ITDP, 14 December 2018
Like docked and dockless bikeshare before them, dockless electric “kick” scooters are taking off in popularity, responding to a strong and growing need for urban car alternatives like transit and “last mile” connections. As part of a menu of urban transportation options, scooters have the potential to reduce short-distance, single occupancy vehicle and TNC (Transportation Network Company, e.g. Uber, Lyft, Via) trips, reducing urban congestion and emissions.
Scooters provide a low cost, flexible mobility option for short trips, particularly those connected to transit. Bikes have long provided an excellent option for last-mile trips, and they continue to do so. However, the popularity, and user-friendliness of e-scooters may offer an even easier option for the first and last mile.
Scooters, particularly e-scooters, offer an option that pretty much anyone, regardless of fitness or ability, can ride for short trips. As with shared bikes, cities have an opportunity to leverage scooters, and other privately-operated, shared modes in a way that more directly encourages their use in coordination with transit. For example, cities could work with operators to subsidize scooter and bikeshare rides that start or end at transit using common payment options. This level of targeted integration benefits cities by expanding access to transit at a relatively low cost per mile (compared to building new stations, adding buses, etc.), benefits users by making sustainable, multi-modal trips more streamlined and affordable, and benefits companies by establishing a loyal, diverse customer base.
Scooters, bikes, and other technology-enabled shared modes have a role to play in shifting the paradigm away from personal car ownership. Cities can take advantage of this opportunity by understanding the demand for car-alternatives for short trips, and setting smart, goal-oriented regulations that help address that demand. Data from Portland’s scooter pilot shows that 34% of resident scooter riders would have otherwise driven a personal car or taken a taxi or TNC if a scooter hadn’t been available for their most recent trip. While this is promising support for scooters helping to reduce car trips, the data also indicates that 37% of respondents would have otherwise walked if a scooter wasn’t available. When asked how often they rode a scooter to or from a transit stop, 61% responded ‘never’. These last two data points underscore the need for cities to ensure that scooters support public transit, walking and cycling, instead of competing with these modes.
More, and longer-term data on scooter trips could help cities decide whether scooters are, in fact, providing a first-last mile connection to transit, substituting car trips, or pushing pedestrians and cyclists away from biking and walking.
Funding the Last-Mile Solution
Cities are now more prepared for the “ask forgiveness, not permission” attitude of privately-operated mobility services, and are responding to the unpermitted launch of e-scooters much more quickly and systematically than with transportation network companies like Uber, or even dockless bikeshare companies. While a few cities have outright banned scooters, most have launched pilots to test regulations and evaluate potential for long-term integration of scooters into the transportation network. In some cases, such as in Austin, Denver, and Los Angeles, cities are moving to combine permitting of dockless bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters under a common regulatory scheme.
Other cities are taking more concrete steps to improve scooter and bike riders’ comfort on the street by requiring private operators to help fund infrastructure and other road safety improvements. Indianapolis is the first city to require scooter operators to pay $1 per scooter per day into a fund for road safety improvements for cyclists and scooter riders. Scooter operator, Bird, has volunteered to pay a similar amount for infrastructure improvements in other cities (many of which have been hesitant to accept Bird’s offer) however, some reportedly do not have a process in place to accept this type of funding from the private sector. Regardless, this new model of collaboration between cities and private companies to fund projects that make choosing a scooter or bike as a last-mile solution safer could prove successful, as long as cities are clear about what their goals are and why they are asking companies to share costs.
Encouraging the use of dockless scooters as a first-last mile option could also help connect people living further from the city center to public transit. Residents who live in outer neighborhoods tend to have fewer transit options, and likely require both a first and last mile solution for their trip. These residents stand to benefit the most from improved access to reliable, affordable first-last mile options.
Cities and e-scooter operators have an opportunity to learn from bikeshare by recognizing the demand – especially in neighborhoods further from downtown – for low-cost, reliable transportation options that aren’t private vehicles. It’s also critical for cities to realize their role in supporting sustainable transport like bikeshare and e-scootershare with protected infrastructure that can serve cyclists and scooters well, along with cost-effective and convenient connections with transit. Technology and private capital offer cities great tools to improve the lives of their residents, and taking full advantage of these tools means making space on our streets for many mobility options: scooters, bikes, transit, and shared vehicles all have a role to play in a healthy, vibrant transport system.