Like exotic flowers after a spring rain, scooters bloomed from out of nowhere on the streets of Arlington and cities around the U.S., in 2018. Just as suddenly, they have mostly disappeared, victims, like so much else of the Coronavirus crisis, but also beset by fiscal problems.
The numbers tell a stark story: trips originating in Arlington in 2018 climbed to 72,585 during October, and in August 2019 ridership peaked at 104,511 before sinking to 29,232 in December. Fast-forward to April of 2020, where a paltry 159 trips were taken according to data provided by Arlington County Commuter Services. Those who called scooters a fad might seem vindicated, though proponents of the mode may feel differently.
Scooters indeed bring environmental impacts such as clean air and reduced traffic congestion, at least compared to cars. According to Mobility Lab’s pilot evaluation report from September 2019, 32% of e-scooter riders used the vehicles to replace an automobile trip, most often ride-hailing. Scooters can additionally help reduce congestion and keep traffic flowing smoothly, which is increasingly important as society begins to open back up.
The fears of enclosed places on public transportation are sure to continue throughout the recovery from the Coronavirus, which could lead to more driving and congestion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recommends “forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others” such as “biking, walking, driving or riding by car,” the latter despite the well-established hazards of automobile emissions. With apprehensive commuters having to make tough decisions about their mode choice, what should Arlington and other jurisdictions do to facilitate the use of electric scooters and reduce the potential increase in car use?
What is the Economic Viability?
“The entire industry has been going through a shakeup,” regarding how companies are funded and operated, Jim Larsen, Bureau Chief, Arlington County Commuter Services, told me. COVID-19 initiated a long pause for scooters, but financing was likely also a factor. “Like in any venture capital growing industry,” Larsen added, “scooter companies have been financially unstable.”
The crisis hit quickly. By May of this year, scooter rentals had fallen “by nearly 100 percent,” according to an article in The Verge, with massive layoffs by Bird and Lime and the latter’s valuation plummeting almost 80 percent. With the challenges scooter companies are going through, and with their advantages in sustainability and local transportation, an article in CityLab even recommends that, to keep scooters viable, local governments should stop charging scooter companies to operate and should even consider subsidizing them. After all, CityLab argues, other forms of sustainable transportation, from bus to bikeshare, are subsidized.
Nevertheless, “I don’t see that Arlington County would consider subsidizing” scooter companies, said Larsen, certainly not in this fiscal atmosphere. Still, he said, “Arlington has been very conversational, very connected,” working with citizens, the police department, the school system, on efforts to encourage scooter use.
Bringing the companies back is a long, slow process. Shared electric scooters are indeed returning to Arlington, through a contract with Bird and a smaller one with Spin. Indeed, scooters recently began to return at the rate of some 30 to 50 a day, Larsen explained. All told, the county has approved up to 2,000 shared electric scooters. However, Bird scooters have currently “stabilized at 150-200 devices,” with Spin capped at 65, according to Arlington County Commuter Services.
The fleet remains something of a skeleton crew. Larsen did point to a trend, “I’m seeing more personal electric scooters” on the street, with affordable vehicles easy to buy. It’s possible we will see a much more mixed fleet of public and private scooters in the future.
Increase the Equity of Scooters in Arlington
Still, renting scooters may be the only option for some. The new deployment of shared e-scooters will emphasize equitable service, to help fix a problem indicated in the pilot evaluation report, that neighborhoods with incomes below the county average “have a high trip generation” despite a smaller number of vehicles deployed in low-income areas. Indeed, the report had already indicated that “North Arlington received 1.3 to 2.5 times more service than South Arlington,” with low-income areas receiving worse service.
To remedy this, companies are now required to submit plans for equitable distribution and 15% of shared scooters must be deployed beyond Metro corridors, according to Arlington County Commuter Services. Shared scooters will thus be relatively more available to those who most need them.
With scooters returning, to some degree or other, policies that encourage riders safety, and in a way that facilitates other traffic, should be enacted for long-term viability. One solution is more and better bike lanes, which are shared with scooters. According to the pilot evaluation report, as of the end of 2019, 62% of e-scooter riders always or often used bike lanes and 67% chose protected bike lanes as their top or second choice.
Ensure Comfortable and Convenient Trips
Scooters operate well on bike lanes due partly to speed limits, in Arlington, 15 mph. On sidewalks, scooters are limited to six mph, where they must give pedestrians right of way, so bike lanes are the preferred environment. Additionally, in parts of Arlington, if a bike lane is available, scooters are not permitted on the adjacent sidewalk.
Designed around transit and to encourage walking and biking, Arlington currently has 36 miles of bike lanes, of which 3 miles are protected, according to Arlington County Commuter Services. The Master Transportation Plan–Bicycle Element calls to “Integrate bicycling into an efficient, sustainable and equitable transportation system,” and recommends 8.4 miles of new bike lanes by 2025 and an additional 16.7 miles by 2030. These lanes could easily serve large numbers of scooters as well.
Another possibility is allowing scooters to operate alongside existing bikeshare programs, giving individuals more flexibility. As bikeshare expands, Larsen also asked, “should we try to place future bikeshare stations and allow scooters to be nearby, in other words, a one-stop-shop kind of a thing?” The two modes could be thoroughly integrated.
When scooters were first introduced, one of the major complaints was how they blocked the sidewalk. This issue is being handled by scooter corral areas, currently at 16 and planned to expand. Scooter etiquette continues to develop, and bike racks provide another unobtrusive place to park.
Scooters return to Arlington, then, as somber adolescents after a crisis, better understood, desired for their convenience and environmental sustainability, yet a smaller part of the landscape. They will need to continue to prove their worth, and it will take smart planning and management from government and from scooter companies alike, for these playful, useful, metallic entities to fulfill their promise.