Lyft provides accessible transport in conjunction with local services.
Lyft provides accessible transport in conjunction with local services.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Unsplash)

MICROMOBILITY The challenge of mobility options for low-income workers

Author / Editor: Cate Lawrence / Isabell Page

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of essential workers, many of whom carry out virtual but low-paying work. However low-income workers are most likely to experience a barrier in accessing public transport. Fortunately, initiatives including partnerships between cities and micromobility providers are helping close the gap.

We may be in a time when working from home has become more prevalent in efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but a daily commute is still crucial for many people. Many of these people are essential workers - cleaners, food industry workers, care home workers, and administrative staff. Many of them are not only in remote-resistant roles but also in low-paying positions.

The correlation between low socioeconomic status and poor transport

Poor public transport options are particularly evident in the US. Low-income people are more likely to live in food deserts with supermarkets and fresh food sellers only accessible via a commute. Low-income workers are more likely to live further away from work because they need affordable housing. This results in longer commutes. They may live more than a mile from public transport, making access difficult. Car ownership may be a necessity due to a lack of accessible public transport; it's an expense that represents a higher proportion of their income than those in better-paying jobs.

The Institute for Transportation and development policy (ITDP) asserts:

In the US, there is a narrative that if people work hard, then they can get out of poverty, but we've built cities that make this narrative impossible. For households making less than $20,000 per year, reliable cars are a pipe dream: a huge expense that they can't afford. Without adequate transit, they will remain stuck in place.

The need for late-night options

If you cannot physically get to work for your shift, then you cannot be employed. Research by the American Public Transport reveals that late-shift workers - most of whom are also essential workers - represent just under 20% of the US workforce. They assert that many of the largest late-shift sectors, such as healthcare, food services, and hospitality/ leisure, are expected to grow faster than overall employment over the next five to 10 years.

Safety is also a concern; you are more likely to spend your money on a taxi or ridesharing company if late-night public transport is irregular. Last-mile options such as e-bikes and scooters may be an option for some. However, these also rely on safe environments such as appropriate road infrastructure such as lighting, paving, and designated lanes - these cost money and are typically less available in low-socioeconomic areas. Further, providers primarily concentrate their efforts in well-populated urban environments.

In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has issued a call for proposals to improve mobility for people who work the late shift by connecting them with the subway. They are starting with areas in The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island that are over a half-mile from the nearest subway station with limited bus service such as arrivals less frequent than every 20 minutes overnight. Unfortunately, the tender process appears to have stalled due to COVID-19.

Other cities have also developed several options. These commonly include concentrating transfers at only a handful of hubs, scheduling routes to minimize transfer waiting times, and creating longer routes that provide a one-seat ride between a broad set of origins and destinations.

Uber recently announced their acquisition of Routematch, which develop software solutions for over 500 transport agencies, including ticketing, route planning, and the booking of specialist services for people with disabilities. Routematch has been particularly active in locations traditionally poorly serviced by public transport such as the rural US. This is a positive move in that it is likely to increase the opportunity for innovative last-mile solutions and greater access to transport for those with disabilities or requiring additional assistance such as late-night workers.

Rideshare and micromobility providers lend a hand

Lyft has several programs in place to provide transport for those in need. In May, they announced a program to support domestic violence survivors to relocate free of charge in conjunction with domestic violence support services. The company has worked with more than 20 local partners across the US to support individuals who are in desperate need of transportation. These partners include regional shelters and domestic violence support centers, local officials like the City of Chicago Department of Human Trafficking, and the San Francisco District Attorney's office.

Lyft also provides a Jobs Access Program, a new initiative that aims to close short-term transportation gaps related to employment access and job training. For the unemployed, reliable transportation to a job interview or the first few weeks of work can mean the difference between successful, long-term employment and lost opportunities. The company helps with:

  • rides to/from job training programs
  • rides to/from job interviews
  • rides to/from the first three weeks of employment, until individuals receive their first paycheck and begin to pay for their own transportation

No smartphone, no bank: no ride?

Even in prosperous cities such as the US, there are still people who live paycheck to paycheck and do not have a bank account or mobile phone, making it difficult to access micromobility and rideshare programs. In response, Lime created Lime Access, which provides discounted fares to qualifying riders in the United States and access to Lime scooters for people without smartphones or credit cards. To qualify, an individual must demonstrate participation in a local, state, or federal public benefits program.

Lime Access prices may vary by market, but most members receive:

  • a discount of 50% or more on Lime-S e-scooters and Lime-E electric-assist bikes
  • a more than 95% discount for Lime pedal bikes

Lime Access members can use PayNearMe to pay in cash at any CVS or 711 stores, and a text-to-unlock feature, removing the barrier of smartphone and credit card ownership.

The silver lining of COVID-19

One thing that has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we've seen greater cooperation between transport providers to transport people safely, and something of a litmus test for multimodal mobility options. The need to provide adequate transport for essential workers has been at the forefront of many providers' minds.

Reducing the risk of transmission is critical. We are a while off a mainstream rollout of autonomous vehicles accessible at will. But we've seen the opportunity for new initiatives such as more bike and scooter paths. The creation of initiatives such as bus-only lanes not only result in faster commute times, but also supplement trains and trams, and reduce overcrowding. All of these initiatives collectively recognize the vital role essential workers - including those of low-income - in keeping society functioning.