Over the course of much of the past 50 years, days for millions of workers across the U.S. have looked like this: walk out of a (way too big) isolated suburban house, get in a (way too big) car, drive to the (apparently way too small, based on the accompanying stop-and-go-traffic) urban center, find a parking place, walk into an office building, and again feel isolated all day because it’s too much work to get out and drive around again until it’s time to go back home.
Why haven’t we put much urgency into establishing solutions to this less-than-ideal day-to-day existence?
Think of all the profits businesses back home in the suburbs and especially in the urban core could be making if they encouraged all those isolated people to get out more and walk, bike, or now scoot past their businesses. Think of all the lives that could be saved if people lived less car-centric lives that made them physically and mentally healthier and also kept them from being one of the 40,000 statistics that die each year in car-related crashes.
Now that shared, electric scooters have landed in cities across the country as a solution, it’s time to thank all these companies for offering a smart solution to our collective isolation. But it’s also time to ponder what has caused us to fall so far down this rabbit hole in lacking transportation inspiration. Despite all the availability of scooters, it’s still going to be a monumental challenge to get people who’ve only understood how to drive everywhere to now hop on the scooters.
The culprits who have built this challenge are plenty. In ad after ad during the Super Bowl, for example, auto companies have long promised us nirvana. And we’ve blindly shilled out our life savings to them. Operators of trains and buses – with their ability to move lots of people through small spaces – have long not promised us any kind of nirvana. Planners and engineers have long worked off an outdated and faulty blueprint that prioritizes cars but counterintuitively makes traffic unbearable. Policies and funding for incentivizing people to make good transportation choices are an afterthought, and even the current potential savior – the Green New Deal – is sadly lacking in true, overarching fixes for anything related to transportation.
The shared-scooters business model may fail. But they and other micro mobility vehicles are not a novelty, and we should give everything we can to helping them succeed. Large-scale use of one-wheels, boosted boards, and mini-Segways would improve societal benefits – like traffic, health, equity, and the environment – for everyone, which in turn would be a boon economically.
What we know so far is that a lot of people are enjoying the scooter option. There is not a lot of research or data analyzed yet, but where there has been, scooters appear to be about three times as popular as bikeshare bikes. So we need to take baby steps – but fairly fast ones – to make our spaces as safe and amenable as possible to people on scooters.
Communication is the key to normalizing scooter use into the fabric of our communities. That sounds nebulous, but here’s what that means. Mobility Lab and BikeArlington met a while back with police to discuss how a now-ongoing scooter pilot should unfold in Arlington, Va., right across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
Police concerns weren’t necessarily the ones that were foremost on our own minds. They were worried about:
- underage kids and drunk people riding them
- visibility levels of scooter riders to people in cars, and
- making sure the scooters were not available for use at night.
We were also concerned that people needed to be fundamentally educated about a very new thing happening in public. That led to a collaborative idea between Mobility Lab, BikeArlington, and the Arlington police of digital signage to be placed on busy corridors with messaging reminding people on scooters where they are legally required to ride intermixed with information for people in cars to be aware that scooters are allowed to share the streets with them.
In the early days of this local pilot, there were a lot of complaints about scooters and how people were supposed to coexist with them. But people quickly got used to them. There are still plenty of issues to be worked out. Just about everywhere in the United States, there is insufficient and plain unsafe existing infrastructure to make scooter riding as pleasant of an experience as it should be.
Signage like that one the police quickly unrolled played a significant role in normalizing a new behavior and educating the public to alleviate the misunderstandings that have long existed regarding rights-of-way issues between drivers and people on bikes and walking.
Since roadways often have limited information along the way for anyone other than drivers, this was a great idea: temporary signage with messaging that could be alternated and aimed at all the road users. People who have traveled this corridor should no longer have excuses for being unaware of different people’s rights and the rules of the road. Despite almost no fatalities across the hundreds of cities where electric shared scooters have been introduced across the country over the past year, there is plenty of room to add permanent signage to places that are quickly becoming scooter thoroughfares.
The Federal Highway Administration within the U.S. Department of Transportation is charged with advising where road signage goes. But its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways hasn’t been updated since 2009. There are a lot of advances in transportation – where should Uber and Lyft park, where is Amazon allowed to make its deliveries, where should scooters and bikeshare stations be in operation, to name a few – that need to be addressed.
While we wait for new federal guidelines to allow for the addition of helpful and relevant signage, localities where scooters are being added can take action to educate the public. Scooter advocates can meet with police and other actors who care about safety, like first responders, to scoot the process along.
To keep scooters around and promote a low-cost, speedy, energy efficient, healthy, and fun transportation option, anyone stuck in a traffic jam should thank the police and others who are working behind the scenes to help people take short trips on scooters rather than short ones in cars.
Henry Dunbar, program director of BikeArlington, contributed to this article.
Photo by the Portland Bureau of Transportation/Flickr.