“People need easy access to work and to essential services to live decent, independent lives. Cities need Universal Basic Mobility. It’s a human right.”
So said Matt Caywood and Alex Roy of Bloomberg CityLab back in 2018. Plenty of people are listening too as in the Californian city of Bakersfield a pilot program is already being run where 100 low-income residents are being offered free public transport along with access to electric scooters and power-assisted bikes at no charge.
The rationale behind this UBM (Universal Basic Mobility) program is that many young and low-socio economic employees can’t afford a car and often work hours outside of normal public transport times in low paid jobs such as bartending, cleaning or kitchenhand work. By having free access to e-scooters and/or power-assisted bikes, as well as public transport, they should be able to get to and from their jobs quickly and not surrender a large wedge of their pay in doing so.
Why ‘Universal Basic Mobility’?
Seems like a reasonable program – but what’s with the pretentious title? It’s just kids riding e-bikes and scooters, should I start referring to my skateboard as a Universal Basic Mobility Urban Terrain Vehicle?
If you think that Universal Basic Mobility sounds familiar, you’re right because its creators took the Universal Basic Income term and changed a word in its name. Why? Well, they say that UBM is like UBI in that they are both solutions that stimulate employment – one by increasing the spending power of individuals, the other by helping get people to their jobs. But I would also venture that they also did it because UBI has been in the news a lot lately in the States due to the media’s intense coverage of former Democratic primary hopeful Andrew Yang’s UBI-based Freedom Dividend concept. I’m betting the creators hoped to piggyback on the public’s casual interest for this and translate it onto the similar-sounding Universal Basic Mobility.
Was it a good idea to equate the two? No, it was not! Because UBI is largely regarded (rightly or wrongly) as a Utopian idea and saddling this new promising-sounding transport concept with Utopian baggage is unnecessary, incredibly naïve and/or potentially fatal to its future. Here’s why:
The problem with Utopian ideals
‘Now, in an ideal world…’ How many times have you heard someone begin a tirade to dismiss a new concept or process with those few syllables? What they really mean is that this new proposed idea will be unworkable – not necessarily because of any flaw in the idea itself but because of the inherent flaws in us human consumers. For example; a robot pizza delivery vehicle that drives itself around town, up staircases and via elevators will fail not because it can’t do the job it is designed to do – but because a drunken you and me will intercept these vehicles outside a pub on a Friday night and make it our life’s work to crack them open to get at the hot cheesy goodness inside!
Welcome to the Utopian world. An ideal of perfection where everyone lives in harmony as equals socially, politically and financially. It is the stuff left wing politicians dream of and right wing businesspeople have nightmares about – largely because they only ever seem to work in theory.
Nothing fails as spectacularly as a Utopian ideal and history is littered with some real doozies including the communities of; Oneida, Jonestown, Liberia, New Australia and even arguably the peace-loving nation of Israel (which ironically was closer to a utopian state of multiple races and religions living alongside each other in Palestine before Israel’s formation in 1948). You can add social utopias like Communism and Hitler’s Fourth Reich to that list and it becomes clear that whilst we humans often dream of a perfect society, it is also us humans who always drag them down – usually in some devastating Lord of the Flies-like descent into chaos. Incidentally, the latter was William Golding’s own riposte to R. M. Ballantyne’s utopian vision of what would likely happen with deserted British children in The Coral Island. It says volumes about how we all view utopias in that we all remember the disastrous story and have completely forgotten the earlier idyllic version upon which Lord of the Flies was written to debunk!
So, if utopian ideas always fail, why do we persist with them? Because if we didn’t try new social-based ideas like sharing the burden of farming crops and animals 12,000 years ago, we would still be running around as hunters and gatherers today. Utopian ideas come from a good place in that their authors are usually trying to improve the world or the lot of its citizens in some way – they just seem to come unstuck due to a fatal failure to take our inherent greed, laziness and selfishness into account during the drafting. This starry-eyed enthusiasm also encourages the utopian ideal’s fanboys and girls’ tendency to treat them as an inflexible manifesto rather than a series of discussion points, which as anyone who has developed any marketing or manufacturing plan will know, is a recipe for disaster.
But the die are also usually loaded against utopian ideals right from the start, largely because they often are disruptive in nature, eg; new paradigms of pacifism, rejection of capitalism, bigamous relationships, etc, and need to be applied universally in order to succeed. Universal Basic Income, as suggested in its name, is one of these.
Universal Basic Income
Universal Basic Income, or the idea of paying off the same standard sum to an entire population, has been around for a long, long time. Emperor Trajan gave 650 denarii to all Roman citizens as the general idea was to avoid people falling into such poverty that they would not be tempted into crime. This well-intentioned ideal was kept alive for centuries by intellectuals but never caught on with governments as they, perhaps unsurprisingly, couldn’t see the point of having all taxpayers stumping up to pay out absolutely everyone whether they needed it or not.
Interest in UBI faded with the rise of social welfare programs in the early 20th century, which is like a means tested or non-universal basic income. Arguably this has worked well over the past few decades but there is now a growing tendency to regard social welfare as paternalistic as though the state giving money to people who need it to survive is somehow a bad thing.
UBI got a shot in the arm however with US Presidential (extremely) hopeful Andrew Yang making a big noise during the 2020 Democratic Party Primaries with his version of a UBI which he called a ‘Freedom Dividend’. This took the form of a US$1,000 monthly payment to absolutely everybody no matter what their employment or familial situation was. Mr Yang’s rationale was that the money was to compensate the populace for the anticipated loss of employment due to the rise and rise of automation and artificial intelligence.
This argument has potentially more validity than just because; ‘means testing people seems; like, really patronising, dude’. Mr Yang seems to be onto something here, although not all agree with his prognosis. Deloitte discovered that whilst the non-stop onward march of technology removed some jobs from the workplace, other new ones were created in their place. And, these weren’t always directly related as they noted a fourfold increase in bar staff since the 1950s and a ‘surge in the number of hairdressers this century’ as the new spending power technology brought created new demand and new jobs. All the same, the jury is STILL out (two millennia and counting!) on UBI despite even Trump’s Circus showing an interest in Yang’s Dividend.
So, is Universal Basic Mobility as utopian, far-fetched and hard-to-sell as UBI?
No! Well, at least it shouldn’t be because – aside from the stupid acronym fiddling – the creators have actually realised a really smart thing; that freedom of movement is a Human Right.
Hang on, is Freedom of Movement a Human Right? Really?
Apparently so! The International Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states in Article 13 (1) that: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.’ Similarly, Article 12 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states that: ‘Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.’
Whilst these rights were probably devised as a limit on the suppression and detention of political prisoners – and naughty female tennis players in Xi’s China – they are open enough to be interpreted as granting all kinds of freedom of movement as a Human Right. But does that actually mean anything or are these just yet more international legal niceties that strongmen dictators ignore and do-gooder NGOs like Amnesty International impotently wring their hands over?
Perhaps, but the recent governmental Covid-based suppression shenanigans here have thrust such laws under the microscope. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 has a similar clause to the above; Section 18 (1) states that: ‘Everyone lawfully in New Zealand has the right to freedom of movement and residence in New Zealand.’ This was the same section used by Xplor Technologies director Murray Bolton’s lawyers to successfully challenge the Government’s 14-day MIQ imprisonment system. Mr Bolton argued that as both he and his partner were double-vaccinated and could travel to a crucial meeting in the US via private jet and self-isolate in a gated home, they did not need to roll the dice for a spot in an MIQ. He also amusingly pointed out that he was more likely to catch Covid in the New Zealand community than via his plan! However, as he and his partner were mere successful businesspeople and not All Blacks nor Black Caps, their reasonable request was denied. But, because Mr Bolton had the money to legally challenge and the government had no real case, he won. Plus, Mr Bolton’s success came with the added bonus of proving that the Freedom of Movement promised in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is actually enforceable by law. Mr Bolton has also very kindly shared his legal research with Grounded Kiwis who are battling MIQ on behalf of thousands of Kiwis stranded overseas, as he is very aware that not all New Zealanders have his deep pockets.
So, what does this liberty of movement mean?
As American investor and blogger Alex Roy notes; ‘Freedom of movement has never been accompanied with a right to mobility. Governments built infrastructure, but you still had to buy your own horse or car.’ He also goes on to point out that as population density rose and traffic worsened, modern states invested in more roads, more trolleys, more buses and more trains, creating an informal mobility compact between governments and their citizens. The deal was; if you use these tools, we can provide you with the means of transporting you more efficiently than you can transport yourselves.
But while incredibly useful in shifting citizens around the city during rush hour, these transport solutions have been slow to keep pace with our modern society’s increasing demands to have the freedom to shop or eat dinner at 3am if we so wish. Perhaps not such a problem in massive cities like London, Tokyo and Paris with already enormous and well-established public transit networks. But in smaller cities like Auckland and Bakersfield, those same round-the-clock transport options are generally not available to those who need them.
In Universal Basic Mobility Ground Zero in Bakersfield, Child and Family Services Coordinator Jayme Stuart said she has witnessed the transportation challenges faced by the youths involved in the program for many years. “A lot of our youth who are ages 18 to 24, they work at retail jobs, they work at warehouse jobs, they work at a lot of jobs that operate outside of the bus schedule,” she said. “So if the bus isn’t running, then your only option is Uber or Lyft, and Uber and Lyft have gotten very expensive.”
This problem isn’t just in America and it isn’t just with the youth. Personally, I came across a very similar situation whilst working in recruitment. There was a vacancy for a nurse at a retirement home in an obscure corner of West Auckland that was pretty much impossible to get to unless you had access to a car. As this was a comparatively low-paying job and, going by the applicants I saw, was attractive almost exclusively to migrants. Being shift work as well, the nurse could finish late at night or ridiculously early in the morning – either way outside of normal bus times. Not that any stopped anywhere near the rest home anyway!
So, realistically, if the potential nurse did not have his or her own vehicle – a strong likelihood for a migrant and/or someone from a low socio-economic area – then this job would be impractical for them. The applicant would be precluded from working the exact sort of job they had come to the country to do. Simply because there were limited transport options available to them for the role.
The elderly residents of the home too may have AT Gold Cards but they are of no use if there is no public transport handy. It’s the same story for factory workers, the youth and others who hold down waiting, kitchenhand, cleaning and other low paid jobs that often involve shift work or unsociable hours. If they don’t have a car, under the current public transport paradigm, they are limited in what they can actually do.
Current local solutions
That’s not to say nothing is being done about it. Auckland Transport are desperately scrambling to try and rectify decades of neglect as one shockingly bad decision in the 1930s to move the main train station away from the centre of town and out into Parnell. This incredibly dumb idea basically removed trains as an option for Auckland commuters and therefore forced its citizens into a private car culture. Contrast this with the far smaller city of Wellington which has long had a good, although ageing, and well-patronised public transport system. Auckland’s car culture was okay when it was the small city of the past, but now it realistically covers a physical area over half the size of Los Angeles, it is no longer viable. The Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) estimated a productivity loss of over $1.3B annually for the city purely due to congestion, but there are a multitude of knock on effects too. For example; it is getting harder for logistics companies to find truck drivers as the same pay for 50 hours a week in the past now takes 70 hours simply down to the time wasted in congestion – and the drivers actually want to spend time with their families rather than sitting idly in traffic.
Auckland Transport and the government have unveiled a series of breath-taking projects to try and keep pace with this issue with each project seemingly bigger and more expensive than the last. These include the Central Motorway Junction upgrade; Victoria Park and Waterview tunnels and the insanely expensive but exciting City Rail Link. Auckland Transport have also recently restructured their bus system to make buses more frequent – although at the cost of removing the less-patronised but more penetrative routes that could be of use to the carless.
There has even been some lateral thinking with the Auckland City Council’s Unitary Plan Parking Standards developing a policy of switching from a minimum number of parks to a maximum number for new dwellings. The intent behind this is to ‘encourage’ residents to take public transport rather than drive their own vehicles, because if there are no parks available to store your vehicle, then why keep one?
This is all very well if you live on a bus or train route AND wish to travel to a destination that is close to a public transport stop of some description – during operating hours – but if not, what then? On my OE in London, there was an unwritten law amongst ex-pats meeting up for a beer that whomever was organising the get-together would choose a bar close to a tube station so it would be easy for everyone to get there. Otherwise much of your night – or sparse earnings – is wasted walking or catching a cab to some premises way off the beaten track.
The other network
Of course, motorways, train lines and bus routes aren’t the only transport networks. The new cycleways snaking their way all across the country and our cities, particularly after the Government approved the Urban Cycleways Programme (UCP) in 2014, are divisive to say the least. To some, they are nothing more than a stealing of precious road lane width and yet another waste of taxpayers’ money pandering to a noisy minority of lycra-clad middle-aged white guys. But, to the bike riders themselves, this is an awesome, albeit gradual, joining up of the disparate sections of cycleway to create a separate transport network. And one that costs a tiny fraction of the similar networks required for motor vehicles.
Looking at the cycleways from a Universal Basic Mobility point of view, they are very exciting. Right before our eyes an expansion of necessary infrastructure is happening BEFORE it was necessary. Surely a historical first for any New Zealand government?! But of course, to convert them to Universal Basic Mobility use will require a future change in attitude as to what vehicles can use the infrastructure as currently e-scooters are not allowed in the cycleways – and even power-assisted bikes (with a combined output of under 300W) are only grudgingly allowed. E-scooters are barely tolerated anywhere, so long as they creep shamefully along the side of the road or on the footpath so long as they get the hell out of the way of absolutely everybody else!
Obviously, this cycleway legislation was lobbied by the vehicles ‘designed to be primarily propelled by the muscular energy of the rider’ group. But what they have to learn is that the cycleways were paid for by everybody so – just like motorways are not only for trucks, cars, motorbikes and/or delivery vans – cycleways should be for all non-vehicular traffic. Including the dastardly e-scooters!
Where to now?
Universal Basic Mobility shouldn’t be equated with Universal Basic Income at all as one is a very feasible and arguably necessary step, whereas the other hasn’t caught on since Roman times. We can keep building more and more motorways until our entire countryside is covered in asphalt – but experience tells us that they’ll fill up in no time anyway and we’ll be back cooling our heels in congestion. Yet more motorways still doesn’t help those without cars either and while more route-based public transport options can help, they are still a limited solution. A mix of free public transport and new electric-based transport like e-scooters and power-assisted bikes like that currently operating in the Bakersfield experiment sounds ideal. And maybe even for everyone, not just the poor and/or young.
If we want to have more bars, restaurants, shops and facilities open later, then we have to take into account how the bar, catering and waiting staff, cleaners and even management of these facilities are going to get to and from work safely and inexpensively. Some form of Universal Basic Mobility plan may be the answer, but whether it is utopian and open for use (and abuse) by everyone – or means tested by the ‘condescending patriarchy’ is up for debate.
But, if we do proceed, please can we change the ridiculous name? How about calling it; WorkWheels? Anything will do, we don’t want this Universal Basic Mobility idea to die just because it sounds Utopian.