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The Pandemic Has Shifted Where Scooters and Robots Fit In

Rather than shy away from shared mobility, riders seemed to welcome the open-air ride of e-scooters; while at least one California city used the summer to launch a pilot delivery project using small sidewalk-roaming robots.

by / November 17, 2020
Kiwibot displays its autonomous robots at the Tech Crunch TC Sessions: Robotics + AI. event held on the University of Berkeley campus in 2019. Shutterstock/David Philogene

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on, new mobility in the form of e-scooters has increased in use, along with emerging technology like delivery robots. 

The scooter company Spin reports increased trip distance and number of trips in the cities in which it operates. The duration of the trips is increasing with average length of trip reaching nearly 22 minutes in May, up from 15 minutes a year ago. In the Northeast, trip duration climbed 33 percent in April, compared to April in 2019, according to Josh Johnson, public policy manager at Spin.

“This leaves us to believe that as people have gone away from public transit … they’re turning to scooters as an opportunity to facilitate more essential trips, less recreational,” said Johnson, speaking on an Open Mobility Foundation panel discussion last week.  

“We’ve also seen a change in where rides are originating and ending,” he added. “Really, it’s been a shift from central business district, downtown areas, where there’s been the most market drop.” 

As workers work from home, trip patterns have shifted “out into neighborhoods,” said Johnson. 

A number of those neighborhoods include areas known as “equity zones” in cities like Baltimore and San Francisco, signaling a sharp increase in use among disadvantaged communities. Ridership using a low-income access program increased 518 percent, with daily average users increasing from six to 31 in San Francisco “communities of concern,” said Johnson. 

In Portland, Ore., the company partnered with the Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) to commit to a minimum level of service for deployment. This included an equity requirement in East Portland, with 15 percent of the fleet to be deployed there. Trip fares were reduced 50 percent, across the board. In exchange, PBOT temporarily waived the city’s per scooter trip fees for April and May.

Spin was also allowed to increase its overall fleet size in Portland by 250 scooters. Because of these changes, Spin experienced a 46 percent increase in ridership, a 35 percent increase in average daily users and a 60 percent increase in average trip distance. East Portland experienced a 137 percent increase in ridership. 

Looking at the increases in East Portland, “can kind of act as a microcosm of how this pandemic response can highlight opportunities for better results more broadly with equity when cities and operators work in partnership to accomplish shared goals,” said Johnson. 

What’s left to be seen is, has the pandemic shifted mobility away from transit to scooters, or even made permanent some of the equity programs to evolve? 

“It’s going to take a while, certainly for [transit] service to recover, but generally for people to be more comfortable with transit, and we’ll work to compliment those services in the meantime,” said Johnson, responding to the question from Government Technology.

In San Jose, a pilot project to test on-demand delivery robots during the pandemic not only served to-go orders from restaurants, but provided valuable data related to the accessibility of sidewalks and crosswalks, as well as opened the door to have mobility data specifications (MDS) include delivery robots. MDS, in use in more than 100 cities around the world and at least 14 different countries, allows mobility services to have a pre-established way to exchange information with regulators.

In July, San Jose partnered with the company Kiwibot to operate a delivery robot service as part of an initiative to expand touchless and physically distant deliveries. 

“We wanted to identify how to deploy such a service in San Jose in different locales. Is it suitable for all of our city streets?” said Andrea Arjona, transportation specialist with the San Jose Department of Transportation, during the panel discussion. “So really understanding what are the challenges for different urban environments within our city."

“We also wanted to make sure the service was accessible to different groups. Not just people that typically order DoorDash,” she added, calling attention to elderly residents or low-income residents. 

The idea was to use the data to identify service access barriers. 

“If the service picks up very quickly in one community, but not in another, what could be happening there? Also, we’re evaluating acceptance,” said Arjona. 

The city also used the bots to gather data related to accessibility, concluding if a robot had trouble making it through a crosswalk, it’s safe to say a person using a wheelchair, or someone pushing a stroller, might have difficulty as well. 

In a number of cases the MDS language has not yet caught up with delivery robots, so when food was picked up by the bot from a restaurant this marked the start of trip — taking the data point and language from the start of scooter trip. The company, Blue Systems, worked as a third-party to collect and relay the data to the city. 

“We had to adapt it in a way that it made sense, and we could put within our mobility manager so that the team in San Jose can actually use the data, and it made sense, from a visualization standpoint,” explained James Delgado, vice-president of business development for Blue Systems.

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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