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Filling in the Gap: How Micromobility Has Enhanced Transit Resilience
June 12, 2020
By Josh Johnson, Public Policy Manager
While many have been advocating for a more resilient transportation system for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this need for systems that can continue to provide service even when faced with significant disruption. But there is a reason to be optimistic. Although micromobility has always complemented transit, it’s now clearer than ever that these services are helping fill gaps in transit service created by the current crisis. Working together, micromobility services like Spin can speed the recovery of transit networks.
Spin has supported this effort in a variety of ways. In cities like Denver and Kansas City, we are supporting open or shared streets to make more room for walking, biking, and rolling. By providing free rides through our Everyday Heroes program, healthcare workers have taken 11,000 trips (and counting) to get to and from work while minimizing the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19. To keep service going, our W-2 employees have stepped up to continue our essential service in many cities, while following safety and sanitization procedures that are critical to operating in the public’s interest. As we’ve previously documented, our ridership is also changing in a way that both highlights how scooters are an essential service and reinforces the need for resilient transportation options.
With that said, many people still rely on transit to get to jobs that can’t be done remotely, or to make otherwise essential trips, because they don’t own a car. Although some cities have begun to reopen, transit agencies will take some time to return to their pre-COVID-19 levels of service. It will also likely take some time for people to feel comfortable riding transit, given the ever-present guidance for social distancing. According to a study of micromobility and transit users in Portland and Nashville, early results show that 73 percent of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they are avoiding public transit because of COVID-19. Additionally, of 47 scooter users surveyed in Portland, 65 percent stated they had taken two or more scooter trips in the previous seven days. Because of this, we have seen our own ridership bounce back faster than transit, competing with both walking and driving.
This data from Apple Mobility Trends plus our own ridership data shows how quickly Spin ridership has bounced back in comparison to transit.
What does this mean for the millions of people who rely on transit? Before the crisis, micromobility services like shared bikes and e-scooters worked to augment transit ridership, allowing people who may have lived just outside of comfortable walking distance from bus or train stops a way to shorten their connection to transit. With reduced transit service, however, we are seeing micromobility once again augment transit services. Instead of switching to cars, people are filling in transit gaps by riding scooters.
Chris Cherry, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UT-Knoxville, and co-lead of the previously mentioned study highlighted the importance of using scooters to supplement transit: “Transit and micromobility systems together could be an opportunity to provide a resilient public mobility system.” Cherry’s co-lead, John MacArthur, Research Associate at Portland State’s Transportation Research and Education Center, emphasized the need for “maintaining safe and reliable multimodal access to stem the impact of people feeling the need to drive.”
We took a look at our own trip-start and -end data to see if it is telling the same story by looking at two cities, Portland and Washington, DC. Spin has maintained uninterrupted service through the pandemic in both cities, and local transit agencies have been forced to make significant reductions in transit services.
Portland’s shelter-in-place order went into effect on March 25, and TriMet, which operates the regional transit network, temporarily reduced service at the start of April. In April and May, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) partnered with Spin to offer a nearly 50 percent discount to encourage Portlanders to use scooters for essential trips. As part of the agreement, PBOT reduced administrative fees and granted Spin a fleet increase to use when demand returns, while Spin committed to reducing the cost of scooter rides and maintaining a minimum level of service. During April, we saw some striking scooter ridership increases along transit lines where service had been reduced.
Above is a side-by-side comparison of SE Milwaukie Ave. and SE Bybee Blvd. in Portland. On the left side, you can see where scooter rides were starting and stopping before shelter-in-place and transit service reductions. On the right, at the end of April and early May, there was a dramatic increase in scooter trips starting and stopping near bus stops and along the bus routes, suggesting that people were supplementing transit with scooters after Trimet reduced service.
The trend is similar throughout the city. Below, you can see an uptick in scooter rides along NE Glisan St. The bus route that runs down NE Glisan St. connects to a major transit hub to the east and travels through Downtown to the west. Bus frequency was reduced by an average 53 percent at stops along this route after TriMet implemented service reductions on April 5.
On the eastern side of Portland, ridership increased in the area around SE Woodstock Blvd. and SE Duke St., where the 19 is a major bus route that connects Downtown to East Portland.
On the west side of the Willamette River, the trend holds. Along the 44 bus line, which connects Southwest Portland to the Downtown, there were no rides before the lockdown and service reduction.
We also looked at patterns in Washington, DC, where Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a stay-at-home order at the end of March. WMATA, the regional transit agency serving DC, reduced both Metrorail and Metrobus service at the start of April.
Along the H Street NE corridor, reduced service and social distancing guidelines likely contributed to an uptick in scooter trips as a supplement to the X2 bus or DC Streetcar in the H Street NE and greater NoMa neighborhood areas.
Below, heat maps show an increase in usage around the Chinatown Metro Station, which has been operating with limited hours and reduced service. An increase in Spin trips can also be seen surrounding the north side of the Washington Monument, normally a popular destination for DC residents and tourists.
Finally, in the below images, we see the demand shifts near the US Capitol, where there has been an increase in scooter trips between 2nd St. NE and 3rd St. NE on Capitol St. NE. A similar story of demand can be seen on the north side of the Capitol at D St. NE and Louisiana Ave. NE. With transit service reduced by 90 percent on average at stops in this area, many people turned to scooters to fill in those gaps.
We at Spin are optimistic about this trend as we look toward transit system recovery. While transit networks may temporarily fall short of meeting people’s needs due to reduced service, it is better that people turn to a complementary transportation option — like micromobility — instead of buying a car or using ride-hailing services, which actively compete with transit, increases congestion, and may have the longer-term impact of preventing them to returning to transit as the crisis abates.
By digging into this data and working closely with cities and transit agencies, we are able to more directly address the needs of riders, offering sustainable options that complement transit and transportation networks as we navigate through unprecedented and challenging times.
**Data analysis was done by comparing aggregated scooter use with General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) feeds, which was used to analyze areas where transit service was reduced. GTFS is a data specification that allows transit agencies to periodically publish transit data. For this analysis, the GTFS schedule component was utilized to aggregate the total number of stops corresponding to all routes that were registered in the feed at each individual transit stop. Thanks to Julio May, Urban Planning GIS Specialist at Spin, for his contribution to this piece!
About Josh Johnson: Josh serves as Public Policy Manager for Spin, with a focus on data policy. In this role, Josh is positioning Spin to lead the industry in collaborating and innovating with the public and private sectors to deliver the data that public agencies need while safeguarding data privacy and security. Josh also serves as co-chair on the Open Mobility Foundation’s Privacy, Security, and Transparency Committee, and is a member of the Mobility Data Collaborative’s Executive Committee as well as the North American Bikeshare Association’s Research & Development Committee.