Since fleets of electric scooters and dockless bikes entered U.S. cities in 2017, the industry has grown exponentially. Despite a coronavirus pandemic-induced slowdown, the devices are available in about 150 jurisdictions. They have become part of a growing ecosystem of shared transportation that also includes subsidized bike-share services.
Benjie de la Peña, an urban planner who leads the Chicago-based nonprofit Shared-Use Mobility Center, which promotes shifting an auto-centric transportation system to one that provides more shared options, said he expects the young industry will continue to evolve. He said new innovations, including technology that could curb improper parking and bad riding behavior, are imminent. So are expansions into new markets.
The former chief of strategy and innovation at the Seattle Department of Transportation said bike-share and e-scooter companies are hoping to capitalize on desires for social distancing, avoiding a return to traffic-choked commutes and a renewed focus to address climate change.
De la Peña spoke to The Washington Post about the current state and future of shared scooters and bikes. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: People are talking more about “shared mobility” options. Are those options here to stay?
A: Shared mobility is about shared journeys. Public transportation is shared mobility. Scooters and e-bikes are shared mobility. [Peer-to-peer] car-sharing is shared mobility. All of those shared modes allow us to live and work in our cities without ever having to own a car, or at least having to own two cars. These systems are needed in terms of congestion reduction, and [to address] climate change. And also for equity.
We have a lot of short trips, under a mile, and those can be taken through micromobility, whether it’s your personally owned e-bike or e-scooter or through a shared system. We don’t have to be driving around in a two-ton, gas-guzzling car to get to a particular place that we need to get to. And what the pandemic did, it showed people that there were options.
Q: So the pandemic helped highlight the value of these services?
A: Two things happened: There was use and an impetus to build out safe streets to be able to carry this kind of shared micromobility.
Those who could work from home, worked from home. But a huge segment of the population who were first responders needed to be in hospitals … and a whole bunch of other people — essential workers — we needed them in the grocery stores, and there was no way to get there. There was no public transportation. If you had no other way to get around, the availability of shared bikes and scooters was really important. If you didn’t want to [travel] in an enclosed space on a short enough trip, there were bike-share [services]. We weren’t allowed to gather in places with other people, so there was also a lot of using shared mobility for leisure or short rides to stores.
Q: Micromobility was also hit hard by the pandemic. A recent report by the North American Bikeshare and Scootershare Association found that in 2020, there were about 22 percent fewer scooter and bike-share services than in 2019. What does that tell us about how the industry fared the health crisis?
A: Shared micromobility rebounded faster than public transportation. The 22 percent was a combination of restrictions from government and a drop in use. There were at least 75 cities that required the operators to cease operations. And before the end of 2020, a lot of them had allowed the e-bikes and e-scooters back on the road.
Q: The systems have grown in popularity but they have not been without controversy. People have raised concerns about users riding on sidewalks and not parking scooters and bikes properly. Are those tensions easing up now that more people use them?
A: If you look at the ridership, certainly there’s a demand for it. But cities are still trying to figure out how to manage these services. There are valid complaints about sidewalk obstructions from scooters, and particularly for people in wheelchairs. And there are solutions to it. [In some cities] we have complaint lines for people to call if there is a bike or a scooter blocking their way. That is helpful, but [the response] isn’t always immediate. So you have to ask, is this something that the city could provide a response much more rapidly and then charge the companies for it?
The idea of docks are really coming back into play. We also need them as charging stations. But that side of the infrastructure is still getting built out. Tortoise, which is a tech company, has robotics that allow these scooters to ride themselves and dock themselves.
Q: Speaking of scooters that self-park, what other innovations do you see in the future of the industry?
A: Drover AI has technology, which Spin is already testing, that basically tells the rider to stay off the sidewalk or in the bike lane, depending on what the rules are. There’s new technology that gives an e-bike rider advance notice of possible crashes or collisions. It’s like the advanced driver assistance technology in cars, but for micromobility.
The other thing that’s coming through — not so much in the U.S. yet, but it’s growing rapidly around the world — are swappable batteries. So you’re running out of power? You don’t have to plug it in. You just go to a kiosk and swap out the battery. It is going to be even more convenient to be able to use these electrified vehicles. We are big on [a future] with mobility hubs — a physical space where you have multiple shared mobility options available. So you get off the bus and there’s your e-bike or your scooter or there’s car-sharing you could rent.
Q: Climate and equity in transportation is getting a lot of attention. How do these systems play a role in addressing both?
A: We know that, particularly in North America, very auto-centric transportation systems contribute a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve built out the infrastructure for this, and it’s not equitable. It was built on racist systems of redlining and running highways through communities of color. And it also is terrible for our communities because it takes up so much of our valuable space.
Right now, more than 90 percent of our households have to own a car or use a car. The climate and carbon costs are there. If you take one less car trip and you use an e-bike instead, for sure your carbon generation is significantly reduced.
In addressing equity issues, what cities have started to do is to require that these systems show up in particular places or require some sort of subsidy for particular riders. That’s great, but this is a critical part of the transportation system so we need to invest in safe infrastructure in those communities and across the city.
Q: What are some steps cities are taking or can take to facilitate the safe and responsible use of these devices?
A: Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. If you build the right infrastructure — and that’s basically safe, protected bike lanes — then you’ll see more of these uses. A lot of cities are investing in charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, mostly cars. And you’ve got to ask, where is the charging infrastructure for smaller vehicles? Not only scooters, but you can see a future situation where there are cargo bikes.
[There are] all kinds of incentives government can provide … both for private individual use and for shared-system use. As more e-bikes are sold and we see more private use of those things, [cities] have to realize that’s a different regulatory environment they need to think about.