Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’: DOT Seeks Non-Manhattan E-Scooter Pilot Program

Council Member Robert Cornegy rides a Bird e-scooter at a demonstration in 2018. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Council Member Robert Cornegy rides a Bird e-scooter at a demonstration in 2018. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Kick it!

The Department of Transportation is now inviting e-scooter companies to operate in New York City with a request for expressions of interest laying out the requirements to operate in a city that the companies have had their eyes on for years.

The city said it would judge the scooter companies on the following metrics, with safety and operations and parking management comprising 50 percent of the grading system:

  • Experience
  • Safety
  • Operations and Parking Management
  • Accessibility
  • Equity and Outreach
  • Fair Labor Practices
  • Consumer Protection

Said pilot will take place only outside Manhattan, which was exempted from scooter-share under the state law that legalized e-bikes and e-scooters passed earlier this year.

Scooter companies hailed the upcoming pilot — each touting its own qualifications to get a key to the gold mine.

  • Lime’s Senior Director for Government Relations Phil Jones was quick to point out in his statement that his company has vast experience.
    • “As we’ve learned from operating in global cities like LA, Chicago, Paris, and Rome, as well as more than one hundred cities around the world…” Jones began.
  • Superpedestrian, which operates Link scooters, basically said other companies don’t know what they’re doing.
    • “New Yorkers don’t have to settle for the hazards that e-scooters have brought to other cities,” said company founder Assaf Biderman, touting his scooters’ “on-board, rapid geofence system that protects pedestrians by preventing parked scooters from blocking sidewalks and keeping them from driving into parts of the city determined off-limits; “vehicle intelligence system with over 70 sensors; more durable, stable vehicles…than competitors; ability to operate in more boroughs and neighborhoods than any competitor; a local business model based on full-time workers with benefits, not gig labor.”
  • Voi, which started in Stockholm, touted its “experience operating in more than 50 European cities.”
    • “We know what it takes to preserve local character while enhancing mobility access,” said Co-Founder and CEO Fredrik Hjelm, promising that his company‚ which claims it has been carbon neutral since 2020, “protects the sidewalk,” by providing “on-street parking racks, virtual corrals, and precise geofencing”; uses cargo e-bikes to swap out batteries on its scooters; and would set up a “traffic safety school” to train would-be Voi-ers.
  • Spin also said it “invests in the cities where we operate, in part, by hiring and paying our team members living wages and benefits. The company has operated in Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
    • “Spin has the largest in-house, as opposed to a contractor based, operations team in the industry,” said Will Burns, head of Government Partnerships for the East Coast.
  • Bird called itself “the most experienced and innovative global e-scooter operator in the industry.”
    • “Bird will submit a proposal that prioritizes equity, safety, accessibility, effective parking solutions and more for all New Yorkers,” said Senior Director of Government Partnerships Maurice Henderson.

Per the RFEI, the target date to start the scooter pilot is March 1, 2021, although DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has cautioned that budget cuts might prevent the program from starting on time or at all in the de Blasio era, which ends on Dec. 31, 2021. The commish said that the agency is still dealing with a hiring freeze and reduced operating budget, which she said could affect the size and scope of the pilot.

Obviously, it is unclear which company or companies will win, but the RFEI suggests that the DOT is seeking a partner that has operated in large population centers. One of the questions asks operators to lay out their experiences in cities with populations over 400,000 people — and companies that have are then asked to list every death, serious injury and legal action filed against the companies since 2018.

The RFEI also asks companies about their labor practices, specifically whether they use gig economy labor to do operations and maintenance work on their fleets. Bird, a major player in the industry, was recently revealed to be using an independent contractor-based fleet management system that participants said left them mired in debt after laying out their own money to buy scooters for which they would be responsible. One of Bird’s competitors, Link, tweaked the company in its own press release about jumping into the city scooter game: “LINK employs full-time workers with benefits, and has never used gig labor.”

The RFEI also asks the companies to detail their plans for pricing their memberships or per-ride costs or both, and whether the companies offer reduced rates for low-income users, whether unbanked people can still rent scooters and how the companies will ensure the scooters are available for people with disabilities and residents of public housing.

Trottenberg specifically said that the DOT was hoping to set new accessibility standards with New York’s pilot.

“We hope to push the industry to think creatively about e-scooter design, and if possible, use the pilot to test new accessible e-scooter models,” she said at a City Council hearing on Tuesday.

A separate RFEI for “ancillary services” related to the scooter pilot suggests the DOT is looking to deal with its staffing shortage by bringing in outside help. That RFEI states that the city is looking for companies “to mitigate negative impacts of the pilot and optimize services” by taking care of issues like “data aggregation and analysis services, on-street charging and parking vendors, safe riding training courses, and scooter collection and impound services.”

Trottenberg alluded to that at this week’s hearing.

“The greater the geographic size, number of scooters and number of vendors, the more a pilot will demand from agency staff or a contractor,” Trottenberg told the Council. “Different approaches for shared systems using city streets require extensive city resources. Designated parking areas require more up front planning, sophisticated data management and analysis, while a fully free-floating model requires more inspections, vendor management and constituent complaint resolution.”

Trottenberg also said that in addition to the legal prohibition on running a scooter share system in Manhattan, the DOT is going to place the scooters outside of the current and future Citi Bike service area, which gives scooter companies most of Staten Island, the north and east Bronx, eastern and southeast Queens and south and southeast Brooklyn, and said that she feels there’s a tipping point for allowing too many companies to compete in any one area of the city.

“We’ve learned from our dockless bike share pilot and seen in other cities that a large number of operators competing in the same territory greatly increases the need for city management and oversight, and potentially makes the program’s economics unsustainable,” she said.

However, an industry source disputed that assertion and said that scooter pilots around the world do not typically separate companies from each other. The city’s geographically diffuse dockless bike share model, in which only two companies at most operated in neighborhoods, has not led to a wider adoption of dockless bike share and petered out quietly.

City regulation might also come in the form of establishing one-size fits all parking system, as the main RFEI states that the DOT “will select a parking model and define parking requirements” before the pilot begins, which an industry player characterized as the city “taking a strong hand” in setting the parameters of the pilot. The document also lays out in no uncertain terms that scooter companies themselves are going to have to be responsible for taking care of scooters that block the public right-of-way or pile up on in big numbers on one block or intersection.

And the city may also be looking at having an impact on scooter design beyond accessibility measures. The RFEI specifically asks the companies to share their engineering specifications — which puts New York at odds with other cities, which are are normally agnostic about how the scooters are actually designed, an industry source told Streetsblog.