Over the past two years or so, new mobility options have popped up on city sidewalks around the world. Bike docks have replaced street parking, scooters are accompanying street lights on every corner, and now electric mopeds are creeping their way into the mobility race. Although these new forms of transportation are on sidewalks everywhere, cities are still a little cautious about letting them stay.
To better understand the impact of these new choices, local governments are implementing pilot programs by issuing permits in order for companies to operate. Not only do these permits allow for residents to enjoy new forms of mobility, they give governments the opportunity to host controlled tests. These tests can provide insightful data, but does the duration of the tests hinder the growth of these programs? In order to keep up with innovation, cities will have to move quickly to meet the growing transportation demands of their residents.
A brief history of pilot programs
Although the micromobility buzz seems to have only started recently with the rise of scooters, pilot programs have been in the United States since 2008. After the growing popularity in Europe, Washington, DC, introduced a docked bikeshare program to see the impact new mobility options could have on the city. Since then, cities around the country have implemented bikeshare programs in order to reduce traffic and lessen their environmental impact.
With more than 100 bikeshare programs across the country, new mobility options are starting to follow in their footsteps – most notably, electric scooters. These new two-wheeled vehicles have created a lot of chatter, both positive and negative.
A Lime, Skip, and a Jump
When scooters first hit the streets, it was as if they showed up overnight. One day they didn’t exist, and the next day they populated city streets everywhere. Although these guerrilla launch tactics created a lot of buzz and excitement, local governments were caught off-guard, to say the least.
Now suspended between the arguments of positive environmental impacts, increased sidewalk clutter, and every point in between, scooter companies - if nothing else - have certainly created publicity for themselves. In order to please everyone, city governments are doing everything they can to settle the dust.
As a natural reflex, cities started halting the operation of electric scooters – not necessarily out of dislike, but rather precaution. In an effort to fully understand the safety, traffic, and social effects, local jurisdictions have started implementing pilot programs in which they can control vehicle numbers, hours of operation, and zoning.
Even some of the most tech-savvy cities, like Seattle and San Francisco, are among the majority of cities taking their time to test out the potential of electric scooters.
- San Francisco: In 2018, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) awarded two permits under the Powered Scooter Share Permit and Pilot Program - allowing the companies Scoot and Skip to operate in the city. The results? SFMTA has awarded permanent operating permits to four new companies – Jump, Lime, Spin, and Scoot. Not only will the number of operators double, but the total number of vehicles will double as well.
- Seattle: One of the first cities to have scooters. When it launched its dockless bikeshare pilot in 2017, Seattle set strict standards for companies looking to operate on its streets. The results? Ridership reached nearly a half of a million rides in the first six months – blowing by Seattle’s docked bike program’s total ridership. To expand the presence of dockless mobility options, the city recently began establishing the goals, scope and scale of their scooter pilot program. The city is working to award the permits by the end of the year, with the aim of launching the program in early 2020. This program will not only add more mobility options to the city, but will improve an already impressive drive-alone rate among commuters – now lower than 45 percent.
What’s down the road
Although these alternative mobility options have faced criticism from our car-centric society, they have the potential to make a significant impact on traffic issues plaguing city centers around the world. Micromobility options have the potential to replace up to 60 percent of car trips that are less than five miles, according to a recent study. That means less traffic, less pollution from cars, and all around happier commuters and city residents.
Not only can micromobility change the way people get around, it can change the way cities are planning streets and how they use their curb space. Minneapolis is combining all forms of mobility with their new mobility hubs, placing bus stops, bikesharing hubs, and scooter parking all on the same corner. They are starting this program with a pilot at four of the city’s busiest intersections. The goal of these hubs is to make the first- and last-mile of commutes easier by bridging the gap between public transit and a commuter’s home – by way of micromobility. These hubs will also solve the problem of sidewalk clutter, a hot topic associated with dockless mobility options.
End of the line
Although pilot programs allow cities to monitor the impacts of new forms of mobility, there’s always the possibility of ceding too much ground to NIMBYs who don’t like looking at scooters on their streets. A main point of concern around scooters and bikes is the notion of “safety,” and that argument is the basis of pilot programs. This normally leads to lowering the speed of scooters, like the 10 MPH limit in DC. But if riders can’t keep up with the flow of traffic, it poses a safety risk for scooter riders, bikers, and drivers alike. Instead of lowering the speed of scooters, lower the speed of cars.
The goal of all city initiatives is to improve the safety of its residents, but it’s important for local governments to keep up with the pace of technology – because scooters and bikes are serious fixes for traffic woes in both suburban and urban environments. We’re excited to hear about these new programs (like closing 14th Street in New York City to cars), and hopefully momentum will continue to lower the overall number of cars in cities.