Scooter revolution proves challenging for cities

Scooter revolution proves challenging for cities
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Two years into the scooter revolution and its promise of bringing inexpensive transportation to low-income neighborhoods, researchers and experts say vehicle providers are falling short.

Scooter companies and city officials have promoted the two-wheeled vehicles as an economical way to help communities that are often situated in transportation deserts.

“All communities deserve access to smart, affordable mobility,” reads the sales pitch for Lime, an electric scooter company with a valuation of around $2.4 billion. 

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Lyft, which is best known for its ride-hailing services, has also deployed scooters across the U.S. over the past year – and the company says it “is working closely” with municipalities “to ensure Lyft Scooters are available to anybody who needs a low-cost mode of transportation.”

It’s an enticing promise. Cities have long wrestled with how they can improve transportation for low-income residents, who often reside in neighborhoods isolated from areas with more job opportunities and food options.

But after two years of scooters on the road, and on the sidewalks, community advocates, researchers and experts say e-scooters are often concentrated in high-income, tourist-heavy areas of town, while disadvantaged communities are finding themselves left out of the latest high-tech transit innovation.

“It is not shaping out to be the equity solution that it’s painted as,” Salem Afangideh, a transportation justice advocate with Public Advocates, told The Hill. Afangideh has been participating in a series of focus groups with community members in San Francisco and Oakland about so-called “mobility options” – meaning bikes, e-scooters and more.

“A lot of scooters are concentrated in places that are not accessible to low-income communities,” Afangideh said. “They’re not populated in low-income neighborhoods. They’re populated in transit hubs.”

Cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are struggling to regulate the proliferation of e-scooters, which present safety and congestion issues along with accessibility concerns.

To confront the issue, municipalities are working up policies that require scooter companies to make their product equally accessible to low- and high-income neighborhoods. But the challenge there is finding out how they can force firms to put scooters in areas with potentially less demand.

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In Washington, city officials require the companies to deploy at least six scooters in all eight wards of the city at the start of every day, as well as offer discount programs for customers who are eligible for government assistance.

According to The Hill’s analysis of D.C. Department of Transportation data, about 9 percent of e-scooters can be found in the city’s low-income areas, where the median household income is below $44,995. And only 8 percent of e-scooters are located in areas defined as both low-income and low-vehicle.

The council member in charge of D.C.’s transportation committee is working on legislation that would increase that 9 percent figure by requiring companies deploy 10 percent of their fleets in each ward every day.

“Right now, under [D.C. Department of Transportation] rules, they only have to put six of these vehicles in every ward in the morning,” D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh told The Hill in a phone interview. “That’s a number that’s really paltry considering the number of scooters that we have — about 1 percent of the whole fleet of everybody. I want to increase that.”

“I think everybody should have a fair shot at getting decent scooters, if that’s what they want to do,” Cheh said.

Research coming out of Portland, Ore., indicates there’s widespread interest in scooters regardless of socioeconomic background. During a scooter pilot program there last year, the city required each of the three participating companies to deploy 100 scooters on average to lower-income East Portland.

The city published a report that found only one company complied with the fleet requirement.

But there were tens of thousands of rides in East Portland, the report noted, indicating there’s a market to tap into.

Portland is in the midst of its second pilot e-scooter program, this time with larger fleets and a promise that companies will be allowed to deploy more vehicles if they can prove they’re giving rides in East Portland. Dylan Rivera, a spokesman with the Portland Bureau of Transportation, told The Hill that the city is still exploring whether e-scooters can help officials achieve the goal of “providing more opportunities for transportation access for historically underserved and low-income communities.”

Because e-scooter companies are for-profit entities, often with extensive venture capital backing, they’re less likely to put scooters in neighborhoods where demand is low, said Lime’s head of U.S. government relations, Adam Kovacevich.

“If an operator’s only allowed to have a limited number of scooters, then most of the scooters are going to be deployed in the areas of town where they’re going to get the most ridership,” Kovacevich said.

Kovacevich said his company is lobbying cities to increase the number of scooters allowed on the streets, or at least exempt scooters in disadvantaged communities from any caps.

Portland says companies that provide more than two to three trips on average per scooter each day in East Portland will be eligible to increase their fleet, a policy that tracks with what e-scooter firms want.

Los Angeles has adopted a similar policy, one that the city’s transportation spokeswoman, Lilly O'Brien, called a "carrot" approach because it would provide incentives for providers. Companies can increase their fleet sizes by the thousands if they place scooters in the San Fernando Valley or other “qualifying disadvantaged communities.”

So far, the policy isn't working as intended, O'Brien said. Only 641 e-scooters are deployed in the San Fernando Valley's disadvantaged communities, though the companies are allowed to bring in 5,000 each at a maximum.

"We’re trying to create incentives," O'Brien told The Hill. Los Angeles has robust data collection requirements for the companies, she said, which will allow the city to make informed policy decisions in the future. 

Accessibility is only one piece of the puzzle in achieving parity, cities and companies have insisted.

Most of the major scooter companies operating in the U.S. offer discount programs for low-income customers, which are often stipulated by their agreements with cities.

Lime offers ride discounts and a cash payment options through its Lime Access program, while Uber’s Jump has a Boost Plan in Washington, D.C., that offers significant discounts to customers who are enrolled in government assistance programs.

Bird's rider accessibility program offers reduced fees or small deals to riders below the poverty level or those who can prove they qualify for aid like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

City planning experts say the discount system can be effective — as long as it’s part of comprehensive outreach and education programs.

“Outreach is an important part of it,” Nathan McNeil, a research associate with Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center, told The Hill. He said it’s vital for companies and cities to “help people get those discounted rates or sign up or get familiar with how to use the system.”

Earlier this month, Lime hosted an event with city officials in Hoboken, N.J., to sign riders up for its discount program and inform them about job opportunities with the company. And in D.C., Bird recently held an event in Ward 7. 

But scooter companies don’t share data on how many people take advantage of their discount programs, which are often geared toward riders who don’t have smartphones or credit cards.

Clarrissa Cabansagan, a policy director for California transit justice organization TransForm, said the onus is on the cities to set up a system requiring companies to improve outreach.

“The cities need to be more specific about how outreach should happen in low-income communities … and [be] held to that standard,” Cabansagan told The Hill, noting that she checks the scooter apps every day in Oakland and finds the vehicles aren’t located in poor neighborhoods. 

At the federal level, there’s little movement to write any laws around e-scooters, with local governments mainly leading the charge. The House and Senate committees in charge of transportation have not delved deep into the new e-scooter trend, which only spiked in the U.S. over the past two years.

But that could change as scooters become more commonplace.

Adie Tomer, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s metropolitan policy program, said he believes the scooter companies are here for the long haul.

“So if they’re here and they have intended benefits, we should be making sure that transportation as a shared platform is available to everyone,” Tomer said.

Updated at 5:08 p.m.