Mobility and Equity 

How Oakland is getting scooter regulation right — and changing the complexion of urban transportation.

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Oakland's permit application expressly forbids scooter companies from restricting their operations to "certain geographical areas of the City" without written permission. Additionally, each permit requires that 50 percent of all scooters be allocated to "communities of concern" — a regionwide measure of racial and economic disparities outlined by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

That stands in stark contrast to San Francisco, where scooters are allowed in less than a third of the city. For instance, according to 2017 census data, the city's Bayview and Mission Districts feature three times as many bicycle commuters as the rest of the city overall, but scooters are still not available to rent in those areas.

Oakland's Department of Transportation noted that its new limit of 3,500 scooters was set not in response to complaints, but to correspond to its anticipated staffing capacity for enforcing permit requirements.

"We also would not like a cap, but we are limited by staff capacity to how many we can manage in that program," Dai said. "We're currently in the process of evaluating communities of concern to make sure that's the best measure. We're working with the Department of Race and Equity to figure out what exactly we should be trying to ensure — there's geographic equity, but also accessibility by smartphone, language barriers."

When it comes to potholes, the Department of Transportation already has approved a $100 million street paving plan within an explicit equity framework, a policy designed to prioritize street paving in underserved lower-income neighborhoods. Officials from the transportation and equity departments also sought to make scooter companies' labor practices more equitable. While major "gig economy" corporations such as Uber and Lyft have largely flouted wage standards and employment protections by classifying drivers as contractors, Oakland's program requires all contracting companies to comply with Oakland's minimum wage and paid sick leave policies, and include workers' compensation insurance for contractors.

Still, equitable scooter distribution remains an uphill battle. Activists fear that current measures can't truly ensure an equal distribution of discounted scooters in disadvantaged neighborhoods. For instance, critics say the "communities of concern" measure is too broad, because 55 percent of Oakland's total land area falls under that classification — including downtown Oakland. Dai said the department hopes to refine this measure, which is intended to be "representative of Oakland as a whole."

Joe Arrellano, a spokesman for Lime, said his company would be working with advocacy groups such as Bike East Bay and Scraper Bikes to expand scooter access in low-income communities. "We have and will continue to participate in local events hosted by these and other local groups, to educate users on proper riding and parking etiquette, advance transportation equity, and sign up members for our low-income rider program," he said.

Dave Campbell, Advocacy Director for Bike East Bay, is not satisfied. "A managed rollout of equity is not equity."

Campbell lambasted the city's program for what he saw as an inadequate effort to redress transportation inequities. "The numbers won't pencil out," he said. "East Oakland won't see many new scooters. If my fear is right, I think it's a bad tradeoff and rewards those who complain over those who most need transit improvements. ... City staffers working on scooters should be building protected lanes and striping scooter parking zones — that's the priority. If they're so concerned about staffing capacity for addressing complaints, for example, they should prioritize complaints in low-income neighborhoods."

Dai believes that public outreach and education could bridge accessibility gaps that the communities of concern metric may leave out. The department's permit program requires companies to pay an in-lieu fee to the city if they opt out of engaging in their own public outreach efforts.

"We have strong relationships with libraries and affordable housing providers," Dai said, as an example of places where outreach could occur. "We as a department are working on redefining the geographic requirements so there's enough coverage in Fruitvale and East Oakland."

According to survey responses at department-hosted town hall meetings between July and December of 2018, most respondents wanted to see more scooters on college campuses and in East and West Oakland, where transit is less frequent. The only concern that polled higher was enforcement and education: stronger helmet requirements, secure parking to avoid sidewalk obstruction, and making it easier to report complaints.

One Laney College student on his way to class from downtown Oakland last Wednesday agreed with survey respondents that it would be nice to see more scooters close to his West Oakland home. Still, he said he likes taking scooters to "feel the fresh air."

Then he shrugged and started his ride. Maps and metrics aside, he was getting where he needed to go. 


EDITOR’S NOTE: After this story was edited, the board of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency basically conceded the inadequacy of its past policies, by voting to double the number of scooters on city streets to 2,500, and to allow additional companies to apply for permits to operate in the city. Also, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized a survey by Lime as being specific to Oakland; it was actually nationwide.

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