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“It’s a big challenge because when you drive your car, for example, people don’t pay attention to municipal limits. They just want to get from point A to point B as seamlessly as possible,” said Will Sowers, director of public affairs at Wheels.

Will Sowers, Public Affairs Director of Wheels.

Image courtesy of Wheels

Although each city has its own capital requirements, the City of LA has established its current program in 2021. Any operator deploying vehicles to special operations areas (including Venice, Hollywood and Downtown) is required to deploy 20% of its fleet in areas of equity. There are no travel costs for journeys that start or end in these areas. The city is also asking operators to offer a low-income option for riders, attend meetings with ward councils and other local stakeholders, offer a credit card and smartphone-less payment option, and to join a community organization.

But these efforts have not had as much impact as the city might have hoped.

As of October 2021, there were 2,915 active users enrolled in low-income programs across all carriers, according to information provided by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. That’s just 17 more users than the city reported a year and a half earlier — in a report that also noted that 85% of users were unaware equity programs were available.

According to Sowers, cyclists in underserved areas of Los Angeles use micromobility differently than those in more affluent areas. While a driver in Venice might get to the beach or a restaurant, drivers in underserved areas often use electric scooters 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 can – with one of the many delivery apps – take a short shift.”

Wheels plans to go further

Wheels is trying something different. The company has strived to design its scooter around how low-income riders use them and is one of the few scooter companies that can meet the requirements of multiple LA municipalities.

It currently boasts the most interconnected micromobility network in the LA metro area, with licenses to operate in LA City, Santa Monica, Culver City and West Hollywood, as well as launch plans in Glendale.

In practical terms, this means that a user can drive a Wheels device between municipalities to get to work or school without worrying about landing in a no-parking zone (Beverly Hills, for example, is geo-fenced and prohibited for scooter driving 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 to travel longer distances. While a typical stand-up scooter travels a mile each way, a Wheels seated mini bike travels about a mile and a half. In addition to its app-based service, the company also offers monthly rentals.

So far, the company has raised $96.3 million in funding.

Under its “Wheels for All” program, cyclists from the four municipalities who use state or federal benefits can ride at a great discount. Currently, Wheels devices cost $1.10 to unlock and then $0.39 per minute to roll. But underserved passengers get unlimited rides of 30 minutes or less, paying only the unlocking fee.

The curriculum is also larger than LA requires. In addition to low-income cyclists, people with disabilities, and seniors whom the city designates as “underserved populations,” the Wheels program is also available to people who are homeless.

To qualify, applicants complete an online form and provide proof of enrollment in a state or federal program.

By comparison, competitor Lime offers rides for $0.50 to unlock plus $0.07 per minute plus tax through its Lime Access program; Bird is offering 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 runners are registered in the greater Los Angeles area. The program has provided just over 23,000 rides over the past year.

Sowers said this was an issue his company was doing its best to resolve. He added that he frequently speaks to social workers and organizations to help spread the word. Many, he said, are initially skeptical about recommending micromobility options to their customers.

One such person called it after seeing a disabled person using a Wheels device:

“They called me and said, ‘This makes sense to me. It makes sense that someone could sit down and potentially have an accessibility issue, but still be able to use your device.”

Berkeley professor and co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center Dr. Susan A. Shaheen told dot.LA via email that Wheels’ approach to equity has potential.

“It could provide a more affordable alternative to using private vehicles, especially in these times of high gas prices,” she said.

Image courtesy of Wheels

No equity without infrastructure

Another challenge that Wheels, like its competitors, faces is infrastructure. California law prohibits electric scooters from driving on sidewalks. But not everyone is comfortable riding an e-scooter or e-bike on the street, especially where there are no bike lanes and little infrastructure to keep riders safe. This is especially true in many low-income neighborhoods.

“If you want to prioritize equity, you need to build infrastructure for micromobility in the places where it is most dangerous to use micromobility, that 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 across the city, especially along LA’s high-risk network.

The city said it was trying to address the disparity.

Los Angeles brought in $4 million over two fiscal years from its micromobility permit program, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. He is using some of that money to fund an overhaul of the 7th Street corridor, including protected bike lanes, after data showed this segment of downtown was one of the busiest for scooters and bikes. e-bikes, Director of Public Information Colin Sweeney said via email.

Going forward, Sowers sees the potential for LA to use this funding, along with the data it collects from operators, to build better infrastructure in underserved areas.

“If someone in a transit desert uses 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 has no protected bike lanes”, so that creates a reason why the city built this.

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