E-scooters and bikes could pave the way for navigating our post-COVID cities

By Maurice Henderson

Over the last century, two prevailing notions have governed urban development:

• Cars should be the default mode of transportation in cities, and

• Public space should be allocated to prioritize car travel.

According to Dr. Martin Melosi, Director of the Center for Public History at the University of Houston, as much as 50% of urban land in the United States is “dedicated to streets and roads, parking lots, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs, automobile-oriented businesses, car dealerships and more.”

Even in U.S. cities considered pedestrian and transit-friendly, an astounding proportion of public space is allocated to cars and car storage. New York alone has an estimated 3 million on-street parking spots, which amounts to one spot for every three residents. That number balloons dramatically in cities like Los Angeles, where “the total surface lot space is larger than the entire size of Pasadena, or about 27 square miles.”

But cities find themselves at a crossroads as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rapid push towards alternative forms of mobility have offered a glimpse into a new normal for the urban landscape.

As the coronavirus was making its initial, terrifying spread around the world, micromobility operators like Santa Monica-based Bird responded by increasing vehicle sanitization and, in some cases, pausing service to help facilitate local stay-at-home orders. Soon after cities began reopening and service resumed, a few interesting trends started to emerge: more first-time riders began using electric scooters, more new riders became repeat riders and ride lengths got significantly longer. In other words, micromobility evolved almost overnight from an accessible and sustainable alternative to cars to a safe and socially distant supplement to public transportation post-

While shared e-scooters’ broad appeal and new electrified design have no doubt played a role in their explosive popularity, the data tells us that there’s another important factor at play. More and more city residents want efficient alternatives to the estimated 46% of all U.S. car trips measuring less than 3 miles in length. In fact, according to independent surveys conducted in seven major cities, 42% of Bird rides directly replaced a car or ride-sharing trip, and the same holds true for other operators in cities across the world.

By the end of last year, the New Urban Mobility Alliance’s New Mobility Atlas identified 127 U.S. cities that had structured permit programs for shared e-scooters, along with another 190 outside the United States. In total, more than 600 cities in 55 countries now welcome either shared e-scooters, bikes, e-bikes or multiple modes.

That’s good news for the growing number of urbanites seeking sustainable alternatives to short-distance travel by car. City leaders must now decide how best to adapt to the challenges and opportunities presented by this large-scale shift in mobility demand.

Data-Informed Investment in Infrastructure

The data we’ve collected is clear: investing in protected bike and scooter infrastructure encourages more riders to take to the streets.

There’s perhaps no better example of this than Paris, France where, in her bold quest to convert the densest European capital into a pedestrian-friendly “15-minute city,” Mayor Anne Hidalgo has proposed removing 72% of all on-street parking to help make way for 100% cyclable streets by 2024. The result: between 2018 and 2019, the number of Parisians opting to use bikes jumped by 54%.

Here in the United States, cities are making significant strides as well. Lite Individual Transportation lanes in Atlanta are slated to triple the amount of protected bike infrastructure in the city in just two years, while new car-free transitways like Market Street in San Francisco are shifting the priority away from automobiles to pedestrians and public transit users.

Prioritize Pedestrian Safety and Public Transit

Earlier this year, Oslo announced that there were no cyclist or pedestrian deaths recorded in 2019. It’s likely the first time any sizable city has come close to achieving the “Vision Zero” goal of eliminating both traffic deaths and serious injuries.

The Norwegian capital’s success was made possible by several factors, including the removal of cars from the city center and a data-driven approach to public transit improvements. Here in the United States, a country that experiences 40,000 roadway fatalities every year, there’s much that can be learned from this correlation between pedestrianization, mass transit and public safety.

It’s worth noting here that experts have found that e-scooters have similar safety risks as bikes, with greater ‘safety in numbers’ felt in cities that already have a robust cycling culture. While injuries still do occur, they pale in comparison to those from single-use cars and other automobiles. New data also indicate that, in cities with robust transit networks like Washington D.C. and Chicago, 20% to 30% of Bird trips connect to public transportation.

Intelligently Manage Micromobility

Experienced micromobility operators provide not only a safe and sustainable transportation alternative to cars but a wealth of data-backed insights to help cities better understand their residents’ mobility needs. As cities continue to reopen, providing a low-cost, socially distanced personal transportation option also creates a public health advantage for micromobility.

Through sharing appropriately anonymized data on trip starts and ends, and routes taken, the city can better plan how to expand its micromobility infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes and corrals for micromobility around public transit stations.

It’s important to have a data-sharing model with cities that is based on a foundation of trust, transparency and security. Combined with intelligent practices such as merit-based fleet scaling and permitting regulations that reward responsible operators, the micromobility industry can be instrumental in helping cities grow in tandem with today’s rapidly changing urban mobility landscape.

In the 1920s, cars accelerated their claim to city streets — streets that were previously understood to be places for walking, public transit, commerce and play. A century later, catalyzed in part by micromobility, urban residents are reclaiming their rightful place as the owners of this shared public realm.

And they’re making our cities better, and more accessible, in the process.

The Takeaway: As cities consider what a post-pandemic environment looks like, micromobility devices can help reduce reliance on cars, make streets safer and be more environmentally friendly.

A version of this story was originally published on Route Fifty (route-fifty.com) and is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. Visit sojoexchange.squarespace.com to learn more.