Oakland is testing what happens when you give people 0 to ride the bus
An AC Transit bus on International Boulevard in East Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

Evonne Liang, a single mom who lives near Laney College, usually drives her car to get to work in downtown Oakland. She pays at least $14 for parking and constantly rising gas prices have forced her to search for deals wherever she can find them. Her family budget is tight.

“Any amount we can save helps. We go to a nearby church that gives out food and clothes,” she said.  

But a new free prepaid transit card has changed Liang’s mind about her commute. She now plans to take the bus to save money. 

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Called Universal Basic Mobility, the city Department of Transportation, or OakDOT, rolled out the free transit card program in the last week of December. OakDOT chose 500 people based on their income levels and transportation needs. The $300 transit card is given out in two installments of $150 and can be used to pay for rides on AC Transit, BART, city bikes, and scooters. The money for the Universal Basic Mobility program came from a $243,000 Alameda County Transportation Commission grant. 

Over the next few months, OakDOT will gather survey responses from participants and use anonymous GPS data from their cards to plan for possible future expansions. Among the types of information the department is looking for is whether people change their travel behavior after receiving the subsidy, and looking at transit patterns to make better decisions about services. The card provider, Akimbo, says on its website that riders’ private location data is coded in a way that makes it unlikely to be hacked.

More than a dozen card holders told The Oaklandside the program has helped them get around and that even a few hundred dollars extra for transit can change a person’s outlook on their city and reduce stress.

Tauvra Trent, an East Oakland resident who currently can’t work because of disability issues and does not own a car, said the card will give her the freedom to take her kids to school on AC Transit buses. 

“The extra money just takes a little bit of burden off,” she said.

Trent’s two children have suffered recently from COVID-19, despite being vaccinated. Her 16-year-old still feels severe headaches and her 7-year-old’s asthma got worse. Trent estimates she usually spends at least $100 a month on transit, sometimes to go to the doctor, though recently that’s been conducted through video. 

Mike Garcia, who lives in Oakland and works in San Francisco, said he barely makes enough to save any money after paying for rent and for essentials like groceries. He spent at least $100 a month on BART to get to his job and said knowing that people in need are getting help makes him feel more connected to Oakland. 

“It makes me happy to know the city is taking care of people. It’s just a peace of mind thing,” he said.

Most people we spoke to were people of color, people with disabilities, and seniors. The majority were service workers who have experienced the worst of the pandemic, including people who have gotten sick several times from COVID-19. Most used the cards for essential trips, like going to work, shopping for groceries, or doctors’ visits. And all found the extra money very helpful during a time of high inflation and uncertainty. 

On average, the $300 covers about a month of transit fees for the residents we spoke to. An Oakland-San Francisco BART round trip usually costs about $10 and a one-way AC transit bus ride costs $2.25. Participants in OakDOT’s mobility pilot may also qualify for means-based discounts available from local transit providers, like Bike Share for All and Clipper START.

Reverend Sarah Gardner of Allen Temple Baptist Church said the card gives her more autonomy. Gardner is disabled and on welfare and is already part of a program where her insurance pays for her transportation to and from her doctor’s office and pharmacies. But that program forces her to adhere to a tight schedule she sometimes can’t accommodate because of work. 

“I take about 15 pills per day and have to go to the pharmacy to pick those up. And if you don’t pick those up within a certain period, it goes back and you have to start the process over again. I have to spend $20 to go get my medicine,” she said.

More than a thousand people applied for the cards. Applicants who weren’t chosen for this initial phase were placed at the top of the list in case the city expands the program, an outcome dependent on future grants. 

The distribution of the cards began during the last week of December 2021, with the majority of people experiencing no issues. There were, however, at least 26 who reached out to this reporter to say they did not receive the cards and had a difficult time getting a replacement from OakDOT. The Oaklandside provided OakDOT with email addresses and phone numbers of people who didn’t get their cards—as the residents requested—so the city could follow up and help them. 

Some advocates hope the program is the beginning of a future where transit will be free. AC Transit District Director Jovanka Beckles has previously proposed such an idea. 

Oakland is not the only Bay Area city piloting free or prepaid transit cards. Last year, Santa Rosa approved free transit for students up to their last year of high school through the summer, and it’s already leading to a ridership increase. San Francisco has a similar program for children. The Sonoma Climate Mobilization group has been trying to convince Sonoma County to fund a free fare system using PG&E fire settlement funds.  

But Todd Litman, the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a Canadian transit research think tank, said in an interview that studies like his have found that free transit programs don’t lead to the same outcomes as providing transit-specific subsidies, like Oakland’s initiative.

Free transit for all often leads to bicyclists and walkers taking the bus more often and doesn’t convince drivers to give up cars, Litman said. “And so you get more crowded buses and trains with very little reduction in car travel. The transit service actually gets worse.” 

According to Litman, low-income people who own and use a car choose to use it less if they receive transit subsidies. One explanation for this choice is that low-income people tend to live in infrastructurally disadvantaged neighborhoods that are more spread out and don’t have essential services near them. The subsidized transit allows them to make a financial-based decision about those types of trips. 

“If you are earning $10 an hour and have to drive 30 miles to your job, you’d be delighted if you can use public transportation and avoid some of those trips,” Litman said. He added that Oakland’s choice to use a card that can be used across all transit agencies, as opposed to a discount for one system like BART, is good for two reasons: it gives people the flexibility to use the whole system and improves equity. 

Litman also says programs focusing on financial needs are better than common discount programs that tend to benefit economically advantaged people. Most seniors who currently receive 50% off BART rides, for example, are on average better off economically than younger people. “The poverty rates by age are clear. Seniors have about half the poverty rate than families with children.” 

Jose Juarez is a social worker in Oakland who started using his free transit card this month. Credit: Jose Juarez

Joel Batterman, a community and regional planning expert who works for a coalition of U.S. transit riders unions and used to run an advocacy group in Detroit, said that the more people realize that access to basic transit leads to better financial and health outcome, the more people will come to see public transportation as a personal right. 

“One of our slogans was that transportation is freedom. Everyone has the right to move. Pilots like Oakland are good for low-income folks,” he said. But to really expand and release more money for them, Batterman said, governments need to stop dedicating most of their transportation funds to things like freeway expansions. 

One other thing that Oakland’s new card program is showing is that transit isn’t only about getting to work or school. Some Oakland residents with the card are using it for fun and stress relief. 

Jose Juarez is social worker who helps homeless seniors at the Lake Merritt Lodge access to health services. Since the start of the pandemic, Juarez has had COVID three times, taken care of his ailing wife when she fell severely ill, and has helped save homeless residents who sometimes check into the lodge in poor health. 

“You know, I’m very happy with the work I do. I have the ability to give people hope. It’s fulfilling for my soul,” he said.

Juarez said he enjoys using his card to ride the many Veo brand electric scooters available around Oakland. If he hadn’t gotten free money to pay for scooter rides, he said wouldn’t have considered using them. 

So, during a lunch break this week, the 60-year old joyfully scooted around Lake Merritt. 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.