For a stick of a vehicle with a modest electric motor, dockless electric scooters have zoomed into American cities—and the public imagination—stunningly fast. According to National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), trips on shared mobility devices (SMDs) —primarily electric scooters (e-scooters) but also dockless electric bikes (e-bikes) —spiked from under a million in 2017 to nearly 50 million in 2018. Already, e-scooters and dockless e-bikes are nearly twice as popular as bike share systems that have had a decade to mature.
E-scooters are touted to solve the first-mile, last-mile problem, connect people to public transit; provide mobility to those without cars; and help the environment. Yet e-scooters have also drawn a small tsunami of criticism, both for cluttering sidewalks and the safety issues they could pose. Addressing these issues requires a careful policy to find out what regulations and infrastructure will get the best out of a promising transit mode, yet one around which are many uncertainties.
Piloting the future
Arlington County’s pilot program began in October 2018, originally scheduled to end in June 2019 but has been extended to December 2019 to allow for studying the utilization and adoption of scooters. . A draft ordinance is now being advertised that would integrate e-scooters and dockless e-bikes into Arlington’s transportation landscape.
Mobility Lab released Arlington County Shared Mobility Devices (SMD) Pilot Evaluation Report in October, providing crucial information about how e-scooters, as well as dockless e-bikes, are being adopted. It illuminates best practices regarding how local governments and policies can facilitate a smooth transition to making scooters a comfortable part of everyday life.
Findings from the SMD evaluation shows that e-scooter use has “increased over the duration of the pilot,” while riders remain pleased with the vehicles. The pilot began with 706 SMDs trips deployed, with the number up to 806 in June. Indeed, Arlington County had nearly twice as much access as Washington, DC, with 4 SMDs per thousand people versus 2.4 for DC.
The evaluation also shows that SMD users have opted to take a scooter instead of a vehicle (car or ride-hailing), which could suggest that this transportation option helps get cars off the road, leading to less emissions and a less congested landscape. According to survey results from the study, 32% of e-scooter rides replaced a car trip (13% personal vehicle and 19% ride hailing). Also encouraging is that “only 5% of e-scooter riders and 7% of e-bike riders” said they were replacing a bus or Metrorail trip.
Still, the pilot project is occurring amid many unknowns in a swiftly changing transportation landscape. According to Jim Larsen, Bureau Chief, Arlington County Commuter Services, the idea was to study the scooters, “and learn, and reach some conclusions through that process.” Larsen further states that “Arlington has long been a community focused on sustainability, doing things that are good for air quality and the environment. We didn’t ask for to come here, but when they we decided to embrace the process.” With a mode this new that’s taken off this swiftly, results are provisional and changing. Melissa McMahon, Transportation Research and Site Plan Development for Arlington, emphasized the evolutionary side of the process, the willingness to improvise and rethink policy.
Perceptions of lack of safety are one of the factors that hinder e-scooter ridership, with 58% of non-riders in the survey agreeing that “I don’t think e-scooters are safe.” Research and data collected regarding safety so far has been wildly inconclusive. For example, one Santa Monica study found 50 times as many hospitalizations from scooter accidents as from bike accidents over the course of a year, according to Mobility Lab’s report. Conversely, a Baltimore study showed e-scooters as “less dangerous than other modes.” McMahon explained that we simply don’t know enough yet. One key factor, however, is that a third of crashes occur during the first use of an e-scooter, so these are likely to decrease with familiarity. The Arlington pilot project reported 69 crashes “between October 2018 and June 2019” and no fatalities.
Melinda Hanson, Head of Sustainability at Bird, sees safety as changing greatly in different situations, with fewer cars and more bikes and scooters crucial. She pointed out that urban vehicle miles traveled “is directly related to traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities.” Fewer cars means safer streets. Drawing on European experiences, Hanson added that as more bicycles and small vehicles appear on streets, and drivers come to expect them, accidents decrease.
More education outreach is needed, despite current initiatives by both the county and scooter companies. According to the report, “20-22% of SMD riders and 43% of non-riders did not know what the ‘laws’ are,” which can mean riding too fast on sidewalks or parking in areas that block access.” E-scooter and bike riders should be educated about best behavior when they feel forced to ride on the sidewalk. Further education of pedestrians and car drivers is also warranted; everyone needs to contribute to a safe, comfortable environment.
A lane of their own
One key aspect that e-scooter users surveyed agreed on is the need for protected bike lanes, the top or second choice at 67%. Indeed, respondents much preferred bike lanes for scooter travel, with the sidewalk far behind and sharing the road cars last. One rider answering the qualitative part of the survey captured the dilemma faced by SMD users: “If there isn’t a bike lane, where should I ride? The street where cars are going fast or the sidewalk where I need to slow down for other people there?”
A key goal therefore, said Larsen, is “to allocate more infrastructure resources to expand fixed and protected bike lanes.” Hanson boldly suggested repurposing street parking as protected bike and scooter lanes, reallocating precious street space to serve the needs of the many. “The most important factor for the safety of a city is dedicated, connected and protected cycle lanes,” she emphasized. In such cities as Amsterdam, where bike lanes are physically demarcated from car lanes, often by raising them, bicycles are used for more than 60% of daily trips.
The situation places e-scooters and bikes as potential allies, demanding additional miles of separated bike lanes. Conflict is possible, as scooters are potentially faster and more powerful, although bicyclists also vary greatly in speed and power. The goal, as McMahon put it, is to make lanes “accessible for a wide range, older folks on recumbent bikes, adult tricycles, parents with young kids.” On protected lanes, this takes precedence over maintaining speed for the fastest bikes and scooters (just as we limit car speeds).
Given the goal of safety and widespread use, the pilot project began with a 10 mph maximum top speed for e-scooters, enforced by the scooter companies, but increased to 15 mph, which makes for a reasonable speed in the bike lanes.
While e-scooters in the pilot program have been forbidden on sidewalks, the draft ordinance recommends they be allowed, along with e-bikes, at a top speed of 6 mph, where protected bike lanes are not available. This seems wise, since there are traffic situations where the street is simply not safe for scooters. Still, two-wheeled vehicles on the sidewalks often unnerve pedestrians. The evaluation states that, “73% of non-SMD riders who responded to the survey did not feel safe as pedestrians around riders on e-scooters.” To alleviate this, according to the draft ordinance, SMDs on sidewalks need to “yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian and shall give an audible signal.”
Fighting for space
A raised problem is the way e-scooters and dockless e-bikes can clutter up the street. Indeed, “65% of non-SMD riders reported often to always encountering blocked sidewalks.” For pedestrians, especially people with limited mobility, e-scooters and e-bikes that block paths can be a nuisance. Improperly parked SMDs can get “in the way of folks,” especially those with “limited mobility, who are not dexterous,” notably wheelchairs, said McMahon. Scooter parking is another issue where it’s crucial to get policy right.
To solve (or at least alleviate) the parking issues it’s important to “understand where people want to park, find the best places in the street, and allocate them,” said McMahon. Having specific corral areas for e-scooters is one solution—in Arlington, seven corrals were installed in December 2018 using temporary materials and spray paint. These can easily be replaced by permanent installation as the best locations and practice become evident. Another solution is allowing e-scooters to use bicycle parking.
While parking against buildings might seem unobtrusive, McMahon pointed out that the visually impaired use building edges for navigation, ruling them out. Understanding these kinds of details, and the best solutions, will only improve with experience.
Despite their promise of equity, e-scooters are not always accessible to all neighborhoods. In Arlington, they have so far been placed mostly along the main transit corridors, Rosslyn-Ballston and Route One. As the report states, “North Arlington received 1.3 to 2.5 times more service than South Arlington,” while “29% of Arlington’s population” lives “in low-income areas with lower than average service level.”
Despite geographic inequities, e-scooter riders in the survey “had a higher proportion of Hispanic and black or African-American than non-SMD riders.” This seems to indicate that ethnic minorities may be major users of micro-vehicles and deserve greater access. McMahon further lauded e-scooter and bike access as an important tool in helping low income people access and keep jobs. Indeed, future plans include an at least 15% distribution in outlying neighborhoods.
Another striking equity issue is the lack of scooter use by women, at only 37%. How exactly to encourage e-scooter use among women is tricky. There is “a lot of literature, different theories,” said McMahon. “With the data today, we can’t say why.”
Another equity issue is communication. The draft ordinance would require each scooter company to open a 24-hour call center with Spanish language capability, said McMahon, and Braille information will be added to the sharable SMDs, which will be useful in reporting improperly parked ones. Still, perhaps more outreach to Spanish-speaking communities is needed to achieve full participation. Policy makers should also consider how to approach other non-English speakers.
It’s about communication, too
From the start, Arlington’s SMD pilot project has relied on outreach and community conversation. The Arlington County Shared Mobility Devices (SMD) Pilot Evaluation Report emphasizes this should be continued, to “make the integration of SMDs into Arlington an inclusive and interactive conversation.” Larsen added that, if the county and community can “create a culture of safe and appropriate ridership incorporating the new e-scooters and e-bikes,” everyone will feel more comfortable with new guidelines as they emerge.
To be truly transformational, communication is important, but the right policy is essential, in the form of both regulations and infrastructure. If SMDs prove to be more than a fad, if they become ingrained in our daily culture, the result will be transformational. Instead of cars that serve only a few, that space could be used for efficient, sustainable transportation. The exploding popularity of e-scooters and dockless e-bikes, that is, could be just the first phase of a revolution, but it will take wise public policy for this to happen.
“There’s been a long-time push to get people to transport themselves using electric modes and using lightweight modes,” said Hanson, and the dockless scooter revolution is finally fulfilling this. Hanson also lauded “the benefits of reallocating our street space to more efficient and equitable and safe space.” The explosion of SMDs could be the first phase of the kind of small-scale urban transit systems that have so far existed in utopian science fiction, and in hundreds of aspirational sustainability plans in cities around the globe.