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Disability advocates urge city to reevaluate its e-scooter mobility initiative, Move PGH

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
“We're, in fact, being confronted with scooters littering the sidewalk and blocking our access,” said Paul O’Hanlon, a member of the city-county disability task force and sits on the board of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

Advocates in Pittsburgh say the city’s latest public transit initiative hurts, rather than helps, people with disabilities and their access to transportation.

A product of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure and its grant-funded Pittsburgh Mobility Collective, the two-year Move PGH pilot program aims to make bikes, buses and e-scooters accessible and equitable citywide. Last week, DOMI published a report on the pilot’s progress thus far, largely focusing on the use of e-scooters from the San Francisco-based company Spin.

The overall goal of the program is to “create a more affordable, accessible and equitable mobility ecosystem,” according to DOMI. The city constructed clustered mobility hubs to do so, each one with multiple kinds of transit — from buses and the light rail system to scooters and bikes — in one location.

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But community organizers with several groups citywide say their concerns about the program have gone unaddressed, and are again pushing officials to pause and reevaluate the pilot if they continue on.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit, the City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities and Access Mob Pittsburgh released a joint reaction to the mid-pilot report on Tuesday, calling the e-scooters harmful.

“Because of the persistent, unresolved issues around scooter accessibility, safety, affordability, environmental sustainability, and accountability, our organizations believe that the Move PGH pilot should not be renewed,” the groups wrote.

Instead of reducing barriers, disability rights advocate and retired lawyer Paul O’Hanlon said the city’s initiative creates additional accessibility problems for people with disabilities.

“We're, in fact, being confronted with scooters littering the sidewalk and blocking our access,” said O’Hanlon, who is also a member of the city-county disability task force and sits on the board of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

'They're not trying to make it accessible'

Nearly $700,000 in funding for the Move PGH initiative came from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the World Resources Institute.

In the first year of the pilot, which began in July 2021, users took more than 576,000 spin e-scooter, 82,000 POGOH bike and 8,100 Zipcar trips. More than 40% of surveyed e-scooter users were students, and almost half of all Spin users were between the ages of 18 and 24.

Men, the report added, were over-represented among e-scooter users compared to their share of the city’s total population. The most popular neighborhoods for scooter trips tended to be in relatively flat areas of the city, including Oakland, the East End and Lawrenceville.

As part of Move PGH, riders in several designated “access zones” can receive a 25% discount off of their total e-scooter trip fee, and riders who qualify for governmental assistance and sign up through Spin Access can receive 75% off each trip they take.

But as the joint statement from Pittsburghers for Public Transit and its co-authors pointed out, only 186 residents have signed up for Spin Access so far—equal to just 0.1% of unique Spin users.

In June 2021, DOMI and Spin met with the city-county disability task force to discuss Move PGH, but O’Hanlon said the representatives neither answered their questions nor responded to additional calls for change.

“They've created an inaccessible last mile transit system and they're not trying to make it accessible,” he said.

Under the goals of the Move PGH program, DOMI says it strives to create more mobility modes for “communities that have been traditionally underserved by transit.”

O’Hanlon, who lives with a neuromuscular disease and uses a power wheelchair, said the disability community is among the most underserved. People with disabilities nationwide experience poverty at twice the rate of people without disabilities and heavily rely on public transit.

O’Hanlon said the e-scooters are also inaccessible options for people in other groups: adults over 65; residents in hilly communities; residents without access to smartphones or bank accounts; people traveling with dependents; and those who can’t afford the cost of the ride.

Last year, an e-scooter trip cost $1 to start, plus 39 cents per minute riding.

In a letter to former DOMI director Karina Ricks, members of the task force wrote the e-scooters constituted a “brand-new inaccessible mobility service” that they believe violates the city’s requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We urge the City to invite people with disabilities and accessibility experts to become part of the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective, and to design an accessible last mile unified mobility service that is ‘readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities' and which truly provides ‘a suite of mobility services, platforms and infrastructure tailored to the needs of Pittsburgh residents, workers and visitors,’” the task force’s members wrote in July 2021.

Shifting the burden

Spin’s website asks riders to “be mindful of others who may have difficulties with vision or mobility” when parking their scooters and to avoid blocking sidewalks and curb cuts. But O’Hanlon said there is no mechanism incentivizing riders to follow that guidance, or for the city or Spin to enforce it.

According to the report, DOMI requires Spin to pay a fee for each violation they accrue related to “failures to meet distribution requirements and other policies.” Those fines are then set aside to install infrastructure, like scooter corrals and bike racks.

When asked, city officials said DOMI continually works with Spin to update policies and enforcement mechanisms for improper riding and parking of scooters. They added that any improper riding or parking complaints can be directed to Spin or through 311 along with the scooter ID so the company can expedite locating the vehicle and identifying the rider at the time of the violation.

DOMI conducts routine audits of Spin to assess their legal compliance but relies on residents to report violations, and Spin to warn, fine or suspend users.

To O’Hanlon, that shifts an additional burden to people with disabilities and others who are harmed by the presence of e-scooters.

“Once again, we are asked to accept a system designed to be inaccessible, and then, as usually happens, have the burden shift to us to find ways to retrofit or modify that system,” O’Hanlon said.

The Mayor's office will hold a previously-planned town hall meeting, in partnership with the city-county task force on disabilities and Oakland for All, on this and a number of other disability issues on Tuesday, Oct. 25.

City officials told WESA they look forward to an “engaging conversation with them about mobility - and building a stronger partnership with the administration.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.