Seattle’s new scooter-rental regulations include a requirement that companies deploy at least 10% of their devices in neighborhoods that are home to many people of color, immigrants and people with low incomes.

The requirement is meant to ensure the vehicles can be rented in a variety of areas, rather than only in pricey neighborhoods close to downtown, such as Capitol Hill and South Lake Union.

But Lime, the company that launched Seattle’s first rental scooters on Sept. 16, didn’t meet the requirement with its rental bikes last year, raising questions about whether the city can guarantee equitable service with the 500 scooters on the streets today. Company and city officials say changes should yield better results soon.

Like the scooter-rental regulations, Seattle’s bike-rental regulations require companies to deploy at least 10% every day in “equity areas” — Lake City, Bitter Lake and Haller Lake in North Seattle; Seward Park, South Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and Rainier Beach in South Seattle; Delridge and High Point in West Seattle; the Central District, Georgetown and South Park.

Though riders can travel anywhere on the bikes and electric foot scooters, companies move some of them around every morning and provide deployment data to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

Lime failed to meet the 10% requirement for bikes in 2019, according to a (SDOT) report that evaluated average daily deployments by month. The company deployed 3% to 7% of its bikes in equity areas each month, according to the report.

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Another bike-rental company, Jump, met the 10% mark consistently last year, which “tells us this is a reasonable and realistic requirement,” SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said.

Lumping Lime and Jump together, 9% of Seattle rental bikes were deployed to equity areas (Lime took over Jump’s operations earlier this year, with Lime’s green bikes disappearing and Jump’s ride bikes remaining)

The companies struggled with other equity metrics, as well. While the city requires companies to offer discount fares to people with lower incomes, only 2% of bike-rental trips last year were purchased with those fares, according to the SDOT report. Just 3% of bike renters surveyed by SDOT identified as Black, whereas 88% identified as white.

Lime’s initial rollout of 500 scooters last month included deployments to downtown, South Lake Union, Sodo, Capitol Hill, Ballard, Fremont, University District and one equity area, the Central District.

Lime strategic development director Jonathan Hopkins promised improvements to come. September data shows that 15% of Lime’s September scooter trips were in equity areas, mostly in the Central District and South Seattle.

“We have continued to improve our tools to ensure neighborhood-deployment levels hit our stated goals,” Hopkins said in a statement, noting Lime began renting scooters this summer in nearby White Center, which has demographics similar to Seattle’s equity areas.

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To start, SDOT has capped Lime at 500 scooters, constraining the company’s ability to cover all neighborhoods. Even in the neighborhoods where Lime launched, more devices are needed to provide more reliable service, Hopkins said. Renters won’t use the scooters much unless they’re always nearby.

Two other scooter companies, Link and Wheels, are expected to launch in Seattle this month or next month, Bergerson said. They’ll also be limited to 500 scooters, capping the total number on the streets at 1,500.

SDOT may raise the caps early next year, depending on whether the companies are providing safety, accessibility and equity, Bergerson said. The city could at some point allow as many as 6,000 scooters total, though “we do not have a predetermined timetable,” he said.

Meanwhile, SDOT has a new option for enforcing its permits, including the equity-area requirement: Fining the companies. “We have continued to learn from our experience with bike-share,” Bergerson said.

Scooter riders

Seattle’s rental scooters and bikes, supporters point out, can help people get around without cars. They work well for short trips and trips to transit stops.

The city has struggled to provide consistency to bike renters, with a public system quickly collapsing and with various private vendors cycling through. Seattle has adopted rental scooters later than some other cities, like Portland, with skeptics raising concerns about safety, obstacles on sidewalks for people with disabilities and potential lawsuits.

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Lime was able to launch its scooters after the City Council approved legislation changing where the devices can be used. They’re still banned on sidewalks but can now be legally ridden in bike lanes and on roads.

Tourists were among those renting Lime’s scooters downtown on a recent sunny afternoon. David Belez and Madison Crowder from Reno could only find one scooter that was working, so Belez rode and Crowder strolled.

Gabe Kuhlman and Aly Mizell from Marysville zipped up a bike lane on the green and black machines. They took a pair of Lime scooters from the Seattle Aquarium to the Space Needle while on a date.

“I was in L.A. like a year or two ago and rode [rental scooters] there. It was amazing,” said Kuhlman, 19. “When I saw them in Seattle, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. We’ve got to do those.’ … They’re like an alternative to taking Uber. But Uber is more expensive and less fun.”

Miles away in Lake City, there were no Lime scooters on the roads. Running errands, Tanya Meyers said she would like to have the devices as an option outside Seattle’s “hot spot” neighborhoods.

The Northgate resident has been taking the bus to get around during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. “I could see myself riding [the scooters] up here, like when the bus is running late,” the 30-year-old said.

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Rental scooters haven’t yet reached Ron McKnight’s Seattle neighborhood, but the Lake City resident bought his own scooter this year to get around and rarely drives his car anymore.  (Daniel Beekman / The Seattle Times)
Rental scooters haven’t yet reached Ron McKnight’s Seattle neighborhood, but the Lake City resident bought his own scooter this year to get around and rarely drives his car anymore. (Daniel Beekman / The Seattle Times)

Rental scooters could prove popular in Lake City, which is less hilly than some other neighborhoods, said Ron McKnight. The 57-year-old bought his own scooter about six months ago, after seeing rental devices deployed in Bothell. He almost never drives his car anymore.

“I’m getting older, so I don’t like to walk. But I like to ride,” the Lake City resident said.

More bike lanes are needed to keep people on scooters safe, McKnight added. “Riding between vehicles can be dangerous,” he said.

Improving equity

Lime has improved its tracking technology, allowing more equitable deployments, Hopkins said. SDOT data shows less than 10% of the company’s bike trips took place in equity areas in June, July and August, however.

Previously, the city’s only enforcement options for a noncompliant company were to order some or all of the company’s devices off the streets. With an update this year, SDOT can now fine bike-rental or scooter-rental companies an undetermined amount for violating their permit requirements, Bergerson said.

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Lime will be “aggressively enrolling” low-income customers in the company’s discount program this year, Hopkins said. That will include partnering with community organizations to get the word out, he said.

The company is charging customers $1 to unlock its scooters using an app and 36 cents per minute to ride the machines. The discount program offers five free rides each day and additional rides at half-price.

SDOT wants to see more scooter and bike trips purchased with discount fares, Bergerson said. “Increasing this number is an important goal for us,” he said. “We are making low-income sign-ups a central portion of our own equity-based outreach and engagement work.”

He added, “We plan to initially focus our efforts on reaching essential workers, and once in-person gatherings are safer we’ll expand to community outreach events in low-income communities of color, making sure people know how to ride safely and working to get people enrolled.”

Seattle Times staff photographer Bettina Hansen and reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this report.