Electric scooter (e-scooter) services have recently popped up in many urban areas in the US (and around the world), including here in Tallahassee as part of a 3 month pilot project that launched this past July. These services generally involve thousands of scooters being left about a city for the public to use at will. One must simply sign up for the service and make a small (usually around $1) digital payment to make a scooter operable and then the user is charged another small usage fee (around 15 cents per minute). While these e-scooter services have become popular among a certain demographic, as transportation planning scholar, I am skeptical as to whether they make a positive contribution to an urban transportation system.
The e-scooters have the potential to fill an important niche by serving as a substitute for short auto trips. Using an e-scooter in place of a car would significantly reduce energy consumption, carbon emissions, and other toxic vehicle emissions. Scooters are also much more efficient in terms of the amount of space they need. In other words, the existing roads and parking lots could accommodate more people if some auto users switched to scooters.
On the other hand, complaints about having scooters strew about sidewalks in a disorderly manner have arisen after this type of service has been introduced to an area. While this problem could probably be ameliorated with better management, the current business models for these services don’t always give it an appropriate amount of attention.
The safety of the e-scooters is also a major concern. This size and speed difference between these scooters and automobiles makes it difficult for them to safely share road space. A similar issue arises on sidewalks or other pedestrian pathways, where the scooters need to operate among slower pedestrians. In fact, the scooters that are currently available in Tallahassee are not allow on the campuses of FSU, FAMU, or TCC. Further, there are numerous reports of scooter riders falling and injuring themselves without any interference from another vehicle or pedestrian. Safely maneuvering an e-scooter may require a certain level of balance and reflexes than not everyone has.
Are the benefits of these e-scooter services sufficient enough to tolerate their potential safety hazards and disorderliness? This hinges on whether their use is actually substituting for auto trips. It is possible that most people you see on these scooters would have otherwise walked, biked, or taken the bus. If this is the case, the users of these scooters would still receive some additional utility by saving time (a scooter can travel 15 MPH compared to 3 MPH by walking), relieving the physical burden of walking or biking, or by making travel more fun, BUT the real public benefits associated with reducing auto travel (as previously described) would not occur.
While most auto trips are too long to realistically be replaced by an e-scooter ride, a recent survey of US households (the 2017 National Household Survey) found that over 20% of vehicle trips are less than 1 mile. This means that about 130 million of these short vehicle trips happen each day in the US (or about 1 for every household). As such, there are a large number of auto trips that could realistically be replaced by an e-scooter.
Because these services are relatively new, we often don’t have a good idea of whether they are actually taking cars off the road. The city of Portland, OR recently surveyed e-scooter users within its jurisdiction and found that a third of scooter rides replaced a car trip, but it is difficult to say whether this percentage would also apply to other communities. Given that Portland is one of the most progressive cities in the US in terms of promoting alternatives to auto travel, the percentage of scooter rides that replace auto trips is likely less than a third for more auto-dependent communities such as Tallahassee.
In short, we don’t have enough information to make a judgement on whether e-scooters make a net positive contribution to the Tallahassee community (or other similar places). Hopefully, the city of Tallahassee can use their current pilot program to carefully evaluate the safety and management issues and develop an understanding of who is using the scooter services and whether it is leading to a reduction in auto use.
Dr. Michael Duncan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning. Dr. Duncan’s main research interest lies in transportation planning, especially as this relates to building regions with sustainable transport systems and development patterns.
The feature image is from Wired.com.