What Chicago needs from a shared e-scooter program
Scooter operators must serve the whole city, not just the affluent parts. That means choosing operators with proven track records of serving low-income communities, and proven mechanisms for linking their services with transit
For 42 years of my life, I didn’t know how to ride a bike.
Last August, I finally got the opportunity to learn from the Chicago Department of Transportation’s SAFE Ambassadors Adult Bike Training Program. I learned in one day how to ride a bike alongside three other adult learners, and felt the emotion so many of you have experienced when you first learned to ride — the sense of freedom.
Many are no doubt surprised that it took me so long to ride a bike. But it’s a reality in Chicago that people are limited by a lack of access to transportation choices, beyond bikes. However, there are clear ways forward to meet the demand this city has for improving transportation, and ways to ensure that every Chicagoan will benefit. Access for all. Connection for all.
Job one for expanding transportation choices is shoring up our transit system, and then helping our communities connect to transit stops. As we all work to unlock more federal and local support for the CTA (with a focus on constant improvement), we need to also improve local, block-by-block transit access for folks who are most in need: the middle- and low-income Chicagoans who are less likely to live within walking distance of a convenient bus or train option. Every neighbor deserves the same access to our entire city — a neighborhood network.
As researchers at DePaul, University of Illinois Chicago, and the Chicago-based Shared Use Mobility Center have pointed out, shared e-scooters and e-bikes can provide that missing link, giving people the means to access transit stops that were previously accessible only by a long walk or expensive car ride. E-scooters have been piloted in Chicago, and the city is now moving forward with the next phase of the program to issue two-year licenses to select scooter-sharing companies.
Neighbors in the 40th Ward are already using scooters to reach both rail and bus options, and to give them greater freedom to reach all destinations. However, during the scooter pilot, only 23% of scooter trips originated in the neighborhoods that need transportation options the most. Seeing this in the pilot, it’s clearly something to focus on. We can and should do better as scooters become permanent in Chicago.
Scooter operators must serve the whole city, not just the affluent parts. That means choosing operators with proven track records of serving low-income communities, and proven mechanisms for linking their services with transit and making it convenient for riders to use their service.
Equity and real jobs
As these companies begin to serve our communities, it’s also imperative that they act as good citizens too. The city should look very closely at each company’s track records in both Chicago and other cities, and weigh past successes and failures. Operators who have ignored equity requirements in the past, whose teams aren’t reflective of our social make- up, and who have treated local employees as disposable can’t be given a pass for those choices. Chicago deserves a service that will serve the whole city, and that will also bring real jobs with living wages and benefits. We invest in our human infrastructure to get the best quality transit infrastructure.
I’m proud that Chicago is the first major city to require sidewalk detection technology to make sure our sidewalks are safe for everyone. My hope is that the city will choose companies for this program that are committed to, and capable of, working with us to get this right so that community safety is standard operating procedure for any company granted the privilege of operating on Chicago streets.
When I learned how to ride a bike, I got more than a new skill. I gained a newfound freedom to get where I need to go when I want. It opened up new possibilities and experiences. By ensuring that e-scooter operators are accountable for providing safe, accessible service, we can bring that freedom to all Chicagoans. After everything we have overcome together, we deserve it.
Andre Vasquez is alderman of Chicago’s 40th Ward on the North Side.
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