I was walking down a sidewalk in Madrid, deep in thought, reflecting on a full day of exploring the city, when I looked up and saw someone riding a LimeBike e-scooter in my direction at full speed. I quickly jumped out of the way to avoid collision. It was jarring, to say the least. I was tempted to flip a bird, but I resisted. My quiet moment of reflection far behind me, as was the jerk riding the e-scooter, I was left feeling angry and conflicted. I spend a lot of time advocating for active transportation and encouraging people to get out of their cars. Here was a viable, and seemingly attractive solution, but it just didn’t feel right.
E-scooters have great potential for our cities. They are a good option for people who may see physical exertion as a barrier to riding a bike. They can help with the “last-mile” problem, the issue of getting people from a transit stop right to their door. Often, people may opt not to take transit because it doesn’t offer the same “door-to-door” experience driving a car does. I mean, unless you take a cab, this door-to-door experience isn’t exactly that, as drivers have to spend time finding parking which may not be anywhere close to their destination. But, I digress.
E-scooters, and the hype around them, can maybe nudge people towards ditching car use, which is terribly important in a rapidly urbanizing world where cities are suffocating from car exhaust. Beyond the flash and fun of the scooters, they are also appealing to city administrations, because the roll-out basically costs nothing. With e-Scooters being provided by private businesses like LimeBike and Bird, cities, most of which are cash-strapped, don’t have to pay to provide a transportation service to their residents. Seems like a win-win. But, if we aren’t mindful of how we roll out e-scooters, we have a lot to lose.
“Instead of having e-scooters redefine our sidewalks, let’s use their popularity to make the case to transform our streets.”
Before we dump e-scooters all over our cities, we need to think about the implications they have on society’s most vulnerable. As I mentioned earlier, I had a near miss with an e-scooter going at full speed on a sidewalk. For those who don’t know, full speed for one of these scooters is about 24 kmh (15 mph). As a relatively able-bodied young man, I was able to get out of the way. But, what about an elderly person using a mobility device? They may not fare as well. Pedestrians have enough challenges with avoiding getting hit by cars on the road; they don’t need the added fear of being hit on the sidewalk by someone riding an e-scooter. The sidewalk is one of the few places we can move in our cities without the need to be hypervigilant. The solution here isn’t to ban e-scooters, but, rather, to build infrastructure that accommodates them. Like, maybe, a separated bike lane. The decreased maneuverability and stopping power of a e-scooter make street use a very unappealing proposition. This was apparent to me when I was in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, where sidewalk e-scooter use was rampant. California Law prohibits the use of e-scooters on sidewalks, but clearly (and understandably) no one was following the law. It would be terrifying to navigate LA streets on a Bird. I’ll save the opining on their car-centric urban design for another blog post, but the City desperately needs more separated cycling infrastructure. Same goes for Madrid, where I was nearly creamed by that LimeBike. Any city that is considering rolling out e-scooters should have adequate cycling infrastructure in place. Anything else would be irresponsible. The risk is high, and people are already dying.
The other issue that was quite apparent to me in Los Angeles was how dockless e-scooters were littering the sidewalks. They were everywhere. Some standing upright. Most knocked over. It was ugly. But, more importantly, they blocked the sidewalk. Again, for an able-bodied person like me, it was easy to move them and move around them. But, for someone in a wheelchair, depending on their ability, the task may be more difficult. E-scooters pose a significant threat to accessibility. People with mobility issues face enough barriers in our cities; they don’t need e-scooters blocking their way. More thought needs to go into how and where they are docked to ensure that sidewalks are free to navigate for everyone, regardless of their ability. Until that is figured out, I would advise against the “dockless” scheme.
I’m not an e-scooter hater. I’m actually strongly in support of them. What I am against is their mindless adoption by cities that have put zero effort in creating spaces where they can safely and effectively be used. Instead of having e-scooters redefine our sidewalks, let’s use their popularity to make the case to transform our streets. I worry that if we aren’t smart about how we go about rolling them out, there will be negative impacts on the limited sidewalk space we have and the vulnerable people who use it.
(thanks to Gil Meslin for providing the picture of e-scooters blocking a sidewalk in Los Angeles)