Three people live in Rebeca Hernández’s house in South Los Angeles. They all work and save every penny to pay household expenses, cover tuition at two colleges, and help their family in El Salvador. Recently, Rebeca’s car broke down. Not only did she have to spend a significant sum on repairs, but she was also unable to make food deliveries —a second job that provides her extra income.
However, a couple of months ago, she learned about a program that has helped her get around. It is the Mobility Wallet (MW), a pilot program oriented to the community of South L.A. that provides an all-in-one way to pay for multiple modes of transportation. The program, the largest of its kind in the nation, is administered by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT).
The MW is a prepaid debit card that is loaded with $150 per month for 12 months (May 2023 – April 2024) that allows one person, or several members of the same household, to pay for public or private transportation.
It allows you to ride: public transportation, such as buses, trains, bike shares, and Metro Micro vans; regional transportation, like Metrolink and Amtrak; private buses, such as Greyhound and Flix Bus, and shared rides, like Uber and Lyft. You can also use the card to pay for trips on the FlyAway, rent scooters, and pay for services or products in bicycle shops.
“The MW card has been very helpful to us. I use it to take the bus or train to DTLA and the supermarket… My mother uses it to take a taxi and come back home safely,” says Rebeca, 37, whose mother works in a laundromat until late at night. “She takes transit, but when my car broke down, I wasn’t able to go pick her up anymore. It gave me anguish because there are many encampments at night around where we live. The bus stop is eight blocks away from home, and the train station is about six. Now, if she has to leave at 11:00 p.m., she takes a taxi and that makes me feel calmer.”
Since its launch in May 2023, over 1,000 debit cards have been distributed to people who make lower incomes. 900 were selected through the online application process while 100 were signed up during eight in-person bilingual Mobility Wallet workshops held in conjunction with community-based organizations, says Avital Shavit, Metro’s senior director of strategic innovation.
From May 1 to July 18, 9,485 transactions have been completed using MWs. When participants receive the card, it has to be activated before use. If a participant doesn’t spend the entire $150 balance within a month, the funds roll over to the next month. Participants must be at least 18 years old to qualify in addition to meeting eligibility requirements, such as self-certifying their income and living in one of 10 qualifying South LA zip-codes.
“The geographic area to qualify has been identified as a federal transit empowerment zone,” Shavit explains “This area has been identified as a place that needs additional transportation. It also concentrates a high percentage of people who make lower incomes and who are transit-dependent.”
The areas chosen for the MW are home to a population of over 370,000 people with 29% of households below the poverty level, according to transportation authorities. Over 6% of households do not own a vehicle and 30% only have one car at home. The majority of the residents are people of color, with two-thirds Hispanic and a quarter African-American.
Andre Parvenu is part of the latter group. He has recently lost his vehicle in a traffic collision and now uses public transportation all the time. The 63-year-old lives in the 90043 ZIP code, an area that qualifies for the program. After signing up, he received a prepaid card last May. The program has allowed him to commute on the bus or train to get to his job interviews.
“I think the program is wonderful and it has helped me… I like that the authorities are looking for innovative ways to increase mobility and make traveling easier for people who are transit dependent,” says Parvenu.
He adds that he had never traveled on Amtrak because the fare tickets were out of his budget. However, now that he has the MW card, he wants to visit Sacramento soon. Rebeca Hernández, who has family in Utah, agrees. “Tickets are expensive and sometimes you have to choose between vacationing or saving… Now, I think it will be possible to go visit them,” she says happily.
The program, which is a collaboration with the City of Los Angeles and the California Department of Transportation’s California Integrated Travel Project (Cal-ITP), has a $13.8 million grant from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and $2 million in funding from LADOT. The state has also awarded a grant to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of California, Davis (UCD), two entities that are helping Metro and LADOT evaluate the pilot program.
“We are looking at ways to see how we can expand the program. MW has been identified as a project that could be supported throughout LA County in preparation for the 2028 Olympics,” says Metro’s Shavit.