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In the move toward personal mobility devices, D.C.’s poorest are left behind — again

A scooter user in downtown Washington. While popular downtown, the devices are nearly impossible to find east of the Anacostia River.
A scooter user in downtown Washington. While popular downtown, the devices are nearly impossible to find east of the Anacostia River. (Luz Lazo/The Washington Post)

If you’ve spent any time in downtown Washington recently, you’ve probably seen one of the hundreds of electric scooters that, for better or worse, have become ubiquitous on city streets and sidewalks.

That is, unless you happen to be east of the Anacostia River. Chances are, if you live in Ward 7 or Ward 8, you’ve never seen a scooter in your neighborhood, let alone had an opportunity to rent one.

Much like every other transportation trend aimed at getting cars off the roads and providing people with more options, the push toward personal mobility devices is bypassing the city’s poorest residents and those who might benefit most, advocates say.

“A lot of folks over there are not even aware of these scooters,” Denise Rolark-Barnes said at a recent panel discussion organized by scooter firm Spin. “I talked to a few people in trying to prepare for this evening, and they were like, ‘Denise, we don’t even know what you are talking about.’ ”

“We are looking forward to finding out how all of D.C. can enjoy these new modes of transportation,” Rolark-Barnes said.

The lack of availability of scooters in the area isn’t surprising, advocates say. It mirrors what has happened with other modes of transportation, from traditional taxis to bike sharing to ride hailing and now the new dockless services, with the community continuing to be underserved long after the services’ arrivals in the nation’s capital.

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An analysis by the research firm Coord, which reviewed usage data from four companies operating scooters and dockless bikes in the city, concluded that none has availability in Anacostia. It also found that scooters are deployed in the densest and most affluent areas of the city, such as the downtown core, Georgetown and Dupont Circle.

A recent random search for scooters on the apps for Bird, Lime, Lyft, Skip and Spin, yielded only a handful to no devices available in the city’s east end. No scooters were available in historic Anacostia, an area with a promising mix of homegrown businesses and attractions. Yet dozens were available just across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, in the developing Navy Yard community of new condos and million-dollar townhouses.

They were missing in communities east of the river such as Skyland and Congress Heights but found in neighborhoods west of the river such as Capitol Hill and Logan Circle.

Some affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods in upper northwest don’t have many of the devices either, but the absence of the two-wheel vehicles is more striking in the majority black and low-income areas of the city.

“It’s because this is a black community,” said Alayah Evans, a student who walks 15 minutes from her home to the Anacostia Metro station. She’s seen the scooters downtown and elsewhere, but no where near her home or where she shops in Anacostia. She would try them, she said, to cut her walk time and the soreness in her legs after a long day.

“I would rather pay and not hurt,” Evans said.

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Residents say e-scooters follow every modern transportation trend in Southeast, where getting an Uber or Lyft can still take three times as long as it does in other parts of the city. Taxis are scarce, even though the city agency that regulates them is in Anacostia. And it wasn’t until a year ago that the District’s subsidized Capital Bikeshare program deployed a sizable fleet of bikes east of the river.

“We are patient,” said Rolark-Barnes, a native Washingtonian who is publisher of the Washington Informer.

But Olivia Warren, a D.C. government employee who commutes from Anacostia to downtown, said her side of town shouldn’t have to wait.

“Whatever is in other parts of D.C., should be east of the river in the same way and the same amount,” she said.

Some residents say it’s a blessing that the scooters and dockless bikes haven’t taken over their sidewalks. The area isn’t quite made for bikes or scooters, they say, citing a lack of bike infrastructure. And, they say, the appetite to rent bikes and scooters for transportation is still lacking.

“We like the bus service. We like the cab. And our own personal cars,” said Khadijah Watson, 73, a neighborhood advisory commissioner in Skyland. So far, she said, she’s only heard about the scooters through Facebook and hasn’t seen them in the neighborhood. But she said she and her neighbors are fine with it. “Nobody around here is going to give up their car to ride on scooters.”

Some of the dockless bikes made it to historic Anacostia when they arrived in the District last year, but as in other parts of the region and around the country, vandalism became a problem, some said.

“The number of broken and scatted bikes became a visual eyesore,” said IBe’ Crawley, an artist who founded an art gallery in Southeast. The few scooters she’s seen, she said, have been people crossing the 11th Street bridge, a sign that people want to use them for getting across the river.

“Having them at the Metro, schools and near business would be a good idea to use as a transportation mode as it is in downtown and other parts of the city,” Crawley said.

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District transportation officials say they are working to ensure a better distribution of the privately operated services. New regulations set to go into effect in January governing the e-scooters and dockless bike systems “were designed to provide access to potential users in all eight wards,” said Terry Owens, a spokesman for the District Department of Transportation. He said the city “is committed to fair and equitable access.”

The pilot program that has allowed the bike and scooter operations since September 2017, requires them to have a presence in all eight wards. But companies have argued that the city’s restrictions on fleet size offered them little incentive to spread their vehicles outside the most popular, high-density areas. The companies were allowed to operate up to 400 scooters or bikes during the trial period that ends this year.

As the program enters a permanent phase in January, companies will be allowed up to 600 vehicles with an opportunity to expand every quarter after review by DDOT. If all the companies vying for a permit are approved, there could be up to 10,000 devices in the city by spring — half of what some industry leaders say Washington needs to serve all eight wards.

Providers will have to deploy vehicles to all eight wards by 6 a.m. daily. But companies will be required to have only at least six vehicles in each ward.

They also will have to offer a cash payment option to customers, have discounted plans for low-income residents and address language barriers, officials said.

Owens said DDOT will analyze monthly data reports from the companies to evaluate performance, and those that perform poorly on equity will not be allowed to expand — and run the risk of losing their permits.

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Reaching nontraditional riders, including low-income and minority residents, has long been a concern in the shared economy, where services require users to have smartphones and credit cards or sign up for pricey annual memberships. The dockless bike model was viewed as a way to reach a wider segment of the population.

Companies say they are doing their part by building partnerships in underserved communities and offering reduced rates.

“It’s obvious that companies like Spin and the other companies can do more and serve a larger geographic area in a much more robust way and a much more meaningful way than we all have been,” said Brian No, head of public policy at Spin, which launched its scooters in the District last month.

With an expanded fleet, he said, companies will be in a better position to distribute to more locations, but he cautioned that companies deploy where there is demand.

“It wouldn’t surprise anyone that a company wouldn’t really want to deploy a bunch of scooters somewhere if they are never going to be used,” No said.