Last month, the news broke that my home of Rochester, New York will soon be the first city in the state to implement a scooter share program. Pending legislation that will make e-scooters legal in New York, Rochester’s bike share company Zagster hopes to roll out a fleet of electric scooters on the streets of the Flower City by the end of 2019.
As a supporter of e-scooter share programs and their ability to “throw a bigger transportation net” in our cities, I am mindful of the growing pains that so many cities have already felt with regard to these machines. We’ve all seen the media reports about increased safety issues and the reality that electric scooters are often found littered across the sidewalk, making even the occasional stroll a bit of a task, to say nothing about persons with disabilities. Furthermore, one of the most frequent complaints about e-scooters arises when riders take these machines onto the sidewalk, zipping past walkers and making for an uneasy pedestrian experience.
As I always try to explain to those who cite these issues, no new transportation initiative has ever had a smooth public transition. Scooter share, for the most part, has only been around for a handful of years, and the “kinks” are still being ironed out. But as the e-scooter trend spreads across the nation, those responsible for their operation are always looking for new ways to maximize performance and safety while minimizing their often-held perception as a public nuisance. The problems will be lessened as more cities buy in and start demanding that the most prominent issues with e-scooters be addressed.
And let’s not forget: when cars were first introduced to American roadways, the same concerns about their safety and use on public right-of-ways were just as prevalent, if not more so.
Understanding Scooter Problems in the Context of an Environment Designed for Cars
Indeed, the infancy of e-scooter share has had its “share” of stumbles. But it’s important we look at why these motorized devices have had a troubled upbringing. The few studies that have involved e-scooter share data show that riders suffer injuries at a higher clip than just about any other form of transportation. This is likely due to the fact that e-scooters are a relatively new invention, requiring a different set of learned balance and maneuverability skills. While most Americans have had some experience riding a bike before using bike share, most have never used an electric scooter. Furthermore, their smaller wheels are much more susceptible to cracks in the road, potholes, even moderately sized debris than bikes, which can more reliably “roll over” these obstacles.
As the proud owner of an electric UScooter Eco, I have found that riding on the road (where scooters are supposed to be piloted, according to most local laws across the country) can be tremendously dangerous. While the condition of our often deteriorating roadways might be manageable by car or bike, even small potholes can be a serious hazard for the small wheels of an e-scooter. All it takes is a slow walk alongside many of our Upstate New York roadways to see that the far right or most streets and roads are littered with cracks, bumps, sunken grates and even plastic or metal debris from cars. Scooters struggle with these obstacles, and avoiding them sometimes means last minute ventures into moving car traffic.
Speeding traffic and under-maintained roadways are likely the primary reason riders often choose to use the sidewalk instead of the road. Heck, it’s why I do sometimes, and I’ve ridden my scooter over 500 miles. But when riders choose the car-free confines of the sidewalk, the potential for pedestrian conflicts and collisions increases, especially in high-density areas.
The almost exclusive prioritization of the automobile and car-based infrastructure leaves little or no room for safe and convenient piloting of electric scooters. In fact, when you look at why safety concerns exist for scooter riders, and the scooters’ impact on pedestrians, you can usually tie the source of the issue back to the over-accommodation of cars.
E-scooter riders who choose the road are riding machines that aren’t meant to handle obstacles in the road (potholes, grates, cracks) that are easily manageable for drivers. Riders often choose the sidewalk for this reason; they don’t feel safe on roads where drivers just want them out of the way (trust me, I know). As for sidewalk litter, this problem might be easily relieved by taking a few on-street car parking spaces on each block and turning them into parking stations for e-scooters… but try rationalizing this to local residents and business owners who believe the world will burn if they lose a handful of public parking spots, and I assure you, people will lose elections over it.
The problem with e-scooters, just like with bikes, is that they very rarely have a dedicated and protected right-of-way. As a result, riders are aliens in nearly any environment, fighting for space with much larger machines that may kill them, or finding themselves on a narrow strip of concrete where THEY are suddenly the primary source of danger to pedestrians. But at the end of the day, this reality would never be a problem if drivers shared the road, if cars didn’t take up a huge majority of our rights-of-way, if automobile prioritization weren’t second nature, and if parking spaces weren’t a perceived priority.
Indeed, e-scooters could be one of the most powerful and groundbreaking modes of personal urban transit already. They could be safe, impact free devices that could easily be used and parked in dedicated spaces. But because of the exclusive prioritization of cars, and the blind over-dedication of space for their use, e-scooters are perceived as the troublemakers, safety hazards, and ultimately public nuisances. Before we rush to demonize the e-scooter, let’s first understand that their shaky first steps are, in large part, because our cities are still made for cars and little else. Changing this environment will take time, effort, and a significant change in the perception of the average American.