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Companies Launch Accessible E-Scooters for Disabled Users

Years after on-demand electric scooters first came onto the scene, companies in San Francisco are beginning to offer options for riders with disabilities. Critics say its a move that should have happened a long time ago.

A rider rents a Lime scooter in Venice Beach, Calif.
A rider rents a Lime scooter in Venice Beach, Calif.
(TNS) — Electric scooter companies are rolling out new three-wheeled or seated models intended for people with disabilities in San Francisco as technology plays catch-up in an effort to make new forms of transportation accessible — a recurring problem, advocates say.

“Transportation in general ... there’s been this accumulation effect where people with disabilities have been left off discussions about alternative transportation. Everyone else’s transportation modes have increased, and ours have decreased,” said Bonnie Lewkowicz, program manager of Access Northern California at the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, who uses a wheelchair.

Thirty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, “companies should not be putting out products that aren’t universally designed and working for a broad spectrum of people,” Lewkowicz said.

San Francisco reined in an initial unregulated scooter rollout in 2018 and later granted permits to only a few companies: In October, it let Lime, Jump (owned by Uber), Scoot (owned by Bird), and Spin (owned by Ford) take to the streets. As part of their permits, the city required companies to introduce more accessible scooter models by Jan. 15, though there is debate over how much demand exists for the modified scooters.

The four companies consulted with disability groups and are trying out different models, with less than 15 each in an initial pilot program. Some added seats on original two-wheeled scooters; others added another wheel, a wider seat, and handlebars with a basket. Lime, the first to introduce its model last week in Oakland, is the only one to offer door-to-door service, meaning offering pickup and delivery wherever the rider wants — such as a home. (Other companies’ models can be rented off the street or in a designated spot.) Spin’s and Scoot’s vehicles are free.

Lewkowicz helped design adaptive bike programs in the Bay Area and worked with Jump on its new scooter model. She and other advocates appreciated the chance to give feedback: Disabilities are diverse, and designing a modified vehicle for all needs is challenging, if not impossible, they acknowledged. While some said proposed models would meet a demand, others said they missed the mark — not providing balance support, making handlebars too hard to hold onto, and not offering options like tandem scooters for the visually impaired.

Maureen Decoste, marketing and development director at Ability Now in Oakland, which consulted with Lime, had the company test modified vehicles with staff and community members who have cerebral palsy last week. She could see a need for people to rent the scooters for a day when their wheelchairs were unavailable. But some people who tried them had trouble balancing on the two wheels and gripping the handlebars, she said.

“I think the only way you can get our population represented is for any tech company to come and test with our participants, so they can see for themselves all the variables,” Decoste said. “Even with that, not everybody is going to be able to use it. That’s huge because oftentimes our population gets completely dismissed when it comes to any new technology.”

With scooters, that’s been the visually impaired population, said Bryan Bashin, executive director of Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, who got involved when scooters hit the streets in spring 2018.

“For 40,000 blind and visually impaired people, none of us can enjoy the benefits, only the hazards: We can’t ride them, we can’t enjoy them,” Bashin said. A couple of years ago, he suggested creating a tandem version of scooters, like bikes, and was disappointed to see new models didn’t take that into account.

“Can you imagine a taxi company that excluded the blind? Can you imagine a bus company that excluded the blind?” he said. “There’s some equity issue and a social justice issue. The technology seems to be lagging behind.”

Others said the new models might not be widely used by people with developmental disabilities.

“I don’t see a high use,” said Jacy Cohen, director of strategic partnerships with the Arc San Francisco. She appreciated Spin’s outreach — she met with the company three times and may bring in a representative to speak with clients next week — but said some of them have mobility issues or would have difficulty operating a scooter.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokeswoman Erica Kato said the agency believes in making a system accessible to all. Scooter companies are expected to actively solicit feedback during the pilot program and change initial vehicle and program designs to best meet community needs. SFMTA is also conducting a survey of disabled San Franciscans in partnership with Maddy Ruvolo, a UCLA master’s student.

“While new mobility services have grown dramatically over the past few years,” Ruvolo said in an email, “people with disabilities have mostly been excluded from these modes and sometimes face additional accessibility barriers because of them.”

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