The most recent e-scooter you’ve seen may have been entertainment on someone’s vacation, or a feature in a brunchtime Instagram story.
Or, it may have been closing someone’s two-mile gap from a bus stop to a neighborhood underserved by public transit.
Dockless e-scooters are a new mode of transportation, and we are still in the early stages of assessing program effectiveness, safety, and long-term sustainability. Cities are facing many big questions as they determine how to regulate e-scooters. However, this micro-mobility option also presents some interesting opportunities that could help cities meet broader transportation and equity goals.
Here are three of the possible – and very promising – outcomes of the e-scooter boom.
1. E-Scooters could equitably fill first- and last-mile gaps.
When evenly distributed, e-scooters have a chance at helping cities meet equity and accessibility goals. For neighborhoods positioned further away from public transit stops or a city center, e-scooters may be able to bridge the gap. Not only are they a cost-effective mode of transportation for a short distance, but for many, they are more accessible than bicycles.
"Not every person in cities learns how to ride a bike, especially lower income residents. It's yet another option."- Sarah Kaufman, urban planning professor at New York University
In order for this to happen, however, e-scooters need to be found in all neighborhoods (not just in profitable areas), and payment options must expand so that a smartphone with a data plan isn’t required to purchase the ride.
St. Louis, Missouri is setting an example. They require e-scooter companies keep 20% of their fleet in targeted underserved neighborhoods, and provide an option to pay in cash rather than smartphone. Initial data is showing a large amount of ridership and comparatively longer trips from these targeted areas.
2. E-Scooters could help close the active transportation gender gap.
The active transportation gender gap has persisted for decades, and bikeshare data backs up the trend.
Interestingly, it could be a different story with e-scooters. Initial ridership and survey data show the interest in e-scooters is slightly skewing female. According to a multi-city study by Populus, more women reported a positive perception of scooters (72 percent) than men (67 percent).
“If U.S. cities can harness this new wave of interest in micro-mobility to improve bike and scooter infrastructure, they might make progress on closing the active transportation gender gap and improve safety for everyone."- Populus
It’s important to note that to-date, more men are riding e-scooters than women, but not by much – and Populus’ data indicates that women are adopting e-scooters more quickly than they did bike-sharing.
3. E-Scooters could support the development of protected bike lanes.
A third potential outcome of the e-scooter boom is a strengthened interest to build better biking infrastructure. Scooters share sidewalks in some states, but in most states, they follow the rules of cycling and thus are safest in protected lanes, removed from automobile traffic.
It’s true that e-scooters are just one mode of travel in a transportation network, but they are adding a layer of urgency to the need to create safe spaces for non-auto transportation modes.
“Who would have guessed a year ago that we would have 7,000 scooters and new mobility devices in Atlanta?” said Kevin Green at the annual meeting of Midtown Alliance, a coalition of business and community leaders dedicated to making Midtown Atlanta a better place to live, visit and work. “We need to create safe places for people to ride. This is an absolute imperative.”
While scooter share programs receive generally positive sentiment, even the complaints against them are fuel in the argument to build safer operating spaces. “For advocates of active transportation, the whining about sidewalk scooting is a welcome sound,” reports Portland’s Willamette Week. “It puts pressure on city officials to accelerate their efforts to build a city where more people have ways to go car-free.”
E-scooter riders need safe spaces to ride, which reinforces the call to build better biking infrastructure.
The Answer Lies With Data
These are promising trends. To understand the role of e-scooters in meeting these potential outcomes, both today and in the future, it’s essential that cities thoughtfully interpret the data presented to them.
E-scooters offer data we can only dream of getting from less digitized modes of transportation. Tracking is built into each scooter and in exchange for deployment permits, scooter companies have to share this data with the cities in which they are deployed.
Understanding data patterns will give transportation planners the intel they need to make decisions. Complemented by effective public outreach and a genuine interest in listening for communities’ biggest challenges, interpreting data is the only way cities can confidently understand the travel patterns of their specific communities, and develop solutions that address their unique needs.
When transportation planners bring data to life, it’s a powerful insight into key patterns. Here’s an example of the visualization of origin-destination data for car2go – a system with many similarities to e-scooters – from Kittelson’s Jorge Barrios and Jean Doig Godier of the University of California, Berkeley. (Source: Fleet Sizing for Flexible Carsharing Systems: Simulation-Based Approach.)
Kittelson is leading national research effort NCHRP 08-117, an online guidebook to help transportation decision-makers better understand how transformational technologies can impact travel demand and land use. The guidebook covers e-scooters, bikes, ride sharing, on-demand delivery, and the impacts of other transformational technologies to help decision-makers assess and better plan for impacts on activity centers, land use patterns, and travel demand. These are complicated decisions, but collecting the right data is the place to start.
We’re passionate about helping cities stay knowledgeable on current technologies, plan for the future, and analyze data patterns to make decisions that will bring new solutions to transportation challenges. Reach out to us if you’d like to continue the conversation.