Not Just For Fun: The Role Of E-Scooters In Urban Planning

When Mike Sewell, a civil engineer with Gresham Smith, designed the urban bike network along Sixth Street in 2015, he wanted to connect downtown to more residential areas and encourage more people to bicycle on their commute. As a bike commuter, he said he considered himself “a purist” when Bird scooters first showed up in Louisville in August 2018.

Bike lanes, as their name denoted, should be for bikes, he thought.

Not anymore.

Sewell warmed to the idea of scooters as a form of green mobility after realizing that not everyone can take up the sometimes-sweaty endeavor of cycling to work in a suit.

“For people who are completely car-dependent, it’s a good tweak in the right direction for opening their eyes,” he said.

Since the first electric scooters arrived in Louisville in August 2018, people have taken more than 400,000 rides on Birds and Limes and now Spins, Jumps, HOPRs, Lyfts and Bolts. As tourists and residents alike continue to use them recreationally, cities such as Louisville are also considering how e-scooters could take cars off the road and make public transportation more attractive. At the same time, some urban planners and urbanists wonder if the scooter start-ups really offer a new way to commute or if they are anything more than the latest tech craze.

And, at a time of increased pressure to address climate change, questions are arising about whether these seemingly eco-friendly vehicles are really all that green. On top of that, city officials and planners have to keep public safety on their minds.

Porter Stevens, urban planner and LEO contributor, said he sees great promise in them as urban planning tools. “I hope that appropriate regulation can catch up,” he said, “and they can become another piece of the transportation network for the city.”

A New Way to Commute?

As an avid cyclist, Sewell hasn’t switched over to a scooter commute, and likely won’t. Still, he is far more excited about pedaling past a Bird or a Lime on his daily ride than he was last year. He even thinks bike lanes should be renamed — “light vehicle lanes.” And, yes, that includes scooters but also any other under-15 mph, micro-mobility option that’s yet to hit it big.

“Just like we want to share the space with cars, we should be open to sharing our space with other similar type vehicles,” he said.

Sewell said he believes that, despite the general impressions of e-scooters being used largely for recreation, people really are using them to commute. Observing the data, which he receives as a collaborator with Metro Louisville, a slightly more location-specific version of what Louisville publishes in the open data portal, he noticed that e-scooters are a popular way for West End residents to commute into the Central Business District. 

The numbers seem to bear that out.

The median distance of all scooter trips between August 2018 and July 2019 was .66 miles and the average was 1.19 miles, according to city data.

But can electric scooters really draw people out of their personal vehicles?

Stevens thinks they have the potential to do so, but getting there might not be easy. “The same barriers that face the people who commute by bicycle face scooters as well because so many of Louisville’s streets are completely designed to favor cars over any other type of transportation mode.”

Not all urban planners believe these rides will cut down car use and become a tool for future city design.

Matthew Ruther, assistant professor of urban affairs at the UofL, questioned if the two-wheeled transports are being used as way to commute, or just as a fun pastime for residents and particularly, tourists.

“My personal opinion is that they are a fad,” he said.

He suspects that, in Louisville, many of the rides may have just been alternatives to walking, based on the short distances accumulated in Louisville data.

That was the case for Jeff, who did not want to give his full last name.

Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

Tales of the city

Jeff was visiting from Philadelphia and in town for business meetings. After indulging in a hot brown and walking 20 minutes, he wanted to experience more Louisville landmarks; a Bolt scooter was the answer.

“When you’re new to an area, you really get to take in the sights at your own pace, it’s fun, it’s exciting, and when it’s hot, you get a nice breeze going,” he said.

He was still relying on a rental car to get around Louisville, and the scooter was just for recreation.

Patrick Carrico, a Highlands resident, was working downtown when he looked at his watch and realized he was late for a doctor’s appointment. His doctor’s office, located about three blocks away, typically would have been walkable, but on a time crunch, the Bird e-scooter sitting conveniently in front of his office seemed like an easy solution. “I opened up the app, scanned the barcode and soon, through a couple of green lights, I stopped in front of the doctor’s office right on time,” he said.

Ruther said that, thinking about how the city’s first-ring suburbs connect to downtown, Louisville is less dense than many places. “I would suspect that individuals here would have more trouble getting some places.”

THE LAST MILE

Beyond city center commutes, the short average distances also position e-scooters to be a solution to a core issue for urban planners: the last mile problem.

The last mile refers to that final stretch of a commute from a transportation center such as a bus stop to the final destination.

“It’s definitely a problem in Louisville,” said Jeff O’Brien, director of Develop Louisville, a future-focused metro department connected to the Office of Advanced Planning. “We look at our bus routes, a lot of times they end in parts of the community where we don’t have a good sidewalk network.” He thought e-scooters and other micromobility options could bridge that gap.

Similarly, Sewell said that, based on the location data he sees, people are hitching e-scooter rides to get to popular TARC transfer stations. Unfortunately, scooter riders can’t carry e-scooters onto buses, but TARC’s app follows a platform where users can plan their route connecting bus lines with electric scooters as well as Uber/Lyft and LouVelo bikeshare.

City plans

Scooters conveniently fit into a multimodal transportation plan the Office of Advanced Planning developed in 2016: Move Louisville.

The ambitious transit plan considered how bikes in collaboration with expanded public transit could shift how frequently Louisvillians use cars. According to its research, 82% of Louisville commuters drive to work alone.

The 2016 document was published in the early days of shared scooters, when Bird was probably still pitching to venture capital firms, but, according to O’Brien, electric scooters fit perfectly alongside the goals they set out for the LouVelo bikeshare program.

“We didn’t anticipate that e-scooters were going to show up on our street, but we have a goal that says embrace smart mobility, and we knew that the sharing economy was growing,” he said. Even if urban planners question the readiness of Louisville’s roadways to handle e-scooters, Louisville has been establishing the framework to invite more scooter companies.

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In July, the city dockless vehicle policy was revised to allow for eight operators at a time rather than four and to lower the standards for companies to increase and decrease the sizes of their fleets.

A probationary license allows a company to have up to 650 vehicles; whereas a full operational license allows up to 1,050. Louisville regulations prohibit start-ups from sizing up their scooter armies too fast. A company can only add 100 new scooters to its fleet per month in its probationary period and 200 with a full license, and that’s if it is already averaging three rides per day per vehicle. If it drops below an average of two rides per day, Metro will determine how many vehicles it has to remove.

Cut brake cables and other vandalism to electric scooters belie that fact that Louisvillians have taken more than 400,000 rides since August 2018.

SCOOTER BACKLASH

Not everyone likes these e-vehicles.

LEO reported Nov. 20 that vandalism of e-scooters has been occurring, including the cutting of brake lines. One was thrown into the Ohio River.

Scooter vandalism isn’t uncommon. When they first launched in Los Angeles, annoyed citizens chucked them into the ocean, set them on fire or hung bags of dog poop on their handles. One Instagram, @birdgraveyard, is dedicated to showing all the ways e-scooters have met their match.

Some frustrations are due to the almost constant presence of them on city sidewalks, either zooming past pedestrians or parked.

“It’s a little strange to me that you have private companies that are almost co-opting public space,” Ruther said. He has seen them parked in the middle of sidewalks and even blocking disability ramps.

Carrico, the rider who took a bird to his doctor’s office, uses scooters sparingly, partly because he doesn’t feel entirely safe traveling longer distances on them. He agreed that riders should wear helmets, but said it’s unrealistic to expect them to always have one on hand. He also found them difficult to navigate in areas without bike lanes. “They’re not safe on sidewalks, but I feel exposed on the roadway,” he said.

Some urban planners think developing infrastructure to safely accommodate e-scooters on Louisville streets could encourage more people to use them to get around, but for now, safety still seems to be the biggest scooters‘ biggest source of controversy.

“We can have all the kind of vehicle options for people to use in the world, but if they don’t feel safe using them on streets, then they probably won’t move the needle that much,” Stevens said.

In August, Louisville set speed restrictions and no-ride and no-parking zones in some areas. With geofencing technology, e-scooters automatically slow to 10 mph in the Central Business District, Waterfront Park, UofL, the KFC Yum Center pavilion and the Mid City Mall. They stop working entirely near the Kentucky School for the Blind and American Printing House for the Blind, the downtown skatepark and the Kentucky Exposition Center, which also are no parking zones. The Big Four Bridge is intended to be a no-ride zone, but e-scooter companies have managed to only slow them in that area, a city official said.

At the request of Councilman Brandon Coan, the city is working on addressing the issue of e-scooter parking with a pilot parking program in The Highlands. Metro government has identified nine spots where riders normally leave their e-scooters and where the city could paint parking zones onto public rights of way away from the road.

The city now bans e-scooter use from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., because most accidents in other cities that Louisville researched occurred after dark. (So far, no one has died while riding an e-scooter in Louisville, although it has happened in other areas, including Lexington, Kentucky). Metro government may move up the nighttime ban to an earlier time as the sun begins to set earlier.

To operate in Louisville, there’s a price tag. According to the city’s dockless vehicle policy, the probationary license costs $2,000, and a full-operating license is another $1,000. Then, the start-ups must pay $50 a year and $1 per day for each used, deployed scooter. Group parking zones cost $100 per area, and on top of that companies must pay $10,000 for a performance bond. The policy says these funds support the expansion of the city’s shared mobility infrastructure.

As Green as they Seem?

What has often been touted as the biggest selling point of e-scooters is its sustainability. But some studies indicate that, while greener than cars, they may not be the most sustainable option.

First, Alison Griswold, a reporter for Quartz on the sharing economy, crunched Louisville numbers on Bird scooters using their vehicle ID — a feature that has since been removed from Louisville’s open data portal. What she found was the scooters had an average lifespan of 28.8 days on city streets. A Bird representative suggested that the scooters may have been moved away from Louisville but did not elaborate as to where.

Louisville data officer, Michael Schnuerle didn’t think the Quartz analysis painted an accurate picture. He said the vehicle ID is an unreliable data point because it isn’t consistently tied to one scooter. Still, he wasn’t exactly sure how scooter companies assign vehicle IDs.

With a range of about 25 miles, these scooters also have to regularly be charged, and getting them to the private garages turned charging hubs adds to their lifetime emissions. Typically, gas-powered vehicles are picking them up: commuting to collect the scooters, returning home and setting them back up in a specific location by 7 a.m.

A study from North Carolina State University found that the driving distances for picking up scooters can impact their life cycle CO2 emissions by 27% positively or negatively, depending on how far – or short – cars travel to retrieve them. In addition to considering the charging infrastructure, NCSU researchers also factored in emissions from building and shipping the scooters from China. The study suggested that every mile a passenger rides on a scooter emits an average of 202 grams of CO2, 43% of that impact coming from collection and distribution. The Raleigh-based researchers said that’s about half of what cars emit but significantly more than biking and walking.

Russell Murphy, communications manager for Lime thought it was still too soon for studies to effectively weigh the sustainability of scooters “This is a very young industry and rapidly changing,” he said. “We’re moving in a direction that not only makes our scooters more sustainable, but we’re working with cities so there’s more uptick on micromobility replacing car trips.”

According to Lime data, one out of three scooter trips replaces a car trip. Additionally, Lime and Bird each invest in renewable energy to offset emissions associated with their fleet, including pick-up.

Bike it

Micromobility advocates also point out that scooters represent only one type of shared car-alternatives. Historically, the most popular programs have been docked biking systems. 36.5 million rides were taken on U.S. station-based bikes in 2018 according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, or NACTO. Louisville’s LouVelo was introduced in 2017, but its scope is limited to around downtown and UofL’s campus.

NACTO also reported that while docked bikeshares had been the stalwarts of the shared transport economy, dockless electric scooters have surpassed station-based bikeshares, with 38.5 million trips in 2018.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of exercise. Sharon Barrett who was visiting Louisville from Murfreesboro, Tennessee said she didn’t want to take a scooter because its electric boost meant putting in less physical effort. “We rent bikes wherever we go … It’s a good way to see the city,” she said.

Scooters for the people

While in some cities, e-scooters have gotten a reputation as the preferred transit of the tech-bro crowd, most companies have established accessibility programs to appeal to people with limited transportation options. Available for anyone who qualifies for government assistance programs, One Bird, Lime Access and Bolt Forward cut scooter rental prices in half and establish locations where users can pay with cash rather than a card and use phones that aren’t smartphones.

“This technology and transportation is something everyone should have access to,” Phil Jones, senior director of government relations for Lime, said. “The more we break down these barriers for everyone to use micromobility, the better off our cities will be, the better off our community will be, the better off our citizens will be.”

Louisville data officer Schnuerle commended the companies’ accessibility programs, but noted that the current placement of the scooters could be more diverse. He said that there is a high usage in West Louisville, and that there could be even higher numbers if scooters were consistently deployed in those areas.

Louisville’s dockless vehicle policy does mandate that a minimum number of scooters must be placed in certain areas, but only when companies’ fleets number at least 250.

“There’s kind of a bias because the companies are placing them right now where they believe the most activity would occur.”

Still, Schnuerle doesn’t think electric scooters, whether shared or personally owned, will go away, and cities will have to keep up.

“People are looking for alternatives to cars. They’re looking for some way to get around where they don’t have to pay for a car, gas and insurance and parking,” he said. “For me, I would think it’s important for the safety of riders to have an infrastructure in place.” •

Staff Writer Danielle Grady contributed to this story.

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