by Theresa Lim (’20)
They’re everywhere: the 25 pound, 15 mile per hour, sometimes bright green, electric scooters. And they’re popular, having increased exponentially in number, seemingly without warning, in the past year. But before we can talk about them, we first have to discuss micro-mobility.
Micro-mobility is short-distance transportation facilitated by light-weight vehicles such as scooters or bicycles. It first emerged in the late 20th century in the form of docked bike-share. In this system, a customer would unlock a bike from a docking station, ride it to another docking station, and walk the rest of the distance to their destination. While this did eliminate some of the limitations of traditional public transportation, such as the rigid scheduling of buses and trains, it still limited the locations where bikes could be ridden to or from. The ubiquity of smartphones has made an improved form of micro-mobility possible: dockless bike- or scooter-share. Dockless bike-share (shared bicycles that could be left anywhere, not just docking stations) saw the same meager, localized success as docked bike-share, but scooter-share was a whole different story. In 2018, the year they were introduced, more trips were taken on scooter-share than on all forms of micro-mobility in 2017 combined.
Now scooters are located in most major cities across the U.S., and they hold a lot of promise as the “future of transportation.” Almost half of all traffic is caused by car trips that are less than three miles. Most, if not all, of these trips could be replaced by electric scooters, an electrically-powered form of transportation.
Not only are scooters a greener form of transportation, but they also have the potential to support low-income communities by reducing the need for car ownership. Public transit networks suffer from what has been called the first- and last-mile problem. In other words, a person still has to cover the distance to and from the transit station. If this distance is too large, they will look to other forms of transportation or have to travel long distances by foot or car, defeating the purpose of public transit. Electric scooter-share could help alleviate this problem by increasing the reasonable distance a person can travel to get to a public transit station. In this way, electric scooters help those whose homes or jobs are relatively far from public transit stations.
Despite this promise, micro-mobility has had trouble reaching the communities that would benefit from it most. For example, in 2016, 80% of subscribers to Washington, D.C.’s micro-mobility program, Capital Bikeshare, were white, even though only 45% of Washington, D.C. residents were white at that time (LDA Consulting 2017).
This past summer, I set out to see if this imbalance was also true for electric-scooters. Using R (a coding language) and geographic information systems to visualize and analyze electric scooter distribution with respect to multiple demographic and socio-economic features (most notably race and income), I collected over 17 million data points from Washington D.C. scooters through a public API for a week. I will share a couple of my key findings here.
As shown in the figure, there is a clear visual negative correlation between the percentage of African-Americans and number of scooter trips in an area. Areas with fewer African-Americans (blue, small circles in A), have greater numbers of scooters (red, big circles in B). This is made even clearer in C, where the color of the circles corresponds to percentage of African-Americans and size of the circles corresponds to the number of scooter trips.
Some may assert that this is due to income, which often corresponds with concentration of African-Americans; however, I found this to be false in Washington D.C., which has areas of low-income whites as well as low-income African-Americans. I found that, in a multivariable regression, income is not a statistically significant variable, while race is statistically significant at the 99% confidence level. In other words, an area with fewer African-Americans will have more scooters than an area with more African-Americans, regardless of income. I also found that this imbalance is due to both customer use of scooters and company relocation of scooters, where they pick up scooters in a car and transport them to a new location.
This is highly worrisome because it means that the imbalance in scooter distribution is not influenced by whether people can afford the scooters. It is, however, influenced by race, a factor which should have no bearing on where scooters are available. Of course, the companies have no control over where scooters are ridden to and from. What they do control is where they relocate scooters. In order to combat the racial disparity, companies should be required to ensure that they are distributing scooters with racial equity in mind. As new technology changes the way we get places, we must make sure that the future of transportation is available to all.