As the city prepares to roll out its second electric scooter pilot program on Aug. 12, questions remain about the program’s role in Chicago’s future transportation infrastructure, particularly when it comes to underserved areas on the South and West sides.
The new pilot comes after a previous initiative last summer on the West and Northwest sides. It will more aggressively target what are called “equity priority areas”: large swathes of the city marked by “inequitable access to resources and opportunities,” according to a city document.
The three companies participating this time around — Lime, Bird and Spin — will be required to deploy at least half of the program’s 10,000 scooters in those neighborhoods, which cover about 43% of the total pilot area. Hyde Park and Kenwood are not designated as equity priority areas, though Washington Park and parts of Woodlawn and South Shore are.
Last year’s pilot program involved 2,500 scooters across four months. There was mixed feedback, with worries about safety, as well as complaints of people riding on sidewalks and scooters littering the streets.
An analysis from the Active Transportation Alliance, a coalition of transit advocates, also raised another concern — whether scooters were being used as a replacement for cars or other, more eco-friendly modes of transportation.
The city’s own research suggests that many people used scooters instead of riding the bus, taking the train, or walking, and that scooters tended to end up outside of the priority zones, or the transit-poorer neighborhoods that perhaps needed them most.
“Despite regulations requiring e-scooter placement in priority areas, 77 percent of trips started or ended in the eastern, non-priority area of the pilot zone,” the city found. “The demand for e-scooters was concentrated in denser areas with other transportation alternatives available.”
Lee Foley, Lime’s director of government relations for the Midwest, said the company is thinking more about equity and accessibility after last year’s pilot.
“How do you ensure that micro-mobility is a part of people’s day-to-day lives, and that it’s not just for leisure?,” he said. “These are lessons that we will definitely be applying here, particularly in neighborhoods on the South and West sides, where people are looking for another way to get around, a safe, open-air way to get around.”
Foley lives in Woodlawn, where he bought a two-flat in the western part of the neighborhood a few years ago. “I typically get my car to drive to the Jewel-Osco because I’m going to have groceries coming back,” he said. “But if there were an opportunity for me to put a backpack on and hop on a scooter right up there I’d definitely take that opportunity.”
Even if scooters become readily available to people in Black and Brown communities under the new pilot program, however, problems with bike lane infrastructure and unequal police enforcement may still deter riders. Chicago police have said that they will enforce traffic laws more strictly in some places as part of an effort to reduce violence — a Tribune report found that, in 2016, seven of the ten neighborhoods with the most tickets issued to bike riders were in majority-Black neighborhoods.
An analysis last year from Streetsblog Chicago found that bike ways on the South and West sides are much less dense and interconnected than on the North Side.
“Most of our bike lanes are merely paint on the road, which provides no physical protection from being struck by drivers,” wrote Streetsblog editor Courtney Cobbs in a piece this spring. “If we had truly safe bikeways that went places people need to go, for example down 79th Street, people would be less reliant on transit and have more transportation options.”
Foley said that, in the short-term, Lime is trying to educate scooter riders about the rules of the road in an effort to promote safety. All customers will also be required to take a safety quiz before they can ride, partially to deter people from riding on sidewalks. “Bikes have grown in popularity in Chicago — it’s nothing different, it’s not new, but it is a continual effort to educate rides and new riders about safety,” he said.
Last month, the company also launched Lime Action, an initiative to help its riders advocate for better and more equitable ride infrastructure. In Chicago, the company is partnering with the grassroots organization My Block, My Hood, My City.
“We’ll be aligned with Active Trans in ensuring that the City of Chicago and CDOT invests more heavily in bike lanes and protected bike lanes across the city, and especially building out the network in further out neighborhoods,” Foley said.
Prices will also be halved for people in equity priority areas, and each of the three companies will have options for cash payment.
Whether Lime and its competitors can mobilize their riders as a political force is still up in the air, but Foley said he hopes the new pilot will show that e-scooters are a viable way to get around, and something that should be made a permanent part of the city’s array of transit options.
“My goal by the end of this pilot program is for scooters to be seen as an equal within the transportation infrastructure of Chicago,” he said. “We want to make sure that people have as many options to get around before they hop in a car, or before they request a ride share.”