In the decades since the first cars, cities have bent over backwards to accommodate more and more vehicles, larger cars and an expanding suite of services for their personal use. The taxpayer-funded infrastructure costs have been massive, and the climate impact even worse. The social cost — cities run by, and designed around, personal cars — is felt in everything from how people get to work to where to get a cup of coffee.
The last truly fundamental change to our cities’ infrastructure may have been when the horse and buggy were displaced by these cars. Now, a new, much more nimble mode of transportation is hitting city streets and has the potential to reverse much of the negative impacts and decisions made over the past several decades. It comes in the form of a 38-pound electric scooter.
These clean, electric-powered scooters are now available in cities from San Diego to Washington, D.C. Each scooter is GPS-equipped so users can easily find, unlock and pay for it with a smartphone. They are being ridden to bus stops and bakeries and everywhere in between, serving as a new form of first and last mile transportation in communities across the country. Though they are only in limited availability to date, there’s reason to think electric scooters could have a transformative impact on the future of urban transportation — and our lives in cities.
A handful of numbers (some fractions and percents, as well) help explain how they are helping solve the biggest transportation issues faced in cities — congestion, carbon and equity.
Sixty percent of trips people take in vehicles are under 1 mile. Forty percent of trips are under 2 miles. And yet our cities have been built around making those trips by personal automobile. Take a look at the travel time on Google or Waze the next time you have a mile-long trip downtown, comparing a car trip to a bike trip. It’s pretty safe to say that nine times out of 10 the bike (or now scooter) will be faster than hopping in a car. That doesn’t include the time, hassle or cost of finding parking, either.
In cities like San Francisco, there’s reportedly a car for every four people, and yet the availability of just a fraction of electric scooters or bikes, say one for every 100 people, would have a transformative impact on mobility and the ease of getting around. It would also give more people the ability to take more affordable and efficient mass transit.
Congestion costs U.S. cities, and the people who live in them, over $305 billion a year. This includes time wasted in traffic, the cost of moving goods around the city, and the fuel cost spent idling bumper to bumper. When you look at cities with some of the worst congestion, this gridlock costs each driver in Los Angeles $2,828, $2,982 in New York and $2,250 in San Francisco each year. As more vehicles flood the streets, this congestion is getting worse, and research by the University of California, Davis, has recently found ride sharing has only exacerbated the problem.
After President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, more than 350 U.S. cities have made their own climate commitments. These communities, now on the hook for addressing the most pressing issue of our time, are simultaneously facing cash-strapped budgets. Given the relative efficiency of moving 38 pounds with electricity over moving several tons by burning gasoline (the average car emits 6 tons of carbon a year), electric scooters offer a near-zero climate impact. As the electric grid continues to green with more wind, solar and hydro power, the electrification of our transportation fleet will only further reduce their carbon impact.
Equality of transportation has vexed cities. Public transportation deserts leave certain communities inaccessible, and the gentrification of neighborhoods push lower-income communities further out. With limited resources for public transportation investments, new mobility modes are needed.
At the same time, traditional bike sharing has long struggled to make an impact on the needs of those with lower incomes. A recent report from Seattle, one of the dockless mobility capitals of the country, actually found more than 75 percent of riders used bikes to access public transportation. One in every three Seattleites has tried bike share, including 36 percent Hispanic and African-American, 32 percent Asian and 32 percent white residents. Further, a recent study by Virginia Tech shows dockless mobility is directly expanding the equity of shared transportation.
There are no silver bullets to solve transportation issues that are deeply rooted in generations of planning decisions, public and private investment, and ingrained in the social fabric of a culture. But there will be silver buckshot: solutions that might over time get us from here to there in a cleaner, more fun and faster way, returning our streets to people over cars.
With private companies now stepping up to the plate to help solve this issue with no taxpayer-funded capital costs required, enterprising cities will develop frameworks for this new paradigm. We’re seeing the seedlings of this transformation starting in cities now.
Andrew Savage is vice president of strategic development and a founding team member of Lime.
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