Dozens of residents call on Pittsburgh City Council to end the Spin E-Scooter pilot, and to improve resident mobility through sidewalk development, bus improvements and affordable housing instead.
On April 12, 2023, Pittsburgh City Council heard from the City’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI), representatives of Spin, and disability and transportation experts in a post-agenda hearing called by District 5 Councilmember Barb Warwick. After the post-agenda hearing more than 45 Pittsburgh residents gave public comments on the impact of the MovePGH Spin shared e-scooter pilot program. This was the first time since the 2-year Spin scooter pilot program started in July 2021 that the public has been given the opportunity to weigh in on the impact of the scooter deployment. It also came in the wake of a referendum in Paris where 89% of voters overwhelmingly elected to ban rental e-scooters from the French city.
In the public hearing, dozens of Pittsburgh residents asked why the City continues to privilege the mobility of the able-bodied, affluent, young, recreational travelers in Pittsburgh at the expense of those with limited or no access to mobility. Programs like MovePGH exacerbate existing transportation inequities, excluding by design low-income people, people over 220 pounds, residents carrying cargo or dependents, older adults, youth under 18, people who are unbanked or without a smartphone, people with disabilities and residents living in the hills or valleys of our region. And while it’s true that no single transportation option needs to serve all constituencies, it is galling that the City invests the lion’s share of its time, staff resources and our shared and limited public space to serve those who can already access the most transportation options. Because of the prevalent problem of scooters parking on sidewalks, the pilot further narrows the access of those needing real mobility solutions.
Submit your comments about the Spin e-scooter pilot to City Council by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mayor, DOMI and City Council should be acting on behalf of the community, not private companies, in service of our collective needs for clean air, for transportation, and for safe streets. The most troubling issue with this pilot is that the City has failed to measure or even identify goals that are distinct from the profit motives of the Spin scooter company. In Wednesday’s post-agenda hearing, Director of DOMI Kim Lucas’ assessment of the program was indistinguishable from that of the Spin scooter company representative—so much so that the two shared a PowerPoint presentation. DOMI lazily parrots the ridership numbers and demographic data that Spin collected through a survey of its users, arguing that diverse user data and ridership are proxies for mobility justice and environmental benefit.
In the public hearing, Abhishek Viswanahan testified, “As a researcher, I think it’s a bit ridiculous that you all have spent so much time discussing this survey which has several glaring issues of sampling and bias, most importantly that it leaves out the huge population of people who don’t use the scooters for various reasons.”
So what should actual success look like for the City, for this e-scooter pilot, and how would it be measured? What does failure look like, and what happens when the harms outweigh the good?
If the point of the scooters is to provide underserved populations with mobility options, then the City should start by assessing who in particular this form of transportation can serve and who it excludes. DOMI should be clear about which populations this technology can help and what problem it will fix, and then assess whether that’s working. We know that students—young people—traveling largely on weekday nights and on weekends in the key corridors of Oakland, Downtown and Lawrenceville are predominantly using the service to meet friends, dine out, or joyride. The Pittsburgh student population owns fewer cars, is lower income and more diverse than the city as a whole. So in order to actually understand the data of scooter usage, we should hear about what percentage of students are the same as the no-car household data that Spin is reporting, are the low-income households, and are the minority population using the scooters.
From the data, it seems that scooters are primarily used by students going out recreationally in transportation-rich corridors. We can also assume that tourists see this as a tool for sightseeing, as 20% of the Spin survey respondents were non-Pittsburghers. Are these the transportation problems we needed the City to solve? Should MovePGH be the City’s most-touted transportation initiative over the last several years?
Further evidence that e-scooters fail to address mobility needs in Pittsburgh is that Spin and the City couldn’t even give away free access to the scooters to low-income people in Manchester for their “Universal Basic Mobility Pilot.” They were unable to find participants for the program until a year and a half into the projected start date, and even then were only able to secure participants because low-income residents were looking to access free bus passes through the program.
If the goal of this pilot is to reduce transportation emissions then the City should have rigorously assessed whether that goal is in fact met when twice as many lower-emissions trips of walking, biking and transit (67% of rides) are being replaced by scooters than car trips (which account for 33% of scooter rides). Researchers, including Dr. Daniel Reck who spoke during the e-scooter post-agenda hearing, have done an international literature review which found that shared e-scooter programs generate more emissions than the forms they replace: Spin scooters generate emissions because diesel vans are out placing and rebalancing them, and they are charged from electricity mostly generated by coal-fired power plants. A plethora of scooter trips doesn’t mean that scooters have just replaced car trips or even bus and walking trips—instead they have likely incentivized new, non-essential trips, which increase congestion, sidewalk hazards and emissions. This is a reasonable assumption given that 30% of riders reported taking trips for “recreation” or joy-riding. The Spin survey had other, separate categories for other non-essential trips of “meeting friends and family” and “dining out/shopping” (not to be confused with “essential errands,” which was another category). These non-essential trips accounted for 44.9% and 23% of Spin scooter survey rider responses respectively on common purposes for trips.
In other words, high use of the scooters, and ridership on the scooters without understanding the context, is not valuable data in itself. It could reflect good OR bad outcomes for the City and its residents. High scooter ridership is a goal that serves Spin itself by helping the company grow its revenue. It is also worth mentioning that in the public hearing, Spin said that they had yet to turn a profit from shared e-scooter trips in Pittsburgh, despite having a legal monopoly on public and private e-scooters, paying just $150 to the City for a permit to operate, and running over a million trips in less than 2 years. It is highly probable that, like the Pittsburgh autonomous vehicle companies, Scoobi mopeds, sidewalk delivery robots and Uber and Lyft, Spin will soon have to raise prices substantially or go bankrupt. In either case, why would Pittsburgh political leadership want to invest or rely on an unsustainable transportation service that runs on the fumes of venture capital and philanthropic donations?
And there is no excuse for the utter disregard that the City has shown for the legitimate ADA and civil rights concerns of the Disability community.
Ultimately, the MovePGH initiative is another example of how DOMI starts with a private corporate product or a “transportation technology solution” and then seeks out a problem to address. This was true about the Mon-Oakland Connector shuttle between Oakland and Hazelwood, a 2022 proposal to run autonomous shuttles to seniors in an isolated high rise in Lincoln-Lemington, the sidewalk delivery robot pilot in Bloomfield, and now, e-scooters. When the transportation “solution” is shown to be a laughable, even harmful “remedy” to the problem it purports to solve, the City hosts a discussion on how to modify the product to make it less bad rather than turning its attention to actually addressing the real transportation barriers that our most vulnerable residents experience.
Inevitably, the transportation tech will go under, there will be amnesia about all the equity and environmental benefits of the products that DOMI shamelessly touted and the City moves on. Meanwhile, we still have residents in Hazelwood who need traffic calming, and seniors in Lemington who cannot get out of their housing complex, and the unmet mobility needs of everyone who are categorically excluded from using these Spin scooters due to their disability.
We need the City of Pittsburgh to commit to people, not products. The solutions to Pittsburgh’s mobility needs, environmental needs, and street safety needs are simple, but they are not sexy and they are not profit-driven. DOMI should implement the sidewalk development and maintenance, bus prioritization and affordable housing development policies that community members collaboratively developed in the Pittsburgh 100 Day Transit Platform, which were largely adopted by Mayor Gainey’s administration in its Transition Plan. Shifting to a people-driven approach would be real progress to celebrate.
Submit your comments about the Spin E-Scooter pilot to City Council by emailing email@example.com.
“As a Blind person and a resident of Pittsburgh, I regularly encounter scooters that block safe passage in my neighborhood sidewalks. But scooters are not the only reason why my neighbors and I don’t have the transportation access we need—like many others, I can’t afford to live in the parts of Pittsburgh that have quality transit. That’s why the city should end this inaccessible private e-scooter program and focus instead on real policy and development solutions that serve those of us with the highest need for transportation,” says PPT member Gabriel McMorland (pronouns: she/her).