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How Cities Are Responding to Micro-Mobility

The Brief

While each city has taken their own unique approach to regulating this new “micro-mobility” phenomenon, trends and best practices have begun to emerge. Yet most cities are following a similar pattern: test, study, and expand.

Since their sudden arrival last year, scooters and dockless bikes—unlocked and ridden with the snap of an app—have had a meteoric rise. They’re now scattered across sidewalks, huddled together in flocks around bike racks, and lined up on well-trafficked street corners all around the country. While each city has taken their own unique approach to regulating this new “micro-mobility” phenomenon, trends and best practices have begun to emerge. Yet most cities are following a similar pattern: test, study, and expand.

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Location of Micro-Mobility Deployments and Bans

Source: Smart Cities Dive, June 2019

The Pilot Approach

Micro-mobility ridership—the use of dockless bikes, electric bikes (e-bikes), electric scooters (e-scooters), and even shared station-based bikes—has risen dramatically in U.S. cities, often following the launch of a pilot program. As seen in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., by starting with a modest and controlled pilot program, typically capping the number of allowed operators or the number of devices, city officials have been able to evaluate the impact of scooter and dockless bike use. These cities are primarily looking at where they are being distributed and how they interact with existing transportation systems and infrastructure. If the pilots are deemed successful and the level of demand is sufficient, the caps can be expanded over time to allow more scooters and bikes to be deployed.

Today, 151 U.S. cities actively allow at least one type of scooter or dockless bike to operate. While some communities have banned their use, and others allow them to operate without formal guidance, more cities are now following the pilot-first model of the early adopters. For example, Chicago recently announced a four-month pilot that began in June and has a cap of 3,500 scooters. The cities of Tallahassee, Florida; Omaha, Nebraska; Everett, Washington; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Hoboken, New Jersey, have also recently joined the scooter pilot club. Though notably, the single largest metro area in America, New York City, still remains skeptical of the micro-mobility revolution.

Since the first pilots launched in late 2017 and early 2018, micro-mobility devices have gained popularity and appear to have evolved from a potentially-fleeting trend and are beginning to cement themselves in the transit landscape. With increased visibility and ridership, cities are increasingly looking at how to implement regulations and policies that maximize the benefit of micro-mobility devices and enhance safety. While how best to do this remains an open question, here is an overview of some of the trends that have developed so far.

Scooters > Bikes

Dockless bikes may have beaten scooters to the streets, but scooters are handily winning the war.

According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, there were a combined 84 million trips taken across all micro-mobility devices in 2018. This was over double the number of trips taken by traditional bikeshares in 2017—with nearly half of new rides in 2018 coming from scooters. By the end of 2018, there were over 85,000 scooters in about 100 cities zipping around, on 38.5 million trips.

Source: NACTO

Coupled with the rise in scooter ridership, several bike-focused companies have largely ceased operations in the United States, including Ofo and Mobike, citing a combination of the regulatory environment and profitability. Companies that operated both scooters and dockless bikes have shifted their ratio heavily toward scooters, if not abandoning their bike businesses altogether. Meanwhile, leading scooter companies (or combined scooter-and-bike companies) like Jump, Skip, Scoot, Bird, and Spin, have earned multi-billion-dollar valuations and gained the backing of major companies like Uber, Lyft, Ford, and Google.

Street Safety

The sudden and dramatic arrival of scooters and dockless bikes has not been without its challenges. New riders quickly discovered what bicycle advocates have known their entire lives: American streets are not safe for people without cars.

According to the Associated Press, at least nine people have died since the beginning of 2018 while riding shared scooters, and at least five of those deaths were the result of the rider being hit by a car. Additionally, Consumer Reports estimated that at least 1,500 scooter riders have sustained an injury while riding since 2017. While statistically those numbers pale in comparison to the 40,000 deaths and 2.4 million injuries that occur each yearin vehicle crashes in the United States, cities are taking emerging safety concerns seriously. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a study in Austin, Texas, in 2018 which shed some light on how, and how often, scooter accidents are happening:

Based on 130 confirmed injury incidents, the e-scooter related injury incidence rate was 14.3 per 100,000 trips.

While these accidents have a variety of causes, from faulty equipment to potholes to reckless drivers to user error, one solution that cities are pursuing is to carve out more protected bike lanes for riders. Unlike a painted bike lane or a “shared” lane, a protected bike lane has a physical barrier to separate bicyclists and vehicles, often in the form of spaced curbs or plastic posts.

According to an inventory kept by PeopleForBikes, an industry coalition of bicycling suppliers and retailers, the number of protected bike lanes in the United States have been increasing. In 2018, over 50 new protected bike lane projects were constructed in major and mid-sized cities. One recent study found that protected bike lanes can reduce the number of fatal crashes in a city by 44 percent compared to the average city. At the federal level, the Department of Transportation’s BUILD grant program (formerly known as TIGER) awarded funding to seven “complete street” projects with bike lanes in 2017, and an additional 17 projects that included bike lanes or bicycle facilities in 2018.

However, protected bike lanes can only solve a portion of injury and accident problems facing micro-mobility devices. Beyond changing the physical infrastructure, companies and officials have also experimented with providing rider safety and training seminars, allowing the scooter-curious to take one for a spin in a controlled environment, and giving away free helmets. Remarkably, helmet rates have been dismally low among riders despite their proven ability to dramatically reduce injury rates, and device companies including them in their user agreements.

Regulating and Dedicating Space

In addition to efforts to increase safety, cities have been experimenting with regulating where and how scooters and dockless bikes can be parked and deployed.

In an effort to ensure some degree of equitable access to these devices, some cities have enacted rules mandating devices to be routinely available in certain neighborhoods. Washington, D.C., for example, requires companies to have at least six devices available in each of the eight wards by 6 a.m. every day. Similar rules have been enacted in Columbus, Ohio, but there have been reports in both cities that the quotas are not being consistently met.

While both scooters and dockless bikes have received a variety of public flak, many have voiced concerns about devices left sprawling across sidewalks, blocking access to ramps and pathways, which can be especially problematic for people using wheelchairs and other assistive devices. Due to their size, dockless bikes have anecdotally been one of the chief culprits. As a result, several cities like Chicago now require parked bikes to be affixed to a bike rack. This locking restriction effectively banned one of the most common bike models that first emerged, which relies on wheel-locks that looped between the bike’s spokes on the back tire.

Several cities have also attempted to curb the haphazard parking of scooters and bikes by creating dedicated parking spaces, either within painted areas on the sidewalk or in a dedicated spot in the street. Some areas have also deployed geofencing, relying on the GPS systems, to prevent devices from being parked on certain blocks or specific areas, or to prevent riders from crossing over into different jurisdictions. This barrier between jurisdictions has notably caused some problems as riders unknowingly cross between one area that allows scooters or bikes to operate to another area that prohibits them, which may result in either the device abruptly powering off or leave the rider without a place to legally end their ride.

Ride On

In some ways, the challenges posed by scooters and dockless bikes have forced cities to grapple with brand-new issues and technologies. But in other ways, these devices have revealed systemic problems that have long plagued urban transportation: from inadequate and dangerous infrastructure, to questions around equitable access to services, to the inherent challenges of universally enforcing traffic and safety laws.

Despite those hurdles, more cities are launching scooter and dockless bike pilots than there are cities that are banning them. After roughly a year since scooters and dockless bikes first arrived, this growing list of shared practices around space and safety are helping cities and states catch up to a technology that caught many by surprise. However, the wide variance in which rules cities and states choose to adopt, compounded by the lack of any federal guidelines or oversight, has created a complex and messy regulatory environment, leading some to describe micro-mobility regulations as the Wild Wild West of Transit.