E-Scooters and Who Takes Up Space in Cities

I think if you could have a car-free day in San Francisco, and give everybody a nice bike or electric scooter, I think you’d find that everyone could get around everywhere they wanted to go in a fraction of the time.
— Andrew Burleson

This episode of the Strong Towns Podcast is one of two takes on the rentable e-scooter phenomenon that we're publishing today. For more on the subject, be sure to read Joe Cortright's take on how charging scooters for their use of public space, when we don't charge cars in the same way, amounts to a double standard.

A long-time volunteer and contributor to Strong Towns, Andrew Burleson is a software engineer and project manager in San Francisco, California. He currently serves on our board. Andrew has been a key advocate for the transition of the group from an engineering-centric blog to a broader movement-building organization. And today, Andrew joins Chuck Marohn on the podcast to discuss the 2018 trend sweeping many of America's major and somewhat-less-major cities: electric scooters.

Andrew tells Chuck what it was like to watch the rollout of rentable, dockless, drop-off-anywhere scooters in San Francisco—before the city instituted a moratorium on the fledgling transportation revolution. And then he details his conversion from skeptic ("It's not for me. I'm a grown-up; I bicycle. Scooters are a kid's thing.") to fan ("The low learning curve really is real. Just about anyone can do it.").

San Francisco is in an unusual place among North American cities. It has "hit the parking ceiling," and new lots aren't being built. The city has a highly compact, walkable development pattern, but mobility issues for its residents center around limited space: space on packed trains, and space on the city's streets. Virtually "every inch of San Francisco that's not a building is a parking space," says Burleson.

And yet a dramatic expansion of the region's rapid transit offerings is not in the cards—and so far, San Francisco has failed to create a truly universal alternative to driving. The Bay Area simply lacks the resources and the political will it would need to build out subway lines that have been proposed over the years. What it can do, Burleson argues, is think differently about how urban space is allocated, and maybe teach other cities a lesson or two in the process.

Cars take up a tremendous amount of space. Cars parked, or looking for parking, or waiting to drop someone off, are a major cause of urban congestion. The result, in a city like SF, is that the fastest way to get across town has long been bicycling—at least for those able-bodied enough to do it. Bicycles can "fit through the gaps" while cars sit at congested intersections.

In Burleson's eyes, scooters could dramatically expand a crucial constituency those interested in reconsidering how much space on our public streets should be dedicated to car drivers versus other users. So far, that constituency's mostly been made up of cyclists and pedestrians by default. But we might be on the brink of a big change. 

Listen to the whole thing to hear Chuck and Andrew discuss these issues as well as:

  • Are scooters"cluttering up" the streets of cities where they've been rolled out?
  • What cultural norms govern the way we perceive scooters versus parked cars, and will those norms evolve?
  • Are people comfortable with the hierarchy of urban street space now, or is there tension?
  • How profitable is the e-scooter industry?
  • Why are cities seeking to ban or restrict the proliferation of e-scooters?
  • What is the future of scooters in our cities, given the current regulatory backlash?
  • How could scooters affect other aspects of our development pattern, including the political acceptability of Missing Middle housing?

(Top photo by Mike Licht via Flickr. Creative Commons license.)