Dockless Scooters: An Apologia From Austin

Austin could be a city where dockless scooters thrive. But this will require more density and safer road design.

Dan Keshet | April 28, 2018 | |
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We are on the verge of an urban revolution. A new device has revolutionized how we travel, making cars obsolete. Cities are going to re-architect themselves around the invention. The year, of course, is 2001 and the invention is the Segway. That revolution didn’t pan out. The Segway is now known mostly as a gag in a movie about mall security guards.

But 17 years later, a new technology has the potential to change cities in extraordinary ways: dockless scooters as well as their kin, dockless and docked bikes, hoverboards, e-bikes (personal or shared), etc. The post will focus exclusively on dockless scooters, but many of the observations and almost all of the recommendations apply to their cousins.

Image courtesy of Nick Woods.

Why do I see so much potential in these little devices? In part, it’s because dockless bikes have already claimed a huge share of transportation users in places they’ve been deployed at scale, despite only having been around a couple years and despite having some challenges scooters don’t have. But here are the other reasons I’m hopeful:

1) Low barrier to entry

  • Scooters require no training and little practice before riders operate at a proficient level.
  • No special clothes are required.
  • There is no startup financial cost.

People can literally go from never having heard of dockless scooters to riding one in less than 5 minutes.

Scanning the Bird QR code is so easy that a literal bird can hit the target.

2) Low cost

This 3/4-mile ride cost me only $1.60. If you live somewhere where most of your trips are about 2-3 miles or shorter, then over time a diet of trips on foot, on scooters, on bikes, on buses and trains, and with the occasional taxi or Lyft ride is way cheaper than paying for car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance.

3) Low effort

Like all short-term-rental transportation systems — docked or dockless — the responsibilities of ownership are eliminated. Riders don’t need to buy, fuel, maintain, or store their vehicles. The art of vehicle maintenance may be a form of Zen, but many folks would be happy not to deal with it.

Dockless scooters also avoid some of the problems that make people hesitant to use active transportation: because it’s motorized, you’re less likely to show up to work sweaty or winded.

4) Low overhead per trip

Once airplanes get going, they fly at hundreds of miles per hour. But regardless of how short your trip is, you still have to drive to the edge of the city and endure all manner of shoeless indignities. It’s easier to take ground transportation for a relatively short trip like Austin to San Antonio even though its maximum speed is lower. For trips under about three miles, dockless scooters can actually be cheaper, easier, and faster than cars especially in places where parking cars takes a lot of time or money.

5) Scalable

In every city, people have the same complaints about driving: too much traffic, too little parking. Cars simply don’t scale well as cities grow. The more people there are, the more congested streets get and the more cars have to circle higher and higher in garages to park. The problem is basic geometry: cars take up a lot of space and there isn’t enough room on the roads or in parking lots to handle all of them.

Scooters scale much better. The same scooter can be reused many times over by different people, reducing the number of vehicles needed per population and reducing the number of vehicles that need parking. Even when scooters are parked, at least 10-12 scooters can be parked in the same amount of space that a single car can be parked. On the streets, a single lane of scooters takes less space than a car lane and still gets better throughput, because scooters can ride closer together than cars.

A parked scooter takes up very little space, even less than a bike.

How do we do it?!

Can you imagine a future where scooters are not merely a fun diversion but a true transportation revolution that moves the world toward less expensive, more energy-efficient transportation? Here’s some ideas to get there.

1) Managed parking

When cars first came around, parked cars immediately became a public nuisance occupying public streets and getting in the way of other users. Eventually, cities learned to manage this conflict by designating certain places as appropriate for parking cars. A similar problem is happening today with dockless vehicles. But instead of being stored on streets, they’re being stored on sidewalks. This isn’t as challenging a problem as parking cars; bikes are smaller and scooters smaller yet, so they fit in smaller places

Nevertheless, the introduction of even modest-sized numbers of scooters into cities has caused a modest-sized uproar.

The city must do more to manage its right-of-way. For example, Austin could create a brand-neutral symbol for places where dockless vehicle parking is encouraged. This symbol could be painted on parts of sidewalks where scooter parking can fit without getting in anyone’s way, on private properties that want to allow people to park their dockless vehicles near their businesses, or on on-street parking spaces. (As so many scooters fit in a small space, a half to a full parking space would probably be enough per block face.) Scooters are very small compared to cars. Parking them should be a very small issue compared to car parking if the city leads the way in directing users to appropriate places to park.

2) More bike / scooter lanes

Scooters can be a fun, easy way to make short-distance trips. But riding on streets can feel less fun or more dangerous: you never know which 2,000-lb vehicle is being driven by somebody more intent on passing you than giving you a safe distance. The more people have safe places to ride, the more they’ll be willing to give scooters a shot and the less they’ll ride on sidewalks.

A rider takes a scooter on the Third Street bike lane in downtown Austin.

3) Make more streets two way

Navigating one way streets can be a pain in a car, but it’s even worse in a scooter. Going around the block takes longer. Avoiding the one-way can force you on to a street you were trying to avoid for safety reasons. And worst of all, there’s no good reason for one-way streets in scooterable areas. Making streets one-way was an urban planning fad aimed at getting cars to speed through an area. Today, urban planners are more focused on making places safe and navigable, which has the side benefit of helping people find local businesses better. Austin has started toward two-waying our downtown one-way streets, but the program has been held up as the Transportation Department paused the conversion of lightly-traveled Colorado Street after positioning the new traffic signals for deployment.

North-bound traffic lights have worn these hoods since installation, as ATD has (apparently) put a pause on converting streets to two-way.

4) More boulevards

One of the city of Austin’s responses to scooter deployment has been to encourage companies to deploy their scooters outside the central core to more “underserved markets.”

This is a noble goal — scooters are awesome and all people deserve access to them — but, alas, our streets are too dangerous for this to happen well. When I asked one scooter executive about expanding to the Domain (a planned development known to local newspaper-writers as “Austin’s second downtown”), he told me that there were significant dangers to releasing scooters there: riders might take them on the many auto-oriented streets surrounding it, streets that aren’t safe for scooters. These same streets aren’t very good for people on bicycles or on foot either, nor are they good for outdoor commercial uses like restaurant patios or sidewalk sales. We should retrofit streets with an eye toward making them comfortable to sit next to, walk next to, scoot or bike on, as well as drive on.

5) Allow more scooter-oriented development

Scooters are deployed to downtowns, universities, and other relatively dense parts of cities not only because the streets there are safer but also because the populations there are denser. The same geometry that makes cars frustrating when there are more people makes scooters easier. A scooter left in a densely-populated area has far greater chance of finding a customer than a scooter left in a sparsely-populated area. This allows scooter companies to deploy more scooters, reducing the distance needed for riders to find a scooter, in a virtuous circle. In other words, car-oriented development is spread out enough that cars can fit between destinations. Scooter-oriented development is close enough together that it’s easy to find a scooter and ride it to a nearby destination.

The way we develop our cities unfortunately is a barrier — maybe even the major barrier in the scooter-path of scooter-oriented development. There are many, many ways that cities regulate density. One of these is the “Traffic Impact Assessment,” which is literally a way of testing whether a development is too dense to serve well with cars and therefore unallowable. As a side effect, any place that is being built dense enough to make scooting work well is not allowed. For us to change mode share from mostly being in cars, cursing at traffic to enjoying our scooter commutes, we will have to update our traffic impact assessment tools to guide which mode of transportation a development needs to be most compatible with rather than merely assuring compatibility with the auto status quo.

[This article was originally published on Keshet’s blog Austin On Your Feet.]

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