How the City of Oakland is leveraging on-the-ground organizations to understand and meet the needs of communities 

February 27, 2020 - (5 min read)

As cities have responded to e-scooters being deployed on their streets, the conversation has evolved from how do cities take control of the deployment to how do cities utilize them to advance transportation goals? As a touted first- and last-mile solution, city officials need to ask – who should and would benefit most from access to new mobility options?

Those who have a larger share of the economic pie tend to have better access to public transit. Many lower-income communities are located in areas with less reliable access to public transit. Cities are starting to view new mobility options such as scooters, as a way to offer new, perhaps more efficient, ways of getting around. While scooters do not replace the need for more reliable bus or subway options, they can certainly help alleviate the stress associated with unreliable public transit for many residents.

The City of Oakland is working to increase access and ridership in lower-income communities and TransForm, an Oakland-based non-profit working on transportation justice, to understand how community organizations can help further a city’s equity goals. Some key questions have arisen through this effort.

Many cities have integrated equity into their permitting process, but what is the best way to ensure it is implemented successfully?

Since scooters were first deployed in Oakland in 2017, the city has developed a permitting process for scooter providers, informed by data and input from residents at community outreach meetings. The city found that the racial breakdown of scooter riders is more representative of the population in comparison to car and bike-share programs, but there was still room for improvement. What this really underscored is that scooters have the potential to be a service for everyone. Recognizing this, and the key role that equitable access plays in mobility, one of the key elements of the City of Oakland’s permit asks how providers will address the non-physical barriers to access (i.e. social, cultural, economic).

While the city has stipulated discounted ridership, community education, and engagement, equitable distribution of scooters and alternative payment options as key elements to a more equitable scooter program, the staff, time and resources, needed to enforce it all has proved difficult. For example, in the East Oakland neighborhood of Oakland, the data supports that ridership counts are not as high, making it difficult for the city to get private companies to comply and deploy strategies to increase these numbers.

The role can partnerships between cities and community organizations play in achieving equitable access?

The City of Oakland and TransForm have worked together on various mobility projects. TransForm partnered with Ford GoBike to advertise their “Bike Share for All” discount. With help from TransForm, low-income bike-share ridership grew from just 3% of Bay Area Bike Share Members to 20% of all Ford GoBike memberships as of June 2018, one of the highest in the country. While the Bike Share for All program was bike-specific, it highlights the importance of community organizations to help bridge the gap between low-income community members and lack of transit access.

It is also important for cities to partner with local organizations to understand what the true barriers to access are. Yes, it is important to provide an equitable distribution of scooters in lower-income neighborhoods, provide diverse payment options and fare discounts, but it is equally important to invest in community engagement and education to encourage ridership. For example, some members of the community may not have a smartphone or be particularly tech-savvy. The East Oakland Collective, which works in partnership with TransForm on their Mobility for All Program, can book rides for people who do not have phones and help them access alternative payment options.

Because it can be difficult for cities to involve the private sector in education and outreach strategies for lower-income neighborhoods, it can be more advantageous to get local community organizations involved, like TransForm, to conduct outreach, as they are already embedded in the communities, know how best to reach out to these community members, and understand how to truly listen.

Key takeaways: What can cities do?

Through the partnership between the city of Oakland and Transform, one key lesson stands out: understanding historic neighborhood disinvestment is key to understanding where targeted interventions may be needed. The first step is for cities to integrate equity considerations into their mobility plans in a sincere and genuine way. It is important to ensure that mobility plans are flexible as community needs change. Cities should prioritize community engagement to understand unique neighborhood-specific needs and consider engaging with local organizations. By doing so, cities can help break down the barriers between historically disinvested neighborhoods and private companies to help community members that may have the most gain from access to new mobility options. Healing these relationships is key, and having embedded, local community organizations work in partnership with cities is a good strategy to do so.


About the Author: Brenna Rivett is a principal research associate at NLC’s Center for City Solutions.



About the AuthorTina Lee is a Senior Coordinator within NLC’s Center for City Solutions. She supports the Center for City Solutions and Senior Executive and Director. Additionally, her areas of research include urban innovation, mobility, and housing.