By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
On June 20, city councilor Mo Seifeldein released a statement calling for the suspension of Alexandria’s e-scooter pilot program. In the statement, he cited two primary points of concern: safety and equity.
The issue of safety has been a constant point of concern for residents and the city since the pilot program started in January and gained speed in March. But on the question of equity, there has been far less discussion.
“Considering that companies have designated drop off areas for those who charge and release scooters, the lack of e-scooters in West Alexandria, where many underserved communities reside, is concerning,” Seifeldein said in the statement.
That concern lingers. The question of equitable distribution of the city’s burgeoning e-scooter fleet that Seifeldein raised in June remains largely unanswered. However, in an industry that prioritizes usage and a new form of mobility that emphasizes last mile connections, there might be a reason why scooters are not deployed equitably across Alexandria’s neighborhoods.
According to a usage map included in a July 23 staff memo, 65 percent of the city’s e-scooter ridership takes place in Old Town. Del Ray, Duke Street/Eisenhower and Carlyle each have somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of ridership, while Central Alexandria, North Ridge, Arlandria, Potomac Yard and the West End each account for less than 5 percent of the city’s total usage.
The high amount of usage in Old Town is not surprising, according to Christine Mayeur, Clean Streets program manager in the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.
Old Town is a hub of the city’s business, retail and culinary communities, and it is in close proximity to public transit stops. All of that goes into the market assessment that dictates where each of the city’s seven permitted scooter companies choose to distribute their devices, Mayeur said.
“It seems that scooter operators are doing their own market assessments or looking at the potential demand or interest in the scooters, across Alexandria and other cities for scooter ridership,” Mayeur said. “They then deploy the devices based on both the market that exists for rides and a data feedback loop of where people are riding and their destinations.”
Scooters often function as a “last-mile connection” for commuters. For scooter companies trying to maximize usage and profit, it makes little sense to deploy in neighborhoods that are far from Metro stops or high-traffic areas like King Street, Mayeur said.
“These devices work great as an option for a last-mile connection, so thinking of it that way already dictates the areas where it makes the most business sense to deploy,” Mayeur said.
Some scooter companies said that deployment is based on “need.”
“Bird places scooters where there’s a need, whether that’s around transit areas or other popular areas in Alexandria,” a Bird spokesperson said in an email. “Bird is actively working with the city to ensure we’re meeting the needs of residents in all areas of Alexandria.”
Seifeldein said in his statement that there is a difference between the “need” as defined by companies and the “need” of low income or geographically isolated Alexandrians.
“It is unclear how the companies intend to determine whether scooters would work in the West End if there has not been a fair amount of distribution during the pilot program,” Seifeldein said in a statement.
In other neighborhoods with similar usage rates to West Alexandria, if not similar income brackets, like North Ridge and Seminary Hill, scooters are also relatively scarce, residents said.
Although e-scooters would be an affordable, convenient form of transportation for Alexandria’s low-income or geographically isolated residents, residents in these neighborhoods admitted that scooters don’t make sense in some areas of Alexandria.
“I think out here the reason for that is it’s kind of a combination of topography and destinations,” Carter Flemming, president of the Seminary Hill Association, said. “I think the scooter program, as we understand it, is supposed to fill that last one mile. … The question is, ‘What destination would scooters be trying to get to within that last mile?’”
Between Seminary Hill’s distance from major transit stops and the neighborhood’s primarily residential streets, residents aren’t in need of scooters, Flemming said. Residents in West Alexandria and North Ridge expressed similar sentiments.
There is one demographic that’s found a use for scooters in these neighborhoods: young students. According to Flemming, the demographic that uses scooters the most are students under the age of 14, who, under the city’s Memorandum of Understanding, are prohibited from using them.
“As I understand, there are a considerable amount of students who actually use them now to ride home from over at [George Washington Middle School],” Kay Stimson, president of the North Ridge Civic Association, said.
Underage riding has consistently been an issue for police and residents, but these new devices are clearly filling a need for the very Alexandrians who should not be riding them.
A Bird spokesperson claimed the company has programs to provide access to scooters for low income residents, but the city has been encouraging companies to expand their distribution for months.
In a June 10 email to Bird, Mayeur denied the company’s request for a fleet increase. Instead, she suggested the company expand its distribution.
“I would like to see more vehicles deployed to areas outside of Old Town, like in areas in and near the West End, with low income housing, or less access to transit options like in Arlandria,” Mayeur said in the email.
Based on the city’s usage map, Mayeur’s entreaties to the city’s scooter companies have not resulted in significant shifts in deployment patterns. Under the MOU, companies aren’t required to deploy scooters in specific locations, but issues of equity will be a focus for T&ES during the department’s data collection phase of the pilot, Mayeur said.
“Equity means a lot of different things to us — from geographic access to financial access, and more,” Mayeur said. “It’s something that is hugely important to Alexandria, and we’re looking forward to reviewing and analyzing the data from the dockless pilot holistically and, if the pilot is extended, using a data-driven approach to making these devices available to all who are interested in using them.”
The city’s neighborhoods are full of people who have access to scooters but don’t want them, those who want scooters but aren’t permitted to ride them and those who need scooters but can’t access them. As the city commences its data dive, the answer to equity questions – and Seifeldein’s call to action – remain unanswered.