Make E-Scooters Work With Transit, Not Against It - Streetsblog
D.C. has pioneered regulations to make them a safe, accessible, and equitable travel option.
When shared e-scooters first showed up in US cities several years ago, many cities considered them “toy vehicles.” After running small pilots, cities such as San Francisco and Miami quickly banned e-scooters from their streets due to complaints of illegal parking and safety concerns. But gradually, things have changed. Some cities that once banned e-scooters have now brought these lightweight, mobile devices back. And perhaps to many people’s surprise, some cities, including Denver and San Francisco, even classified e-scooters as essential businesses during COVID-19.
So why such a dramatic change of attitude toward e-scooters? The most obvious reason is that e-scooters have become extremely popular. According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, U.S. riders took 88.5 million trips in 2019, more than double station-based bike ridership. Research suggests that most e-scooter trips are not taken for fun but for utilitarian purposes such as work and school commuting. In the past year, for those avoiding crowded spaces like buses and trains because of COVID-19, e-scooters can be a lifeline for people with few other travel options. Seizing on the opportunity for good publicity, some e-scooter companies have offered free or discounted rides for essential workers.
D.C. has been a pioneer in embracing e-scooters and e-bikes and developing regulations to make them a safe, accessible, and equitable travel option. The District started a dockless vehicle pilot program in September 2017, finding that three quarters of survey respondents agreed that the dockless program should continue. More than half of respondents wanted more vehicles than the 3200 (up to 400 vehicles by each of the eight operators) maximum DC originally allowed. A detailed data analysis of trip patterns showed that while ridership of dockless vehicles grew rapidly in the pilot phase, usage was different from the Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) system — the services were complementary, not competitive.
The popularity of e-scooters and e-bikes suggests that cities like DC should be treating dockless vehicles as an essential component of public transportation systems.
But all of this evidence is likely to leave many e-scooter critics unpersuaded. As the pandemic gradually comes to an end, the argument for e-scooters serving as a substitute for public transit is weakened. There are good reasons to worry that privately operated e-scooters — much like ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft — could draw riders away from transit and hence threaten the recovery of public transit systems. There are also questions about whether the success of early pilot programs is scalable; as the fleet size of e-scooters increases, they can create more nuisances for pedestrians and neighborhood residents. Finally, e-scooters may pose safety risks to both their riders and other road users, especially when their speed is too high.
All these are valid concerns that cities and e-scooter operators have to address collaboratively. Cities can determine the appropriate fleet size by carefully analyzing the data provided by e-scooter companies. They can use geofencing techniques to ensure parked scooters don’t block pedestrian access. They can improve travel safety by regulating e-scooter speed, encouraging helmet use, and improving bike infrastructure. Finally, cities need to find ways to make e-scooters complement rather than compete with existing public transportation systems.