Chicago’s e-scooter program needs to be racially equitable

Let’s collectively think boldly and holistically and use scooters.

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LeAaron Foley, director of government relations at Lime, wheels an electric scooter on Oct. 12, outside City Hall in the Loop after Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st) called for support for an ordinance that would bring back shared electric scooters in Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In transportation, new technologies can capture substantial policy and public attention. Such is the case with e-scooters. The City Council has just passed an ordinance that would establish them across the City of Chicago. For sustainability benefits, we hope to see many Loop trips shift from short ride-hail trips (which are concentrated there) to e-scooters. Scooters would not be the primary traffic and safety problem in the Loop — cars are.

We support the ordinance generally, as it expands the range of sustainable transportation modes and provides a new mobility option. However, a number of actions are needed to make Chicago’s e-scooter program more racially equitable and just, and many of these actions would not only maximize the racial equity and environmental impacts of scooters but address safety and equity across other transportation modes.

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First, policymakers and e-scooter firms must address the barriers to making e-scooters a more viable option across communities and legislating racial equity metrics (e.g., equitable ridership) with accountability would push them in this direction. Users of e-scooters were disproportionately white, male and affluent in the 2020 pilot. Despite a mandate for 50 percent fleet distribution in the Equity Priority Area, only 23 percent of trips originated in these zones. In fact, devices in the Equity Priority Area averaged 0.26 trips per day per device, while outside of these zones, devices averaged 0.97 trips per day. Rather than letting profit motives result in exclusion of Black and Brown communities, policy makers and firms must engage with communities to understand what would make scooters more viable, with solutions that could range from infrastructure improvements to private ownership subsidies and beyond.

Second, in addition to racial equity metrics, follow up legislation should immediately and durably establish racial equity in e-scooter distribution requirements rather than leave to administrative discretion. The 2020 pilot required that firms place at least 50% of their devices in priority areas. Close proximity of vehicles is necessary but not sufficient for racial equity, and should not be at the discretion of changing administrations.

Existing dialogue and research identifies a number of factors that might be holding back scooter use and suppressing their potential. Recent research documents the inequitable and compounding conditions Black and Brown communities face that can inhibit bicycling: more busy roads, fewer bike lanes and disproportionate police bicycle citations, all factors that could discourage scooter use as well. Other Chicago-based research, both focus groups and quantitative research, shows that violence hinders mobility, especially by transportation modes other than cars. Investment in redesigning streets, targeting Black and Brown neighborhoods, to be safe for bicyclists, pedestrians, wheelchair users and others will boost scooter use. Investment in cultural programming, education, community economic development, as well as directly in projects directly related to people’s health and well-being addresses the root causes of violence and will make our communities safer, enhance well-being and make scooters — such as walking, rolling, and bicycling — more viable options.

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Follow up legislation should direct two thirds of scooter licensing fees to Black and Brown communities to partially fund holistic, community investments, but more investment across policy spheres is also vital. And, critically, all of these processes must be done with meaningful Black and Brown leadership and sincere community engagement.

In sum, the City Council should take follow up legislative action and let’s collectively think boldly and holistically and use scooters — not to distract from pressing fundamental problems but as a mechanism for confronting them and more deeply committing to safety, racial equity, mobility justice and sustainability.

Dr. Kate Lowe is an associate professor at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Olatunji Oboi Reed is president & CEO of the Equiticity Racial Equity Movement.

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