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Why Some Pittsburghers Want To Scrap Their Famous MaaS Pilot

Photo: Raúl Nájera, CC

A coalition of disability rights groups is calling on Pittsburgh to build a better transportation system for people with mobility challenges rather than the headline-grabbing pilot that doesn't center the most vulnerable.

Last week, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, Access Mob Pittsburgh, and the city's Task Force on Disabilities called on local leaders to scrap the famous Move PGH pilot, which has been touted by news outlets around the world (including this one) as perhaps the first city-wide "mobility as a service" (MaaS) effort in the United States. Since July 2021, the program has allowed residents to purchase transit fares, find people to carpool with, check out carshare vehicles, and rent e-bikes and mopeds, all in a single app.

Critics of the program say that, in practice, Move PGH has mostly been used to promote the region's sole shared e-scooter provider — Spin — in a city where even personally owned scooters are still illegal and created dangerous problems for people who can't get ride at all. In a July letter, the city's Task Force on Disability described how the scooters have rendered many sidewalks impassable to wheelchair users and forced the visually impaired to walk in the street with cars, and even alleged that the entire Move PGH program is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because public employees have been involved in developing and promoting it. (Neither Spin nor the City of Pittsburgh immediately replied to a request for comment on this article.)

"This program has not made an inkling of improvement whatsoever for me," said Paul Hanlon, who chairs the city's Task Force on Disabilities. "All that it's done is introduce new obstacles to getting around, which is already difficult. I use a power wheelchair, and all the scooter program does is make that harder to do."

Like other U.S. cities, locals say that Pittsburgh's citizen response center has "been bombarded with complaints about the scooters being left in strange places or ridden where it isn’t safe to do so," as journalist Ollie Gratzinger put it. In response, the city took the comparatively aggressive approach of restricting scooter parking anywhere on the sidewalk, and Spin imposed a series of escalating consequences on repeat violators. But locals say it hasn't been enough, and that the city doesn't have a good reporting mechanism to quantify how bad the problem is.

"It's obviously not working, because the scooters are still there," said Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. "If someone leaves a scooter someplace it's not supposed to be, there isn't anything on there that says, 'If this is improperly parked, call here, and we'll move it.' We don't even have an answer to basic questions like, 'How long is it acceptable to have somebody trapped in the street, unable to access a curb cut, because a scooter was abandoned where it shouldn't be?' Is it a few minutes? Or is it two hours?"

https://usa.streetsblog.org/2021/07/09/u-s-finally-gets-first-mobility-as-a-service-platform/

Wiens emphasized that even if the scooter parking problem were solved, though, there are still fundamental issues with Move PGH that she believes should justify its cancellation. In addition to failing to provide accessible vehicles for a range of unique needs, her group points out that many residents can't actually use all the offerings under its umbrella, including youth under 18 who aren't old enough to rent shared vehicles, people without access to smartphones or banking, and in the case of scooters, anyone who exceeds Spin's 220-pound weight limit.

Spin in particular has been criticized for its cost, which still runs users roughly $1.50 per mile even if they qualify for Spin Access, the company's discount program for low-income residents. Advocates say that program isn't easy to access at all, in part because of the Spin's confusing website; just 0.1 percent of users take advantage of it, despite the fact that 20 percent of Pittsburghers meet the company's income threshold, and nearly one third of Black and Latino PGH residents live below the poverty line.

"It's clear this has no real benefit for the low income community," added Wiens. "It's evidence that it's not serving needs."

Proponents of MaaS, of course, might argue that putting all of a city's mobility options in one app isn't really about making every mode of transport accessible to everyone, so much as making it obvious when a car isn't the best choice — at least for users who can actually use other options. The city recently reported that 35.7 percent of the Spin trips taken in the app replaced a journey in a private vehicle, erasing about 257,000 vehicle miles off local roads. (To be fair, another 43.3 percent said they would have otherwise walked or taken transit, which means that the some MaaS trips actually increase emissions, though those increases are likely small compared to a car journey, and they may also save residents a circuitous bus trip or a long slog in the rain.) 

Wiens, though, said that none of this is an excuse for ignoring the people who are poorly served by nearly every mode on the Move PGH app — particularly when the program's resources could be used in other ways.

"Think about the amount of energy that's gone into this, compared to the amount of energy we've put towards creating and maintaining sidewalks in our city," she said. "We have an incredibly low percentage of sheltered bus stops; why don't we fix those first? ... Maybe there's a small percentage of people in our community who this helps, but I think the vast majority finds it deeply harmful." 

Along with scrapping Move PGH in its current form, the coalition wants the State of Pennsylvania not to renew the legislation that enables Spin to operate within Pittsburgh, and to build an alternative MaaS program that is "readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, and which truly provides a suite of mobility services, platforms and infrastructure tailored to the needs of Pittsburgh residents, workers and visitors."

What exactly that might look like isn't clear, but the group says it should start by directly engaging the disability groups who have felt mostly left of Move PGH's deployment.

"All the disability community has asked for is for there to be a bigger role for the public in these conversations," Hanlon said. "You want to talk about last mile solutions? Ask the people who these problems effect the most."

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