Depending on your point of view, electric bicycles and electric scooters are either blights on the streets of major cities or represent the salvation for metropolitan areas choked by traffic and smog. Battery powered e-bikes and e-scooters have flooded cities from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, simultaneously delighting riders and aggravating city planners.
“I do think this is disruptive,” said William Riggs, a professor in the University of San Francisco’s School of Management who studies transportation, told Digital Trends. “It’s a hugely disruptive time in the era of transportation.”
Major companies are jumping on the trend: Ford purchased e-scooter company Spin. GM has designed its own e-bike. Uber acquired the e-bike rental firm Jump (possibly for more than $100 million!). And Lyft has started offering e-scooter rentals in Denver, Colorado; Santa Monica, California; and Washington, D.C. Major players in the e-wheeled world — Lime, Bird, and Skip — are proliferating like locusts, leaving cities — and all their smart city plans — struggling to adapt.
In California, pedestrians complain that riders speed dangerously down sidewalks and tourists who rent the electric devices often dump them in places like the boardwalk along Venice Beach (where the scooters are technically not allowed). Anecdotally, hospital emergency rooms report an uptick in ER visits due to e-scooter accidents, and at least two Lime riders have died in recent accidents in Dallas and D.C.
Cities have taken a diversity of approaches to dealing with the e-wheeled phenomena. San Francisco, for example, banned e-scooters until it created a permit system for companies offering rentals; subsequently, Skip and Scoot won permits to operate in the City by the Bay. In Tel Aviv, where e-bikes and e-scooters have crowded city sidewalks and streets for a couple of years, there are new regulations coming that require helmets and licenses for electric bicycles.
Meanwhile, the governor of California recently enacted a law allowing adults to ride scooters without a helmet on roads with speed limits of up to 35 mph. And New York City, which started seeing extensive traffic in e-bikes about a year ago, has gone from identifying any kind of e-assist bike or scooter as illegal to allowing pedal-assist e-bikes (which require the rider to pedal at all times), but banning so-called throttle e-bikes (which can operate under battery power only and go faster, 20 to 28 mph). Enforcement, however, has been negligible.
“Not every place is like Manhattan or San Francisco,” Riggs said. “The physical infrastructure in a lot of these places is not ready for this disruption. So the question is, are we just throwing them out there in an environment that is unsafe for them.” Not to mention, unsafe for pedestrians and drivers.
Bicycles and the three D’s
Of course, dealing with two-wheeled transportation is not a new issue. What’s new is the electrification of that transportation and the associated boost in speeds. Riggs said that as communities strive to create smart towns and cities some basic civil engineering principles should still apply in managing the e-wheeled trend.
“There are the three D’s: density, diversity, and design,” Riggs explained.
Traditional bicycle riders don’t want to share the pavement with zippier e-bikes and upstart e-scooters.
The adoption of this or any new form of transportation has to be supported by the urban density. Dockless solutions, for example, only work if there are enough riders to pick up the abandoned bikes and scooters. Sprawling Paris has struggled with e-bike docking systems, whereas the docking approach seems to have worked well in Manhattan.
Diversity has to do with understanding different types of riders and different uses for e-scooters and e-bikes. In Santa Monica, primarily tourists seem to be riding the gadgets — and to be oblivious to local laws and rules. In other places, people commuting to work seem to be the principle riders, with much more predictable routes and times.
Once a city has answered the first two D’s, it can then tackle the third: designing a safe physical infrastructure to accommodate the new wheels. That isn’t always a simple matter, according to Riggs, especially in the United States. In places where there are special bike lanes, traditional bicycle riders don’t want to share the pavement with zippier e-bikes and upstart e-scooters.
“And we do have a culture of driving that is being disrupted,” Riggs said, since carving out more lanes to keep e-bikes and e-scooters off sidewalks means cutting into lanes previously left to cars. “So people that drive will experience more delays, and culturally, that’s unacceptable in the U.S.”
Where it’s working
There are places where e-bikes and e-scooters seem to be integrating with the city infrastructures successfully, primarily in the Netherlands and Germany. Part of the reason why is that there were already established thriving bicycle cultures in those places. So the smart city multimodal approach to transportation is not unfamiliar to people in Amsterdam and Berlin. But according to Riggs, the two European countries have taken quite different approaches to handling e-wheelers.
Smart cities need a public and private sector partnership where cities work with vendors and educate the public.
“In Germany, the perspective is pure modal separation,” he said. There are multi-use lanes, where e-bikes can travel, for example, and also so-called “Class 1” lanes where traditional bikes rule. This keeps all riders separate from each other and away from pedestrians, much in the same way the faster freeway traffic is completely separate from slower local automobile traffic.
The Dutch philosophy, as one might have guessed, is much more provocative, Riggs said. In the Netherlands, where children riding on the handlebars of their parent’s bicycles without a helmet is quite common, municipalities do not work to separate the different modes of transportation. Everyone — cyclists, e-cyclists, e-scooter riders, and pedestrians (and in some cases cars, as well) — operate in the same space. It’s based on the idea of an uncontrolled or “naked intersection” that has maximum interaction between different forms of transport and therefore maximum uncertainty. The theory is that in such uncertain situations people pay more attention and therefore there are fewer accidents.
But what’s good for the Dutch and Germans, probably isn’t good for Americans.
“Many places in the U.S. are way behind in terms of the physical side” of accommodating these different forms of transportation, Riggs said.
Smart cities need to take a smart approach to the seemingly inevitable influx of e-bikes and e-scooters. A key element of that is a public and private sector partnership approach where cities work with vendors — and educate the public at the same time. That means convincing hardcore cyclists that e-cyclists aren’t the enemy, and at same time teaching the e-riders how to adhere to the rules of the road and proper safety.
Most cities feel they got really burned by Uber and Lyft who rode into towns without any thought about how they would impact the environment, Riggs said. So there’s some reluctance on the part of municipalities to work with companies whose ethos is to disrupt current systems. But smart cities take a wider view now and consider how such changes will effect the whole infrastructure.
Ultimately, Riggs said, smarter towns will have to take a more multimodal view of their transportation systems. A recent study at his university found that places that just emphasized cycling and walking over other forms of transportation didn’t lead to better outcomes for their citizens. People who experienced the best health turned out to be those who lived in areas with the most number of transportation options, not just walking and biking. In other words, if you want your smarter city to improve the lives of its citizens, take everything in moderation, even transportation.
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