Have you spent time in a city with electric scooter or bicycle sharing programs or tried them out yourself?
I remember first seeing docked bicycles in a major U.S. city about four years ago and noting tourists were using them to visit various sites and others clearly using them to commute. Another large city I visited had dockless electric scooters, which were used on sidewalks for casual trips by younger people in restaurant, bar and entertainment districts.
Electric scooter and bike sharing programs are becoming more and more popular modes of travel, particularly in urban settings. Collectively, they are referred to as micromobility or the use of transportation over short distances provided by lightweight, single-person vehicles.
Vehicles from these programs can be useful tools in reducing emissions when they are used to replace traditional gasoline-fueled vehicle trips, particularly in large urban areas. This is particularly important in areas that do not meet federal air quality standards for pollutants caused by tailpipe emissions, like ozone. When the scooters and bikes are used in place of walking, however, no carbon offsets are achieved.
In March of 2019, the City of Los Angeles launched the largest micromobility pilot program in the country with the addition of some 37,000 dockless scooters and bikes operating on city streets. Data collected from the program showed that in the first year of the program, 44% of users reported driving less frequently and one third of the trips replaced single occupancy of ride share trips.
The Los Angeles Department of Transportation reported the emissions reductions were estimated to be equal to that of eliminating the use of 202,768 gallons of gasoline in the first 12 months of the micromobility program.
Micromobility can also be helpful in bridging first mile/last mile gaps in transportation systems. These are defined as the distance from a transit station to a rider’s starting point and their destination.
Multiple case studies in major U.S. cities showed micromobility is most successful at achieving its goals when it is paired with existing transit systems to bridge those first mile/last mile gaps. In these instances, the electric scooter or bicycle docking station or access point was strategically placed at bus or train stations.
While the programs can help with air quality, they can also pose serious safety risks. The City of Portland, Oregon reported 10 scooter-related ER visits per week during their pilot program in 2018. A subsequent study in Portland discovered 90% of users don’t wear helmets.
Multiple deaths have been reported in California related to electric scooters, including two in the same week in 2018. Just this June, “Gone Girl” actress Lisa Banes was crossing the street at the crosswalk in New York City when she was struck by an electric scooter, causing severe head trauma. She died 10 days later.
Some have complained of dockless e-scooters and bicycles creating eyesores, with the equipment being strewn across city sidewalks, rights of way and parks before being picked up by the micromobility company and relocating them.
It’s clear micromobility can be used to address a host of problems but comes with its own set of challenges. That is why working with metropolitan planning organizations like the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission and sustainable transportation organizations like South Shore Clean Cities early in the planning process is key.
Remember, it’s never too late to being your environmental legacy.
This column first appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana. Carl Lisek is the executive director of South Shore Clean Cities and vice president of Legacy Environmental Services. The opinions are the writers.