This year was the Year of Micromobility as tens of thousands of electronic scooters, dockless bikes, and mopeds zipped through city streets from coast to coast, reducing traffic, lowering emissions and giving urbanites more mobility options.
Yet the rapid deployment of the devices in car-friendly areas has unnerved civic leaders, health professionals, and motorists, resulting in a backlash against scooters.
We didn't feel the backlash was fair, so we called up Harriet Tregoning, the director of the New Urban Mobility Alliance for a gut-check — and she reminded us that all forms of micromobility contribute to the single most important goal: reducing car trips.
This interview has only been edited for length and clarity.
Streetsblog USA: What is your mood about the state of micromobility in the United States today?
Harriet Tregoning: I’m definitely encouraged. In the U.S., we are particularly inefficient in our transportation in that we rely so much on private automobiles for very short trips. According to Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, we take twice as many trips by car for distances less than five miles than the world average. That's based on where we live, our development patterns, and our culture. When I was living in Los Angeles, if I was ever walking somewhere my neighbors would stop me and ask if I needed a ride and if everything was OK.
Streetsblog: Can electronic scooters and other devices replace short driving trips?
HT: They might be replacing short trips. That's what cities need to understand. So do transit systems. For the most part, the way these devices entered city markets was unexpected and not based on a conversation about the strategy and the goals the city was trying to accomplish. Those kinds of conversations might yield a different strategy for deployment. If an objective as a city is to grow the transit system and have scooters deployed to make that happen, that would be a very different strategy than putting them downtown and we know they’ll be used for short trips for lunch and to get people to meetings. They’re both potentially useful in cities but one doesn’t happen without a deliberate action without transit agencies and cities and providers. As cities get more used to what’s going on, more cities scan see what best practices can be, how they’re choosing to regulate micromobility operators, and that might inform what they decide to do.
Streetsblog: What do you think about the backlash against scooters that has occurred in cities like Atlanta and Nashville this year?
HT: We’ve become somewhat inured to the carnage that automobiles create. We blithely accept 40,000 automobile fatalities in the U.S. and at the same time we seem to be shocked by other incidents many of which also involve cars. Micromobility infrastructure must be expanded if these devices will be fully deployed.
Streetsblog: How do cities change their street designs to accommodate the technology?
HT: In many cases these spread out cities are very wide. They have very wide lanes. A lane in an east coast city is 10 or 11 feet. In Sun Belt cities there are inevitably more lanes and the roads are wider. Think about creating facilities for bike and scooters the area outside of traffic, grade-separated and protected from heavy-moving traffic. That’s an important thing for people not just to feel safe but to be safe. If you look at how many people can be moved on a bike or a scooter, relative to amount of right-of-way that can be taken up by a truck or SUV, cities have prioritized vehicles over people. This is an opportunity to rethink that especially in cities with a significant part of the population doesn’t have a car. There are ways to provide that separation and that safety that may be unconventional. Imagine you need more stormwater management. Rather than doing an expensive underground pipe imagine doing bioswales and rain gardens that provide green space in city. You can position them between flowing traffic and a lane reserved for micromobiltiy and cycling.
Streetsblog: How will cities handle micromobility devices in the coming years?
HT: In some cities, they’re really used mostly on college campus in relatively discreet areas. In other cities that have agreed to cut carbon and continue to implement the Paris Accord in the U.S., they are clear and explicit about what they’re trying to do about lowing their emissions. All these cities have committed to deal with transportation sector, which is the only sector in U.S. continuing to grow. They have to do things with automobile. You can’t rely on electrification to get there; you have to convert the driving trips to other means. Think about docked bike share. They are city-subsidized and sometimes city run. Those are deliberately subsidized trips and the city runs them like a transit service, but for the most part these scooters and dockless bikes and e-bikes are trying to operate without an external subsidy. Cities can provide more infrastructure that’s safe and change zoning to make sure there are convenient destinations in every neighborhood. Both cities and providers are interested in getting cars off the road and reducing household car ownership. There is a lot of opportunity that’s yet untapped to reach a mutually agreed upon set of goals.
Streetsblog: Do you think we'll see new types of devices next year? How will cities prepare for them?
HT: We’re just astonished by the explosion of scooters. If you compare it to docked bike share, that got started in 2008 started and really got going by 2010. We thought that was rapid, but this has been ridiculous. Scooter trips exceeded all docked bike share trips in U.S. in the very first year scooters were introduced in cities. Now we're seeing electric skateboards. We’ve seen a scooter/bike hybrid — it's a scooter with a seat. Cities and operators themselves have a lot to learn about what’s the appropriate business model, and the path forward for safe infrastructure, how they can lower carbon emissions, increase access and equity in transportation systems, and make trips more affordable for people. The inefficiency of transportation choices in short trips will drive disruption and innovation until we get to something that makes more sense.
Streetsblog California editor Melanie Curry has been thinking about transportation, and how to improve conditions for bicyclists, since her early days commuting by bike to UCLA long ago. She was Managing Editor at the East Bay Express, and edited Access Magazine for the University of California Transportation Center. She also earned her Masters in City Planning from UC Berkeley.