This is a guest post from Hamish Mackie Director, Mackie Research www.mackieresearch.co.nz
It’s a real slice of life gazing out the window of an (oversubscribed) bus on the morning commute. Lots of cars, buses, bikes, e-bikes, people walking, jogging, and scootering. The scooters seem to have three types – push scooter, electric scooter probably owned by someone, and then the new lime hire e-scooters.
There’s been a bit of fuss about these new Lime scooters in recent media, but we can be a little more systematic about assessing their risks and merits. One way of doing this is by taking a ‘Human Factors’ (or Ergonomics) approach. Office chairs and desks come to mind but actually the discipline has contributed greatly to a range of areas of life we now take for granted – carefully designed aircraft and car interiors and controls, your new phone, analyzing the causes of large-scale disasters (such as Pike River), and the Safe System approach which is now commonly understood in road safety circles. It’s a broad field but there a simple concept that helps – we need to focus on how people work and then design things around them. Simple. So, taking the new Lime e-scooters there are a few layers we need to consider in this context.
Firstly, people and the design of these scooters. It’s been amazing to see the Onzo bikes and now these e-scooters appear. At 190cm tall (above average height but not ridiculously so), there is no way that I could practically use the Onzo bikes, and so I don’t. On the other hand, the size of the Lime scooters look great for me, but I’ve seen a number of users almost at eye level with the handlebars, and with clear control issues. Yet it’s design 101 to consider the size of users before building something and it seems other schemes have been much more considered in this regard (London bikeshare). There are datasets that describe the range of sizes of various populations and so it shoudn’t be hard to make sure the 5th percentile female and 90th percentile male is covered off in these products.
Looking slightly wider we then think about the environments that people operate these scooters on and the other users they must negotiate. The poor pedestrians are feeling threatened and then when the scooters are used on the road there is sure to be another headline titled “Dangerous Dickheads 2”. The point has already been made that, in line with the fact that most people are reasonable, most scooter riders are not out to torment pedestrians or be a nuisance to motorists – they are just looking for somewhere to operate. And this raises the very fundamental issue of how we allocate our road space and how we are not keeping up with the game.
A recent blog (Let’s Rethink what a Bike Lane is – 24th August) on the respected CitiLab site has a very interesting solution. It is suggested that road space could be allocated based on speed – 0-10 km/h (pedestrians, wheelchairs etc), 10-30 km/h (cyclists, e-bikes, e-scooters, other motorized personal mobility devices) and then 30-40 km/h for fast vehicles – buses, taxis, training cyclists). This aligns very nicely with the principle of Self-Explaining Roads, a concept that has underpinned a largely successful Dutch transport system. The bit that I disagree with is the term narrow, mid-width and wide, given to those categories respectively, which seems to suggest that motorized vehicles by default will have the most space – surely in some cases this may be sensible but in others it may not.
The key point from this novel way of thinking is how to build resilience into our road network. Who knows what personal mobility devices are around the corner, but if we have these broad categories, any new device will always have an appropriate place on the road. Of course the real key point in all of this is that we must learn more about how people want to, or could, get around and design our road system accordingly. Disruptive technologies guru Tony Seba would suggest that the world is not going to stay the same and so we must prepare for that.
So in practice we need to fundamentally look at the property widths that our road corridors occupy, consider the needs of the range of actual and potential transport users and then give them space accordingly. At this point it’s important to think about, not only what might wash over us from the future, but what we want to achieve as a society. This is where crucial data from Public Health colleagues paints a striking picture.
What do we hope to achieve from our transport system? We hear a lot about efficient access to opportunity and safety, but sadly we still don’t take Climate change or air pollution seriously and we are only just staring to get our heads around the wider health benefits/dis-benefits of our transport policies, let alone fundamentally important issues such as happiness.
The graph below, from Professor Alistair Woodward (Auckland University) and Michael Keall (Otago Univeristy – adapted from data from leading English public health researcher James Woodcock et al., shows the health/safety benefits/disbenefits of key modes in Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) – a key measure for public health professionals.
The striking message is that preventing obesity related disease such as Type 2 diabetes is a much bigger consideration than road traffic injuries in terms of overall wellbeing to our society. So with this in mind, it’s obvious that ‘active modes’ – walking and cycling deliver large benefits to us. This is important when any shiny new electric thing comes along weather it be a car or an e-scooter (e-bikes usually involve exertion to propel them). While we might be busting climate change with EVs and congestion with e-scooters, how much are they contributing to overall health and wellbeing.
We need to be a bit careful here as e-scooter riders are likely to be expending more energy than someone sitting in a car, and like bus passengers, are likely to be pedestrians at the start and end of their journey in the share-scooter scenario. Certainly e-bike research suggests that the exertion reduction is to some extent off-set by increased range and frequency.
Perhaps a way of dealing with all this is considering how many boxes are ticked by various modes:
In this example, safety is not just the risk to individuals or the risk of vehicle occupants, but also the risk that mode causes to the road users around them. Of course, there is likely to be endless debate about how these aspects are defined, weighted and scored (is a car fast? sometimes), but the point is that we need to be much more holistic about considering provision for various modes.
But in the short-term it’s the safety concerns that have everyone worried. And rightly so, as with any new thing, you want to make sure harm is not coming from it. But we do need to pause and think about the wider benefits and harms and make our judgements on this basis. But in the mean-time having a trial is a great way to quickly assess the risk and other factors associated with a new technology, as long as the right questions and measures are part of that trial, and actions come from it.
It’s unlikely that numerous deaths and serious injuries are going to result from the scooters and so the real safety issue is unlikely to be anything like that associated with motor vehicles, but we do want new things to be safe. Most importantly we want people to feel safe so that they are not put off walking and missing out on those important health benefits.
Coming back to our Human Factors approach though, the last important consideration is how the transport planning system is set up to deal with the new Lime e-scooters. Change in the transport sector has been glacially slow and it’s interesting that we expect our new phone or even car each year to be better than the previous year’s, but for our roads we expect them to remain precisely as they were designed in 1950 – despite many societal changes happening over this period.
Following Human Factors theory, the socio-technical system is where the big wins are. This is not just the technical space but the interactions with the people, organisations, processes and policies that shape the technical things. Many projects that respond to our changing world (such as cycle lanes) stall, go over budget or even just get shelved, because our planning system often seems unable to deal with this change. Yet by carefully analyzing the parts of the system that hold things up, we can then change the system, and hopefully make some progress. Is it training? Processes and manuals or organizational leadership for example? For our Lime e-scooters, what rules do we need around them? If we like them, on which space should they travel along? and most of all how do they fit into a plan for a transport system that New Zealander’s want and need?