The Scooter Murder Capital of the World

Bolt in happier days: Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (center) and Bolt EVP Will Nicholas (right) back in June.

Wow, the City of Richmond is one tough market for scooter companies to crack — and the reasons why do not reflect well either on the city administration or the populace.

Last summer, California-based Bird began placing scooters around town, but the company hadn’t cleared its initiative with city officials, so the city shut down the service until the city administration could devise a licensing protocol. Police rounded up the two-wheelers and took them to the municipal impound lot. Eventually, Bird abandoned its effort at guerilla capitalism, auctioned off 300 scooters to private bidders, and bailed from the market.

In January City Council adopted an ordinance that charged companies $40,000 per year to put up to 100 scooters on city streets, with higher-but-discounted rates for larger numbers. Only one of the burgeoning number of scooter companies, Bolt Mobility, co-founded by track legend Usain Bolt, decided it was worth some $400 per device to get a license. Ridership numbers in the first month were high — 27,000 trips — but the company didn’t count on the high rate of vandalism.

Writes Greater Greater Washington:

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.

A scooter that had been set on fire.

As an aside, Bolt’s permit required the company to keep 35% of its fleet, approximately 175 scooters, in low-income neighborhoods. However, a Bolt map showing the location of its scooters recently indicated that virtually none in the low-income areas of Richmond’s Southside and East End, giving rise to accusations of “geofencing” a discriminatory form of scooter red-lining.

Wyatt Gordon, author of the GGW article, finds Bolt’s behavior to be dubious. “If Bolt wants to assuage the concerns of Richmonders who fear the company is just out to make a quick buck regardless of who its serves (or doesn’t serve), it will need to be more transparent. … For now Bolt’s pledges of equitable service remain an empty promise and a pity for Richmond.”

What? Let’s review the numbers here. First, Bolt had to pay a $40,000 license fee up front. Then it agreed to place more than a third of its fleet in low-income neighborhoods where, as a condition imposed by the City of Richmond, it charged only half the normal fee. And then a quarter of its scooters were vandalized. Meanwhile, according to WTVR, other riders were stealing the scooters or bringing them inside their residences where other riders could not access them.

A disproportionate number of these destructive acts, one might conjecture, occurred in the aforesaid low-income neighborhoods subject to the quotas and discounted fees. What is the evidence for such a thing? The fact that Bolt apparently has withdrawn service from those neighborhoods — which would be totally understandable if collecting half the revenue per ride and experiencing a disproportionate amount of theft and vandalism led to the hemorrhaging of money — speaks volumes.

Far from Bolt needing to assuage the concerns of Richmonders, it seems to me, Richmonders need to assuage the concerns of Bolt. Why would a start-up company like Bolt want to serve such a market? What a disgrace!

Of course, anti-social behavior is hardly relegated to scooters. The GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company) announced that ridership on the Pulse bus rapid transit service is exceeding expectations after a year in operation — but, alas, not all passengers are paying, with the result that GRTC fares reported in January to be $1 million less than anticipated. Let’s see… Ridership higher than expected… People riding without paying fares also higher than expected… Could there be a connection?

Let me venture a prediction: If city officials decide to crack down on Bolt for its failure to serve low-income neighborhoods, Bolt will.. well.. it will bolt. No other scooter company in its right mind would invest in the City of Richmond ever again. And low-income customers who live by the rules — meaning that they pay their fares and don’t trash their scooters — will be deprived of a transportation option.

(Hat tip: Win Barber)

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4 responses to “The Scooter Murder Capital of the World

  1. I’ve never really understood the business model for these things. Not sure if Richmond is that unique – you turn lose a bunch of scooters (or bikes or other similar conveyences) in a city and they’ll end up like any bike parked somewhere without a chain lock. Or take a look at the neighborhoods or surround area around supermarkets and what do you see? Grocery carts – all over the place – no longer in the cart corrals at the store!

    I note that Zipcar is still around and apparently doing well.

  2. Darn things can’t disappear fast enough for me….they are a menace to pedestrians and drivers, and invitations to an afternoon in the ER…..their users make the bike riders appear lawful and courteous.

  3. The idea of dockless scooters is dumb enough to have come from the Wapo editorial board. No one else is generally permitted to block sidewalks, generally in urban areas. The evening trash piles in Manhattan are less disruptive to pedestrians. Both bikes and scooters should be docked. Companies that can’t keep their vehicles docked should be fined.

  4. Hidden taxes are becoming the standard order of business in Virginia. Ralph Northam pays for Medicaid expansion by adding charges to hospitals. Liberal public college and university administrators want to charge some students more than the fully allocated costs in order to charge some students less. Now Richmond demands two tier pricing for scooters based on where in Richmond the ride originates.

    It’s time for some transparency here. These rampant subsidies that are really taxes in hiding need to end.

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