In urban neighborhoods across the country, well-capitalized electric scooter companies are invading, sometimes met with support from policymakers who see them as a useful transportation mode and sometimes met with resistance from residents and politicians who view them as a safety hazard and little more than metal street litter.
What’s really going on here? Depending on how you look view transportation, bikes and scooters are the key to future, clean urban mobility or a sideshow that distracts from maintaining mobility across large metropolis. But I think the basic problem – the reason we’re having a hyper-emotional discussion about these transportation modes on both sides – is that we’re not framing the issue right.
The problem isn’t that bikes and scooters are necessary or that they’re a menace. The problem is that, in urban locations across America, we need an intermediate mode of travel between cars and walking – an easy to way to travel between a half-mile and two miles. In the transit business, this is called the “first and last mile” problem. Cars are a hassle and walking is too far, so these intermediate modes need a right of way, whether they are bikes, scooters, Segways or vehicles that haven’t been invented yet.
On urban streets, we know how to accommodate cars that go between 25 and 45 miles an hour, which often also wind up parking on the street. We also know how to accommodate pedestrians (though we don’t always do this well), who tend to travel at about three miles an hour. What happens when somebody shows up in a small vehicle that travels 10 to 15 miles an hour? They either travel in the street, where they’re too small and too slow to navigate amidst car traffic comfortably; or they travel on the sidewalk, where they are too big and too fast to travel amidst pedestrian traffic comfortably. And where do they park?
What’s happening is that cities are taking space away from cars – parking spaces – in order to give it to these intermediate vehicles a thoroughfare. (The most persistently amusing example of the problem this creates is police cars parking in bike lanes).
In the scooter controversies, mostly what’s happening is that scooter parking is taking up already limited space on sidewalks that is supposed to be reserved for pedestrians, leaving many people enraged that it is harder to walk.
It’s time to reframe the scooter-bike discussion so that it’s not so much about taking things away from people and, instead, is focused on providing the right of way for a new transportation mode that is now necessary for certain urban neighborhoods.
This isn’t that hard for urban planners and transportation experts to do, but it can’t be a set of random experiments. It needs to be the result of the kind of systematic analysis that planners are good at. What are the neighborhood characteristics that lend themselves to intermediate vehicles? How dense are they? Where are they located? What kind of mix of land use and businesses do they typically have? This kind of information will help build a case for the need for intermediate-vehicle thoroughfares in certain neighborhoods. In Houston, that means places like Downtown, Uptown, Midtown, and Montrose.
And, yes, doing this right does mean understanding that existing modes of travel, principally cars and pedestrians, have to share space with intermediate vehicles.
For scooter parking, this is easier than it looks, because geofencing acceptable locations to store the scooters is a pretty easy trick technologically. (I think one of the funniest aspects of this debate is when scooter-haters complain that scooters shouldn’t be allowed to park in the public right of way because that’s unfair. Like we don’t already do that with cars.)
For rights of way, it probably is true that on-street parking will have to be removed to make room to give intermediate vehicles some traveling room. But as my former UCLA professor Donald Shoup has made a habit of pointing out, resistance to reprogramming parking space comes partly from the fact that cities have consistently underpriced desirable street parking. Maybe if we priced street parking right, people would look for alternatives and removing the parking wouldn’t be such a big deal.
What’s going on here is that we are reaping what we have sown – a century of over-investment in rights-of-way for cars and under-investment in rights-of-way for pedestrians. Motorists are used to getting their way and don’t like sharing. Pedestrians get scraps and don’t like having to compete for those scraps. In urban locations, it’s time to throw out these old models and reorient our public rights-of-way to give all modes of travel the space they need for urban neighborhoods to thrive.
A version of this blog appears on UrbanEdge, published by the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
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