The litany of complaints lodged against dockless electric scooters has grown so long they’ve begun to feel like the vape pens of the transportation sector. Some concerns raised are legitimate, but plenty of gripes linger on the verge of ludicrous. In no other city, however, have scooters had as rough of a ride as in Richmond, Virginia.
Last summer, California-based Bird began placing flocks of its scooters on prominent corners around the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, unannounced. As in cities across the globe, the service became an immediate success among students and others traveling farther than they’d walk, but not going so far they’d want to wait on transit or pay for ride-hailing.
The City of Richmond wasn’t enthusiastic about this infusion of micro-mobility. City hall issued a cease and desist letter to Bird and its CEO that instructed the company to stop creating “a nuisance on sidewalks and streets” that could be “a danger to people’s health and safety.” Police began rounding up scooters and loading them into vehicles headed for the municipal impound lot.
Over the next couple of months, city officials and Bird were locked in a game of cat and mouse. Through a contract with the city, a private towing company began hauling off as many scooters as it could find. Bird paid thousands of dollars to spring their devices from the impound lot so it could drop them back on corners across Richmond.
As the fines and confiscated scooters piled up, Bird finally learned “you can’t fight city hall.” Last month, the contracted tow company auctioned off over 300 Bird scooters to private bidders at rock bottom prices, concluding Bird’s chapter in Richmond transportation history.
Bolt enters Richmond, scooter murder capital
Bird’s bid to become Central Virginia’s micro-mobility leader foundered, but other scooter companies like Lime, Joy Scooters, and Bolt were waiting in the wings to see what rules City Council would agree upon. In January of this year, Mayor Levar Stoney convinced the council to pass an ordinance that would charge companies $40,000 per year to put up to 100 scooters on Richmond’s streets, with options to pay $60,000 for 101-200 scooters and $80,000 for 201-500 scooters. To even apply for a permit, companies must pay $1,500.
For Lime, the high fees and low cap on scooters was a deal breaker. Durham, a similarly-sized city in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, charges micro-mobility companies just $100 per scooter per year. Richmond’s permitting costs, on the other hand, break down to roughly $400 per device. So far Bolt is the only company to deem serving Virginia’s capital worth the cost.
And what a high cost it has been. The strong ridership numbers—over 27,000 trips in the first month alone—aren’t the only unexpectedly high figures Bolt has clocked. Roughly one in four of the company’s scooters has been vandalized. Devices have been snapped in half, jailbroken for personal use, thrown in dumpsters, stolen, tossed in the river, and even torched.
Last month Bolt admitted that the destruction has been so rampant that it has never even come close to deploying as many scooters as its permit allows. The company also revealed that vandalism in Richmond exceeds 11 other markets. Considering Bolt currently serves 12 markets total, the Twittersphere declared Richmond the scooter murder capital of the world.
The longer term threat to Bolt’s presence in Richmond may not come from the physical damage being wrought upon its fleet of scooters, but rather from the growing concerns about their inequitable placement throughout the city.
Scooters for whomst?
As a condition of Bolt’s permit, the company promised to keep 35% of its fleet—approximately 175 scooters—in low-income neighborhoods. However, there’s no such language to be found in the Mayor’s ordinance. Although the Department of Public Works oversees Bolt’s permit, City Council is supposed to decide which areas qualify as low-income neighborhoods. Who exactly monitors and enforces this pledge of equity, if anyone, remains unclear.
At Bolt’s official launch ceremony in Monroe Park in June, the company proudly displayed a map of its planned scooter deployment with devices scattered evenly across Richmond’s grid. The reality over the past two months has looked quite different. Frequent checks of Bolt’s app rarely reveal even a handful of scooters south of the James River, where neighborhoods are less affluent beyond the rising condos and bank buildings of coastal Manchester. I took this screenshot earlier this week:
More disturbingly, users have begun reporting the introduction of unofficial “restricted zones” throughout the city. One local resident had his Bolt scooter shut off unexpectedly while riding through Gilpin Court, a public housing complex on Richmond’s Northside. The device warned him he would be fined for leaving it there—and threatened to call the police if he moved it. The company hasn’t been forthcoming about how it’s using geofencing, but these stories raise red flags about discrimination.
Then there’s the promised Bolt Forward program that would offer low-income riders a 50% discount. Over two months after the scooters’ rollout, the ongoing lack of information has been another stain on the company’s facade of equitable operations. If Bolt wants to assuage the concerns of Richmonders who fear the company is just out to make a quick buck regardless of who it serves (or doesn’t serve), it will need to be more transparent.
Scooters offer a low-cost and environmentally friendly way to get around, and they could fill the missing “last mile” link that would help Richmonders get from transit to their front door (a service many hoped the capital’s struggling bikeshare would have provided). Visitors and locals alike could benefit from a thoughtful addition to the city’s transportation ecosystem, but for now Bolt’s pledges of equitable service remain an empty promise and a pity for Richmond.