“It’s a big challenge because when you drive your car, for example, people don’t pay attention to municipal boundaries. They just want to get from point A to point B in the most seamless way possible,” said Will Sowers, director of public affairs at Wheels.
Wheels Director of Public Affairs Will Sowers.
Image courtesy of Wheels
While each city has its own equity requirements, the city of L.A. established its current program in 2021. Any operator deploying vehicles in special operation zones (including Venice, Hollywood and Downtown) is required to deploy 20% of its fleet in equity zones. There is no trip fee for rides that begin or end in these zones. The city also requires operators to offer a low-income option for riders, attend meetings with neighborhood councils and other local stakeholders, provide a non-credit-card and non-smartphone option for payment and partner with a community-based organization.
But those efforts haven’t made as much an impact as the city might have hoped.
As of October 2021 there were 2,915 active users enrolled in low-income programs across all operators, according to information provided by L.A.’s Department of Transportation. That’s just 17 more riders than the city reported a year and a half earlier–in a report which also noted that 85% of users did not know that equity programs were available.
Riders in L.A.’s underserved neighborhoods use micromobility differently than those in more affluent areas, according to Sowers. While a rider in Venice might ride to the beach or to a restaurant, riders in underserved areas often use e-scooters as a way to get from a transit stop to work and vice versa.
“We’ve even seen examples of people using our device as a courier,” he added, “where they may — with one of many delivery apps — grab a short shift.”
Wheels Plan to Go Further
Wheels is trying something different. The company has made an effort to design its scooter for the way that lower-income riders use them, and is one of the few scooter companies able to thread the requirements of multiple municipalities in L.A.
It currently boasts it has the most interconnected micromobilty network in the L.A. metro region, with permits to operate in the city of L.A., Santa Monica, Culver City and West Hollywood, as well as plans to launch in Glendale.
Practically speaking, that means a user could ride a Wheels device between municipalities to get to work or school without worrying about landing in a no-parking zone (Beverly Hills, for instance, is geofenced and off-limits for scooter riding and parking).
Wheels was founded in 2018 in West Hollywood by Jonathan and Joshua Viner, who previously co-founded pet-walking startup Wag. The company’s scooters are designed for traveling longer distances. While a typical standup scooter goes one mile per ride, a Wheels seated mini-bike goes about one and a half miles. Along with its app-based service, the company also offers monthly rentals.
So far, the company has raised $96.3M in funding..
As part of its “Wheels for All” program, riders in all four municipalities who use state or federal benefits can ride at a steep discount. Currently, Wheels devices are $1.10 to unlock and then $0.39 per minute to ride. But underserved riders get unlimited rides of 30 minutes or less, paying only the unlocking fee.
The program is also more expansive than L.A. requires. In addition to low-income riders, people with disabilities and older adults who the city designates as “underserved populations,” Wheels program is also available for unhoused people.
To qualify, applicants fill out a form online and provide proof of enrollment in a state or federal program.
In comparison, its competitor Lime offers rides for $0.50 to unlock plus $0.07 per minute plus tax through its Lime Access program; Bird offers 50% off rides for low-income Angelenos through its Community Pricing program.
Although Wheels has the most interconnected equity program, enrollment is low. Only about 1,000 riders are signed up across the greater L.A. area. The program has provided just over 23,000 rides in the last year.
Sowers said this is an issue his company is doing its best to address. He added that he frequently talks to social service workers and organizations to help spread the word. Many, he said, are initially skeptical of recommending micromobility options to their clients.
One such person called him after seeing someone with a disability riding a Wheels device:
“They called me and were like, ‘That makes sense to me. It makes sense that someone can sit down and potentially have an accessibility challenge, but still be able to ride your device’.”
Berkeley professor and co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center Dr. Susan A. Shaheen told dot.LA over email that Wheels’ approach to equity has potential.
“It could provide a more affordable alternative to private vehicle use, particularly during these times of high gas prices,” she said.
Image courtesy of Wheels
No Equity Without Infrastructure
Another challenge that Wheels, like its competitors, deals with is infrastructure. California law bans e-scooters from operating on sidewalks. But not everyone is comfortable riding an e-scooter or e-bike in the street, especially where there are no bike lanes and little infrastructure to keep riders safe. That’s especially true in many low-income neighborhoods.
“If you want to prioritize equity, you need to build infrastructure for micromobility in the places that are the most dangerous to use micromobility, which is in the least-invested communities,” said Michael Schneider, founder of advocacy group Streets For All. He added that providing equity means building interconnected cycling infrastructure throughout the city, especially along L.A.’s high injury network.
The city has said it’s trying to address the disparity.
Los Angeles has brought in $4 million over two fiscal years through its micromobility permit program, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. It’s using some of that money to fund a redesign of the 7th Street corridor, including protected bike lanes, after data showed that this segment of Downtown was one of the busiest for e-scooters and e-bikes, Public Information Director Colin Sweeney said via email.
In the future, Sowers sees the potential for L.A. to use that funding, along with the data it collects from operators, to build better infrastructure in underserved areas.
“If someone in a transit desert is riding one of our devices, and I give the city good data and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got tons of rides in this neighborhood, but there’s no protected bike lanes,’ then that creates a reason for the city to build that.”