Electric bikes and scooters — the bright orange vehicles often seen zipping down College Hill streets and parked on sidewalks and quads — have become a fixture at Brown almost overnight this semester. Though Mayor Jorge Elorza signed a contract with Spin in 2019, the company that makes the scooters, they have become particularly common this fall. And after another contract a few months ago, a stock of Spin e-bikes joined scooters in the city. Now, anyone who has downloaded the Spin app can find a bike or scooter, unlock it for a dollar and ride to their destination for 29 cents per minute.
The vehicles’ arrival in Providence has been met with generally positive reception. Brown students, particularly athletes, have noted that they expedite their commutes across campus. Other proponents of the Spin program predict that it will increase access to public transit and discourage people from commuting via car, reducing traffic and emissions. Indeed, bike- and scooter-share programs have the potential to become a legitimate and cost-effective solution to transit woes in the United States. But Spin must invest more in Providence — and the city must commit more to bike infrastructure — lest the vehicles remain a general nuisance and a hazard for people with disabilities.
Cost-effectiveness and convenience are the two major features of the Spin program. What differentiates Spin from other vehicle-sharing services is that its bikes and scooters are “dockless,” meaning the company does not provide designated parking and charging stations. Instead, users can leave their vehicles wherever they end their commute. This is key to Spin’s business model, as bike-sharing services that require riders to dock their vehicles at dedicated stations — such as the Citi Bike system in New York City and the Bluebike system in Boston — are simply less convenient and user-friendly. Moreover, Spin crowdsources charging, hiring individuals to retrieve the vehicles and recharge their batteries. These features not only make accessing Spin vehicles more convenient for users, but it also ostensibly cuts down on Spin’s expenses, allowing the company to introduce more vehicles for a low cost.
But Spin’s cost-effectiveness is exactly why their vehicles are becoming a public nuisance. Because Spin does not invest in designated docking and charging stations, scooters and bikes often clog pedestrian walkways. The entrance to the Ittleson Quadrangle near the Jonathan Nelson’77 Fitness Center, for example, is frequently obstructed by scooters and bikes, congesting pedestrian traffic. For most people, dodging these vehicles is a tiny, mindless inconvenience. But not so for those with disabilities. Blind people rely on clear pedestrian walkways for safe foot travel. And when a scooter or bike blocks a sidewalk, people in wheelchairs have to choose between crossing the curb onto the street — a dangerous task in the absence of a curb ramp — or simply moving the vehicles in order to avoid them. While Providence is making strides toward bringing its sidewalks up to par with Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requirements, Spin bikes and scooters, by artificially narrowing walkways, could erode this progress.
The Spin app does provide information on proper parking practices, urging its users to leave vehicles “on wide sidewalks, closer to the curb” or on bike racks. Furthermore, the company claims it is “dedicated to monitoring the location of our vehicles so that we can quickly respond if an e-bike or e-scooter is incorrectly parked.” How, exactly, Spin holds its rule-defiant users accountable is unclear. Unless Spin deploys an army of parking compliance officers — an unlikely prospect, given the company’s already barebones approach to vehicle parking — scooters and bikes are likely to continue to clog sidewalks.
Despite Spin vehicles’ pitfalls, they do offer legitimate benefits as a transit solution. Experts contend that vehicle-share services can solve the “last-mile” problem, a dilemma in urban planning where individuals are discouraged from using mass transit when the distance between a transit stop and their final destination is too long. In turn, programs like Spin can dissuade commuters from driving cars.
Among Brown students, for whom taking the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority is fairly uncommon, Spin does not facilitate greater access to transit, instead supplanting walking around campus. Of course, shorter cross-campus commutes are certainly a worthy goal, and there is nothing inherently wrong with riding an e-bike or scooter. For students who cannot afford their own bikes or scooters — or who simply want to be able to shorten their commute on an ad hoc basis without committing to buying a vehicle — Spin is ideal.
But again, a hallmark of Spin — and a key aspect of its business model — is that its vehicles are dockless. Building docking stations and requiring users to park there would eliminate the program’s convenience. On the other hand, Spin could install many stations across the city, preserving convenience but potentially jeopardizing its fiscal bottom line. Spin, therefore, must find a way to ensure responsible parking in a cost-effective manner, or else it will remain a nuisance for Providence residents.
The city’s efforts to increase bike ridership through Spin must be met with a commensurate improvement of cycling (and scootering) infrastructure. Among developed countries, the United States has among the highest rates of bicycle fatalities per billion kilometers of travel — an unsurprising fact, given ingrained car culture and the dearth of bike lanes in U.S. cities. Given the dangers inherent to street scootering and cycling, without paths set aside for them, Spin users are likely to ride on the sidewalks, raising the likelihood of pedestrian crashes. Sidewalk-riding detection technology, which Spin is developing, could help alleviate this problem. But the bottom line is that we need more bike lanes if Spin is to remain in Providence. The city has begun to make this commitment through its Great Streets Initiative, which is guided by the belief that “every street in Providence should be safe, clean, healthy, inclusive and vibrant.” If the city makes good on this promise, Spin could indeed become a real transit solution. But if it does not, the company will remain both a safety hazard and a nuisance.
With the Spin program in its infancy, both the company and the city still have the power to shape its future. If citizens and public officials do not put pressure on Spin to improve parking compliance, then the vehicles will be at best irksome and at worst hazardous for people, especially those with disabilities. If the company cannot rise to the occasion, Providence should consider invoking its right to end its contract with Spin altogether.
Matt Walsh ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.