The most familiar example is bicycling which has been around for over 100 years but which is enjoying a significant boost in popularity and in total miles traveled. What is new with bicycling is the introduction in many cities of shared bike systems which allow users to easily rent a bike for a short trip, thus doing away with the cost of bike ownership and the hassles of storing and protecting the bike at the end of each trip. Electrically assisted bikes have also proliferated in the last 10 years which has both extended the range of a reasonable bike trip and reduced the effort required.
The micromobility category also includes electric scooters which range from powered and ruggedized versions of kick scooters (generally referred to as “e-scooters), to electric mo-peds, to “Vespa-like” electric scooters, to full-fledged electric motorcycles capable of highway speeds. All of these options are generally viewed as being more economical, more environmentally friendly, and more fun than a trip in an automobile.
The Scale of Growth
Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive source of trip data that can account for all the various forms of micromobility trips. The best data comes from shared systems where the user has to explicitly rent the bike or scooter for each trip. While this excludes privately owned bikes and scooters, it at least gives a sense of the growth in the number of trips taken and their general popularity.
In their report on 2019 travel using shared micromobility systems, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) estimated that there were 136 million trips in 2019 -- up 60 percent from 2018 (1). To put the rate of growth in perspective, the number of trips in 2019 exceeded the sum of all shared micromobility trips from 2010 through 2017. This is partly due to the explosive growth in the number of cities with shared bike systems, but it is also due to the advent of shared systems for e-scooters which have only been on the market for the past 3 years. In 2019, 50 million trips were taken on shared bike systems (up from 35 million in 2017) and 86 million trips were taken on electric scooter systems (up from virtually zero in 2017).
I do not anticipate that this rate of growth will continue into the future. Already, there has been some consolidation in the shared e-scooter market and some companies have withdrawn from certain markets to focus on others. I do, however, expect the number of micromobility trips to continue to grow (just not as rapidly as the past couple of years) and I do expect continued innovation in the number and design of micromobility vehicles.
It is also important to point out that despite the impressive growth, the percentage of all trips taken by micromobility options is a very small number. However, there are at least two reasons why micromobility needs to be taken seriously as a mode of urban transportation:
Micromobility travel can be a substantial benefit to people who are unable to travel by car -- expanding their geographic range for living, working, education and shopping; and
Even relatively small percentage reductions in trip volumes by car (or perhaps reductions in the growth of trips by car) can result in significant reductions in traffic congestion and the need for roadway expansions.
A Focus on Scooters
In this post, I’m going to focus on stand-up e-scooters -- the type that can be seen parked on street corners in most major cities and which are increasingly for sale online and in major retail outlets. Throughout the coming year, I hope to touch on other forms of micromobility in order to gain a better understanding of the advantages and limitations of this growing form of transportation.
In order to conduct thorough and exhaustive research (wink, wink), I recently purchased a Bird Air scooter for my personal use. The model I bought is in the middle of the pack as far as scooters go -- substantial enough for a serious commuter but lacking high-end features such as a full suspension, disc brakes or dual motors. It is roughly comparable to the scooters used by Bird, Lime, Spin and others for their shared e-scooter systems except for three notable differences: (1) my scooter has a stem that folds down and clips to the rear fender so that it can be easily picked up and carried; (2) the battery on my scooter is smaller to reduce weight; and (3) my scooter has no need for the GPS tracking and rental authorization systems that the shared scooters need for their commercial operations.
The micromobility sector in general, and the e-scooter segment in particular, are aimed at short trips. Nationally, about a third of all trips are less than 2 miles in length which means there is a large pool of trips which could potentially shift to a micromobility product. In a suburban setting, using a car for a short trip is reasonably convenient but in a more urban setting where parking and traffic congestion are more of an issue, a short trip by car can seem like more hassle than it is worth. Enter the e-scooter and other micromobility solutions. My experience has convinced me that e-scooters can be a great option -- with some limitations -- for trips that are a few blocks to two or three miles in length.
In general, e-scooters travel about the same speed as a bicycle, 10 to 15 miles per hour. This is roughly three to four times faster than typical walking speed. Thus, the first two advantages of an e-scooter are that it (1) is much faster than walking and (2) requires none of the effort of either walking or biking. Riding a scooter simply entails pushing off with one foot to get the scooter rolling and then pressing down on the throttle, and off it glides like a modern day magic carpet. It takes no more skill or balance than riding a bike and it is far more accommodating of people who are dressed up for work.
Planners generally assume that the average person would be willing to walk roughly half a mile if sufficiently motivated. Residents of highly urbanized areas are probably used to walking further and suburban residents often head back to their cars if they have to walk more than a block. But an e-scooter makes trips of a mile or two seem like nothing. In fact, this brings up advantage number three: I found that riding an e-scooter was an absolute blast. I’m sure it gets old after a while, but I’m still in the phase where I’m looking for reasons to take it for a spin.
Advantage number four is that e-scooters pair well with transit for longer trips. If your commute to work, for example, involves a transit system that is an inconvenient distance from your residence and/or your place of work, an e-scooter is an excellent solution to that proverbial “first mile/last mile” problem. Using a shared scooter system is probably the most obvious option provided you live and work in areas where scooters are readily available. Simply locate the nearest scooter on your phone app, ride to the transit stop, park it on the street corner and board your bus, train or subway.
In areas not well served by shared scooter systems, a personal scooter like mine works almost as well. Simply ride to the transit stop, fold the scooter to its collapsed position and carry it on board. A 30 pound scooter that is roughly a foot wide and a yard long is slightly awkward to carry with you but I have done it on our local bus system without any significant problems. At the work end of the trip, simply unfold the scooter and ride to your place of employment. Ideally, you would be able to fold it up again and take it inside to your office or workstation.
The fifth and final advantage is that e-scooter trips do, in fact, replace trips that would have otherwise utilized an automobile. Studies in Portland (2) and Santa Monica (3) estimate that roughly a third to perhaps as many as half of scooter trips would have otherwise involved a car (either a personal vehicle or a ride-share vehicle like Uber or Lyft). This can be a significant benefit in congested areas. Another third of scooter trips replaced what would have otherwise been walking trips which raises an interesting issue. While riding an e-scooter is more environmentally friendly than using a car, it is less environmentally friendly than walking. Thus, it is not clear that scooters are as green as their proponents like to claim, particularly for shared scooter systems that require employees in trucks to pick up, re-charge and re-deploy the scooters each night. (4)
Although useful, scooters are far from perfect. Problem number one, in my opinion, is safety. Santa Monica reported 122 collisions in an 18-month period of time, ten percent of which resulted in serious injuries. Undoubtedly, there were numerous other incidents that were never reported. Nearly half of the reported collisions were with vehicles. Another seven percent involved collisions with pedestrians and 18 percent involved collisions with fixed objects. The remainder simply lost their balance and fell off. Collisions are an even greater risk at night when a scooter’s minimal lighting makes the rider almost invisible to cars and makes obstacles harder to see.
I don’t want to overstate the problem because the number of accidents is quite small compared with the number of trips taken. But since scooter riders are relatively unprotected, when accidents occur the results can be serious. My experience has been that with a little common sense, riding an e-scooter can be quite safe but it does require constant awareness of both roadway hazards (e.g. potholes) and vehicular traffic. The safest place for a scooter rider to be is in a bike lane, but particularly in the midwest, those are not nearly as prevalent as they ought to be.
Problem number two is weather. Although many scooters are water resistant, I personally would not ride in the rain and I certainly would avoid riding in icy or snowy conditions. Cold weather might deter some riders although I don’t think it would be any worse than walking. The bottom line, however, is that in the midwest there are going to be a significant number of days in which a scooter is not a good transportation option. This means, for example, that scooter commuters need to have a “plan B” ready for days when the weather is not cooperative. In fact, many scooter sharing companies remove scooters from the streets when they deem the weather to be too adverse for safe riding.
Problem number three is the often haphazard parking of e-scooters in ways which create obstacles for pedestrians or people with disabilities. This is a problem common with any “dockless” system that allows riders to end their rides pretty much anywhere, but scooters users seem to be worse at parking appropriately than dockless bike users. Although all scooter systems give their users guidance on how to properly park the scooter at the end of the trip, that advice is disregarded too often. Some cities have created scooter “drop zones” in areas that are popular destinations to avoid clogging sidewalks, but that is only a partial solution.
The fourth problem is also essentially a rider behavior problem. Too many scooters are ridden in a way that either directly threatens pedestrians or at least makes them uncomfortable. Ideally, e-scooters should never be ridden on a sidewalk but the world is not always an ideal place. When I used a scooter sharing system in downtown Dallas, there were times when traffic congestion was so heavy that I felt extremely unsafe riding in the street. Nonexistent bike lanes and narrow streets meant that I had to either take an entire lane of traffic -- in which case I became a traffic obstruction -- or I had to ride on the sidewalk and do my best to weave around pedestrians as safely as possible.
The final problem is that scooters have limited carrying capacity. There is room for one person, and that person can have a backpack or over-the-shoulder handbag but that is about it. The handlebar stem could probably support a plastic bag containing a few small items but this is not the vehicle you want for picking up the kids from daycare or shopping at Costco. Of course, scooters were never intended for those kinds of trips, but it is a definite limitation that you have to keep in mind.
Impact on Urban Design
It is always dangerous to extrapolate a short-term trend into a longer term projection. There are certainly plausible scenarios where e-scooter usage either continues its explosive growth, plateaus (or grows only modestly), or turns out to be a short-lived fad and fades from the urban scene. If I had to bet, I’d probably pick the plateau/slow growth projection. I think the most lucrative markets have already been tapped for shared scooter systems and I think only a handful of companies will make enough profit to survive over the long haul. The companies that figure out the most efficient path to profitability will continue to expand incrementally to places that fit their operational model but there are many communities that won’t have the right combination of factors to make scooter sharing feasible. There is a substantial amount of innovation taking place with scooters made for private ownership, however, and that leads me to believe that growth will continue but at a modest pace as niche players fill in the gaps around the larger players.
Consequently, I think cities need to take this form of travel seriously and include e-scooters in their future planning and design efforts. The approach I recommend is to view scooters as an alternate form of bicycle travel. Cities should continue their efforts to create more bike lanes, bike routes and shared trails. These efforts will support the continued growth of both bike trips and scooter trips. Improving bike/scooter infrastructure is most crucial in areas of moderate to high density where traffic congestion is generally greatest. Unfortunately, most cities focus exclusively on increasing vehicular capacity in congested areas when in many situations increasing micromobility capacity and pedestrian capacity would be more effective. Obviously, there are no blanket solutions that work in every situation, but cities should not assume that vehicular capacity trumps everything else.
Secondly, cities should strive to maintain a grid of streets and avoid the suburban tendency toward endless cul-de-sacs that force all traffic onto major streets. Scooters and other micromobility options work well on side streets where both speed limits and vehicular traffic volumes are lower as long as the side streets can get you where you want to go.
Finally, cities should look for underutilized areas in or adjacent to the public right-of-way for scooter drop zones and bike-share docking stations. This might even require sacrificing an occasional parking space or two, but I think the potential of micromobility is substantial enough to make this bet worthwhile. As I have mentioned in previous posts, street design needs to accommodate the full range of transportation options and not be focused exclusively on automotive traffic.
Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting? Send me an email with your name and email address.
Shared Mobility in the U.S.: 2019; National Association of City Transportation Officials; https://nacto.org/shared-micromobility-2019/
PBOT Releases Results of E-Scooter User Survey; Portland Bureau of Transportation; October, 2018; https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/700917
Shared Mobility Pilot Program Summary Report; City of Santa Monica, California; November, 2019; https://www.smgov.net/uploadedFiles/Departments/PCD/Transportation/SantaMonicaSharedMobilityEvaluation_Final_110419.pdf
“Are shared e-scooters good for the planet? Only if they replace car trips”; Jeremiah Johnson; Fast Company; August 2019; https://www.fastcompany.com/90385500/are-shared-e-scooters-good-for-the-planet-only-if-they-replace-car-trips#:~:text=Surveys%20show%20that%20about%20one,made%20