Deep dive: Micromobility equity plans

How to get people to ride in all neighborhoods

  1. Each operator needed to have a minimum number of vehicles in each Ward of the city between 5a — 7a
  2. Each operator needed to have an open “Low Income Program” to anybody who met the prescribed requirements (exact breakdown here). People approved in the Program could receive unlimited, free 30 minute rides.
  1. Minimum Vehicles in Each Ward
  • In our case, since there was no need to have these deployed scooters ridden, it was easier from an operations perspective to have them sit in unpopular areas so that they would still be available to count toward the minimum the following day. No rides meant there is a lesser likelihood that rebalancing would be needed.
  • Scooters that sat in a specific place for longer than 2 days would inevitably fall over and piss people off.
  • Scooters that had fallen over were a visual indicator to the entire community that these were pieces of junk littering the neighborhood. This made me worry that in some areas we were causing more harm than good.
  • On really popular days where we knew we could get a higher utilization in a different part of the city, we would round up these scooters after 6a and bring them to a popular spot. Then later that evening once the surge had died down, we would bring replacement scooters back to make sure we could meet the requirement the following morning. This was very infrequent, but just goes to show how the good intent of the regulation could be worked around if desired
  • Initially this program went really well. We had a steady stream of both new participants and churn which kept things at a manageable level (roughly less than 10% of trips).
  • In 2020, when the city started offering an increased overall fleet size in exchange for a higher percentage of all trips happening with Low Income Program, we expanded the program rapidly. This expansion process exposed a few flaws in the system, both on our side and the city’s side.
  • First, we loosened our restrictions as to who could participate in order to get more people in. Previously, the city wouldn’t have cared if we did this — we would have just been giving up revenue. But, now that there was a competitive advantage tied to doing it (getting a higher fleet cap), the city had to regulate both the existence of the program, and the accuracy of the signups. The city noticed our loosened criteria and slapped us on the wrist for it, and we reverted back, but the exercise made me realize that there was too much trust placed on the operator in a situation where they stood to benefit. If we really wanted to, we could have just randomly designated people as Low Income — who would complain about free rides?
  • Second, with a big enough population of people now using the program, we started to see abuse. We would have riders using the program to make food deliveries or joyriding and using scooters for 10 hours straight, burning through 5 fully charged scooters. We debated ways that we could counter this abuse with software changes, but it would go afoul of the regulation. For instance, we wanted to cap free rides to 4 per day, or mandate a “cool down period” where a rider couldn’t ride again for 20 minutes after they stopped. But both of those created problems for non-delivery riders. We also had issues with the 30 minute cap — what happens with a ride that goes beyond that? We could start charging someone at the 30 minute mark, but that is hard to communicate while someone is riding. We could physically stop the scooter at the 30 minute mark, but that is unsafe to the rider.
  • If prescribed, they are complicated to administer, both in maintaining the database of people, and also aligning the software between cities.
  • If used in company assessment (how many active Low Income riders, how many rides, etc), the metrics are too dependent on the operators being forthright.

The Pro/Con List to Every Equity Metric

For the full list, see the Google Sheet here
  1. If the higher income ward is centrally located and potentially closer to the destination, the low income person will a) have a reduced need for transit generally, b) have more options for their trip (buses, metro, more bike/scooter options), c) a cheaper trip if fares are calculated off distance
  2. Most companies will still need a Low Income program in order to meet the minimums in the wards (even if they use dynamic pricing and the rates are much lower in certain wards), so this person could be eligible for the program (programs can’t discriminate by address of the applicant). As part of the regulations criteria, I’m not opposed to a city mandating the presence of a low income program of the company’s choosing (in addition to the % ride minimum), but just opposed to a city prescribing what the program should look like or evaluating companies based on it
  3. If the person needs to travel outside of their ward to another ward, especially a lower income ward, then the company could have a pricing incentive in place to bring the vehicle to a ward where they need more rides. An example of this would be the vehicle has normal pricing (say $0.29/minute), but if you ended your ride in a ward that badly needed vehicles, then that ride could be 90% off. Ultimately it will be incumbent on the companies to bring vehicles back to that Ward to meet the next day’s requirement, so it makes financial sense to incentivize riders to do this rebalance for them.
Simplified example of a “Discount Heat Map” using ovals

Summary

Equity in micromobility is too important to be left to subjective measures. Cities need to be requiring equity compliance in a way that impacts a company’s bottom line if the company can’t figure it out. Of all the ways to enforce equitable ridership, measuring ride starts based on location is the most honest one. It is not perfect, but it puts the pressure on the companies to deliver results in their own innovative ways. It gets people the rides they need, and more importantly, it ensures people see vehicles being ridden in every area of the city every day. As micromobility becomes accepted in the culture, its growth can accelerate quickly due to its low price point.

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Rob McPherson

Writing from a fleet operator’s perspective on shared electric scooters and bikes. 5 years experience in city operations at Skip, Helbiz, and Baas Bikes.