It’s now the holiday season so expect shorter, and fewer, posts over the next couple of weeks.
I think when we look back at 2018 in transport circles, it will be thought of as the year of the e-scooter. Citylab have a really good summary of how e-scooters exploded around the world this year, including a fair run down of some of their key issues.
When these shared, dockless vehicles began to materialize in American cities early this year (the first scooters emerged late last year in Santa Monica), the erstwhile child’s toys seemed like a ridiculous answer to some very grown-up transportation challenges. But despite some initial dorky misgivings, e-scooters swiftly and silently inserted themselves into the American cityscape. Unlocked with smartphone apps from an array of happy-sounding four-letter startups with names like Lime, Bird, Skip, and Spin, scooters found riders among tourists, communities of color, couples, and kids. The scooter bro became a thing. Lazy people devised seating options.
By summer, hundreds of U.S. cities dared to pilot the idea, along with dozens around the world. Hiring gig-economy independent contractors to recharge the batteries overnight, some companies became financial unicorns that galloped to billion-dollar evaluations. Car-based mobility companies hitched a ride: Uber, Lyft, Google, and Ford all launched, partnered, or invested in scooter-based services. For the founder of the original Razor kickscoot, e-scootering was an urban dream rebooted and fulfilled, batteries included.
It’s amazing to think that it’s only been a year since dockless e-scooters came into existence anywhere in the world. Obviously there has been some push-back, sometimes for reasonable reasons, sometimes not.
But the fad of the summer also generated a lot of pushback. Scooters blocked sidewalks and menaced pedestrians; vandals frequently targeted the vehicles and littered cities with broken machines. Others warned of safety issues: Doctors reported increased road injuries and the first fatal car-on-scooter crashes. The risks of plying pothole-riddled roads at 15 miles per hour on two tiny wheels won scooters a lot of detractors and regulatory enemies. More broadly, there was the notion that scootering was fundamentally a sideshow; the idea that these whimsical machines represented a viable means of tackling the problems of urban transportation—street congestion, climate emissions, and road deaths—seemed laughable.
There were some bizarre reactions in Auckland after Lime Scooters were introduced in early October, that reflected mostly on how out of touch some politicians are (especially when they have presided over a massive increase in deaths and serious injuries on Auckland’s roads over the past 5-6 years – almost entirely caused by cars.)
Of course e-scooters won’t solve all our transport problems, but I think they are a useful addition – not only for the direct service they provide, but also because they are forcing us to think differently about how we design and manage our streets. This is also picked up in the Citylab article:
But outside urbanist and city planning circles, there’s another way of seeing scooters—as a kind of a conversational Trojan horse for talking about better ways to get around and plan our cities. Their polarizing presence turned wonky pet causes like curb space and road diets into everyday discussions. “So how do you feel about the scooters?” became my go-to question for Lyft and Uber drivers as we contemplated how, and if, these disruptive devices could co-exist with cars on public roads. It was easy to explain how scooters underscore the failures of safe-streets policy in American cities.
Indeed, many bike and complete streets advocates welcomed the e-scooter as a fellow traveler in the larger campaign against car-centric thinking. Dockless technology doubled the number of shareable two-wheeled vehicles on U.S. city streets overnight, reaching communities that traditional bikeshare had not. Scooters lured legions of non-bicyclists onto the streets and made them realize how valuable protected infrastructure would be. The major companies hired up big players from across the transit advocacy world to work with (and lobby) city leaders. Just this month, the North American Bikeshare Association, which represents the interests of bikeshare companies, declared, “if it fits in a bike lane, it fits [with us].”
All of a sudden there’s another massive customer base for bike lane investments, as e-scooters don’t mix particularly well with pedestrians or vehicles (much like bikes). Similarly, riding an e-scooter really makes you realise how bad many of our footpaths are. I think this probably gives me people an insight into the challenges faced by those using wheelchairs or have limited mobility in other ways and therefore rely on footpaths, kerb cuts and other street design details to be done well.
Given how hugely popular Lime has been in Auckland, in barely two months, it boggles the mind to think where things might be in a year’s time.