Bird's Head of Sustainability on the Future of Micromobility

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CC BY 2.0. Seen in Lisbon: really rough roads/ Lloyd Alter

Melinda Hanson talks to TreeHugger about taking back the streets.

After visiting the new Museum of Art and Technology in Lisbon, I didn't want to repeat the 4.6 kilometre walk back to the train station. I had lots of micro-mobility options but I have a Bird account, so I grabbed a scooter. Much of Lisbon is paved with little marble square tiles, which are terrible to ride on; I thought my teeth would shake out. When I got to Cais do Sodré station, the scooter wouldn't let me park; it said I had to be in an authorized area. It sure looked on the map like I was, but I saw a pile of scooters and bikes parked not too far away so scooted over and it let me end my trip.

Thinking about it after, I marvelled – as I always do when I use scooters – how it let me go a longer distance than most people are willing to walk, where and when I wanted to go, on this tiny all-electric wonder. But between the teeth rattling and the parking, it's not without issues, and you do hear a lot of complaints about them.

Melinda Hanson is the head of sustainability for Bird, described as "a last-mile electric vehicle sharing company dedicated to bringing affordable, environmentally-friendly transportation solutions to communities across the world." I chatted with her recently and discussed everything from sustainability to teeth rattling.

Jargon Watch: Lightweighting

Bird 2 scooters

© Bird 2 Scooters

Hanson used the wonderful term "lightweighting" to describe what I call sufficiency. Making a Tesla puts out about 30 tons of upfront carbon emissions in its manufacture, and you don't need that to go a mile or two. The Bird e-scooter is a much lighter way of getting around, with much lower upfront emissions. Some have complained that on a lifecycle basis it's a lot worse than it appears; the first Bird scooters were off-the-shelf models that didn't have a very long lifecycle, but the new Bird 2 scooters are projected to last 12 to 18 months. They also have much bigger wheels, which will be much nicer on Lisbon tiles. I also noted the complaint that a lot of energy is being used picking up e-scooters for recharging, but where the old ones needed charging every day, the Bird 2 can go up to 4 days between charges, requiring a lot fewer pickups.

Take back the streets!

Seen in Paris: People of all ages using e-scooters

Seen in Paris: People of all ages using e-scooters/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

One of the most important issues we discussed was how to make our cities safer for all forms of micro-mobility, be it bikes, scooters or mobility aids. Hanson says 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. And it is such an opportunity; Hanson notes that in New York City outer boroughs alone, an additional 1.5 million people could be brought into the "transit shed" with a seven-minute ride on an e-scooter.

The technology is also evolving to help teach scooter riders better habits, from the geofenced parking I saw in Lisbon to the required photo of the parked bike that I had to do in Marseille. As the "don't be a litterbug" campaign demonstrated decades ago, people can be taught.

Hanson says we have to rethink our streetspace and reclaim our streets: "We need safe, protected connected spaces for people to take more sustainable modes."

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

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

But unfortunately, it is so hard to do all of this because of what she calls the "asymmetry" of power, what I have called the windshield view, where 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.

In another interview on Streetsblog (I take terrible notes), Hanson describes the reason for this asymmetry.

Scooters are not dangerous. Our streets are dangerous. The fact that we’ve built our streets just for cars, and only to prioritize car movement above all else – is really what the challenge is.

As Carlton Reid has pointed out, our roads were actually not built for cars. "It was cyclists, and not motorists, who first pushed for high-quality, dust-free road surfaces." They were built for everyone, for all kinds of uses, from pushcarts to pedestrians. They can be changed again, and they should make room for other uses, because we can't just wait for electric cars. As Hanson notes in Streetsblog:

Sometimes when you hear these projections for the future of electric vehicles – and you think about all of the infrastructure investment and all the additional electricity capacity – it’s just like: we don’t have time guys. People love scooters – and they’re a solution available today. This is working really well and it’ll work even better if we can speed up the implementation of infrastructure. What we know about climate change – and about the pace of action – is we need radical solutions and we need them now. We need a fundamental paradigm shift. The same kind of thinking that’s gotten us into this mess is not going to get us out.

We need that paradigm shift, that micromobility and sharing revolution that can provide real alternatives to hopping into a car. After talking to Melinda Hanson, I am pretty sure Bird will be part of it for quite a while.