Two Transportation Planners Discuss the Pros, Cons, and Future of This Popular Micromobility Mode

 

We’re always in favor of a little friendly debate. It helps us stay open and gain new perspectives, especially around transportation topics that are shrouded in questions, like the topic of e-scooters.

Kittelson’s Alek Pochowski (left) and Conor Semler (right) are planners in our Washington, D.C. and Boston offices. They are passionate about this topic—and they are good friends who aren’t afraid to challenge one another’s opinions in the spirit of learning.

Given the uncertainties surrounding the topic of e-scooters and their future in our transportation networks, we thought it would be entertaining to set up a “debate” between Alek and Conor, with Alek representing the pro-scooter perspective and Conor representing the anti-scooter perspective. Here’s how it played out:

 

Give us your opening statements.

 

I’ll start by saying that scooters are an exciting additional option for our urban transportation system. Anytime we get an additional option, it adds a further network choice and more resilience to the network.

One major benefit of scooters becomes apparent when we notice the people who are using them. Sometimes they’re people who aren’t able or wouldn’t be comfortable on a bike, yet still promote interest in better bicycle facilities through using scooters. I’ve also seen data that from an equity standpoint, scooters are reaching geographic areas that other modes haven’t been able to. It’s also a fun way of getting around. People are enjoying our transportation system using scooters.

 

I’ll share three main concerns. The first is that it’s hard for private companies to make money in transportation, because transportation is subsidized so much for the automobile. With a difficult path to profitability for scooter companies, I’m concerned they won’t be here long-term.

 

I think that’s right, but it’s nuanced. Frankly, I believe that scooter companies are more in the data business than the mobility business. But we also need to separate private companies from the mode itself. I think there is potential for scooters within publicly operated systems, like a bikeshare system that has scooters as well.

 

Okay. But secondly, scooters make things difficult for pedestrians. When they’re strewn about and blocking the sidewalks, especially in parts of the country with more narrow sidewalks, they can block a wheelchair’s path down the street. Where we don’t have comfortable protected bike lanes, they’re being ridden on the sidewalk up to 15mph. This is a detriment to walkability. Finally, they are clearly the least safe mode for users of any mode. We’ve had three bikeshare deaths in the ten years we’ve had bikeshare, yet there have already been dozens of scooter deaths, and they just got here.

 

I would submit that cars will always be the least safe mode. We can make scootering safer by providing facilities for scooters and bikes.

 

Your whole argument is the tail wagging the dog. It’s not just about figuring out how to make scooters better now that we have them. We have a public responsibility to design the best transportation system, and should we be investing in scooters? We need to start by stepping back and figuring out how we want our system to work, and if there’s a role for scooters in the future, then that’s fine.

 

I don’t think scooters are taking away from anyone’s ability to bike or take transit.

 

You’re talking about investing public money in scooter share systems rather than transit, unless there’s a scooter tax you’re proposing. I like the idea of saying Alek proposed a scooter tax. Can you put that in the article?

 

Do scooters fill a gap in the transportation network that other modes don’t fill?

 

Scooter share complementing a bikeshare program makes a lot of sense. At the 2019 APBP Conference, presentations from folks in urban areas all over the country said that people riding scooters were either new riders or people from single-occupancy vehicles. Only a sliver are taking away from biking or transit. Predominantly, they were people taking an additional mode. The type of people taking scooters were those who weren’t always able to take a bike.

There are positives from e-scooter trips that we aren’t finding from other modes. For example, when it’s really hot or it’s raining here in the District, and there isn’t a bike around, I’ve taken a scooter just because I want to get to my destination faster.

If anything, it’s TNCs that are losing to scooter trips. People are taking scooters rather than hailing rideshare.

 

I think there is data to support that. But I’m not sure scooters are the only thing that could fill that gap. I’d be interested in seeing studies about e-bikes versus scooters. I would prefer to see us expanding our bikeshare systems and including more e-bikes.

 

E-bikes are fantastic. E-bikes in the Netherlands outsold regular bikes in 2018 for the first time. The issue is e-bikes are going to cost more than scooters.

 

But you haven’t proven to me the cost of a scooter makes sense. When you consider the lifecycle of a scooter, it could be comparable. And e-bikes come without the challenges with e-scooters that we’ve been discussing.

 

Looking at the network as a whole, do scooters have a net positive or negative effect on the network?

 

I’ll go first. It’s unquestionably negative. The crash rate is extremely high. It’s higher than any other mode.

 

Yes, but one of the issues we’ve had with scooters is they were just unleashed on our systems, whereas you have to learn how to ride a bike. You usually do that as a kid, taking the time to get comfortable with it. We haven’t had the time yet for people to become familiar with how to ride them safely. With education, people can learn to ride them as safely as people who bike do..

Also, scooters are getting bigger and more durable. They’re not as flimsy as the early scooters, and they’re becoming easier to operate.

 

Oh yes, I ‘ve seen these scooters now that have a seat. Scooter companies are slowly reinventing the car!

 

How do e-scooters improve or not improve equitable outcomes?

 

I worry the equity claims with scooters are overstated. The cost of scooter trips is high to begin with, and you need both a credit card and cellphone to use a scooter, which is not an equitable foundation for the service.

 

We can’t ignore the geographic reach of e-scooters. In San Francisco, scooters are reaching areas in the city underserved by both transit and bikeshare. It provides additional reach. People who are physically unable or uncomfortable to ride bikes, even e-bikes, have found a home on scooters. Our colleague, Abby Morgon, also recently shared data showing that scooters can close the gender gap in active transportation.

 

In other countries where the gender gap is not as pronounced or non-existent, the thing that matters most is the provision of safe and comfortable facilities for walking and biking, and that’s what we should be focusing on.

 

Are e-scooters a help or a hindrance when it comes to data?

 

We should be getting more data on all modes. To the extent that scooter companies are willing to share data, then that’s a benefit, although it’s probably not in the interest of their bottom line to give away data for free, whereas partnerships with public bikeshare systems and bikeshare companies generally require the sharing of trip data.

 

We want data. It is an issue that with a private operator, the data is proprietary. Google did a good thing for the transit world when they came up with the General Transit Feed System (GTFS). The recently developed Mobility Data Specification (MDS) created by the Los Angeles DOT has the potential to do the same for the micromobility community

 

Any closing arguments?

 

This data from NACTO shows the number of scooter trips completely overshadowing the number of bikeshare trips.

In 2017, there were 35 million shared micro-mobility trips. In 2018, there were 84 million micro-mobility trips, 38.5 million of which were scooters. The adoption rate of scooters is impressive. It’s happened faster than frankly any other mode, including bikes. If this many people are taking to it this quickly, we should pay attention. Scooters are exciting and fun, and point to a gap being filled.

 

I’ll just end with this statement I wrote down earlier: Alek’s belief in e-scooters requires too many things to happen that are too far from happening.

 

Don’t worry—Conor and Alek are still friends, and in reality, their opinions align much more than they differ when it comes to transportation topics. But hopefully, you found this debate to be a fun and helpful read that sheds light on the many aspects of the topic to consider. Reach out to Alek or Conor directly to learn more about their “arguments” or even to disagree with them—they enjoy the dialogue!