Electric scooters have been getting a lot of attention over the past few years thanks to e-scooter share companies like Lime, Skip, and Jump dropping thousands of scooters in city centers across the country. In the past two years, the number of cities hosting e-scooter and dockless bike shares has jumped to more than 100. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is a fan of this explosion of scooters on city streets.
Much of the media attention has been negative, with many articles describing a scourge in which the new shared micro-mobility solution is cluttering sidewalks, abusing the rules, and generally wreaking havoc on city streets.
Which is surprising, considering that the biggest rule-breakers are automobiles. That’s right: motor vehicles, not scooters, are many times more likely to double-park, block driveways, obstruct bike lanes, and violate other parking rules, as revealed by a new University of Oregon study that I took part in over the summer.
While many grievances have been filed at city halls and transportation bureaus (including a litany of complaints shared on PBOT’s Facebook page), little is known about how shared scooters are actually used on city streets. To fill this gap, the authors of Impeding Access: The Frequency of Improper Scooter, Bike, and Car Parking sent out observers (including myself) to document micro-mobility and automobile usage in Portland, OR, Austin, TX, San Francisco, CA, Santa Monica, CA, and Washington DC. The question we were tasked with answering: How often and for how long do micro-mobility and motor vehicles impede a traveler’s right of way?
After observing 2,631 motor vehicles, which ranged from personal vehicles to taxis and food delivery vehicles, and 865 bikes and e-scooters, the data revealed that nearly one quarter (24.7%) of motor vehicles were improperly parked, compared to 0.3% of bicycles and 1.1% of scooters. What’s more, the data suggests that micro-mobility users “do use parking infrastructure when provided, especially in San Francisco, where 97.7% of scooters and bikes were parked at a rack or in a corral.”
At the same time, regulations don’t necessarily cause better behavior among micro-mobility users. The authors found “perhaps surprisingly, no micro-mobility regulation stood out as the clear policy lever to reduce violation rates. Austin had by far the largest micro-mobility fleet of the five case study cities, while Portland and San Francisco had the smallest allowed fleet sizes, yet Austin had the second-lowest rate of micro-mobility parking violations (0.6%), behind San Francisco (0%) but ahead of Portland (2.3%).”
While I was surprised by the size of the percentage gap between motor vehicle and bike/scooter violations, I did suspect it. I had spent hours walking up and down the sidewalk on SW 10th Ave between Harvey Milk St and Washington St in downtown Portland over the course of several days and had seen cars double-park, drive onto the curb, and generally ignore the rules without anyone batting an eye. A whopping 22.6% of motor vehicle observations in this city included a parking violation- and Portland wasn’t even the leader in that category.
The thing about observing a sidewalk for hours on end is that once you start noticing cars breaking the rules, you can’t help but be frustrated by how the environment has been reshaped to accommodate them. It seemed that for every scooter that hopped onto one of the sidewalks I observed, there were dozens of cars legally driving across it to reach a garage- often at unsafe speeds or slow enough to block the sidewalk for pedestrians. While some improperly parked scooters may have caused pedestrians to take a slightly longer route to access a restaurant, the block-long wall of parallel-parked cars certainly did. Cars liberally swerved in and out of a turn lane, pushed speed limits, and made excessive amounts of noise or pollution (this is especially the case for pickup trucks and sports cars)- and because we accept that cars do all of these dangerous things, we banish pedestrians to narrow slivers of sidewalk for their own safety. And yet we call scooters the menace to pedestrians.
All this being said, some motor vehicle users were more likely to break the rules than others. One of the most important highlights of the research is 63.6% of the motor vehicle violations were for commercial, ride-hail, taxi, and delivery vehicles, which only represented only 23.8% of all motor vehicle observations. This is a striking finding considering the ongoing rise of delivery services like Amazon and taxi services like Uber and Lyft.
But before we switch from blaming shared scooter users and cyclists for cluttered streets to blaming delivery and taxi drivers, we should consider the problem in pure economic terms. What is the economic value of a delivery truck spending 10 minutes double-parked as they unload goods for a restaurant, versus a personal vehicle double-parked for one minute as they wait in line for valet parking? How does a personal vehicle waiting for 5 minutes in a no-parking zone to pick up a friend compare to a shared vehicle (Lyft, Uber, taxi) double-parking for one to drop off/pick up customers?
So long as we are going to enjoy the convenience of ordering things online (and online food ordering is expected to increase by 9.8% between 2018 and 2026), communities and policy makers need to rethink roadways to increase freight, taxi, and delivery vehicle efficiency. Not only will this help our packages arrive on time, but it should also alleviate congestion. At the moment, the authors note “parking policies in many cities have not kept pace with the changing use by ride-hail and food delivery services.” One way to update our street network for these services could be to replace parking with targeted drop off/pick up/delivery zones on commercial streets. To address personal vehicle parking violations, the authors believe “parking needs should be adjusted block-by-block and by time of day” to better manage the parking supply.
Like the authors, who found “little evidence to support the dismal picture often painted by the media of micro-mobility parking compliance”, I was surprised by the chasm between micro-mobility user reputation and behavior. While leaving scooters collapsed in the middle of the sidewalk is extremely noticeable, it is also aberrant behavior and could be fixed with better kickstands and more scooter corrals.
Although the results of this study suggest that we should do away with the stereotype of the poorly-parked e-scooter, scooter shares are from perfect. Despite initial hopes that scooter shares might reduce CO2 emissions, their production, short lifespan, and the methods most companies use to collect and charge them is far from carbon neutral. Even worse, one recent study found that scooter trips are mostly replacing walking and biking trips rather than personal vehicle trips, meaning that they could be adding to the emissions problem more than solving it. With tweaking, both by the private companies and city governments, it is not difficult to imagine how these problems might be fixed.
The truth right now is cars are the menace on our downtown streets, often breaking the rules that their own manufacturers helped design as they congest, pollute, and bring death to our city centers through collisions with pedestrians and other street users. We can afford to work out the kinks to make scooters less damaging to the environment; we cannot afford to wait to diminish the destructive role the automobile plays in our society.
(A shorter version of this oped was originally published in the Portland Tribune)