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Inside Oakland’s plan to make electric scooters affordable for all

Eli Wirtschafter

The dockless electric scooters that appeared on the streets of Oakland a few months ago quickly become a popular form of transportation. Now, officials are creating a permits to allow them to stay in Oakland. But companies have to meet certain requirements: like offering a low-income membership for just five dollars a year.

If you think shared electric scooters are just a toy for rich techies, you probably haven’t been to Oakland in a while. On a recent Monday afternoon by Lake Merritt, scooter riders are everywhere, and they’re dressed in everything from suits to street wear.

20-year-old Semre Abraha comes shooting down the hill toward the lake, his curly fro flying in the wind. He gets a massive grin on his face every time he talks about scooters.

“This is the future,” says Abraha, “There’s even grown adults that ride this, people that used to daily commute in their vehicles every day.”

Abraha works at the grocery store Sprouts. He says he used to bike there, but after the scooters landed, he sold his bike.

“It comes in real, real clutch for transportation” says Abraha. “I don't have to rely on the bus and stuff like that.”

Credit Eli Wirtschafter / KALW News
Abraha says scooters are used by a broad range of Oakland’s population.

Scooter companies don’t report demographic data. But a recent study showed that lower income groups are more likely than high- income groups to approve of shared scooters.

“Just anecdotally if you travel around Oakland and see them being used, they're certainly being used by a very diverse array of the population,” says Oakland city councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.

Kaplan would like to make scooters even more popular among lower income groups. She wrote a proposed set of regulations for shared scooters, which the Oakland City Council is prepared to pass on Monday.

A five dollar, unlimited membership for low-income riders

Unlike San Francisco, which temporarily banned scooters while deciding which brands would be allowed in the city, Oakland’s plan would allow scooter companies to stay. They will, however, be expected to meet a number of requirements. For example, companies will have to provide staff to move scooters out of the way if they’re parked unsafely.

Perhaps the most distinctive part of the plan requires that companies offer a low-income membership option: unlimited short rides for just five dollars per year (or a package of “equivalent” value).

“I really want to make sure that as we're adding new mobility options that we're not leaving behind the same communities that are already underserved,” says Kaplan.

Anyone who gets food stamps or subsidized energy bills would qualify for the affordable membership.

Spokespeople for the scooter companies Lime and Skip said they support Oakland’s ordinance, but declined to endorse the five dollar membership. Both companies already offer a 50 percent discount for low income riders.

Representatives for the company Bird did not respond to requests for comment.

Kaplan says there will be some wiggle room for the city and the scooter companies to figure out exactly what kind of low-income discount works best.

“I do think that they will in fact do it. And of course if they don't then they don't get to operate in Oakland,” says Kaplan.

But making scooters available to all isn’t as simple as lowering the price tag.

Lack of scooters in East Oakland

Chuck Davis is a 20-year-old who works for Oakland’s Original Scraper Bike Team, teaching youth how to build and fix bikes. His bike is his favorite ride. But he’s also into scooters.

“I like the scooters,” says Davis. “Me and my girl was just riding them yesterday.”

Davis, who lives in East Oakland, says he’d qualify for the affordable membership. But, as things stand now, he can’t always find a scooter when he wants one.

“If I want to pull out my phone and go get a scooter around the corner, I can’t be able to do that. I have to go downtown or to areas that have Lime scooters and Lime bikes and stuff,” says Davis.

Every night, people go out into the streets of Oakland and collect scooters. They charge them in their houses overnight, and get paid a few bucks per scooter. Then in the morning, they go out and place them in locations recommended by the scooter companies’ apps.

“Those areas are downtown, and all the high areas for people that’s working and commuting everywhere,” says Davis. “We just need a lot more areas out here, in Deep East.”

Credit Eli Wirtschafter / KALW News
Chuck Davis, an East Oakland resident, enjoys scooters, but says they’re often not available in his neighborhood.

Oakland’s proposed scooter ordinance tries to address this location problem, by calling for scooters to be “distributed equitably throughout Oakland.”

Do the rules go far enough to get scooters in underserved areas?

Clarrissa Cabansagan, a transportation advocate with the group TransForm, says companies need to be “held to a higher standard,” than what’s in the ordinance.

The plan would require that a majority of scooters be deployed in what are called “communities of concern” — a designation for low income and underserved neighborhoods. But that designation covers most of Oakland.

“That can mean all in the Lake Merritt area, downtown,” says Cabansagan.

Councilmember Kaplan says the ordinance gives the city power to strengthen the requirements, and also to collect data from the companies that would allow the city to make sure the scooters really are distributed equitably.

Justin Berton, a spokesperson for Mayor Libby Schaaf, says she would like to see even more than 50 percent of scooters in underserved neighborhoods, but that a more stringent requirement could be hard to achieve, especially for smaller companies.

The mayor supports passing the ordinance.

Scooters point to a need for better streets

Cabansagan, with TransForm, adds that scooter companies should work with community groups to spread the word about the affordable option, and how to ride safely. She also says scooters highlight a need for more bike lanes and better pavement.

“In places like deep East Oakland, people are riding on sidewalks and they’re riding on sidewalks because they feel safer on sidewalks, because sidewalks don't have as many potholes as the streets,” says Cabansagan.

Cabansagan says the scooter craze has opened a window of opportunity to invest in safer streets. Some scooter companies have already pledged to fund more bike lanes in the cities where they operate.

East Oakland could use it. When I took my first ever scooter ride, I went on 69th Street, which is supposed to be a bike boulevard. But it’s so bumpy that I felt like the scooter was trying to throw me off.

The city council votes on Monday.

Crosscurrents Transportation
Eli is the Program Director for KALW's project in state prisons. We teach incarcerated people how to record and edit audio stories, and air them as part of the series Uncuffed.