Tempe, AZ — Getting from point A to B: in suburban America, it's pretty straightforward. You hop into your car, which is usually parked right outside your home, and drive directly to your destination. In urban America—or even the more centralized locations of smaller cities—it's more complicated. The clustering of automobiles into small spaces means that it is tough to drive and expensive to park. Public transit in these contexts is generally as effective as one might expect a government service to be; while private transit, although better, is more expensive.
In recent years, a third subset of smaller, more nimble options have helped fill the gap. Bicyclists are now a legitimate political constituency in some cities, leading to the rise of designated lanes and public and private bike shares. Mopeds and scooters—long a common transportation form in foreign cities—are starting to catch on in America, although the parking challenges remain. And there is a yet smaller subset of options—what I like to call "micro transport"—that is easier to lug around and fit into tight spaces. Examples include roller blades, segways, and of course, skateboards. I recently got an interesting look at a fully-formed micro transport system when visiting the college town of Tempe, AZ.
Tempe is home to Arizona State University, one of the nation's largest public universities, and is also perhaps the most urban part of the Phoenix area. The metro has multiple job centers--many of them suburban in character--but ASU abuts a thriving downtown and some relatively dense student housing areas in each direction. The campus itself, meanwhile, is generally closed to car traffic, and nearby parking is expensive. All these factors make arriving to campus by foot, or through multi-modal options, more convenient.
And a lot of students have chosen this, turning the campus into an oasis of bicyclists, rollerbladers, pedestrians, and most notably, skateboarders. Along the narrow, palm-tree-lined walkways, one will see hundreds of students skateboarding throughout the day, performing nollies and kickflips along the ledges. In sheer numbers, I haven't seen a college campus that embraces multi-modalism as much as ASU, save perhaps the famously bike-friendly UC-Davis campus. And I certainly haven't seen a campus with this many skateboarders.
According to JC Porter, an assistant director of commuter services at ASU, skateboarding has long been part of the culture here.
“The thing that ASU has is it’s flat,” he said. “And basically the weather starts getting good as soon as the students start getting here, and then it gets beautiful during the winter, and then it doesn’t get hot until the students leave.”
This has made it a skateboarding hub for awhile now, and starting about 5 years ago, the campus got too crowded with them. So the school drew up an Access Management Plan that delineated different campus thruways which could be used for bikes and boards, and others that would be "walk-only." The plan also vastly increased the parking infrastructure for these alternative modes. There are now huge racks along common areas throughout the campus to lock and store bicycles. And there are over 250 skateboard racks, which hold 12 skateboards each.
Porter couldn't give exact figures on the percentage of ASU students who skateboard, but said that the option appeals to diverse groups. There are vast stretches of student housing, particularly east of campus, and much of it is just over a mile away, making walking impractical. So a lot of the students living there skateboard in. There are also many students, he continued, who drive in from the suburbs, find cheap parking outside of campus, and skateboard from there to class. This is much more convenient for them than storing a bike in or atop their cars. And even those who park on campus use skateboards. Like other major universities, ASU's buildings are often thousands of feet apart, making a small set of wheels handy.
The situation at ASU provides practical lessons for bigger cities. There has been a lot of talk recently in urban planning circles about how to solve the "last mile" problem in cities. That is, public transit systems have proven terminally unable to bring passengers to their final destinations, creating an epidemic of 10- to 20-minute walks after drop off. And a large contingent of people forgo public transit altogether. According to a recent survey compiled of urban residents in Victoria, Australia, the number of 2km trips that people take by foot is sixty times higher than the number of trips people take by transit. Skateboards would be one way to speed up these shorter walking trips.
This might be why companies, from Swagtron to Action Blink, have been rolling out electronic skateboard lines. It merely advances the momentum on a transportation mode that is evolving from an alt-punk lifestyle choice, to a practical mobility option for the average commuter. The Arizona State University campus provides a glimpse of how this future could work.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]