Amidst the bidding war for dominance in the biggest untapped e-scooter market in the country, contenders must adapt to regulatory hurdles and public safety concerns.
The NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) is taking advantage of a new form of micro-mobility transportation: e-scooters. Legalized in the state in June 2020, the much-anticipated pilot program will primarily seek to build upon the experiences of bike-sharing systems already in place. Public safety is a high priority in the program design given the difficulties faced by programs like the moped rental company Revel, which just reopened after several user accidents and criticism of the City’s bike lane infrastructure. Through the new e-scooter program, the DOT hopes to increase access to alternative modes of transportation, specifically in neighborhoods underserved by Citi Bike. The scooters will operate in all boroughs except Manhattan. The program is set to launch in March 2021.
With few publicly available details on the program, many have turned to similar trials throughout the country for an idea of what this program could look like. In both approximate size and regulatory hurdles, the best comparison may be the Chicago 2.0 Pilot Program. The Chicago program, which ran for its second consecutive summer in 2020, consisted of three contract winners (Bird, Lime, and Spin) and ~10,000 e-scooters. Chicago officials excluded scooter access in some parts of the city most popular with pedestrians and set curfew restrictions, which locked the scooters and made them unusable past a certain hour. Learning from the initial pilot, they also included a sidewalk ban and required locking mechanisms to reduce clutter in the 2020 iteration. With enforcement through Notices to Correct & Administrative Notices of Violation, the city received 64% fewer reports a day about the program as compared to the first year.
Matters related to equity and affordability were also addressed by both Chicago city officials and the contracted companies. Equity Priority Areas with required e-scooter quotas were designated early in the process to assure that the fleets were uniformly distributed outside of the major Downtown areas. Additionally, discounts to low-income individuals enrolled in any governmental assistance program mitigated many complaints from the first year regarding price barriers. Both of these concerns are present in the New York pilot program and are expected to be settled in similar ways.
With the interview period for proposers underway, it has become clear who the players on the field in NYC are. The “Big Three” of the United States market (Bird, Lime, and Spin) have all made their interest known. While all three have prior experience in major markets to lean on, Spin particularly stands out. The company has the benefit of having had the fewest violations in the Chicago pilot program. Reports also indicate that Spin has been doing on-the-ground canvassing in Brooklyn along with introducing public recommendations directly based on learnings from the Chicago pilot. In regards to some second movers in the industry that may have a secret advantage in their proposals, one specific company comes to the fore: Boston-based Superpedestrian. The company is uniquely positioned to tackle concerns through the technological features built into their e-scooters. Equipped with a Vehicle Intelligence System, their Link branded line automatically maintains itself, allowing for a lower cost. Geofencing included in their fleet would also allow for faster enforcement of sidewalk and area bans.
Despite staffing concerns with the DOT itself, the project is slated to move forward with an announcement of contract winners soon. The MTA and other public transit advocates throughout the city are advocating for the program, lauding the scooters as a COVID-friendly method of transport. Advocates state the pilot will help reduce chances of COVID transmission on subway traffic as vaccine distribution is carried out. Besides having this unique benefit, e-scooters will certainly be an exciting new way to get around the city if operators and officials remain mindful of public safety and accessibility.