DC’s dockless mobility program is expanding, but is it serving everyone?

With an already established market for docked bike sharing, Washington, D.C., just announced its limited pilot program for dockless bikes and scooters is expanding in 2019. The program has proved popular — 625,000 rides between its launch in September 2017 and June 2018 — but questions remain about accessibility for residents in low-income neighborhoods.

The District Department of Transportation has extended the trial through December and plans to introduce a permanent plan for dockless transportation. In 2019 companies will be allowed 600 bikes or scooters per permit, growing from a 400-unit-per-company cap, DDOT announced last week.

In addition to finding better places to park the extra scooters, the city wants mobility companies to ensure people of all economic backgrounds in all neighborhoods have access to their services. According to DDOT’s new rules for dockless permits, companies must:

  • Offer non-smartphone options for trip rentals, cash-payment options, and low-income pricing plans.
  • Deploy vehicles in all 8 wards by 6:00 AM daily.

But is this enough to ensure that low-income residents benefits from these systems? We’ll have to go to the data to find out.

Are scooters and bikes available to all?

Little is known about the demographics of dockless transportation users — by either the public or the city — but the companies do share data about their carefully managed fleets. There is a lot more that can be learned by digging deeper into each operator’s unique patterns and the city-wide totals.

Using the data that powers the Coord Shared Vehicle API, we ran an equity analysis on the data provided by four different dockless bike/scooter share operators in Washington: Skip, Bird, Jump and Lime. We looked at the availability of bikes in low-, middle-, and high-income census tracts at different times of the day.

Interestingly we found different the patterns among the different providers. For example, Bird has higher availability of scooters in low-income neighborhoods than more wealthy areas, while Skip and Lime have exactly the reverse! Jump, which offers more bikes than scooters, has a different pattern entirely.

Relative vehicle availability in low-, middle-, and high-income census tracts by time of day.

Each provider manages the distribution and availability of vehicles independently, and we found some striking differences between them.

Using data from the week of October 22nd to 26th, we found similar patterns for Bird and Skip, which operate scooters only. Electric scooters need to be charged every night, which means the operators have to pull them off the street overnight and availability for Bird and Skip drops very clearly at that time, especially in wealthier areas.

Availability in low-income neighborhoods doesn’t drop as much overnight. While this looks like the companies are providing off-hours transportation options for underserved areas, that may not be the case. Does this mean the scooters aren’t getting used so they don’t need to be recharged? Does this mean the companies have trouble picking them up and recharging them?

For the same time period, we found that availability in residential neighborhoods drops in the morning and rises in evening, which is likely due to users commuting by bike. The same was not true for scooters. Does this mean that for now scooters aren’t being used much to commute?

Neighborhood Heat maps

We created these neighborhood heat maps for the same time period from our Shared Vehicle API. The colors indicate neighborhood income level, and the brightness indicates the relative number of available bikes per household, averaged over the course of the week.

Vehicle availability, mapped (map tiles from OpenStreetMap)

Scooters from Bird and Skip have much bigger presences in tony Georgetown than bikes from Jump, while Jump and Lime have much more availability in lower-income areas in the northeast of the city.

One of the clearest findings is that none of the four providers have good availability in Anacostia, one of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. As the services expand, the DDOT is requiring the companies to make vehicles available in every part of the city. How will they fill the void in Anacostia? And, with the required cash payment and low-cost plans, will underserved areas like this turn out to be a source of growth?

Conclusions

As Washington continues its experiment with dockless bikes and scooters, the mobility companies, the city and the public need to make sure the program is meeting its goals.

While the DC government is cautiously expanding the program, Bird and Lime have complained that city regulations are preventing them from adequately meeting market demand.

Bikes and scooters can help reduce car traffic and make up for some of the D.C.-area’s mass transit shortcomings. But comprehensive data and smart analysis are needed to show the program is equitable and available to all.

At Coord, we specialize in helping mobility innovators and governments collect and analyze this sort of information. We believe thorough examination and analyses of the data can help stakeholders learn more about where these vehicles are available, who is using them and who is being left out.

Chat with us or get in touch at partners@coord.co if you want to learn more about the future of mobility.