In recent years, bike share programs have become an increasingly popular solution to the sustainability and mobility-justice issues that cities are facing. At the same time, e-scooters have come into the arena as another popular means of micromobility. As a portable and green alternative, the environmental and economic prospects of bike and e-scooter share programs are discussed extensively. They offer an easy and convenient way to get around, especially for short distances. Below is a map of all the bike and e-scooter share programs operating in the United States.
Given the proliferation of these programs and their benefits, are bike and e-scooter sharing programs accessible and affordable across different communities? How can we address the inequities in bike/e-scooter share programs? One way to approach this is to analyze the geographic spread and improve the accessibility of shared bikes/e-scooters in underserved and disadvantaged communities. However, bike/e-scooter stations are commonly positioned in downtowns and tourist destinations to maximize ridership; while areas/communities with limited number of transportation options do not get access to bike/e-scooter stations and are further neglected.
A 2019 New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center report on E-scooter Programs emphasized on the importance of these programs for people who do not own cars, or live near transit. Through four examples based in DC, Denver, Kansas, and San Francisco, the report summarized state of the art policies that required operators to deploy e-scooters in underserved/low-income communities, including the indicators employed by each of these cities in determining these equity emphasis areas (see page 45 and 46 in the report).
The report further highlights a variety of equity policies as adopted by e-scooter share programs across the country, including improving language accessibility (e.g. DC, San Francisco, and Portland), providing a cash payment option (e.g. Kansas and San Francisco) and non-smartphone access option (e.g. DC), and adopting equitable hiring practices (e.g. Portland), which required the operators to hire individuals from historically underserved communities. For advancing equity, it stressed on the importance of consistent community outreach in order to “ensure public awareness, and therefore use of such programs.”
In 2019, the Baltimore City Department of Transportation (BCDOT) launched Dockless Vehicles Program, a similar initiative focusing on enhancing the availability of dockless vehicles in underprivileged communities. The program identified twenty locations which were underserved by the city transportation system based on factors such as income, and designated them as “Equity Zones.” These zones were subjected to housing and transportation discrimination, which resulted in their limited access to private vehicles and major transportation junctions such as subway and train stations. In addition to income, the factors used for designating equity zones included distance to transit and proximity to amenities as a measure of potential demand/ridership. The program required every dockless vehicle company in the city to deploy three shared vehicles in each of the equity zones, in addition to providing discounts for low-income users, text-to-text plans, and cash payment options.
The city further engaged with these companies to redefine and revisit the equity zones periodically. This included identifying high ridership zones that could graduate from equity zones, as providers agreed to serve them even without the equity requirement, opening up a space for a new equity zone. This system of periodic evaluation is an important part of this program that is helpful to the underserved/disadvantaged communities as well as the providers. On one hand, it promotes the accessibility of dockless vehicles in these communities; and on the other hand, it is profitable to the providers as well, as it helps them identify high ridership areas that were outside their purview.
A 2015 study on upward mobility based at Harvard found commuting time to be “the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given country, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.”3 As a portable and affordable mode of travel, bike/e-scooter share programs can help in improving the commuting time for underprivileged populations. Baltimore’s Dockless Vehicle Program illustrates an efficient way in which cities could work with private companies to bring equity on the table and develop equitable solutions.
St. Louis, Missouri’s work with e-scooter companies presents another example of an equitable bike/e-scooter sharing solution. In this effort, the city worked closely with e-scooter companies and designated underserved areas in the city, based on similar metrics as mentioned in Baltimore’s case. The effort required e-scooter companies to allocate 20% of their fleet in specified underserved areas, and provide pay in cash and non-smartphone use options. Through a working group focused on the issues in such programs, the city marked equity as a priority and began surveying and partnering with the local communities. The key words in their initiation were “patience and observation.”5 So far, the observed data illustrates a large amount of ridership and comparatively longer trips from these targeted areas.
In another example, bike/e-scooter sharing programs have focused on providing service to the disabled populations. Normally, shared bikes/e-scooters are not designed for people with disabilities, not only because of safety but also financial reasons as designing special vehicles is perceived as an unprofitable investment as the ridership from this section of the community is expected to be low. However, in the summer of 2017, Portland launched a $30,000 adaptive bike sharing pilot after hearing from local advocates. This program aimed at increasing the accessibility of traditional bike share programs to residents with various physical disabilities. It resulted in 59 rentals and received very positive feedback from users during the 14-weeks of its operation. The three most popular bikes in the program were foot-powered trikes, hand-powered trikes, and side by side tandems. One of its riders named Chris, born with cerebral palsy, stated that the program is a game changer for him. Using this program, he “got to bike on the famous Springwater Corridor Trial for the first time. He also experienced what it felt to cycle next to traffic for the first time.”6 Even though the overall ridership is low, such a program has a huge impact and meaning for people with physical disabilities. It provides the opportunity to experience something that they have never done or felt.
Additionally, during the pandemic, Baltimore has found that shared e-scooter and bikes are a better substitution for public transit, as people used them to travel between parks, groceries, hospitals, and other essential business. Recently, Citi Bike in New York City has launched a program called City Bike Critical Workforce Membership Program, which provides healthcare, first responder and transit workforce with one month of free Citi Bike membership. These modes of micromobility can offer an extra advantage in the world of social distancing. Therefore, it is especially important to make sure that everyone in need can access these programs.
Bike/e-scooter sharing is a promising way of realizing sustainability in transportation, but there is a lot to consider such as if it is accessible throughout a city/region, and throughout different communities. It is crucial for the public and private sectors to collaborate in order to make the best of bike/e-scooter sharing program for everyone in our cities. Engaging with the underserved and underprivileged communities, and offering discounted and subsidized options are two other ways to move towards equity in bike and e-scooter sharing programs.
Image Source: Sarah Petersen, Portland Bureau of Transportation on Flickr