Two Wheels. Environment. People.
“Well, I’ve been ‘fraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder” – “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac
Stevie Nicks might have been singing about the changing transportation landscape that we see in cities across the world, especially with the introduction of electric scooters to our daily travel.
Moving people on two wheels is a good thing. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s a good thing. Therefore, increasing access to two-wheeled vehicles through publicly- or privately-owned shared-micromobility services is critical to helping congested cities become more livable. After all, two wheels – whether on a bicycle or electric scooter – often take up less space than four wheels. In constrained urban settings with high land values and growing populations, space matters. In addition, two-wheeled vehicles often consume less fossil fuel per mile, if any at all. There is no need to extol the environmental, financial, and health benefits of reducing fossil fuel dependence. Therefore, finding ways to make two-wheeled vehicles more readily available, safe, and affordable is a goal of many cities nation-wide.
It’s true that when someone chooses to take an e-scooter for their trip, they’re not necessarily replacing a single-occupant vehicle trip. However, there’s a good chance, especially with the integration of these options into ride-hailing apps like Lyft, that they *are* replacing some trips that otherwise would have been taken in a car. In Washington, D.C. in 2018, the average trip taken on a shared e-scooter was between .7 and 1.8 miles- both distances generally accepted to be farther than the average person would walk to transit, suggesting that e-scooters are enabling real transportation trips. And given the early evidence that ride-hailing is increasing vehicle miles traveled, mobility options that can help reverse that trend are encouraging. There are a variety of considerations one thinks about when choosing how they’ll get from point A to point B. An individual’s mode choice can be impacted by the distance, travel time, cost, weather, the number of parcels or other people that need to be transported, what one’s wearing, and how one feels. Ergo, the more options that are available, especially those that don’t increase localized emissions or congestion like e-scooters, the better chance our cities have of being able to meet the needs of residents and visitors regardless of income, ability, or geography.
Even good change, though, is not without its growing pains. Cities who have made the decision (or not) and have shared e-scooters on their streets must tackle several challenges. The first question is: what is the regulatory framework that allows (or disallows) the presence of e-scooters, or regulates where they’re allowed to be used? In Washington, D.C., scooters are regulated as “personal mobility devices” and are subject to rules that predate their introduction. Hence, scooters may be ridden on sidewalks in the District (outside of the Central Business District, just like bicycles), have a maximum allowable speed of 10 miles per hour, and a minimum age requirement of 16 for their riders. Even many District scooterists don’t know this. Communicating, enforcing, and examining the appropriateness of these requirements is an ongoing project.
Another challenge is negotiating the real world impacts of e-scooter usage. For instance, until scooterists and cyclists feel more comfortable in our roadways, many choose to ride on sidewalks. However, sidewalk riding can be a concern for pedestrians, especially seniors and those with disabilities. Scooters parked in the sidewalk may also impede pedestrians. This highlights the fact that while e-scooters take up significantly less space both in use and while parked than most other transportation devices, they still need space. Cities are grappling with creative solutions to accommodate scooter parking in a way that’s safe for all users of the public space, convenient to the scooterist, and quick to implement.
The promise of e-scooters and other two wheeled vehicle to improve people’s transportation options is great, but cities must continue to find solutions to the inevitable challenges of introducing new modes of transportation to the city landscape. When we combine the real-world impacts of e-scooters on policy and infrastructure with the reality that the e-scooter technology and the companies that implement these programs are still in a nascent stage, what we have is one of most dynamic modes of transportation in our generation.