Spin E-Scooter program debated at recent Pittsburgh city council public hearing

On April 12, Pittsburgh city council held its first public hearing on the topic of Spin E-scooters since their introduction to the city in July 2021. Spin’s partnership with Pittsburgh originated through a pilot program called Move PGH, an effort to provide city residents with more transportation options. The pilot program will end this July, so in preparation, legislators heard from Pittsburgh residents to help inform whether Spin should be offered a long-term contract or not.

What is Move PGH?

Move PGH is a program created through the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI). DOMI director Kim Lucas explained in the city council meeting last week that the purpose of Move PGH is to “make transportation more affordable, more equitable, more sustainable, more accessible, and more efficient.” In addition to Spin scooters, Move PGH includes POGOH bike sharing, the Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) public transportation system, and Zipcar car sharing.

Part of Move PGH’s initiative is to provide more reliable transportation to higher-need areas of the city. This is put into practice through a 30 percent discount on a Spin scooter ride if a user unlocks a scooter in one of these areas, no matter where they ride after unlocking.

Pittsburgh residents can also apply for the Spin Access program, which grants low-income resident an 80 percent discount on Spin rides. Currently, less than 400 people in Pittsburgh are part of this program. Out of the 200,000 unique users that Spin reports, this accounts for about 0.2 percent of all Spin users.

City Council member Barb Warwick (D-District 5) noted this percentage in the public hearing, alongside another statistic that about 7 percent of users live in Spin Access zones, which is a much higher figure than those who the program is actually helping. This could be because Spin Access is not advertised clearly on the main app page, so many users do not know about the program.

How does Spin operate within Pittsburgh?

E-scooters are technically illegal to ride in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). However, two years ago DOMI was authorized to issue Spin a permit to operate in Pittsburgh for the duration of the pilot program.

There are many rules surrounding the use of Spin scooters in Pittsburgh — some imposed by DOMI and PennDOT, others by Spin itself. First, there are the general rules of who can ride a Spin scooter: riders must be 18 years or older, there must be one rider per scooter, and riders must not weigh more than 220 pounds.

For the city of Pittsburgh, people can only take scooters on roads with a speed limit of 25 mph or less. They cannot ride scooters on sidewalks, and scooters must be parked in parking lanes, not blocking any bus stops, ramps, or fire hydrants. In designated parking zones, scooters can also be parked in bike corrals or at Move PGH mobility hubs. Mobility hubs are located around certain districts of the city, offering places to charge the e-scooters and access other types of transit offered by Move PGH. Helmets are not required when riding a Spin scooter.

Spin has a penalty system for incorrect parking. When a rider parks, they must upload a picture of the scooter to the app. The app issues a warning if riders violate parking guidelines. If a user receives three warnings, they are suspended from using the Spin app. In the public hearing, the general manager for Spin scooters, Jason Shaffner, reported that 92 percent of riders who receive one penalty correct their behavior and do not receive a second one.

Spin and the city of Pittsburgh do not exchange any money for their pilot program. Pittsburgh residents expressed concern in the public hearing about how Spin makes money. People argued that there are two paths for the future of Spin: either they go out of business, leaving people who rely on them to travel stranded, or they will increase prices, reducing access to the scooters.

When Spin scooters are issued parking violations, the money goes to Spin, not the city. This means that Spin profits from scooters obstructing and disrupting the daily life of Pittsburgh residents.

This is not the economic model that other cities have adopted with scooter-sharing companies. For example, Chicago stands to make about $4 million in scooter fees from their pilot program of bringing in multiple e-scooter sharing companies. E-scooter users in Chicago are charged a nine percent lease tax on every ride, and they must be locked to poles or bike racks at the end of a ride.

While this means a price increase, it is inconsequential compared to the already very high cost of riding a Spin scooter. The organization Pittsburghers for Public Transit published a report comparing the cost of riding one mile using different kinds of transportation offered in Pittsburgh. Using the POGOH bike shares costs $0.63 per mile, a transit trip on the PRT system costs a flat rate of $2.50 even for much longer than a mile, and Spin scooters cost $4.32 per mile including the one dollar unlocking fee. This steep cost significantly limits the amount of people who can ride Spin scooters especially if used frequently for commuting to and from work, as the price does add up.

Are Spin scooters helping the environment?

Spin scooters are marketed as a better alternative to cars — an eco-friendly transit option. But research shows that that may not be the case. An environmental study conducted in Zurich in 2021 showed that shared e-scooters and shared e-bikes actually produce more emissions than the transportation modes that they replace, mainly walking and using public transit. According to the executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, sources of emissions for e-scooters are their charging stations and the diesel vans operated by Spin that are patrolling the city streets placing new scooters, attending to scooter complaints, and making repairs.

The Zurich study also found that personal e-scooters and e-bikes do in fact reduce emissions and are better alternatives to public transit. However, due to the illegality of personal e-scooters in Pennsylvania, the only transportation method available to Pennsylvania residents that actually helps the environment is biking, alongside walking or taking the bus.

According to a recent survey conducted by Spin, about one-third of all Spin scooter trips replace a car trip. While using small-vehicle transit like an e-bike or e-scooter is much more environmentally friendly than driving, it also causes road congestion. This means that the city of Pittsburgh is effectively taking up more space to move the same number of people.

A community member who is a current Pittsburgh resident and former data scientist at the Chicago Transit Authority expressed to the city council that “efficient use of space is the core problem of transportation… [In Pittsburgh] sidewalk space is already a scarce and precious public resource.” Her sentiment was echoed by many other speakers who believed that even if one day e-scooter technology advances so that they produce less emissions than walking or taking the bus, the problem of space would not be solved and those shared public transit options would still be the more environmentally conscious mode of transportation.

Shortcomings of Spin scooters

Due to limitations in mobility, weight, age, sight, or economic situation, many people in Pittsburgh cannot even use Spin scooters. The biggest demographic of Spin users are people ages 18-34, with highest ridership in Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as Oakland, where there are universities and student housing.

The biggest demographic of people who cannot use Spin scooters are people who are disabled. Not only can these individuals not ride on Spin scooters, they are heavily impacted by the parking of Spin scooters. During the public hearing, residents who were blind or in wheelchairs spoke out about the danger that Spin scooters pose to them in their daily lives. When Spin scooters are parked on sidewalks, where able-bodied people could walk by the scooter while staying on the sidewalk, people in wheelchairs are forced to go into the street to get around the scooter. This creates a dangerous situation, especially in a high-traffic area with a large volume of cars on the street. And for people who have vision impairments, sometimes canes do not always detect an obstruction in the sidewalk. For example, a blind woman reported running into a scooter’s handlebars that were sticking out into the sidewalk path even though the body of the scooter was parked on grass next to the sidewalk.

Aside from the physical danger that Spin scooters create for people with disabilities, they also exacerbate existing transportation inequalities in Pittsburgh. The high volume of broken or very narrow sidewalks in the city — along with the sometimes infrequent and unreliable bus system — already make transportation difficult for disabled people. Scooters do not fix this problem, they only offer a solution of more convenient transportation to the most able people.

Now, the burden has been pushed onto disabled people to fight for the ability to make an accessible transit system possible. Multiple speakers at the hearing explained how Move PGH has offered no solutions to transit problems that disabled people face, rather, it is a program meant to cover up existing inequities with exciting new technology.

It is not only mobility or visually impaired people who cannot use the Spin scooters. A Pittsburgh Public Schools middle school teacher stood up in the city council hearing and explained just how limited Spin’s user base is. First of all, people must have a smartphone in order to use Spin scooters. People who need to carry things like groceries cannot use the scooters. Neither can parents who need to transport their young children. Therefore, scooters are only available to a certain demographic: “people who already have every opportunity handed to them,” said the teacher.

Due to the geographic makeup of Pittsburgh, scooters are also inaccessible to people who live in neighborhoods that are very hilly. The engine of a small e-scooter is not powerful enough to get people up Pittsburgh hills, causing an increase in discarded scooters at the bottoms of hills. And due to the speed restriction where scooters must only travel on roads with less than a 25 mph speed limit, sometimes scooters cannot be used to connect people from one Pittsburgh neighborhood to another because they cannot go on highways.

All of these restrictions on who can use Spin scooters show that the scooters are only broadly practical for young people traveling short distances, typically college students or tourists, and not the general public of Pittsburgh.

Long-term solutions

Move PGH intended to close "the last mile gap": the route from a person’s home to a transportation hub like a bus station. It applies conversely as well — the last mile could also be from a transportation hub to a person’s place of work. But young, able-bodied people are not the ones who need resources to help them with this last mile gap.

The people who most need solutions to this are disabled people, as well as people who are low-income and people of color. Disabled people may not be physically able to traverse this last mile gap. And for people of color and low-income people, who have often been forced into living in areas of Pittsburgh without an abundance of transit options, the last mile may be much longer than for people who live in areas with lots of bus stops or bike-sharing locations.

The general consensus of the city council public hearing last Wednesday was that solutions to the problem of the last mile gap do not lie in bringing new technology like e-scooters to Pittsburgh. Instead, the solution is for the city to invest in affordable housing, building more bike lanes, improving sidewalk conditions, and increasing frequency and reliability of the bus system. Working toward these policies in the coming years will be crucial to building Pittsburgh into a city where every resident cab access the transit they need without worsening the transportation experience of others.