When dockless e-bikes and e-scooters – also referred to as shared mobility devices (SMDs) – emerged in city streets across the United States in 2017 and rapidly gained popularity, city officials and policymakers found themselves in the challenging situation of having to manage, plan for and potentially regulate a fast-expanding network of new mobility devices.
Effectively, the challenging task was one of achieving a delicate balance between facilitating the growth of popular innovative solutions with potential long-term sustainability benefits on one hand and creating an effective regulatory framework that mitigates its potential negative externalities for the existing transportation infrastructure, pedestrians and residents on the other.
The challenge stems from the flexibility of the dockless technology in terms of where it can be accessed, ridden and parked, the rapid adoption rate and therefore wide community exposure within a short amount of time, and most importantly the lack of prior experience with SMD operations, user utilization and community reactions stemming from the little time these mobility devices have been in service. A host of questions flow from these themes, including:
- How many SMDs will be deployed? And where? How adequate is this distribution? what will be the main operational challenges? parking impacts? And how will laws and regulations be best communicated?
- Where will people use them? For what purpose? what modes are they replacing? And what are the equity implications?
- What adequate infrastructure is needed? And what are the limitations of local or state codes that regulate these services and the places where people would use these services (e.g. roads, sidewalks, trails)?
- And how will non-users (or the wider community) react? And how will it evolve over time?
To help curb this uncertainty and make data-driven decisions regarding managing, regulating and planning for these devices, some cities such as Portland, OR, Washington DC and Santa Monica, CA created pilot programs where they entered into agreements with operators and used the pilot period for research and evaluation aimed at characterizing these shared mobility devices and their performance.
Arlington’s pilot kicked off in September 2018 with Bird and Lime and is expected to end in December 2019 with seven operators (see timeline below).
Mobility Lab conducted the evaluation of the pilot for the data collected between October 2018 and June 2019 using data from operators and third parties, including data collected from residents and riders through online feedback forms, direct feedback from the community and third-party sources (data sources are described in detail in the report).
The performance of SMDs was checked against five main goals as described in Arlington County’s Master Transportation Plan (MTP) including:
(1) Providing high-quality transportation services,
(2) Moving more people without traffic and advancing environmental sustainability,
(3) Promoting safety,
(4) Establishing equity, and
(5) Managing effectively and efficiently
The report includes a detailed analysis and summary (provided in the conclusion) of how the devices checked against each objective – below are key highlights regarding SMD operations, utilization and community feedback in Arlington.
- SMDs are popular and used mostly for short trips within Arlington County. Slightly less than half a million trips were taken in 9 months in Arlington County (453,690 trips), averaging 0.94 miles/trip and occurring mostly (89% of the trips) within Arlington.
- SMD users choose SMDs mainly “to get around faster” and because they are “convenient”. They have developed a firmly positive response to SMDs reporting “enjoying riding them” and finding them “easy to use”.
- SMDs provide a viable complement to the County’s transportation ecosystem that increases mobility options and provides potential sustainability benefits. Most trips are to non-recreational activities, 18% of survey respondents report using e-scooters to connect to and from Metrorail and 32% report having replaced a car (private or TNC) on their most recent trip.
- There is still uncertainty regarding equity impacts of SMDs in Arlington. On one side, operators offer equity programs (reducing unlocking fees or fares), and SMDs are deployed and used in some lower-income neighborhoods. On the other side, users still need to use their smartphone to unlock devices and require credit cards. Also, there seems to be a disparity in deployment (normalized by residential population) between North and South Arlington.
- There is room for improving the communication of laws and regulations to the community. Operators can improve in communicating local regulations and ways to file a complaint and the County’s communication can improve in educating the public on the rules and regulations.
- There is a clear need for better infrastructure to address safety concerns of users and non-users in terms of where SMD users ride and park. Some 20% of non-SMD riders and 51% of e-scooter riders chose “safer places to ride” as one of the top three factors that would encourage them to start using SMDs. Riders prefer to ride on protected bike lanes (67% of respondents chose it as a top or second choice) followed by bike lanes (a bit under half of respondents chose it as either a first or second choice). Shared lanes were the least favorite with only 9% choosing it as their top two choices.
- Community concerns over parking and clutter on the sidewalk resulting from the program remain a challenge with the integration of SMDs in Arlington that needs to be addressed.
So, what does all this mean for managing and regulating SMDs going forward?
Here were the main suggestions provided in the report (the reader can refer to the report for an elaborate discussion of these suggestions):
Finally, the described highlights and results in the report should be read within the context of Arlington County and the specific type of data (and sample) collected. Evaluation pilots such as Arlington’s go a long way in filling the knowledge and experience gap. However, it is important to recognize that limited time SMDs have been in operation and the corresponding limited data and research means that the characterization of SMDs and how cities manage them will continue to evolve. This makes it important for local policymakers to continue monitoring and collecting data in order to derive structural and systemic trends, accurately characterize these services and ensure their integration into the Arlington County transportation landscape that yields desired benefits while mitigating negative externalities.
Special thanks to Arlington County staff and DS&MG’s contractors for all the input and guidance during the SMD Pilot. For the full list of acknowledgements, please refer to the report.