Fort Smith Pilot Redesigns Shared Micromobility Services for Low-Income Residents

  • Author: Edward Graham
  • Date: March 30, 2022
A view northwest on Garrison Avenue, the main arterial street of downtown Fort Smith, Arkansas. A series of National Science Foundation grants has led to a team of researchers implementing micromobility hubs in the city.

For many Americans—especially those without personal vehicles or easy access to public transit services—limited mobility options can pose a serious challenge to daily life, such as keeping a job or going to the grocery store.

But shared micromobility services, such as electric or human-powered bicycles and scooters, have the power to transform communities by providing all residents enhanced transit options. 

These healthy and environmentally-friendly forms of transportation can help connect residents with other public transit options, enabling them to bridge any first- and last-mile gaps in service that might otherwise hamper their ability to travel, get to or from their jobs, or go to the store. And these types of bike and scooter sharing programs also have benefits that extend beyond densely populated cities, to small- and mid-sized cities and even rural communities where public transit is less accessible. 

But efforts to establish shared micromobility programs in smaller cities and communities can be hampered by cost and usage concerns, as well as issues with setting up shared micromobility stations far away from the residents who would benefit the most from enhanced transportation services. To better direct these types of mobility services to communities most in need of accessible transportation options, transit officials and others are working to redesign the shared micromobility model. 

Enhancing the benefits of shared micromobility services 

In Fort Smith, Arkansas, a coalition of city officials, researchers, and organizations has partnered together on a shared micromobility pilot project, working to directly provide the city’s low-income residents with shared bicycles for enhanced mobility. 

The “Shared Micromobility for Affordable-Accessible Housing” pilot came about after researchers at the University of Arkansas applied for and received a $50,000 grant from the National Research Foundation (NSF) last year to study the benefits of a more equitable shared micromobility service. 

The initial NSF grant helped university researchers fund community outreach programs—including surveys, workshops, and virtual sessions with residents—to better understand the needs and transportation limitations of Fort Smith’s residents. More than 70 percent of residents surveyed during the outreach stage told researchers they were interested in using shared micromobility services. The ensuing study from this research phase was selected to receive an additional $1 million NSF grant last September to launch the pilot. Dr. Suman Mitra, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas and the principal investigator of the project, said part of his goal in launching the pilot was to better understand the mismatch between low-income housing and shared micromobility services.

“Low-income people often live far away from their job locations because of housing affordability, and sometimes the communities where they live don’t have good public transportation options or after-hours service,” Dr. Mitra said. “And they often don’t have access to cars or other transit options. So, putting all of this together, I thought if we could provide a shared micromobility option for some of these low-income individuals, then it would help solve some of these transportation issues.”

After engaging with other stakeholders and holding community meetings, the principal investigators of the project honed in on the northside of Fort Smith, a lower-income portion of the city where the per capita annual income is $20,256 and where roughly 65 percent of residents experience some type of issue accessing transportation. The goal is to officially unveil the pilot’s eight bike sharing stations, equipped with electric bicycles, around the city some time in April. Six of the stations will be located in the lower-income neighborhoods on Fort Smith’s northside, while two of them will be in a more affluent neighborhood, known as Chaffee Crossing, on the southside of the city. 

Reese Brewer, director of the Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization (FMPO) and one of the co-principal investigators of the pilot, said one concern of the stakeholders involved in the project was that low-income communities often do not benefit from shared mobility services because they are typically geared toward higher-income communities. 

“We’re hoping to see if that business model of having a couple of stations in more affluent areas helps sustain and generate revenue for the less affluent areas,” Brewer said. 

While these types of services are generally paid for through mobile apps or credit card payments, the pilot is experimenting with free access, feedback-driven pricing, and higher-priced bicycles in more affluent neighborhoods.

“Many low-income people don’t have access to smartphones or the internet, and may not have access to credit cards or a bank account,” Mitra said. “We want to specifically target those individuals who do not have access to these things.”

In addition to the city of Fort Smith and FMPO, some of the community partners include local bike rental provider Riverside Ride and local bike store Champion Cycling. Brewer said that the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education is also involved in the project because the region has some of the highest rates of obesity and chronic disease rates in the nation. The hope is that access to healthy forms of transportation, such as electric bicycles, will help some of the city’s residents get outside and be more active.

Helping people get from where they live to where they work

Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken said the city was an ideal location for the pilot because of its relatively small size, coupled with the need to get people from where they live to where they work. Since the lack of available transportation services acutely impacts northside residents’ access to food, jobs, and stores, the hope is that the project will give these individuals more mobility in their daily lives.

“The pilot is layered on top of the transit options the city already provides,” Geffken said, noting that the city is home to 90,000 residents but balloons up to more than 220,000 people during the day with workers. “We have our fixed routes and our demand routes, but they’re pretty structured and not everyone in the city fits inside that box. So we’re running this pilot to help those residents who need transportation to get to their jobs or to go food shopping actually get around.” 

The bike sharing stations on Fort Smith’s northside are being placed in strategic areas, sourced from community feedback, to maximize their effectiveness. This includes placing them near low-income housing communities, near late-shift workplaces, and near food markets and community facilities. Brewer said they were also working with a late-shift employer, Ok Foods, to place a bike sharing station near their location. 

“There’s currently a transit stop there, but there is a gap in service for early-morning and late-night workers to get from one place to another,” Brewer said. “So holding workshops and conversations with the public and major stakeholders allowed us to learn things we didn’t know because we don’t live in these communities.” 

Geffken said that closely partnering with organizations, stakeholders, and the Fort Smith community were key in establishing a shared micromobility model that will hopefully meet the needs of the city’s residentsespecially those who live in low-income neighborhoods and face additional barriers to mobility. 

“As long as you have a standardized model, you can have a distributed group of organizations come together and run this type of service,” Geffken said. “If it can work here, then we know that it can work in other cities.”

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Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Kirby Wilhelm (wilhelm@ctaa.org).

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