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The scooter stampede of 2018 is great news for urban transportation

Micromobility options like scooters are a small step in solving the massive challenge of urban transit.

Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Let’s face it: Our car-centric culture has forced much unpleasantness onto our cities, from traffic to parking shortages to pollution. And a lot of the time, we’re not even going that far: About 40 percent of car trips are less than 2 miles.

Which is why it’s been refreshing to see electric scooters burst onto the urban transportation scene in 2018, giving residents of dozens of cities a quick, cheap new way to travel short distances.

The rapid, diffuse arrival of electric scooters on sidewalks and street corners revealed the yawning gaps in urban transportation that cars, buses, trains, and bikes just can’t close. And it also showed that we’re still figuring out how to allocate public spaces like roads and sidewalks as people use an increasing variety of ways to get around.

The beauty of the e-scooters that companies like Skip, Bird, and Lime can whisk you across towns and parks for a couple dollars. Pick one up where you find it and drop it off where you like, as long as it’s not obstructing traffic.

Several of these companies have now become billion-dollar enterprises as their tiny 21st-century chariots have deployed to more than 100 cities, including Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Chicago, and Miami. Bird has reported more than 10 million rides to date.

However, scooters are more of an evolution than a revolution as they’re really just the latest micro-mobility option to take root in urban areas. Many cities have used bike share programs for years. And last year, we saw the launch of dockless bikes, which can be left at the rider’s destination.

Electric scooters take the dockless rental model one step further, adding a mini motor. You can ride one in suit or dress without breaking a sweat, lowering the barrier to riding below that of a bicycle.

No doubt, the integration of scooters into urban transportation has been far from smooth. Some companies deployed their scooters overnight without getting approval from city officials. Residents soon reported accidents and collisions. Scooters ended up blocking sidewalks. For some neighborhoods, they became a nuisance.

Bird and Lime quickly found out that it is in fact better to seek permission rather than ask forgiveness as cities like San Francisco banned scooters, forcing companies to go through a permitting process before letting them back in.

Nonetheless, scooters have also won passionate loyalists: Commuters. Tourists. Urban explorers. People who ride for fun.

To the extent that scooters replace driving, they yield a huge gain in efficiency and a reduction in the environmental footprint of travel. Scooters can also encourage people to use public transit: A 20-minute walk to a train station becomes a 5-minute ride. As such, scooters are filling in gaps in transportation networks and addressing transit deserts.

Electric scooters are a great starting point for a long-overdue rethinking of urban transit

Electric scooters are by no means a complete solution: It can be hard to find one at busy times of day. They’re of limited use to people with disabilities, who are still underserved by transportation options. Unlocking a scooter often requires a credit card, a driver’s license, and a smartphone. This drastically limits who can use one by excluding people with low incomes.

And it’s unlikely that they’ll unseat the private automobile as the king of transportation anytime soon. Cars have had almost a century’s head start over electric scooters, so cities are designed with cars in mind, leaving room for little else on streets.

However, the rise of scooters is forcing some cities to grudgingly reckon with how they allocate public space, particularly how much room cars take for granted. Scooter companies are even offering to pay for bike lanes, which is where they insist scooter riders should be as well. In turn, cities like Washington, DC, are pushing scooter companies to offer cash payment options to allow residents without credit cards to be able to ride.

It’s an ongoing discussion, and public officials and private companies are still figuring out how to integrate scooters and other new transit options into a city’s ecosystem.

On balance, scooters have improved American cities, and that these discussions are happening at all is a huge opportunity to make transit more efficient and equitable. As my colleague Matt Yglesias wrote, scooters “represent change for the better — change driven by the intersection of ongoing technological changes that have transformed many areas of life and will continue to do so.”

And that is good news.

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