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No Fly Zone 

Dockless scooters promise mobility for all, but recent restrictions limit their operation in Gilpin Court.

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Scott Elmquist

Derrick Gregory doesn't drive to work. The North Side resident commutes to his information-technology job downtown by bike, bus or until recently, an e-scooter. His last trip ended at East Baker and North First streets, where the scooter slowed to a stop.

"As soon as I turned the corner from Duval, onto the bridge going over 95, the scooter started slowing down," Gregory says.

He didn't know what had happened until he looked at the app on his phone: He'd entered a restricted zone, a geo-fenced region in which the Bolt company doesn't allow its scooters to operate.

"The app told me I had to move the scooter out of the zone immediately," he says.

He didn't realize he was supposed to manually resume the ride and tried to drag it back to the bridge. This caused another problem. "They have these speakers, and it started saying it would call the police. I couldn't leave it, I couldn't drag it. I felt stuck."

He was able to resume the app and ride the scooter out of the zone, but it took several tries, leaving him frustrated and stressed out. "There was no warning, no prior information."

According to customer support, restricted areas appear shaded in red on the Bolt app map. But on a weekend afternoon two weeks later, a reporter found the app still showed Gilpin Court as open, marked in green, despite the restriction. Just as it did for Gregory, the scooter shut down at Baker Street again. One other person trying to ride in Gilpin, a local man who asked to be quoted as Ernest M., says the problems are recent and have made it harder for him to get around.

"I use it when I need to," he says. He doesn't own a car, and sometimes needs to run last-minute errands that don't line up with the bus schedule. He finds the restriction frustrating, but doesn't blame Bolt.

"I'm not trying to be too blunt or blame anybody, but I see some people abusing them in this neighborhood," he says. "They can't come out and say it, but I think they think black folks can't be trusted with them. Of course they're going to punish us for that. It's not fair but that's life."

Ernest says he's seen crimes committed by scooter, petty and serious, and witnessed a lot of vandalism of the devices. Some of those incidents have made it to social media, such as a recent burning of scooters filmed in Gilpin Court and placed on YouTube. Other incidents, like a drive-by paintball gun shooting that left a man blind, have been perpetrated by riders.

According to reporting by Mark Robinson in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the company has seen more vandalism in Richmond than in any other city, with a third of its scooters taken out of commission. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Bolt representative confirmed it had restricted operation in Gilpin Court, citing threats to employees who pick up scooters for repairs and charging. The restricted zone begins at Baker Street and ends as far away as South Barton Heights near Tybee Terrace, three-quarters of a mile away.

Although the company made the decision to restrict the scooters, Bolt is working with Richmond police and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to curb vandalism and other issues. They described the current restrictions as part of a broader investigation, and the representative said it hopes to lift them soon. As part of that effort, Bolt staff took a walking tour of Gilpin Court with the housing authority's chief executive, Damon Duncan, and the Richmond police, talking to residents about the scooters and other neighborhood issues.

While some cities have mandated equity agreements, formalized contracts to make scooters accessible to low-income residents, Richmond has no such formal agreement with Bolt. Rather, the company has an internal policy of leaving one-third of all scooters in lower-income neighborhoods. Recent comparisons between the Bolt map and census data for household income suggest the company is keeping to this policy.

Still, restricting the scooters from a large housing complex doesn't fit in with statements by Mayor Levar Stoney that the e-scooters could serve all residents by filling a last-mile transportation gap between bus stops and homes. In the case of Gilpin Court, the restrictions have a double impact, affecting both that community and residents in North Side, like Gregory, who commute through the neighborhood to downtown.

While it was an inconvenience for him, Gregory is concerned about disparate impacts on others, saying, "I'm not naive to the fact that I was in a public housing complex."

Bolt says it's committed to the city, although vandalism and restricted zones are only the latest challenges to dockless scooters in Richmond.

The city charges Bolt $45,000 per year to operate here, making it the highest annual fee for such a company in the country. Although data from Bolt suggests the scooters are wildly popular all over the city, Gregory says the company has lost him as a customer.

"I'm not confident that they'll go where I want to go now," he says. Although he was able to get through Gilpin eventually, it wasn't convenient. "I go through that part of town for work and it's basically my only reason for using them."

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