Scooters Reveal Urban America's Transportation Crisis

Electric scooters are fun, but nobody knows what to do with them yet.

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Oct 18 2018, 1:00pm

Image: Mike Licht/Flickr

The transportation options in urban America leave much to be desired. There are crumbling metro systems, roads packed to the brim with car traffic, and around 1,000 bicycle deaths and 467,000 bicycle accidents per year.

Silicon Valley and various tech enterprises have sought to “disrupt” this status quo with convenience-first solutions. First it was ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft, which created various labor issues, and additional car traffic. Then dockless bikes, which cities fought against because they can be messy and threaten public bikeshare systems. And now, electric scooters from companies like Bird, Lime and Spin, arguably the most fun of all of these, but also the most confusing for cities.

Having spent a few hours on scooters recently, in St. Louis and Washington, DC, and dodging them while biking to work, I wanted to find out whether scooters could go beyond novelty and improve our vast, anarchic array of urban transportation, or, as more people are killed and injured, if we have created yet another product without really understanding the consequences. But maybe the most pressing of all these questions is: where the hell should we put them?

“It’s a time for rethinking the streets,” Gabe Klein, the former commissioner of both the DC and Chicago departments of transportation, told me in a phone call.

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Scooters in Austin, Texas, which I did not ride. Image: Ankita Rao

Here’s something that everyone I talked to agrees with: scooters should not be ridden on sidewalks. Sidewalks are often narrow and uneven and they contain people with strollers, kids, and the elderly. Most of them go about three miles per hour, according to a Portland State University report. If you put any kind of wheeled vehicle—be it a bicycle or scooter or segway—on those same sidewalks, that immediately threatens pedestrians.

In practice, it can be difficult to avoid sidewalks on a scooter if you don’t want to dodge cars. In Washington, DC, it’s extremely tempting to use a scooter to traverse the National Mall. But in doing so, my partner and I had to use sidewalks—many of the other thruways are rocky gravel or narrow, congested roads with tourist buses. We also used sidewalks in high traffic areas like Dupont Circle because the road seemed treacherous with fast traffic and switching lanes. We passed a small memorial for someone who had been killed in a scooter crash on the way.

Scooter companies, some of which also include bikeshares in their offerings, are intent on making sure scooters stay on roads, and preferably, bike lanes. “On roads, the speed capability and average is much higher than an electric scooter. And sidewalks are too slow,” said Emily Warren, senior director of policy and public affairs for Lime, a scooter company valued at $1.1 billion. “That really leaves the bike lane as the ideal place for the scooter to operate.”

The average speed of commuting bikers in New York City is 13.5 miles per hour, according to a Vox analysis, and the maximum speed of an electric scooter is similar, between 15 and 20 miles per hour. The size of a bicycle also makes it a safer companion for e-scooters—collisions could still happen, but wouldn’t cause the same kind of damage as a 4,000-pound chunk of metal and rubber (i.e., a car).

One of the major setbacks, though, is that our bike lanes suck. Bike lanes are expanding in some cities—they’ve doubled in New York in the past decade, and are on track to double in DC—but many of these lanes are still unprotected (i.e. no physical barriers between cars and bikes) and the majority of the roads in major US cities are still not bike friendly. Particularly compared to our European counterparts. Plus, as any biker will tell you these days, scooters might be speed compatible, but they can also make the bike lanes feel more treacherous than usual by simply adding a new, less noticeable element.

Scooter companies are hoping that introducing a critical mass of their vehicles to the roads will result in more protected bike lanes, a sort of chicken-and-egg argument for urban expansion. “There’s going to be a lot of infrastructure around scooters,” said Euwyn Poon, co-founder of Spin, a dockless bike and scooter company valued at $43.2 million, on the phone. But with only a few thousand scooters on the road in any given city, there’s a ways to go. “We’re kind of in that primitive stage where we’re witnessing consumer adoption.”

Both Poon and Warren told me that Spin and Lime, respectively, advocate for protected bike lanes by engaging their riders and working with the cities where they launch. Poon said that Spin’s data sharing policy allows cities to see where and how scooters are being used to help build around them. And Warren told me that Santa Monica, California, a popular e-scooter city, has used the permit money they receive from Lime to invest in more infrastructure. (It’s worth noting, however, that the city also decided to ban scooters on certain bike paths).

Warren added that car and scooter users need to be educated in the meantime about everything from helmet use to how to share a road. “It would not seem wise to wait to get those benefits,” she said about expanded bike lanes. “Especially given how slowly we know how cities make changes to their infrastructure.”

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Copenhagen bike lanes are so beautiful. Image: Nick S./Flickr

Klein, meanwhile, envisions a solution that goes beyond any sort of existing infrastructure we have. Instead of trying to fit our new vehicles into fallible systems, he said cities should work to create multimodal lanes based on speed. A “slow lane”, he said, could accomodate all kinds of small vehicles. “When I talk to city I encourage them to build a framework for micro mobility [shorter trips] and not focus so much on the type,” he said.

We’ve seen this kind of development in, unsurprisingly, cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where there are dedicated bike tracks, not just lanes, as well as tunnels and bridges. This has allowed for a sheer volume of bikers to traverse the city, which helps create safety in numbers. And Denmark is piloting its own scooter project right now.

The goal, Klein said, is to make it easier and safer for people to use smaller vehicles for shorter trips. That would also mean tackling the real culprit behind this whole debacle: cars. Because while scooters can be a nuisance, the vast majority of people are not dying on them without cars involved. And yet, cars still dominate our roads: 70 percent of the taxi trips in midtown Manhattan are below one mile. One mile also happens to be the average length of Lime’s scooter rides.

In between scooter trips in Washington, DC, we came upon a portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the 18th century multi-millionaire responsible for much of our railroad infrastructure, as well at New York’s Grand Central Station. I mulled my concerns over his mutton chop beard: introducing new vehicles to our roads before we have the infrastructure to safely handle them makes me nervous. And we’ve seen the fallout of doing so in the public outrage and accidents in just the past two years—though these numbers are relatively small compared to car and bike crashes.

But similar to the transportation innovators of today, Vanderbilt wouldn't have been able to create his network of steamships and train tracks without the heavy demand of the Gold Rush, which catalyzed the need for new ways to transport people and cargo. He didn’t wait for the perfect infrastructure plan to do so. So maybe to see the changes we want in our cities—safer, less polluted roads with plenty of transportation options—we’ll have to learn from history and create the demand ourselves.

Until then, please learn The Dutch Reach.