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How scooters, dockless bikes can help with transportation equity in NYC

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Many New Yorkers live in transit deserts—and scooter companies think they can help

Uber To Partner With Electric Scooter Rental Company Lime In $335 Million Deal Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

For as robust and extensive as New York City’s transportation network is—we have subways, buses, commuter rail, for-hire vehicles, ferries, and a bike-sharing program—the city still has many areas that are considered transit deserts.

A recent report by the Regional Plan Association found that roughly a third of New York residents do not have a subway stop within walking distance of their homes, and the problem is especially acute in dense areas that are lower-income—places like Canarsie, in Brooklyn, and many parts of central and northeast Queens. (City buses serve many of New York’s transit deserts, but service has suffered from both falling ridership and agonizingly slow speeds.)

But the problem isn’t limited to subway service: Lime, the dockless bike and scooter company, recently commissioned its own study on transit deserts throughout the city, and its findings echo those in the RPA report—namely, the New Yorkers who need robust transit options the most are those most underserved by the current systems.

The study, which was conducted with the help of Sam Schwartz Engineering, points to inequity not just in subway access, but in access to other modes of transit in New York City. Citi Bike service, for example, is concentrated in areas that aren’t lacking for other transportation options; those areas are also, by and large, higher-income (with a median income of around $94,000, per the study’s findings) and populated by white New Yorkers.

The study is, it should be noted, part of Lime’s push to get dockless bikes and scooters into New York City; the company, along with Bird, has been lobbying New York City officials in an effort to change attitudes toward micromobility. And Lime says that if e-scooters were legalized, an additional 1.5 million New Yorkers would have better access to nearby modes of transit—scooters could put them within 10 minutes of subways, docked bike-share stations, or other options.

But the problems with transportation access that the study points to are real. Studies have shown that commuting times have a huge impact on upward mobility—and New York’s transit deserts “drastically and disproportionately affect low-income populations and communities of color, resulting in significant barriers to upward mobility,” per Lime’s report.

Lime’s study recommends prioritizing a roll-out of dockless bike and scooter service in five specific areas, which are both densely populated and poorly served by current transit options:

  • East Flatbush/Flatlands/Canarsie
  • Middle Village
  • Whitestone/College Point/Clearview
  • Kew Gardens Hills
  • South Jamaica

So far, officials have taken baby steps toward bringing dockless transportation to city streets: Last year, the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) rolled out a dockless bike share program in areas underserved by Citi Bike. And in November, the City Council went a step further: Council member Rafael Espinal introduced a bill that would establish a pilot program for the city to introduce e-scooters, while Fernando Cabrera introduced one that would remove restrictions against the use of e-scooters that move at speeds up to 15 miles per hour.

“What I’d like to see is an expansion of modes of transportation—not only in Manhattan, but in the outer-outer-boroughs,” Espinal told Curbed last year. “We have Citi Bike, but it hasn’t made its way out to East New York and other neighborhoods on the outskirts of the outer boroughs. We have to make sure this transportation is available to everyone.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, a grassroots organization that focuses on empowering vulnerable New Yorkers. “We need a solution to fix our transportation equity problem now—and dock-free vehicles are ready to roll,” he said in a statement. “It is unacceptable that those who are struggling the most in our city—low-income communities of color—are those with the least-affordable, least-reliable transportation options. The micro-mobility revolution is here and New York City must allow dock-free bikes and scooters to help fix our transportation equity crisis.”