Bike and Scooter Sharing Ridership Gives New Urgency to Urban Trail Network

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“I love SPIN scooters for their convenience. I can unlock it in 10 seconds and then leave it wherever I want at my destination”, says Brown University senior Miguel Howard.  And, indeed, the popularity of e-bikes and scooters has skyrocketed, with the city of Providence reporting nearly 600,000 trips in the past twelve months, according to Michaela Antunes, Providence Director of Communications for Economic Development. Providence has joined the growing number of cities experimenting with a shared micro-mobility program, which includes e-scooters and e-bikes, and currently permits three providers – Spin, Bird, and Veo – to operate. E-bikes and scooters are primarily popular for their convenience and ease of use.  Riders can pick them up and drop them off most places in Providence.  And, interestingly, yearly statistics show that the average ride was only around 8-10 minutes long, hop on/hop off.  But, many people use them instead of cars, for much longer rides, to commute from home to work and to get around town safely and quickly.

The history of e-bike sharing programs in Providence began with JUMP, then a subsidiary of Uber, in 2019.  With much fanfare, JUMP bikes announced the placement of 400 e-bikes (pedal assisted up to 20 mph via solar powered electric motors).   Unfortunately, after significant rate hikes and rampant problems with the GPS mechanism and with their lock mechanism which allowed many riders to disable the locks, JUMP bikes discontinued operations in Providence. Providence’s experience with JUMP mirrored that of other cities where JUMP had begun with idealism and a flourish and ended sadly: https://www.vice.com/en/article/5dz94x/uber-acquisition-jump-bikeshare-destroyed-thousands-of-bikes

However, disappointing as it was that JUMP pulled their bikes, the first attempt did prove that people wanted the convenience and ease of using e-bikes.  In the eleven months of  JUMP’s operation, there were 300,000 users who rode them 580,000 miles.   In fact, outside of Californian cities, Providence had the highest usage of any city in JUMP’s network.

Then, in 2021, Providence signed a contract with SPIN, owned by Ford Motor Company, to install 400 e-bikes and scooters, and had many meetings to ensure that this second try would be more successful, including making sure that  SPIN’s locking mechanism was much more vandal-proof.  It was successful, and in 2022, the city signed contracts for 400 more to be owned and managed by Bird and Veo, 200 each.

Shared e-bike and scooter systems are known as either “docked” or “dockless.”   “Docked” systems require that riders return their bikes to one of many permanent “docks” that are installed throughout the city.   Docked systems are great, but they are expensive.  In order for them to be successful there need to be docks every few blocks throughout the city.  Riders want to be able to find a bike quickly and return it, just as quickly.  Arriving at a dock just in time to rush to a meeting and finding that there are no bikes available means the bike share system is undependable.  A docked system requires extensive public investment in the dock infrastructure.  Providence’s system, on the other hand, is “dockless” which means that the city’s only expense is in maintaining the bike lanes; the private companies do the rest.

JUMP e-bikes were “dockless,” as are the newer SPIN, Bird, and Veo systems.  They are left, locked, wherever the rider finishes their ride, which is supposed to be locked to a bike rack, a parking meter, or a street sign.  The lack of dedicated docks means that e-scooters and bikes are occasionally left on sidewalks and shared spaces, and many Providence residents have expressed discontent over the number of bikes left on city sidewalks and streets.   In response to concerns, Providence now requires the companies to move scattered bikes and scooters to hubs within 30 minutes if there is a 311 complaint.

In addition to reducing clogged sidewalks, docked bike share programs can also concentrate the bike-share benefits in certain neighborhoods, providing stability in alternative transportation methods. A 2021 study of Metro Boston’s bike sharing programs, published in Transportation Research, found that new bike share stations significantly reduced car ownership, vehicle-miles traveled, and per capita greenhouse gas emissions in their vicinity—all major achievements for a relatively modest, low-cost program. These benefits are not unique to Boston. Another large-scale analysis of bike share programs in eight major cities, published in 2019, found “increases in population-level cycling for those who live near to a docking station,” an effect which persisted for the two-year duration of the study.

However, while the benefits of dock-based bike shares are numerous, dockless programs notably promote greater equity of access to micro-mobility. A study published in the Journal of Transport Geography in 2020 found that dockless systems provide more access for “communities of concern” than dock-based systems. Providence’s Micro Mobility Regulations ensure that all micro-vehicles can reach all parts of the city, including lower-income areas. If a company appears to have too many bikes or scooters clustered in a neighborhood, the city can require the organization to redistribute their vehicles in order to “promote equitable access to and from historically underserved areas within the city.” By contrast to dock based systems, the dockless model promises a flexibility and low-cost solution to the problem of accessibility.  Says Michael Kearney, a resident of Federal Hill, “ I have my own e-bike that I use for most trips, but the shared e-bikes fill an important transportation gap for me. They’ve gotten me home when RIPTA service is infrequent, like Sundays. They’re really useful for one-way trips and for when I don’t want to lock up my bike overnight, like at the train station. The electric motor is a huge advantage over regular bikeshares. I can climb hills easily and arrive sweat free, carry things like groceries, and get places a lot quicker. I just wish that there were parking spots for the shared bikes, like we have for cars. And I wish they didn’t turn off at night. Why limit mobility? I mean, imagine if your car only worked during the day.”

Along with Providence’s requirement to keep scooters and bikes dispersed about the city, it also requires a minimum of five signups per month for each company’s reduced fare plan, which offers cheaper rides to lower-income individuals. These programs are available to anyone enrolled or eligible for a government assistance program, as well as “those receiving SNAP, WIC and RIPTA reduced fares; RI Works participants; residents of public housing; and those living with a student who receives free/reduced lunch.” ‘Access’ plans are also open to individuals without a smartphone or a credit card, which is typically necessary to start or end a ride. Instead, Reduced Fare participants may call a hotline which will unlock a bike for them, and they may pay in cash.

Map of the Urban Trail Network

Under the Jorge Elorza administration, Providence launched the “Great Streets Initiative” which has helped install more than 33 lane-miles of the Urban Trail Network since 2017. The Urban Trail Network consists of “a combination of on-road and road-adjacent protected bicycle lanes.” After a pause in new bike lane construction at the start of his term, Mayor Brett Smiley’s office has announced that construction should resume in 2025 using $27M of federal funds with the goal of  “improving active transportation infrastructure and by creating safe places for people of all ages and abilities to walk, run, bike, and use wheelchairs or other mobility devices”, according to according to the city’s Michaela Antunes.  An increase in protected bike lanes is critical to ensuring the safety of micro-mobility users, a major concern as usage continues to grow.  E-bikes and scooters are clearly important users of the protected bike lane system.

While the tradeoffs of a dispersed and privatized system of micro-mobility remain ambiguous, the popularity of shared-mobility and the equitable distribution of e-bikes and scooters is here to stay. To promote the use of e-bikes and scooters in a way that addresses concerns about climate and well-being, congestion and parking, city infrastructure needs to accompany growth. The Great Streets Initiative is a start to improving infrastructure for a safer Providence, but if the city wants to capitalize on the popularity of these transportation methods, it must holistically develop its infrastructure promoting walkability, bikeability, and transit access.  As Liza Burkin, Lead Organizer of the Providence Streets Coalition says, “The popularity of micro-mobility shows how badly we need to provide dedicated space on our streets for people who are moving in between walking and driving speeds.  E-bikes and scooters don’t belong on the sidewalk, and they don’t belong in traffic.  That’s why it’s so important to keep expanding the Urban Trail Network until it connects every neighborhood.”

Here is information for the three companies currently renting electric scooters and electric bicycles in Providence:

Bird
Bird scooters cost $1 to unlock and a per-minute fee thereafter. Users can check the Bird app for the most up-to-date pricing in Providence. Bird offers a 50% discount to low-income riders, Pell Grant recipients, select local nonprofit and community organizations, veterans and senior citizens. To sign up for Bird’s Community Pricing Program, download the Bird app, create an account and email your proof of eligibility to access@bird.co. Bird also offers free rides for healthcare workers and emergency personnel. To sign up, email a copy of your medical identification card along with your name and phone number to together@bird.co. Bird’s Community Mode allows anyone with a Bird account to report or provide feedback on vehicle-related issues such as poorly parked or damaged vehicles in their area. Community Mode can be accessed within the mobile app by tapping the yield sign on the bottom left of the Bird map. For more information, visit bird.co. or call 866-205-2442.

Spin
Using the Spin app, riders can scan a QR code to unlock a bike or scooter for $1 and ride for $0.32 per minute. The Spin Access program provides heavily discounted rides to low-income residents who are enrolled in a local, state or federal benefits program, including but not limited to SNAP, TANF, WIC, Rhode Island Works and Medicaid. Low-income riders enjoy a guaranteed fare of $0.50 to unlock and just $0.10 per minute. Spin provides options for riders without a smartphone, credit card or both. Riders will need a mobile phone with the ability to text. For more information, visit https://www.spin.app/spin-access or call 1-888-262-5189.

Veo
Using the Veo app, riders scan a QR code to unlock a bike or scooter. An Astro scooter costs $1 to unlock and $0.39 per minute to ride, while the Halo e-bike costs $1 to unlock and $0.25 center per minute to ride. The Veo Access program is a discount program for eligible customers (including those receiving SNAP, WIC and RIPTA reduced fares, RI Works participants, residents of public housing and those living with a student who receives free/reduced lunch). Veo Access offers qualified riders access to Veo bikes and scooters for $5/month. Through the program, riders’ first 30-minute ride each day is free and $0.20 per minute thereafter, with the $1 unlocking fee waived. For more information, visit veoride.com or call 855-836-2256.

Jesse Edelstein is a senior at Brown University studying Computer Science-Economics.  He is a founding member of Brown Urban Mobility Project (BUMP) and is also a member of the Brown Track and Field team.