This spring we released a report that explores the intersection of equity and innovation, specifically equity concerns caused by private sector innovation addressing a public problem. We looked at how three U.S. cities were handling micromobility and the entrance of shared electric scooters onto their public streets, conducting expert interviews across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, and examining permitting legislation and subsequent pilot program reports.
Yet, between conducting the expert interviews and releasing the report, the world drastically changed in ways that no one could have foreseen. All interviews were conducted before March 2020, when COVID-19 had not yet seriously impacted the United States. The subsequent stay-at-home orders, government and business closures of non-essential operations, and other social distancing measures to prevent the rapid spread of the virus significantly impacted the global mobility landscape and swiftly affected the near-term trajectory for shared e-scooter companies.
We chose to use shared e-scooters as a case study of private sector innovation addressing a public problem; however, our focus was never just e-scooters. While COVID-19 drastically altered the micromobility landscape, it also highlighted the importance of this project’s focus: the interaction of equity and innovation.
Our recommendations to engage and partner with underserved communities to develop equity goals together, to design outcome-oriented and dynamic pilot programs with phased equity markers, to invest equitably in infrastructure, and to take a holistic approach that zooms out to view equity impacts of entire systems as opposed to individual pieces, can be applied to innovation broadly. Now, as the public and private sectors innovate to stop the spread of the virus and mitigate its effects, the need to prioritize equity considerations is more visible than ever.
In many ways, this pandemic further illuminated the existing and persistent inequities in our country. While all have experienced the effects of COVID-19 in some way, it is clear that low-income and minority communities are suffering from the greatest health and economic risks.
As businesses shut their doors to help “flatten the curve,” wage and hourly workers who are generally mid- to low-income individuals, were hit the hardest. The latest unemployment numbers reveal that “more jobs were lost in the US in March this year than over the entire Great Recession of 2008-09,” with early evidence showing “workers with less than [a] college education taking the largest hit.” For those whose jobs are deemed essential (ie. grocery store cashiers, delivery drivers, public transit operators), they face the difficult decision to either risk their health or pay the bills.
Low-income individuals in urban areas are also more likely to rely on public transportation, putting themselves at further risk just to get to and from their workplace. We have begun to see these inequities manifest in health outcomes, with structural barriers to social distancing, inequality in health care access, and higher instances of underlying health conditions due to historical inequities contributing to disproportionately high deaths from COVID-19 among African Americans and other minority communities.
The ability to safely and securely stay at home has quickly become another indicator of the “haves” and the “have nots,” and a reflection of who we as a society have historically allowed – or denied – positions of power.
Shared e-scooter companies, which were beginning to gain popularity as a private sector solution to filling historic gaps in public transportation, were particularly impacted by the economic hardships of this time. The swift and calamitous impact of COVID-19 on shared e-scooter companies completely changed the trajectory of the market. The pandemic could not have come at a worse time in the companies’ budget cycle. In many markets, e-scooters are seasonal, with the companies riding out the winter on the previous year’s profits and much of their Q1 and Q2 budgets based on projected spring revenues. Due to the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Bird laid off nearly a third of its staff at the end of March, and Lime laid off 13% of its workforce at the end of April, following a round of layoffs earlier this year that had already cut its staff by 14% in its effort to achieve financial independence.
Even before the pandemic spread across the U.S., David Zipper, a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and expert on the interplay between urban policy and new mobility technologies, had predicted a culling of the e-scooter market in 2020. He projected that cities would increase fleet caps while decreasing provider permits in order to streamline program management and increase rider convenience by upping e-scooter availability and limiting the need for multihoming. Now, instead of a culling, it is more likely that we will see a complete overhaul of the micromobility landscape, with only one or two big companies returning. As we have already seen with Lime and Uber announcing a deal in early May that included Uber contributing to Lime’s $170 million funding round and Lime acquiring Uber’s micromobility services (i.e. Jump), Uber and Lyft are likely to emerge directly or indirectly as the major players, further solidifying their dominance in the shared mobility market.
When it comes to transportation, shared mobility companies are not the only ones experiencing hardships. Public transportation and transit services have experienced drastic declines in ridership and revenues. Even once cities begin to open up, it is projected that transit ridership will remain low, as people continue to feel uncomfortable using public transportation (a trend that has already been observed in China). These residual effects of the pandemic will likely lead to increased reliance on personal vehicles, including personally owned bicycles and scooters.
However, this once again brings equity issues into question, as low-income individuals, regardless of personal safety concerns, will not be able to easily make the switch to a private vehicle, and the broader retreat from public transportation will adversely affect the service they rely on.
While rates of personal e-scooter ownership were relatively low before COVID-19, they were growing. Shared e-scooter companies had introduced scooters to the public as more than just a novelty, and commuters’ enthusiastic adoption of them as a mode of transportation led some shared companies to even sell scooters directly to consumers. Throughout our research, we asked several city officials about how they were approaching regulations for individual scooter ownership. The overwhelming answer was that they were not; instead, the vast majority of the regulatory work centered on developing rules for, and passing responsibility on to, the shared companies. Yet, as demand likely increases for personal vehicles over the coming months, and with many of the shared companies not returning, we could see an uptick in personal scooter ownership.
Given the limited regulatory framework for private ownership, including little to no enforcement mechanisms for individuals, this could be a challenge that cities will face in the near future. It is also an opportunity to begin to use our recommendations to think about new policies with equity concerns at the center, including which neighborhoods benefit from safe riding infrastructure, preempting potential over-enforcement for certain groups, and using taxes and fees for individually owned scooters to help improve transportation options in underserved communities. Most importantly, as we move out of this crisis and begin to think about shaping our new normal, aspiring for equitable outcomes is no longer enough – we must design more equitable processes, including voices from underserved communities in a meaningful way throughout.
When it becomes safe for U.S. cities to open up and for people to once again move around, we will need innovative minds to come together to help move our country forward. We believe that decreasing the structural inequities so clearly exposed by COVID-19 should remain at the center of our recovery efforts.
Our recommendations can be applied to innovative efforts across the board. Whether it is e-scooters, a different emerging mobility innovation, or innovation in a completely different market, these recommendations for designing more equitable processes and developing successful partnerships across sectors can – and should – apply.