Report: Chicago’s dockless scooter pilot came up short on Black and Latino ridership

Photo: Active Trans
Photo: Active Trans

According to a new report, last year’s Chicago dockless electric scooter pilot didn’t do much to improve mobility in the very neighborhoods it was supposed to benefit the most: Black and Latino communities on the city’s West and Northwest sides. The new study, titled “Vroom or Bust: Towards a Chicago E-scooter Strategy in 2020 and Beyond,” was conducted by Samuel Kling, a public fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs public policy think tank. With the city preparing the embark on a second pilot, he looked at the city of Chicago’s data on how the first pilot went, and made suggestions about what could be done differently the next time around.

Kling looked beyond e-scooters, suggested that the city needs to come up with an overarching vision for how it handles bikes, e-scooters and other forms of micromobility, so that it’s able to respond to any other new form of transportation that may arise. That includes investing in infrastructure that supports micromobility all across the city. He also recommended conducting a dockless pilot in the Loop, arguing that it could reduce driving. And he said the city should do additional outreach to ensure that more residents, especially on the South and West sides, are able to take advantage of whatever comes next.

The original pilot ran between June 15 and October 15 of last year. Ten companies got licenses operate e-scooters within the pilot area, which encompassed the entire West Side and most of Northwest Side south of Irving Park Road and east of Harlem Avenue. Each company was allowed to deploy 250 vehicles, for a total of 2,500. The pilot designated two priority areas with few or no Divvy bike-share stations, where the companies were required to palce a total of 50 percent of their fleets each day.

Priority Area 1 included most of the Northwest Side’s majority-Latino neighborhoods such as Belmont Cragin and Hermosa, as well as portions of Austin north of Chicago Avenue. While Austin is a majority-Black community area overall, that portion includes the racially diverse Galewood neighborhood, and North Austin’s increasingly Latino northeastern edge.

Priority Area 2 included most of majority-Latino Little Village as well as the remaining portions of Austin, all of the majority-Black West Garfield Park, and most of East Garfield Park and North Lawndale, two majority-Black neighborhoods that have seen growth in their white populations in recent years.

Altogether the 2,500 scooters saw an average of about 7,000 rides a day, or about three trips per device. That’s a higher rides-per-vehicle rate than Divvy typically averages. A few bus routes within the pilot area see less than than 7,000 customers a day. However, only 14.7 percent of all e-scooter trips took place within the priority zones.

The pilot required e-scooter vendors to do outreach to educate residents about the ins and out of renting and riding e-scooters. Several companies followed through with outreach events in the priority zones. The event I attended took place in the middle of the day on a weekday, and it attracted around 20 people.

Kling noted that about half of the trips began or ended near a transit stop, but added that the data doesn’t make it clear whether the riders took the e-scooters to or from a train or bus, or if they simply made a trip that would have otherwise made using public transportation with an e-scooter. That’s an important distinction, since e-scooters have been touted as a “first/last mile” solution for transit commutes.

Recommendations

Kling recommended is that, instead of focusing on e-scooters, the city should create a plan that supports all forms of micromobility, including bikes, non-electric scooters and skateboards. He noted that none of the e-scooter companies currently make a profit, and they only survive because they’re propped up by venture capital, so the longterm future of this technology is by no means guaranteed.

Kling said Chicago should “develop a holistic vision based on existing mobility goals,” looking at regulations that may govern the devices, how they would interact with the surrounding environment, and how to ensure every part of the city benefits. He noted that Washington D.C. already has bike and scooter parking corrals, where riders can park personal and public bikes and scooters. He recommended having the e-scooter companies pay for such corrals, as well as investing in micromobility lanes and other amenities that would be useful for residents even if dockless scooters disappear from the scene, as non-electric dockless bike-share largely has.

The District is looking to better manage dockless scooters with designated drop-off points. (Courtesy District Department of Transportation)
The District is looking to better manage dockless scooters with designated drop-off points. (Courtesy District Department of Transportation)

Kling proposal for a downtown scooter pilot is controversial — the Active Transportation Alliance previously recommended that scooter companies should not be allowed to operate downtown. While Kling acknowledged that there’s a lot of skepticism about introducing a new element to already crowded streets and sidewalks, he argued that getting more people on out of private cars, Uber and Lyft and onto scooters would actually congestion.

“Chicago’s center has seen a sharp rise in short ride-hailing trips, with nearly one in six ride-hailing trips beginning and ending downtown,” Kling wrote. “Shifting a portion of these rides to e-scooters could markedly reduce downtown congestion and speed up buses.” He noted that the Loop already has multiple protected bike lanes, which would also be handy  for scooter riders.

Noting that many residents complained about poorly parked scooters blocking sidewalks, Kling recommended that the city penalize the vendors and/or require the companies to incentivize parking scooters in less busy areas. City officials recently said that the next pilot will likely require vendors to use “lock-to” models with built-in locks for securing the vehicles to parking racks or poles, which should help with the clutter problem.

Finally, Kling recommended that, even though the pilot didn’t benefit Black and Brown residents as much as hoped for, it still got lots of people to try scooters, so Chicago should build on that. More outreach and engagement, he said, is the key.

“Affordable, accessible micromobility holds promise for low-income residents living in transit-deprived areas,” Kling wrote. “As such, improving access and ensuring affordability should remain a priority for e-scooters. At the same time, Chicago must continue to expand access to the Divvy program, which remains sparse and little-used on the South and West Sides, and can serve different types of trips, and different populations, than e-scooters. Building public buy-in through outreach and engagement in these neighborhoods should be a top priority.”

Read Kling’s scooter report here.

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