Autonomous cars won’t be the future, but e-scooters might be

In a former article, Autonomous Vehicles: Heaven or Nightmare I wrote that shared (autonomous) cars might result in more traffic jams, longer trips, negative health outcomes, and a further decline in the quality of mass transit. Fortunately, a much better outcome is also within reach, but it depends to a large extend from determined interventions from local and national authorities.

Santa Monica August 7 2018 – Photo Madeline Esking on Twitter

 

In the meanwhile, it looks like that the boosters of the future hegemony of autonomous vehicles are changing their mind and have started to redirect parts of their investment capital in the direction of another mobility hype. In less than one year, cities are raided by a massive introduction of dockless electric scooters. In fact, electric steps that immediately surpassed the popularity of docked bicycles.

The micro-mobility revolution

Electric scooters were swarming up American towns before city authorities could have even thought about regulation. Citizens’ responses were mixed. As docks are lacking, many users abandon their scooters haphazardly on the sidewalk, to anger of pedestrians and people in wheelchairs. This resulted in a temporary prohibition of shared electric scooters in San Francisco. However, companies have started to cooperate with authorities, resulting in a decreasing number of excesses.  A study by Populus (June 2018) – a research group focused on shared-mobility – has described the appearance of shared electric scooters as a micro-mobility revolution. It expects that the number of scooters will increase rapidly, because of their popularity among many citizens, rich or poor and male or female (see chart).

To date. electric scooters are on their way in 65 American cities and have appeared in some European cities as well, for instance Paris. In the Netherlands they are prohibited.

I will spend some attention to the logistics behind shared electric scooters, the way they move around the streets, and their impact on traffic in the future.

Logistics

As a prospective user, you need to download an app of one of the rental companies, Bird, Lime, Scoot and the likes. The app informs you where to find the nearest scooter. Once you succeeded, you enter your credit card, scan the scooter’s barcode to unlock it and off you are. Upon arrival, you finish the ride with the app. Recently, some companies ask to upload a picture to prove that you left the scooter tidy. All scooters have GPS units and 4G data connections to track their moves exactly.

The companies deploy mobile teams to maintain and charge scooters, whose range is about 45 km. Other companies use ‘juicers’, who roam the streets for scooters with meters that have run low, and charge them at home.

Where and how to ride

Upon request from city authorities, scooter companies advice their clients to use bike-lanes, which happen to be quite rare in American cities. As a consequence, riders use sidewalks and streets as well. Many cities prohibit the use of sidewalks, but most of the time nobody cares. Unfortunately, with many unexperienced drivers, moving with a speed of more than 20 km/h, the risk of injury is not negligible. Companies advise wearing a helmet, which virtually nobody does.

Freeway Los Angeles – Photo Pixabay (CC)

 

An uneven distribution of space

In most cities in the world, the USA in particular, cars (or their drivers) are the absolute rulers of available space. Many of us are so used to it that we lost sight of the impact of the car-dominated lifestyle on land- and townscape. As a consequence, authorities should not resort to a restrictive policy and banish electric scooters to the road. Instead, they should redistribute space in a way that does justice to citizens’ changing mobility preferences and that is aligned with sustainability and liveability objectives as well.

Impact on the environment

It is too early to know the environmental impact of shared electric scooters. Also, because the current conditions for its users as for bicyclists are pretty harsh. Potentially, the impact is considerable. Scooters are normally deployed for rides up to 3,5 km. Given the fact that 40% of all car trips in the USA is shorter than 3,5 km, there is a large potential for swapping the use of cars for scooters or bicycles. Potentially, scooters might also induce increasing use of public transport, as they offer a rather comfortable solution for the first and last mile. In this respect, in the Netherlands bikes or even non-electric steps have already proved their value.

Policy involvement in mobility

Shared use of electric scooters and bikes is an essential component of mobility policy. In particular as preferred means of transport for the first and the last miles in urban and suburban area. The preferable solution for commuting is public mass-transport, assuming it is safe, frequent, affordable and comfortable. In both cases autonomous cars or minibuses are supplementary. At the other hand, autonomous cars will dominate in less populated areas and in longer distances, where trains will and fast busses will be supplementary.

Local and national authorities will have to incentivize the right behavior by pricing-policy and as already mentioned, redistribution of available space. There are many examples – for instance Sevilla and Paris – where reducing space for cars immediately reduced the use of cars.

 

Meanwhile in the Netherlands

In the short video below a Dutch user is short of words to demonstrate his enthusiasm for his – illegal – ‘electric step’.

It will not take long before shared electric scooters – electric steps – will spread like a wildfire. Although prohibited now, their reception will be much smoother than in the US. In the first place because of the general availability of bike-lanes, albeit their crowdedness during rush hours. In the second place because policy with regards to mobility is less focused on cars in comparison with the USA. However, in the Netherlands too redistribution of space between user groups is an issue.  Amsterdam for instance has already prioritized space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport in its central parts.

Replacing driver-operated and owned cars by autonomous cars has to be welcomed. However, given the availability of less space-consuming means of transport than cars, shared or not, their domination in urban and suburban areas must be forestalled.

 

*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

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