The advent of electric scooters, bicycles and other battery-powered transportation devices has opened frontiers in urban mobility. These devices stand to fulfill demand for short trips that would be cumbersome, costly or longer by previously established modes of travel. They’re most commonly used for “last mile” trips between activity hubs and neighborhoods people live in. Struggles with such last- mile problems limit where people live, work, shop and assemble. And unfortunately, policy in American towns and cities has not kept up with mobility companies. And, as a result, those that would benefit from their services face severe uncertainty with regard to the rules that apply to this new addition to the U.S. transportation ecosystem.
First- and last-mile problems are the hardest parts of transportation demand to cater to. Predicting where people want to go is hard and aggregating this demand in ways that allow policymakers to change the way places are designed is even harder. As it stands, most first- and last-mile problems are solved with cars. They allow point-to-point travel, and almost all roads are built to make these trips easy.
But this paradigm starts to break down when roads become congested with cars. Congestion matters more for short and medium-length trips, where the extra time spent waiting makes up a greater percentage of total trip time. Where congestion is most costly, other solutions to first- and last-mile problems become more competitive.
Transit is one option, but transit lines are uneconomical to run between every potential combination of points. And, running more buses, for example doesn’t solve the “last-mile” problem. Rather, it solves the “middle mile” with a walk to and from pick-up locations on either end of the trip. Walking and bicycling fit the definition of last-mile transportation much more completely. And for this reason, cities, in particular, where congestion costs are highest, continue to have substantial minorities of people who get around by walking, bicycling and by other non-car modes of transportation.
But these have their own tradeoffs. While walking and bicycling are point-to-point modes and avoid road congestion, they’re reliant on the individual to provide their own power. This comes with downsides, as anyone who has shown up to work covered in sweat can attest.
This is where electric scooters and other micro-mobility devices come in. Like walking and bicycling, scooters solve last-mile congestion problems by allowing people to move from point to point without needing to drive themselves or change modes to buses or trains. And, their onboard batteries and motors mitigate some of the downsides that come with traditional forms of non-car transportation.
While every development in transportation technology comes with growing pains, scooters have faced a particularly rough path to legal adoption. This is because existing laws struggle to find a natural place for a new mode of travel that is motorized and moves at speeds faster than walking and slower than cars—at five to fifteen or twenty miles per hour. Where scooters may be legally ridden varies dramatically from place to place. Some expect all scooter riders to operate on the street, where they go slower than the cars they share the road with. Others expect them to remain on sidewalks, where they conflict with slower-moving pedestrians. These speed differences create safety hazards, which some governments have used as justification to ban them outright. The most natural place would be for scooters to operate in a space separate from both cars and pedestrians, most commonly bicycle lanes.
However, this poses its own difficulties. Unlike sidewalks and roads, bike lanes are relatively scarce in even large cities. Policymakers can’t assume they will be available everywhere scooter riders need to go. Those who want to get the most from new micro-mobility technologies will need to find better ways to reallocate road space to find room for those traveling at intermediate speeds. The process cities have in place to shift space from one mode to another can fix this over time, but it can be grindingly slow going. For example, it’s common for new lanes to take years to install. However, this process could be expedited by bundling new lanes together for community review and political approval. Alternatively, streamlining the review process with a goal of completing new lanes within a set window of 3, 6 or 12 months would help build a lane network on a more piecemeal basis.
With the advent of electric scooters, the need for new intermediate-speed vehicle lanes grows more urgent by the month. Scooters and other micro-mobility devices stand to fix first- and last-mile problems better than walking, bicycles, transit and cars. But in order to do so, they’ll require space to operate, and speeding up existing processes to approve bike lanes would be one way to make that infrastructure a reality this year—instead of having to wait five years into the future.