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Could Banning Bird Scooters Leave Behind a City's Most Economically Vulnerable Citizens?

Though scooter-shares have led to sidewalk safety concerns, they're also an accessible transportation option.
A Bird scooter sits parked on a street corner on April 17th, 2018, in San Francisco, California.

A lack of accessible transportation has long been cited as a major prohibitor to anyone trying to escape poverty.

There are a bevy of transportation options in Athens, Georgia: The city of 127,000, which is home to the University of Georgia, has a bus system, taxis, and the usual ride-share services. That latter group, until recently, included Bird, the upstart dockless scooter-share company. On Tuesday, Athens became the latest city to ban the technology. But in doing so, is the city leaving behind its most financially vulnerable citizens?

The mayor and county commission voted unanimously to outlaw Bird scooters on public grounds, according to Red & Black, the University of Georgia student newspaper. The ban will last for a maximum of 12 months, after which "a more permanent solution involving a pilot franchise program may be put in place to safeguard the traveling public and ensure compliance with all local and state laws," the ordinance reads. Mayor Nancy Denson cited, as so many others have in the past, the danger scooters pose to pedestrians and the not-insignificant amount of sidewalk space they inhabit.

Athens' ban is the latest in a nationwide wave of pushback against the ride-share company: Cities such as Seattle, Boston, and Miami have all excised the vehicles.

While the ban may prompt eye-rolls among University of Georgia students, it could prove far more harmful to local residents, particularly the city's low-income population. And that's not an insignificant demographic: Per the most recent census data, the metro area's median household income was $43,956 (about $10,000 less than the median Georgia household income), and 28.6 percent of the populace lives below the poverty line.

"The regressive decision to ban e-scooters in Athens-Clarke robs the community of a service people have come to rely on," a Bird spokesperson writes in an email. (Denson's office did not respond to a request for comment.)

A lack of accessible transportation has long been cited as a major prohibitor to anyone trying to escape poverty. One study, published in 2015 by researchers at Harvard University, identified commuting time as the biggest obstacle to upward mobility. The researchers found that longer commute times—associated with waits at bus stops and the like—correlated with a lower chance of socioeconomic movement.

"One must also find methods of improving neighborhood environments in areas that currently generate low levels of mobility," the researchers concluded. Say, perhaps, with Bird scooters.

"More research is needed to understand if scooter sharing is a viable option for low-income communities," says Susan Shaheen, a transportation engineering professor at the University of California–Berkeley. "Historically, shared mobility tends to be used largely by upper- to middle-income households. Nevertheless, scooter sharing can offer mobility for households that are unable to own a vehicle." (Shaheen also points out that Bird requires a driver's license to sign up—which can be a deterrent for low-income individuals.)

While specific data was not available regarding the income distribution of Bird users in Athens, research suggests scooter users generally come from a wide range of income levels. A study of 7,000 people across 10 cities, released in July by data-driven transportation analysts at Populus, found that over half those surveyed held a "positive opinion" of scooters. What's more, people making between $25,000 to $50,000 were most optimistic about the technology (those making above $200,000 ranked as the least).

That stands in stark contrast to the ride-share industry at large, which has generally struggled to appeal to low-income folks. According to the Pew Research Center, just 10 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 have used ride-share services, compared to 26 percent of those making at least $75,000. If all rides are not made equal, Bird stands as a potential course correction.

"On-demand micro-mobility—in which people pay the full costs of transportation on a per-trip basis—is a much more viable means of transportation for low-income people than the high-fixed-costs model of financing a vehicle, paying for insurance, maintenance, and operations costs," says Juan Matute, a professor and deputy director of the University of California–Los Angeles' Institute of Transportation Studies.

Of course, enthusiasm does not necessarily equal participation; the Populus study doesn't indicate whether the most optimistic survey-takers are indeed riding scooters. But Bird appears to be trying to lure in that demographic: In July, the company launched its One Bird program, which eliminated the $1 fee to unlock a vehicle, meaning a rider only had to pay the 15 cents per minute. In order to gain eligibility for One Bird, one must either be enrolled in or qualify for a federal assistance program such as Medicaid. (Other services offer low-income programs too. Lyft, for example, pledged earlier this year to give over $1 million to its Relief Rides initiative, expanding its free offerings beyond people navigating natural disasters to also include trips for low-income people and veterans.)

The ordinance actually wasn't the first of its kind in Athens; the ban followed a similar one instituted by the University of Georgia, the city's (and state's) flagship research institution. According to Rebecca Beeler, a spokesperson for the university, the school has impounded 1,206 scooters as of December 6th, amounting to $718,980 in confiscation fees, a figure that includes citations, impoundment, and storage costs.

In speaking with Pacific Standard, Beeler sent along an official university video that she says shows "unsafe use of scooters around the UGA campus":

Beeler also claims Bird did not request permission from university officials before placing scooters in Athens. "The university immediately notified Bird of the citations, impoundment, and storage fees the scooters would be subject to if found on campus in violation of parking policies," Beeler says. (Bird is, of course, only obligated to speak with public officials before reaching a distribution plan for its scooters—not school representatives.)

"Scooter-sharing operators have implemented shared mobility services consistently with other modes in the ecosystem," says Shaheen, the UC–Berkeley professor. "Typically this includes pilot programs, testing services in new areas and markets; working with local jurisdictions to develop policy; partnering with public transportation; and making adjustments as needed."

But in the case of Athens and its flagship school, those adjustments apparently weren't enough. "The bans are short-sighted," Matute, the UCLA professor, says.