Joe Cortright is a Strong Towns member who runs the think tank and blog City Observatory. The following essay is republished from City Observatory with permission.
Starting in July, Portland, Oregon began allowing fleets of e-scooters, as an experiment, to see how they would work. Portland’s Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) just released its 36-page report on the city’s 120-day trial of allowing fleets of electric scooters on the city’s streets. It’s profusely illustrated—it looks more like a sales brochure than a government report—and it has mostly favorable things to say about the city’s recent experience with scooters.
In four months, scooters went from nothing, to providing an average of more than 5,800 trips per day. About 30 percent of city residents rode the scooters at least once during the trial period. The city estimates that roughly a third of scooter trips substituted for private car trips, helping to reduce traffic congestion. Scooters also tended to be used most during peak travel hours, with 20 percent of all trips taking place between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. City surveys indicate that six percent of scooter users reported getting rid of a private car as a result of scooter availability. In addition, the city’s survey’s also suggest that scooters effectively expanded the market for non-automobile transportation by attracting users who haven’t ridden bicycles for transportation. The survey also shows that 60 percent of Portlanders have a positive or somewhat positive view of scooters. As transportation innovations go, this seems like a pretty wild success.
The city required scooter companies to share their per ride data, enabling PBOT to produce a detailed map showing where the 700,000 trips took place. Rides occurred all over the city, but were especially concentrated in the downtown area. PBOT made this data available on line with a interactive map that lets you see how many rides occurred in different neighborhoods.
Scooters are a clean, green, fiscally-responsible alternative for making lots of short trips in dense urban areas. They’re overwhelmingly popular. Thanks to GPS, web-based applications and data sharing requirements, we have a clear picture of where and how scooters are used. If this is a data-driven process, the data clearly make a case for bringing scooters back—and widely expanding the program as well. Which is something that the Portland Bureau of Transportation indicates it will do later this year—although unfortunately, and inexplicably, only as a second trial period.
So that’s all to the good: The city regulated scooters, took a close and careful look at their impacts, and found that they work. But that got us thinking: Why are we applying this standard of scrutiny just to one tiny element of our transportation system? Why isn’t the Portland Bureau of Transportation taking this same careful, deliberate and detailed approach to analyzing all aspects of our transportation, especially the dominant mode of transportation: private automobiles?
The Double Standard: Why aren’t we holding cars to the standard applied to scooters?
We plainly aren’t applying the same standards to cars that the city has applied to scooters. That’s abundantly clear both in the framing of the report, and in the substance of the questions asked. Consider the first paragraph of the report’s executive summary:
E-scooters emerged in 2017 as a new shared mobility service in the United States. Less than a year after their debut, e-scooters were operating in 65 U.S. cities. They did not arrive without disruption; companies Bird and Lime began operations in 43 markets without government permits or consent. Several cities responded with cease and desist orders, fines, or both. Portland chose a different, proactive path, creating the E-Scooter Pilot Program. With the pilot, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) focused on giving Portlanders access to this new transportation option while also ensuring that e-scooters would support Portland’s fundamental policy values.
There’s an almost insufferable tone of condescension about the idea Portlanders have any right to use scooters on the public streets. It is as if the mandarins of the Portland Bureau of Transportation have deigned, for a brief period, to suffer to allow the presence of these scooters on their streets. The report’s opening paragraph sets the tone: while scooter companies set up shop without asking permission in many cities, Portland strictly regulated their presence. And, as if to remove all doubts about the bureau’s hegemony of public streets, it terminated the operation of scooters entirely on November 20. The New York Times applauded Portland’s aggressive approach to regulating the entry of scooter companies into the city. Its report signals that it PBOT is pleased with the performance of these companies and that it will suffer to allow that they may return for another trial period in the coming year.
One is left to wonder, at what point was it determined that small, personal two-wheeled electric vehicles required special bureaucratic dispensation (and per trip fees paid to the city), and that large gas guzzling, polluting, frequently deadly four-wheeled ones were allowed to roam free in unlimited numbers?
What if BPOT took a similar attitude, not to the paltry 2,000 scooters that operated on city streets for a few months, but instead to the hundreds of thousands of motor vehicles that have inundated the city over the past century? We’re waiting for a similarly incisive assessment of the city’s policy of allowing these vehicles to run rampant in the public realm. If we applied even a fraction of the scrutiny to cars that PBOT has applied to scooters, and applied even a tenth as stringent a standard to their performance, we’d be looking to have radical change. When will PBOT do a similarly rigorous assessment of the climate, health and safety, fiscal, equity and land use impacts of unfettered car use on the public streets?
Let’s focus just one issue: How much do scooters and cars pay to use city streets? The PBOT report indicates that the city levies a charge of 25 cents per trip for each scooter. The average length of a scooter journey, according to PBOT, is 1.1 miles. This means that scooter rider is paying 21.8 cents per mile to use city streets.
How does that compare to what people pay to drive cars? Let’s take the gas tax, which is the major source of state and local road finance. Oregon’s gas tax is currently 30 cents per gallon, and the City of Portland has a gas tax of 10 cents per gallon. With the average vehicle getting about 20 miles per gallon, this means that the average automobile pays about 2 cents per mile (40 cents divided by 20 miles per gallon equals 2 cents per mile). And it has to be added that these are total taxes paid to city and state—the city receives only a fraction of the state imposed gas tax to pay for its streets. Bottom line: Scooter riders pay ten times as much in fees per mile traveled on city streets as car drivers pay in gas taxes.
And as we’ve pointed out before, it’s vastly unfair to charge scooters more than cars. Whether proportionate to vehicle value, the space vehicles take up on the roadway (in use and when parked), weight (and therefore road wear and maintenance costs), or pollution generated, cars should be paying anywhere from 10 to 1000 times more for use of the roadway. Instead, they pay ten times less.
Why doesn’t PBOT apply the same approach to private cars that it has to scooters? Why doesn’t it impose a cap on the number of cars in the city, to be sure that cars don’t overwhelm the street system? Why doesn’t it impose a fee of 20 cents per mile on car trips? Why doesn’t it require that cars operating in the city have electronic speed governors that keep vehicles from being operated at unsafe and illegal speeds? Why doesn’t it require that every trip by automobile be reported to a centralized database operated by PBOT: After all, if we can insist that the operators of 35-pound, $500 scooters share detailed telemetry on every trip taken in the city, why shouldn’t we have similar data about the two-ton, $20,000 or $50,000 vehicles?
There’s a clear double standard here: Scooters have been put to the test, and they’ve passed. Scooter operators have provided detailed data, have electronically limited vehicle speeds, reduced traffic and pollution, and paid the city generously for city streets. When will PBOT ask the same questions or impose the same standards on our car-dominated transportation system? We’re really looking forward to that report.
(Cover photo: PBOT via Flickr)