Can Scooter Companies Meet Their Diversity Quota?

A survey shows most riders are affluent white men, prompting the city to demand more diversity. But do S.F.’s low-income communities of color even want scooters?

It’s been six months since two sanctioned fleets of scooters hit San Francisco streets. The bright-red Scoots and blue-and-yellow Skips blend in among the rush-hour hordes of cyclists and skateboarders in Market Street’s bike lane. The city’s collective outrage over the scooter permits — which came on the heels of scofflaw companies dropping hundreds of their vehicles on the streets without approval — appears to have died down. But the pilot program is far from over. Six months in, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency has reviewed the program to see how the companies and their users are behaving.

What they discovered is something many predicted when the pilot program first launched: The vast majority of scooter users are white men who make more than $100,000 a year. In order to qualify for a fleet expansion, the SFMTA says they have to hit 500 registered low-income members. Scoot is currently at 68, and Skip has 78.

But as pressure to diversify their ridership rises, another question emerges. Do low-income communities and people of color even want scooters in their neighborhoods?

Sitting in iCafe on Waverly Place, Rosa Chen from the Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project (TRIP) gestures to the tables around her. It’s the middle of a weekday afternoon, and the cafe is packed with people, all chatting loudly as they drink tea and watch the large television on the far wall.

“Most of our community here in Chinatown are seniors, who rely on public transportation,” she says. “You won’t see our seniors using scooters.”

There are innumerable reasons for this. The average age of Chinatown residents is 50, and scooters are generally favored by younger generations. Many people in Chinatown are monolingual, and while Scoot offers service in “traditional Chinese,” the technology is inaccessible for older flip-phone owners, as only smartphones can download the app and support the data plan to run it. In order to pay, you have to use a credit card — a rare occurence in a neighborhood where businesses deal mostly in cash. 

Plus there’s the geography of the area to consider. Its steep streets are often jammed with articulated buses and box trucks, and its sidewalks are small — made even narrower by grocery stores’ wares spilling out on display to passersby.

“Geographically, it doesn’t make sense,” Chen says.

Chinatown TRIP was founded in 1976 by Muni bus drivers who saw a lack of transportation options for seniors getting to and from grocery stores and doctor’s appointments. Today, the neighborhood has evolved to address many of those needs. North East Medical Services (NEMS) offers culturally competent care for Chinese residents, the Chinese Community Development Center (CCDC) runs housing and social-services programs, and the local economy of grocery stores, tea shops, and restaurants is booming.

“There’s everything you need here,” Chen says. “As a senior in Chinatown, if you don’t work anymore you don’t need to leave Chinatown. Your health is covered, housing is here, food is here. This is literally a one-stop shop for so many seniors.”

But even for those who do leave, buses are the obvious answer. No longer a transit desert, the seven-by-four blocks that make up Chinatown are served by the 30-Stockton, 45-Union/Stockton, 8-Bayshore, 1-California, 10-Townsend, the 12-Folsom/Pacific — and, after the Central Subway opens later this year, the T-Third.

One private mobility company has already figured out that Chinatown will never be a hotspot for their product. “As a multimodal company, offering both Scoot Kicks and Scoot Motos in SF, we are committed to providing the vehicle you need for the trip you are taking,” says Jasmine Wallsmith of Scoot. “We intentionally do not cover Chinatown with our Scoot Kicks for the reasons you learned with Chinatown TRIP.”

In addition, Scoot has instituted a policy to discourage riders from leaving their scooters in Chinatown. If anyone tries to leave their scooter there they’ll be asked to move it to another area. If they refuse, they’ll be charged a fee. “Multiple offenses by a rider will also result in being contacted by our Riders Reps (customer care team) with a warning and reminder of our parking requirements,” Wallsmith says.

(Courtesy Photo)

Across town in the much-larger Mission District, a very different situation has unfolded. The neighborhood has ample public transit, but could be better served. Some buses run infrequently, and many are a few blocks’ walk away. As the neighborhood’s demographic changes new forms of mobility have already moved in: Parents ferry their kids to school on electric-assist cargo bikes, and Boosted boards are everywhere.

But Latinx community advocates are apprehensive about what scooters could mean. Gentrification and displacement are rampant, and they predicted last year that the ridership would be wealthy and white.

“I wish I could say I’m surprised by the results,” says Carlos Bocanegra, a Mission housing and immigration attorney. “These companies are not operating their programs with substantive consideration of minority populations because, as proven by the data, that’s not where the lion’s share of their market rate income is coming from. I would expect nothing less than for them to promote and tailor their services to maximize their profit. In this case, it happens to be upscale white men.”

While Scoot and Skip offer app services in Spanish, several of the barriers between Chinatown residents and scooters also exist in the Mission, namely the scarcity of smartphones and credit cards.

Advocates for the neighborhood have long called for culturally competent outreach before the MTA makes decisions to roll out red lanes, remove parking spots, or drop scooters on the street, but Bocanegra believes the city is still falling short — and that situations like this are the result. 

“Their low-income programs were created without even engaging low-income populations to see what kind of low-income program would make scooters affordable and accessible to them,” he says. “Our Transit Justice Coalition had some conversations with Skip and Scoot around December of last year around the accountability measures necessary to ensure equitable and disabled access, but have not heard back from them since.”

(Photo: Scoot)

There is, however, one diverse neighborhood in San Francisco that does seem to be answering the siren song of an easy, affordable new transit system: the Bayview. The southeastern edge of the city has been drastically underserved by public transportation. It’s vast and flat, with wide sidewalks, some bike lane infrastructure, and English-speaking residents who are smartphone-savvy. During last week’s SFMTA hearing on the scooter pilot programs, more than a dozen from the neighborhood stood up to speak to scooters’ benefits.

“District 10 is a disenfranchised community. That’s no news to anyone,” said Ellouise Patton. “We are ecstatic that we are finally being included in something that is so important. Transportation and traffic is one of the biggest issues the city faces, but what we have seen from Scoot is they’re coming out there, they’re going to the churches, they’re going to nonprofit organizations, they’re even having these mixers. Scooters are a much needed addition to our transportation needs.”

For Christina Gonzales, the scooters provide a safe way home when the city’s public transit fails.

“At night in the Bayview, sometimes you cannot get access home through the buses,” she says. “The 44 shuts down sometimes. The 23 shuts down. So being able to get on a Scoot to get up that hill to get home at night is absolutely wonderful.”

And Bayview residents aren’t just riding the scooters. Several are now employed full-time by Skip and Scoot, with benefits training in skills that can transfer to other careers.

In the end, as with everything in San Francisco, this scooter pilot program proves that a one-size-fits-all approach will never work. And while some of the scooter companies’ failings in reaching a diverse user base is internal, neighborhood advocates also say the responsibility needs to land on the city’s shoulders, too.

“The SFMTA should realize that some low-income communities don’t need scooters,” says Chen. “They should talk to low-income communities first, and figure out which neighborhoods want it and need it, and then tell the scooter companies. Transportation in Bayview is awful, they need the scooters. But in Chinatown transportation is only, at most, three blocks away.”

Bocanegra agrees — but says they need to take it a step further to reach anything remotely equitable.

“The MTA needs to hold itself accountable and serve as the fierce advocate it needs to be to hold these companies accountable and safeguard the needs of vulnerable and minority communities in San Francisco,” he says. “Without real consequence or proper incentive for these companies to take action, I strongly doubt they will proactively develop these systems.”

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