Equity in Micromobility

Micromobility usage was at an all-time high before March 2020. The culmination of decades of growth and industry involvement in the United States resulted in nearly 350 million rides taken on shared bikes and scooters since 2010. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) reported this astounding statistic in their Shared Micromobility in the U.S.: 2019 report.

In 2019, more than 134 million shared trips were taken, 60% higher than trips taken in 2018. NACTO reported the average trip in 2019 was 11-12 minutes, covering a distance of 1-1.5 miles. These numbers are significant because they represent trips that may otherwise have been taken by car. 46% of all U.S. car trips are under 3 miles. Replacing short vehicle trips with micromobility trips helps decrease carbon consumption. It can also increase access to new forms of transportation for low socioeconomic status and minority communities in cities.

However, micromobility in cities can and should be doing better. The adoption rates for Capital Bikeshare, a cheap and widely available bike-sharing service in Washington, D.C., is significantly lower among the Black and African-American population than among the White population. This is surprising at first when you consider that micromobility enjoys a positive perception from diverse groups of people.

However, positive perception does not always translate into access. Micromobility needs to be made widely available to all populations in the cities in which they operate. Many bike and scooter sharing services are dockless, and thus can be left almost anywhere. Many scooter companies rely on contract workers to pick up scooters at night when the batteries are dead, charge them overnight at their residence, and redistribute the scooters in the morning. This method allows the scooter companies to rebalance their fleet, and direct where scooters are first released in the morning, and how many scooters are dropped off in each area.

Logically, companies have figured out where scooters are ridden the most. They have access to incredible real-time demand and use data. But this can lead to a feedback loop. Suppose early micromobility adopters are predominately white, male, and young. In that case, scooters will be placed where that demographic is likely to find them first in the morning. In cities where scooter numbers have a firm cap, access to scooters is a zero-sum game for things like early morning work commutes or grocery runs.

One solution to the access problem is having cities work with micromobility companies to ensure scooters’ placement is not only profitable but equitable. Scooters should be located in all communities, not merely in ones that have shown early to use micromobility most frequently. These goals can be accomplished by cities working directly with the providers to access the data and share public-private goals. It could also be done by working with unbiased third-parties to make recommendations for what policies will make micromobility systems most widely available.

Something the current pandemic has provided micromobility companies is a different picture. The NACTO report found that micromobility usage in cities was utilized at higher rates when made free to essential workers. The most-used Citi bike stations were at hospitals in April. Black workers are disproportionally found among essential workers, and essential workers’ utilizing micromobility systems revealed new commuter patterns. The pandemic may provide a picture of what access should look like while simultaneously exposing micromobility systems to underserved communities as cheap and viable transportation options. There is clearly work to be done, and the information is out there. It is time to put the information to use.