants are selected, the first phase of the pilot will begin within the next few months.

One thousand participants will receive prepaid debit cards which the city will replenish with $150 per month ($1,800 total over the course of a year) to spend on multimodal transportation options in the program’s first phase. The debit card can be used to pay for Metro bus and rail, Metro Micro and 26 municipal transit agencies across L.A. County, as well as private mobility options including shared e-scooters and e-bikes, car share, ride-hailing and taxis. Participants can use funds to pay for rides from companies like Uber or Lyft, but not for personal car expenses such as gas or repairs.

In the second phase set to launch in early 2023, payment will be integrated into L.A.’s TAP card. According to Metro’s The Source, the agency was seeking private mobility operators to integrate with TAPforce, a platform providing “a seamless payment option” for multiple forms of transportation. Metro has yet to announce which private mobility companies will be integrated into TAP for phase two.

One-in-five low-income residents who ride transit don’t own a smartphone. For that reason, Metro plans to provide 200 participants with cell phones and data plans, in addition to the $150 subsidy, according to LADOT Spokesperson Colin Sweeney. The application process for receiving a phone and data plan will take place in-person.

Roughly 30% of the 370,000 residents in South L.A. live below the poverty line, according to LADOT. Studies have shown that low-income households spend a greater percentage of income (28.8%) on transportation compared to wealthier households (9.5%). The goal of the UBM pilot is to provide underserved Angelenos greater access to mobility and economic opportunities.

The agency announced the program in April with components including EV charging stations, workforce training programs, a free EV shuttle, upgrades to bus and cycling infrastructure and an “e-bike library,” which would let users checkout e-bikes.

Funding for the project comes from a $13.8 million grant from the California Air Resources Board and an additional $4 million from the city’s unappropriated balance (UB) fund.

To date, the only parts of the program in operation are the workforce development programs offered by the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator and Los Angeles Trade Technical College, according to LADOT.

Oakland piloted a universal basic mobility program in 2020, in which 500 residents received $300 total (A second phase beginning next month will include 1,000 participants); Bakersfield is piloting a program for 100 disadvantaged youth ages 18 to 24, and Pittsburgh’s 50-person UBM experiment just launched in August.

If South L.A.’s pilot is successful, the city hopes to expand it to the rest of L.A.

“The idea would be, ‘How do we roll it out around the city and then the county?” said Eli Lipmen, executive director of Move LA. “The goal is to stand it up and figure out the mechanics of it.”

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David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.