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Electric scooters are everywhere—what should we learn from them to plan future mobility?

December 13, 2018

By Craig Lewis

The rapid global rise of this small-but-mighty transit tool offers 7 takeaways for cities preparing for their future

A funny thing happened this past year. A new form of mobility went viral across the globe, capturing billions of rides both for entertainment and, more importantly, for getting from place to place. Everyone has an opinion about them—to some they’re litter, to others they represent the next wave of a rapidly growing ecosystem of mobility. The fact remains that no other form of mobility has grown so fast and been distributed by so many companies, in so many cities, as has the electric scooter.

Lime and Bird have been the early leaders, but Scoot, Skip, Spin, and even Lyft are also becoming significant players in this new market. They’re born of the same basic low-tech device that many millennials grew up using in their neighborhoods but have been upgraded with electric motors and a simple user interface. Like Uber, Lyft, and the plethora of other transportation network companies, electric scooters have taken something mundane and upgraded it with an app.

In major cities and mid-sized towns across North America, scooters have outpaced the use of bikeshare systems—even the new dockless systemsby staggering proportions. On a tour of downtown Memphis a few months ago, we took an informal survey of the number of bikeshare and scooter users we saw over a four-hour period. Scooters outnumbered bikes by a ratio of 48 to 2. They weren’t just used by tourists making their way from Beale Street to Bass Pro Shops. 

Nor were they just being used by the youth. Businessmen in suits and women in heels sped by, avoiding the need to expend energy on what was a fairly hot day.

In Charlotte, the number of scooter trips outpaced the number of bikeshare trips by nearly 4 to 1 during the month of July. Perhaps most interestingly, the number of miles by scooter users outpaced bikeshare by more than 7 to 1. This same story has also played out in nearly every other city where the scooters have landed.

Love ’em or hate ’em, they’ve been an enormous success. But they also have their downside. The number of scooter-related injuries continues to grow and at least three deaths have been recorded as of this writing. In the absence of other dedicated spaces (like bike lanes), many scooter-users ride on the sidewalks, weaving around pedestrians and crossing streets, often with reckless abandon and without a helmet. Where sidewalks are in short supply, they ride with traffic on the streets.

Cities need to step back and understand why this mode has become so popular and how they can harness that popularity to fight congestion and parking.

Scooters may or may not become a permanent fixture in our mobility ecosystem—we don’t know if they will even make it through the winter—but they’ve had an outsized impact on the way that we view micro-mobility.

Regardless of whether you’re a member of Team Scooter, there are some very important takeaways that cities should consider:

1. The need for simple, easy-to-use transportation is huge.

If we’ve learned nothing else from this experiment, the rise of electric scooters has underscored the significant demand from many different user groups to travel short distances (1/4 mile to 2 miles) quickly and easily. Nearly 60% of all car trips are less than 6 miles in length, and nearly 40% are less than 2 miles. If scooters take a bite out of those numbers, that’s a lot of potential car trips avoided, as well as a reduction in parking needs at each destination.

2. Every percent matters.

Every person who uses a scooter for a trip that would otherwise have required a car improves the efficiency of the overall network. Every fraction of a percent in reduced car trips makes a difference in the big puzzle to relieve congestion.

3. Humans are lazy.

Bikeshare is considered active transportation because it requires human energy to propel a bike, although some newer entrants to the bikeshare network offer an electric assist. One of the great allures of scooters is that they require very little energy (from the rider, anyway). You don’t have to work up a sweat to operate them.

4. Sidewalks should be reserved for slow-moving pedestrians.

Of the two principal complaints about scooters, the largest is that people operate them on sidewalks—places previously reserved for pedestrians who generally walk at about 2 to 4 miles per hour. With many scooters having the ability to travel as fast as 15 miles per hour, conflict is inevitable. It’s important to note that the same has also been true for skateboarders and children on bikes.

5. We need dedicated lanes for human-powered or human-scaled mobility.

If we really want to get serious about traffic reduction and active transportation, then providing dedicated lanes and pathways has proven the number one method to encourage significant use. Scooters belong in bike lanes, not mixed with cars or on sidewalks.

6. Cities need to be nimble enough to adapt to the next mobility innovation.

The rapid scale of innovation, the pent-up demand for short-length mobility, and the sharp drop in the cost of batteries mean that we’ll see more forms of mobility like scooters, not less. In Europe, many people consider Vespas the street litter that scooters are perceived to be, yet the Vespa is enormously popular. Expect the next mobility innovation to be personal transportation where you can sit down and transport your groceries without expending energy over longer distances (We can hope we don’t all look like the humans in WALL-E after using them).

7. It’s all about the user interface.

It’s super easy to download an app, find the closest scooter, scan the QR code, and ride. That’s the same formula that has sent the taxi industry hurtling toward oblivion. Docked bikeshare and transit services take note. We have come to expect a one-touch pathway to every transaction. Evolve or die.

Understanding the future

As winter arrives, scooters will likely hibernate in many cities, giving city councils time to reflect on the benefits and challenges of what seemingly appeared out of nowhere this past summer. With some scooter companies’ valuations in the billions and the fact that the popularity and usefulness of scooters are undeniable, it’s probable that they’re here to stay.

Rather than rush to regulate the negatives, cities need to step back and understand why this mode has become so popular and how they can harness that popularity to fight congestion and parking. I strongly recommend that cities focus on how they can make these alternative forms of mobility safer for everyone, not through heavy-handed regulation and market restrictions, but rather through a focus on doing a better job of balancing the mobility network. Where cities have expanded dedicated bicycle lanes, the number of cycling accidents has dropped dramatically, and ridership has spiked.

We’re in the midst of a massive mobility shift, the likes of which we haven’t seen since we moved from the horse and buggy to the automobile. Scooters are just the tip of the spear for mobility, and the lessons learned from accommodating them, along with bike-share and ride-share services, will play a critical role in how we support vibrancy in our cities for decades to come.

  • Craig Lewis

    Craig has more than 30 years of award-winning experience implementing walkable, vibrant urbanism in hundreds of communities throughout North America.

    Contact Craig
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