Pittsburgh Spin scooter company offered free rides for support


HomeHome / Blog / Pittsburgh Spin scooter company offered free rides for support

Mar 26, 2023

Pittsburgh Spin scooter company offered free rides for support

Spin, Pittsburgh’s divisive scooter-share program, further raised eyebrows late

Spin, Pittsburgh's divisive scooter-share program, further raised eyebrows late last week when it offered some of its "top riders" free trips in exchange for letters of support to city council for the program's continuation.

"Once you have sent the email, please bcc or forward us a copy, and as a token of our appreciation, we will provide you with a $100 promo code that you can use toward your future rides with us," the email read.

"I almost compare that to me giving people 100 bucks to vote for me," said Councilor Anthony Coghill with a laugh. He said he wasn't necessarily upset by the strategy, but added that "letters will not carry the same weight when they hit our desk[s]."

Councilor Barb Warwick echoed that sentiment, and said it reminded her of a paid review on Amazon, which "obviously calls that review into question." She added that it's unfortunate for people who have sincerely communicated on their own to council that they like the scooters, "because it also calls their reviews into question, even though they may not have been part of this."

City Council support is important to Spin's future in the city. Legislation currently pending in the state Senate, which would extend a two-year pilot program for electric scooters in Pittsburgh, and permit them in other municipalities, allows local governments to write ordinances to regulate the programs.

John Lankford, Spin's senior director of partnerships and policy, said the company wanted to incentivize patrons to write a letter instead of contracting with a firm to create an advocacy campaign. He said he hopes the promotion won't overshadow enthusiasm for the scooter system.

"We know people have busy lives," he said. He described the practice of paying for an advocacy campaign as being "pretty common." Instead, Spin chose to "elevate the biggest users of our service who have the most to lose if this service is gone."

Council members seemed bemused by Spin's approach, but some said they’d be open to ways to improve the scooter program.

"We definitely need a conversation, but not a bought-and-paid for conversation," said Councilor Deb Gross. "There's really good feedback, earnest, true feedback from residents on both sides."

Gross said she personally knows people injured by scooters, but added that residents are using them "not just where they want to go, but where they need to go."

"They aren't served by any other mode," she said of some scooter users. "They don't have a private vehicle or they can't get there by public transportation, and that's really the problem that's to be solved."

Laura Chu Wiens, who leads Pittsburghers for Public Transit, said Spin was offering a "bribe" to city residents — and that the tactic proved the real agenda for bringing scooters to Pittsburgh.

"This demonstrates that Spin is out for its own bottom line, and that it will stop at nothing to continue its exclusive monopoly in Pittsburgh," said Chu Wiens, whose group has long been wary that the focus on scooters will distract from the importance of transit.

Spin set up shop in Pittsburgh in the summer of 2021 as part of the city's MovePGH initiative, which created hubs that help people access transportation options that range from buses and bikes to rental cars and — the new kid on the block — e-scooters. A state law passed that year allowed a commercial entity to pilot e-scooters in Pittsburgh. The two-year initiative greenlit by the state will expire this month. No other scooter-share company operates in Pennsylvania, and privately-owned scooters remain illegal to ride on state streets (though many people do anyway).

PPT and other advocates, particularly the City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny Task Force on Disabilities, have criticized MovePGH — though nearly all of the objections seem to be about Spin — for being inequitable and inaccessible. They argue that scooters exclude people who are differently abled, older residents, people who have to travel with dependents, such as children, and that the mode is prohibitively expensive. They criticized Pittsburgh for charging just $150 to allow Spin to operate on public streets. Chu Wiens said the arrangement furthers a pattern of city officials choosing to focus on products rather than people.

The conversation should instead center on "how we improve public transit access, how we are creating, maintaining, and enforcing clear sidewalks, and legislating to ensure that low-income people can afford to live by quality transit," she said.

In a mid-pilot report, issued in October 2022, DOMI officials cited the criticism that MovePGH siphoned valuable support away from those priorities but asserted, "There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to addressing accessibility and affordability issues."

City councilors said they’re very aware of concerns about how scooters serve people with low incomes, and their impact on people with disabilities. There's also the sense that many people seem to use the scooters solely for joyriding. (Not that there's anything wrong with joyriding, Coghill said: "I saw a local firefighter who lives in my neighborhood out with his children.")

DOMI relies on data from MovePGH's participant companies, including Spin, to compile its reports. That has made some people, such as Warwick and Chu Wiens, skeptical of the data's quality. Still, Spin's numbers provide a sense of how scooters have affected Pittsburgh.

In the last two years, Spin said it signed up more than 212,000 unique users who have taken more than 1 million unique trips. The majority of those trips were less than 1.5 miles, which DOMI describes as "more than a comfortable walk." While it's hard to say with certainty, the data suggest some of those trips replaced private car travel, which supports a central aim of Pittsburgh's climate goals: the reduction of automobile emissions. In addition, in self-reported surveys, 7 percent of users said they’d used Spin to connect to transit.

Data suggests that while scooters were popular in East End neighborhoods, and with people between 18 and 24, usage was also high in areas identified as "high need," such as the greater Hill District and Homewood. In addition, DOMI said 7 percent of all trips have originated from "access zones." Those are areas with lower incomes that "are often the most underserved by traditional fixed-route transit," officials wrote in a final report to the state.

Spin, working with DOMI, recently began to offer deeper discounts in access zones, as well as to people who receive financial assistance.

Lankford said the company welcomes critical feedback.

"It ultimately can lead to the improvement of the program," he said. "We want to be part of that conversation, we’re happy to be held accountable to the standard of continuous improvement."

As of July 2022, the cost of the entire MovePGH program was just over $825,000. Most of the money came from a grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, with the remainder paid by the World Resources Institute, and some fees from Spin. (DOMI estimated that it provided the equivalent of half of a full-time position to oversee MovePGH.) Spin collects 10 cents for every mile traveled, and the city used the money — Spin's Lankford said the current total is roughly $143,000 — to create scooter parking corrals, invest in mobility hubs, and install bike racks. Money from Spin also helped to fund a global basic mobility pilot that, due to research regulations, only recently got underway in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University.

Chris Sandvig, who runs transportation advocacy group Mobilify, said that instead of lionizing or disparaging any given mode of transportation, advocates need to team up to take on "the thing that has the rest of the roadway: the car."

He said Pittsburghers need, and deserve, more transit, more transit funding, more bus drivers, better sidewalks and shelters. Everyone should be working to make that happen, he said.

"But that doesn't solve the problem tonight for the person getting off third shift [who] can't get home because their ride fell through," he said. "And if there is at least something available [scooters], then why wouldn't we let that be available?"