The Year Of The Scooter: The Good, The Bad, And The Road Ahead
January 3, 2019
By: Regina Clewlow
The Year Of The Scooter: The Good, The Bad, And The Road Ahead
At the beginning of 2018, cities began to look to the curb for solutions to plan for the future of mobility – better coordination of ride-hailing services using valuable curbspace, and then ultimately, for autonomous vehicles. At wonky transportation conferences, there were talks, meetings, and well-laid plans being made for early stage “curbside management” pilots to coordinate pick-up and drop-off areas for Uber and Lyft. Cars have historically driven the bulk of transportation planning decisions in many Western societies, particularly the United States – so why shouldn’t they continue to dominate how we plan for a future with autonomous vehicles?
As it turns out, companies like Bird, Lime, and JUMP had other ideas about how the future of transportation would evolve. It is clear that 2018 was in fact, the year of the scooter, and more broadly the year of the meteoric rise of micromobility. Bird and Lime are each estimated to be worth more than $2 billion (the fastest rise of any technology company ever before, including Uber). And the two U.S. ridehailing giants have both entered the micromobility race with their acquisitions of JUMP (by Uber for a reported $200M), and Motivate (by Lyft for a reported $250M).
As the scooter storm of 2018 calms with the arrival of winter, cities and the companies themselves should take stock in the good, the bad, and road ahead for micromobility. Will these companies revolutionize transportation in cities for the better?
Will they bring us mass electrification of (smaller) vehicle fleets and more sustainable ways of moving around in cities? They can if we let them, but it’s going to take a lot more work and coordination with the public sector to get there.
The Good: Better Data and a New Coalition for Pedestrian and Bike-Friendly Streets
There are two important conversations that the arrival of electric scooters has forced upon cities: 1) regulation and active management of mobility services; and related to this: 2) redesigning urban space to make it easier to get around without a car.
Regulation and active management of mobility by cities.
“They arrived overnight, without warning.” This was a common narrative, where hundreds of scooters might arrive in a city without prior notification or coordination with transportation officials.
Throughout the country, and the world in fact, cities pushed back by impounding scooters. They then put in place, relatively quickly, new policies that limited the number of vehicles each company could deploy, often combined with the requirement that the scooter and bikeshare companies provide data for the city to monitor, evaluate, and better plan for these services.
From the perspective of someone who has built software for public agencies such as the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission to plan for the future of transportation for more than a decade, access to better data for the public sector is crucial. Without it, major transportation policy and planning decisions are essentially being made in the dark.
Lack of coordination between private mobility services, public transportation services, and use of public space (i.e. roads, sidewalks, and curbs) leads to lower efficiency, greater inequality, and roads that are less safe because cities are unable to design streets meant to accommodate these new transportation options. With data, which cities now have, transportation planners can design sensible policies and transportation plans that can integrate these new services.
Redesigning urban space for bikes, and yes, scooters.
Perhaps the most important contribution of the micromobility revolution has been the groundswell of support for bike- and scooter-friendly infrastructure. Active transportation planners have been calling for more, and better protected, bike lanes for decades. Some bike advocacy groups initially resisted bringing electric scooters into the fold, but have come around, while others still resist doing so. They shouldn’t.
Never before has there been this much public support for the creation of more bike lanes and infrastructure. And with better data, cities are now armed with the information they need to justify carving off on-street parking and lanes previously dedicated solely to cars – reclaiming that space for bikes, and yes, scooters too.
The Bad: Questions Arise About Safety and Vehicle Durability
How safe are scooters? We don’t really know.
As scooter adoption has continued to grow, so have reports of accidents, injuries, and in a few cases, deaths. The CDC recently announced that the first study on the scooter safety would be conducted. It is clear that cities and public health officials need better information about the safety of these vehicles, and to design policies and strategies to ensure that these new transportation options are in fact safe for riders as well as pedestrians.
Many would argue that one of the most important actions cities can take for safety is expand and protect bike lanes. The most severe injuries for anyone riding a bike, electric bike, or electric scooter are likely to occur when that rider collides with a car. Similarly, if you were to ask most scooter riders why they ride on sidewalks, instead of in the streets, the most common reason is that they don’t feel safe riding directly alongside cars, which continue to grow alarmingly in size. The solution: cities should take back streets to focus on moving people, not the single occupancy vehicles that currently dominate most travel.
The need for more durable vehicles.
The scooters (and bikes) that were initially deployed by Bird, Lime, and Spin were not designed for the beating that they ended up receiving in a shared business model. It is clear that hardware improvements are already being made. JUMP, one of the most seasoned veterans of bikeshare, recently unveiled the next generation of their electric bikes, which are harder to vandalize. Expect more to come in 2019. These companies are going through growing pains, but they are learning and adapting along the way.
The Road Ahead: Collaboration as a New Way of Doing Business
If dockless electric bike and scooter companies can find more ways of partnering with cities to win them over, they’ll continue to accelerate their impressive growth. Nearly 50% of trips in the United States are less than 3 miles, and more than 70% of those trips are made by car. The path to exponentially grow trips by electric scooters (and bikes) is for cities and micromobility providers to work hand in hand to take back city streets - to move more people, not cars.
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