Since launching our handbook for city problem-solvers on The Future of U.S. Cities, we’ve been exploring different ways that cities across the U.S. are innovating with intention. Our Summer Associate Julian Martin takes a look at one trendy city innovation – e-scooters – and how, if deployed mindfully, they can be both an environmentally friendly and equitable mobility solution for city residents.
In 2018, 71 new cities allowed electric scooters on their streets. The trend has continued in 2019, with major cities like New York and Boston racing to keep up with the e-scooter boom. Yet the micromobility tidal wave sweeping across the country has not come without its challenges, including concerns around safety, vandalism, and accessibility.
The good news? Micromobility services offer environmentally friendly, accessible, and relatively affordable ways of getting around. But aside from these more obvious perks, e-scooters also deliver one unique advantage to cities: they can bring equitable transportation options to residents. Why is this important? Because the current transportation infrastructure across the U.S. is demonstrably inequitable, leaving many underserved communities without easy access to good jobs or schools.
A recent study polling 7,000 respondents across 10 cities highlights the promising benefits that e-scooters bring to minority and low-income residents. Support for e-scooters was highest among low-income riders: respondents making between $25,000-50,000 a year were the most supportive of e-scooters (75%) while those making $200,000+ were the least supportive income bracket (64%). In the case of Washington, DC, black residents were 2.6 times more likely to use dockless services over the traditional bikeshare system, compared to just 1.2 times more for white residents. While further research is needed, this study offers the first comprehensive look at how e-scooters can positively impact minority and low-income communities in the United States.
But e-scooters cannot deliver equity without cities’ help. Cities have to engage with residents and come up with regulations that secure access to micromobility for underserved communities if they want e-scooters to be truly equitable.
Leveraging e-scooters for equity
As cities continue to rethink their approach to e-scooters, these three strategies can enable underserved communities to benefit from the micromobility revolution.
1. Engage residents
Given how much is still unknown about the impact of e-scooters on urban transportation, it is critical that cities check in with residents to make sure that micromobility systems address their needs and concerns. As CPI’s latest piece on Americans in Transit explains, listening to diverse perspectives can help cities identify new problems and ideas about their mobility landscape. To do this effectively, cities can couple quantitative data on e-scooter utilization with qualitative data gathered from conversations with residents. In this way, the insights from residents representing under-served communities can inform e-scooter regulation and help make micromobility options more equitable.
The city of Portland, Oregon has incorporated resident engagement as a key component of shaping e-scooter infrastructure. Portland first introduced e-scooters onto its streets in 2018 through a four-month pilot. Through data collected from the pilot, the city found that support for e-scooters was relatively high overall (62%), but was particularly high among people of color (74%) and residents with incomes below $30,000 (66%). However, city officials went one step further, speaking directly to residents from underserved communities about how they viewed e-scooters. According to the Portland Bureau of Transportation, “While many East Portlanders and black Portlanders expressed enthusiasm for e-scooters, some focus group participants also expressed an overall concern for traffic safety and the risk that black e-scooter riders would be targeted for racial profiling and harassment.” The city of Portland intends to use this insight to guide a second pilot planned for 2019.
2. Set neighborhood quotas
Neighborhood quotas require e-scooter companies to place and maintain a substantial percentage of their e-scooters in transportation and resource-poor neighborhoods. When setting the terms of operation with micromobility companies, cities can incorporate neighborhood quotas as part of their contractual agreement. By doing so, cities will make sure that as the e-scooter market grows, underserved communities will access to, and therefore benefit from that growth.
The city of St. Louis, Missouri has required that e-scooter companies keep 20% of their inventory in certain underserved neighborhoods. According to Liza Farr, Associate Project Manager with the St. Louis Economic Development department, “We drew the boundaries for those areas, and the companies were pretty open and willing. We thought there was going to be a lot more push back, because there aren’t a lot of bodies and potential users in the areas we outlined.”
Despite initial skepticism around the effectiveness of neighborhood quotas, e-scooter data from St. Louis show high ridership levels in the target areas and comparatively longer trips. While more research is needed to fully understand ridership needs and patterns, St. Louis serves as an example of how neighborhood quotas can provide valuable transportation options for underserved communities.
3. Preserve affordability for low-income riders
Preserving affordability is critical for cities to harness their power to drive equity. Creative partnerships with micromobility companies can support continued business growth while providing low-cost options. Initiatives such as low-rate memberships for low-income users or price ceilings on e-scooter use in low-income neighborhoods offer hope that e-scooters can be leveraged as equitable transportation options across cities.
The city of Oakland, California has recently approved an ordinance that requires micromobility operators to offer $5 annual memberships for one year of unlimited 30-minute rides to low-income riders. “It’s a significant portion of Oakland that has really been underserved historically,” says Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan who spearheaded this initiative. “We want to make sure that as new options like the shared scooters come about, that everybody has a chance to benefit from that new option.” In this way, Oakland has led the charge in preserving e-scooter affordability and offers a model for other cities to follow.
Where to next?
Micromobility services now offer the opportunity for cities to provide affordable, environmentally friendly, and equitable transportation alternatives to their residents through partnerships with micromobility companies. But the road ahead is still unclear, and cities will have to figure out how to tweak and adapt their policies to best fit e-scooters into their broader transportation infrastructure. As they forge ahead, cities can benefit from focusing regulations and resident engagement efforts around equity to make sure no residents are left behind in the future of mobility.