Thousands of riders have taken a spin on one of the new electric scooters scattered around Richmond over the past month, but the company that owns them says it has a problem.
About 1 in 4 of the dockless e-scooters have been vandalized, according to figures provided by Bolt Mobility. Some people are snapping them in half. Others are heaving them into the James River or lighting them on fire.
A video taken this week showed children standing around the smoldering remains of a Bolt scooter in Gilpin Court; the Richmond Fire Department extinguished it and opened an arson investigation.
“We’re not meeting the demand because we’re having these kinds of challenges,” said Will Nicholas, the company’s executive vice president for operations.
The Florida-based company was the first recipient of a city-issued permit under a new pilot program the City Council approved earlier this year. Riders can download a smartphone app, locate an e-scooter and pay 25 cents per minute to ride it. The e-scooters have cropped up in cities across the country as an alternative to popular ride-hailing services for people looking to travel short distances.
Richmond riders have logged 26,600 rides since the company’s launch in early June, more than double the roughly 12,000 rides logged using the city’s bike share program in its first year.
The figure is comparable to some larger markets that Bolt has launched in, including Chicago and Miami, Nicholas said.
“For the size of Richmond, the results have been amazing,” he said.
Bolt paid the city roughly $45,000 for permission to roll out 500 e-scooters. So far, it has put out about 370. Riders have vandalized 107 of those to date.
Each of the e-scooters has a GPS tracking chip in it so Bolt’s local staff can find it. Sometimes, they have to look no further than social media to learn one is missing or broken. Some riders have taken to Instagram or Snapchat to share the vandalism, even tagging the company in expletive-laden posts.
Bolt representatives say the problem is shrinking the size of its fleet. Nicholas cites complaints to Bolt’s customer service line about difficulty finding the devices.
The rate of vandalism the company has seen in its first five weeks in Richmond exceeds what it has seen in the other 11 markets it operates in, Nicholas said. Among those are Alexandria and Arlington County.
Bolt won’t say how much it costs to replace an e-scooter.
Under the terms and conditions riders agree to, Bolt can fine someone up to $600 for a lost or damaged e-scooter by charging the credit or debit card on file with the smartphone app. Nicholas said the company hasn’t taken that step yet, but it will begin levying smaller fines and working with Richmond police to prosecute people who break or steal the e-scooters.
“The department takes vandalism seriously,” said James Mercante, a spokesman for the Richmond Police Department. Vandalism resulting in $1,000 worth of damage can result in a felony charge, he added.
Mercante said police are working to figure out how to track e-scooter-related incidents, including traffic citations, but the department does not yet have data it can share that’s specific to the devices.
As a condition of its city permit, Bolt promised to distribute 35% of its e-scooters in low-income neighborhoods. The pledge is meant to plug holes in the city’s bus system and, city leaders hope, increase access to jobs, education and other opportunities for residents.
The city’s Department of Public Works is overseeing the yearlong e-scooter pilot program. A spokeswoman for the department said earlier this month that a second permit could soon be issued to another operator, bringing Bolt’s first competitor.