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Scooters are so efficient we should fix them, not ban them

Scooters from Lime and Bird have been causing a stir as they move quickly into cities. There's been blowback, because riders travel recklessly, often on sidewalks, and they also leave scooters just lying on the sidewalk, blocking things, because as dockless scooters you can drop them anywhere. Riders are also getting hurt, these are not the safest things to ride.

So cities are striking back, trying to stop, regulate or collect money from these scooter operators.

We can understand why, but cities should be very cautious in how they do this. Because these scooters are absolutely amazing when it comes to three of the big transportation problems -- emissions, congestion and parking.

Scooters are amazingly efficient

Let's start with emissions. These electric scooters use from 16 to 20 watt-hours per mile. That's astoundingly good. That's mind-bogglingly good. To give you some numbers in comparison for other electric vehicles:

Chart of watt-hours used per passenger mile for various transport modes

Where do these disturbingly poor numbers for the transit systems come? In most cases from American Public Transportation Association Fact Book -- a transit boosting group.

If the numbers surprise you it may be because you have run into numbers that worked from a poor assumption.

The efficiency of a transportation system is not based on how many empty seats it moves. It is based on how many full seats it moves.

This number is called the load factor. For the scooters, the load factor is extremely high. For a pure docked scooter it's 100%, but it's never really that high because all scooter and bike systems need some repositioning to match travel patterns.

Earlier, I examined the energy used by moving and charging dockless scooters with cars. None of the companies was willing to comment on this topic, so I have to make rough guesses, and suspect that the recharge moves use 1 to 2 times as much energy as the people riding the scooters does. That seems terrible, until you realize these scooters only use 18 watt-hours/mile, and even tripled, they are vastly better than things like the New York MTA subway which uses 175 wh/p-mile, or the average US light rail train which uses 370. Even at 50 wh/mile the scooter is more than 7 times better than the light rail.

(As a note of explanation, I have also put 3 liquid fuel modes on the chart. It's hard to compare gasoline and diesel with electric vehicles, because the electricity is different in every city. However, one rough way is to consider that 1kwh of electricity, in the USA, on average, produces 744g CO2, and a gallon of gasoline produces 8,887g CO2. 1 gallon diesel makes 10kg CO2. This makes a gallon of gas the same as 12kwh and a gallon of diesel the same as 13.5kwh. In reality, the gasoline and diesel have other emissions, as do the electricity, and the electricity varies from city to city.)

There are other matters to consider. The energy to produce the scooters is trivial compared to all the other vehicles. A typical train car has 500lbs of metal per passenger, a passenger car has more.

Scooters blocking the sidewalk

The first complaint to come forward is scooters blocking the sidewalk. People just leave them anywhere, haphazardly, sometimes blocking or even littering the sidewalk. I think scooter companies could take some steps to stop this, because I believe they all contain accelerometer sensors which can track the orientation of the scooter as well as when it is moved.

To do this, they can insist the scooter be stored in a certain orientation. They could insist the scooter be folded or be vertically leaning against something. Or if flat on the ground, they could insist they have their kickstand deployed and are upright.

But the simplest thing is to let other members of the public enforce good docking of the scooter. Allow any member of the public who sees a scooter improperly stored to photograph it and its serial number and file a report. This could be matched against the person who last rented the scooter, unless other sensors indicate the scooter was moved 30 or more seconds after the user clocked-out of their rental.

Riders with multiple complaints could get penalties. This would get people doing a better job parking them. It is possible some people might deliberately try to move scooters right after seeing them parked for the lulz, but I don't think that will be a giant problem and this would have geographic patterns.

Scooters driving on the sidewalk

Scooters also take less space on the road -- that is to say, when they are on the road. One of the factors causing cities to hate them is that people love to take them on the sidewalk. They don't feel safe on the road, of course, and even on the road they are resented, as bicycles are, because they go slowly and take up a lane if there isn't a bike lane dedicated to them. Cities should be encouraging bike/scooter lanes and even consider taking space from cars in places where demand is high.

It's a bit harder to have software tell if a scooter is on the sidewalk. It is probably possible to make neural network software that can look out cameras and tell if a scooter is on the sidewalk or the road, but today's scooters don't have any hardware like this and it also requires power. In a few years time, 5G networks may offer precise location information that could be used for both controlling where scooters drive and where they park.

On the other hand, we do have to be careful about limiting rental scooters much more than we limit privately owned scooters; if we make them too unequal, the rentals may not be able to compete.

Enforcement could also be done by the public, who would photograph scooters driving on sidewalks with GPS log and time included. Even if no serial number were visible, the company has a log of where each scooter was at the given time and who was riding it, and often that will point to a unique rider -- and of course there will be a photo. After multiple complaints the rider would get notified that too many complaints are coming in, and after too many strikes they would get fined.

It should be noted that it is desirable that scooters are able to ride on sidewalks some of the time -- for the start and end of their ride, and at low speeds for certain short distances when it's too dangerous to use the road.

Are scooters replacing car trips?

There is a reasonable argument that scooters are mostly replacing walking, transit and taxi trips rather than private car trips. They tend to be used for trips of just a few miles or less, and in areas where parking is problematic enough to already discourage short car travel. Trips under a mile may involve replacing walking. Scooters are a big win over Uber/Taxi trips because they don't have the high minimum fare and often will go much faster through congested areas. When they do replace car trips, they are replacing not just the wasted energy, but congestion and demand for parking.

One valuable scooter use for car users is to avoid having to move a car. When a driver has a 2 (or more) stop trip in a downtown area, they can elect to move their car between the stops (at a high parking price) or try to walk/transit/Uber round trip between the stops. This is often impractical and the scooter can save a lot of hassle and parking money.

When scooters take people off transit, it can be argued they are not so wonderfully efficient, because filling an empty seat on transit is still usually very efficient even if the overall transit line is not efficient. Transit tends to do poorly at short trips, where factors like travel to stops, waiting at stops and doing transfers dwarf the actual travel time. The "near door to door" nature of dockless scooters is a big win.

Indeed, there is evidence scooters are also enabling longer haul transit by providing quick and cheap transport to stations from people who are too far away from them. Of course, privately owned scooters have done this for some time.

Scooters have other problems of course -- they are not good in bad weather, and they are not good for those with mobility problems. And riding them is not nearly as safe as riding in vehicles.

Time to experiment

Overall, the net energy win of the scooters, for all their problems, seems too large to overlook. While problems are arising and will arise, it seems that cities should try to embrace the scooters and fix the problems rather than clamp down on them. Cities should be challenging the companies to come up with good solutions to problems, and looking to new generations of scooters to provide real answers to future mobility questions.

Comments

In Tokyo (and other Japanese cities), it's common for bicycles to ride on sidewalks ... bicyclists dismount when the sidewalk is crowded and pedestrians move out of the way of bicyclists ring their bell (for a humorous look at this: https://youtu.be/k7oGk-ozhKI?t=25 ). The local police also ride their bicycles on sidewalks. If bicycles can coexist with pedestrians on sidewalks, scooters (which are smaller) can also.

But I don't know if this would work outside Japan because (a) North American and Europe pedestrians tend to spread out to occupy all available space whereas Japanese tend to clump; and (b) NorthAmericans/Europeans tend to assert their rights ("I'm walking here!").

Apparently the Tokyo bikes-on-sidewalks situation arose decades ago as a temporary solution while waiting for bike lanes to be added to roads ... the bike lanes mostly haven't been added, so people continue to ride on the sidewalks. Also, in Tokyo, many roads are barely more than a lane wide, and are a mixture of pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars; so cars are used to going slowly and everyone is used to dealing with the mix of peds/bikes/cars. And the liability laws default to cars being at fault or, in a bike-pedestrian collision, the bike by default is at fault.

Thanks, this is a great post. I have gotten annoyed at scooters in the past, but I don't think they should be banned either.

I see an incentives issue in the enforcement mechanism that you suggest, though. In essence, you are putting the burden of catching offenders on ordinary pedestrians (who don't use the service). This doesn't seem fair: scooter rental companies are already profiting from a shared resource for free; it shouldn't be my job to track their users and tell me when I'm not happy.

Instead, I would favor small fines for the owner of improperly parked scooters. These can be handed out just like regular parking tickets. Just like car rentals, companies can then pass the tickets on to the offending users, train their users to litter less, and whatever other measure they want. Otherwise, there's no direct incentive for scooter rental companies to try to fix the issue beyond playing nice and good pr.

I would also like to see an assessment of ecological impact that takes into account manufacturing and retirement of old scooters. The current situation in China with bankrupt rental bike companies is sad (pictures at https://next.liberation.fr/arts/2018/12/12/vol-au-dessus-des-necropoles-de-velos-chinois_1697273 ; basically many companies invested at the same time, many folded, and the bikes are left for cities to clean up and dispose of).

Well, if you want small fines, somebody has to apply them. Towns don't really want to send out enforcement agents. Thus the idea of having those who are pissed at the scooters report them -- and possibly even get something for valid reports, though the thing they would get may not appeal to them -- scooter credit!

There is the issue that enemies of the scooters could deliberately move them to places where they get a ticket. However, the scooter company would have lots showing somebody did this (not the last renter of the scooter) which might make it a waste of time to try to push such tickets.

I think that a better solution is to tell the companies, "Just do whatever you think is most effective to get people to dock these according to some reasonable rules" and let them figure it out. Of course, there has to be something to scare them, and that means the same problem.

I think one good option is for the scooter to have a docked mode, with a kickstand that goes out, or a particular orientation, and you can't log out of the scooter without putting it in that mode. And in a suitable place.

Any way to interact with some existing infrastructure? Like, make scooters that dock when folded and clipped onto the side of a parking meter, telephone pole, lamppost, or some other common item? Only when the scooter is convinced that it's out of people's way does it stop charging the user for rental time.

It's a reasonable idea, but would of course require the cooperation of the people who manage that infrastructure. Who I am sure would have been difficult to get cooperation from when the scooters were new. It made much more sense for the companies to deploy the scooters and learn what happens. Now that it has been learned, it might well be easier to get the cities to work together with the vendors on approaches like that.

Another option might be small bluetooth low energy beacons designating parking locations. But to be "dockless" these have to be almost everywhere, which is not a minor thing (especially getting power to them even if that's just changing batteries once a year.) GPS can be fairly inaccurate so it may be hard to define parking zones with it except in a very broad way.

I crashed my Bird in Nashville when I didn't see a pothole in time. Knocked out 4 teeth and had 10 stitches in my upper lip. A lawyer who happened by and took me to the hospital asked the city if the pothole had been reported to them but since it hadn't he said I would have no case. This was in the bike lane at the end of a bridge and a Google maps view from late 2017 clearly shows the same pothole. I take full responsibility for being on the scooter just after sunset and not wearing any extra protection and agree they are a great way to get around, but shouldn't there be some degree of responsibility for the cities to make sure the routes are safe?

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