E-scooters are not a menace; the real threat on the sidewalks is still the car

Scooters in Marseille
CC BY 2.0 Seen in Marseille: Scooter mayhem/ Lloyd Alter

A new study finds that dockless cars cause more problems than dockless bikes and scooters.

When e-scooters come to town, everybody imagines that this is how their sidewalk will look. People come out of the woodwork to complain that they are left everywhere, block the sidewalks and are dangerous for people with limited vision or other disabilities. Everybody complains about dockless scooters and bikes in their way.

Yet one hardly ever hears a peep about the cars that park on the sidewalks, in the bike lanes, in the crosswalks. Which is the bigger problem? As I noted in my interview of Melinda Hanson of Bird, "Everything is looked at from the perspective of people in cars."

Because our sidewalks are littered with dockless cars and our bike lanes are full of dockless Fedex trucks and the only reason dockless scooters are a problem is that they are new and we are still working out the kinks.

parked scooters in tempeParked scooters in Tempe, Arizona/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And it isn't nearly as bad as people say. A new study, Impeding access: The frequency and characteristics of improper scooter, bike, and car parking, looks at this question, and guess what? Hardly any of the scooters or bicycles (0.8 percent) were improperly parked. Meanwhile, 24.7 percent of motor vehicles were improperly parked. Oh, and 64 percent of those motor vehicles were ride-hail, taxi, delivery or commercial vehicles.

But the complaints! Especially from those worried about the effect on the old and the disabled. The study acknowledges that it can be a problem.

Particularly concerning is the potential for micromobility vehicles to block sidewalk access for people with mobility limitations or mobility devices like wheelchairs; micromobility vehicles can impede access and pose tripping hazards for people with visual impairments if they are parked in the middle of the sidewalk or if they block pedestrian curb ramps.

But when they actually started counting, the e-scooters were not even close to being the worst offenders.

Double-parking and other vehicle parking practices such as blocking driveways, idling in bike lanes, and parking in designated ADA accessible spaces without a proper placard have the potential to increase congestion and create safety hazards for other road users.

How to park a BMWHow to park a BMW/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The researchers didn't look at every offense that drivers of cars did, but only those directly comparable, using a methodology designed to be "intentionally narrow to capture parking violations that reduce access or mobility by other road or sidewalk users." It may be unsightly to have a bunch of scooters on the sidewalk, but the question is, are they an obstruction?

Dockless electric car carelessly left blocking sidewalk© Dockless electric car carelessly left blocking sidewalk/ Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the end, they concluded: "We find that improper parking is infrequent among bicycles and scooters and more common among motor vehicles." They also talked to disability advocacy groups who noted that the streets are littered with sidewalk furniture, sandwich boards and "a host of obstacles on urban sidewalks." Where I live, it is the incredible infestation of condo tent signs. They conclude:

We find little evidence to support the dismal picture often painted by media of micromobility parking compliance. Instead, our findings demonstrate that cities should broaden their policy aims beyond just micromobility to take a more comprehensive approach to ensure access to public rights-of-way. The vast majority (99.2%) of parked bikes and scooters on the observed city streets did not block pedestrian access; while some may view micromobility vehicles as visual clutter on city sidewalks, they rarely create accessibility issues in the settings we observed. This presents a stark contrast to motor vehicles.

My favorite line in the study is their qualification of it.

We suspect our findings may come as a surprise to some who either expect or have personal experience observing more micromobility parking violations or fewer motor vehicle violations. One explanation is that we may be wrong.

We're all fighting over crumbs.

I do not believe that they are. I also agree with their recognition that "cities are facing an ever-increasing demand for use of public rights-of-way. Dockless mobility's nearly overnight appearance and subsequent popularity (mixed with out-of-date regulatory structures) have greatly intensified this demand." As I have noted, we are all fighting over crumbs. In our discussion with Melissa Hanson of Bird, we discussed how..

..we have to rethink our streetspace, creating what I have called micromobility lanes and she calls, much more aptly, 'green lanes'. If you look at the bulk of the injuries to scooter users, they come from being hit by cars. If you look at the biggest sources of complaints about scooters, it's that they are being used on sidewalks. It is no different from bikes, where riders are fighting for a safe place to ride.

berlin transitWho needs a car when you have transit and bike infrastructure like this/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 1.0

At some point, we are going to have to face the reality that something has to give, and that it is probably all the space we give to cars and on street parking. When I look at my dream street in Berlin. I see a place to walk, a"green lane" that's actually red, a place to wait for a tram, the tracks and 2 lanes left over for cars. Half the road allowance is going to alternatives to cars, compared to the usual two little sidewalk strips in North America.

So instead of saying no to e-scooters, and fighting over crumbs, let's take back the streets and make them work for everyone, including those using new micromobility technologies.

E-scooters are not a menace; the real threat on the sidewalks is still the car
A new study finds that dockless cars cause more problems than dockless bikes and scooters.

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