How much do Calgarians love shared e-scooters? Try 300,000 trips in just a few weeks. But Canadian cities face familiar challenges to make e-bike and e-scooter services safe and convenient for all
By now, pedestrians on sidewalks in downtown Calgary are probably getting used to it. They hear a quiet buzz before being overtaken by groups of office workers — on electric stand-up scooters — headed to meetings on the garish green devices they unlocked with apps on their phones a few blocks away.
This summer, Calgary joined the ranks of cities in Asia, Europe and the United States in allowing the introduction of shared fleets of “dockless” electric stand-up scooters (e-scooters), from companies Lime and Bird. Based on the number of users — 300,000 trips by 100,000 unique riders three weeks into August — it’s been a raging success.
In the weeks since Calgary’s launch, e-scooter services also started up in Edmonton and Montreal. This follows the introduction of shared electric-assist pedal bikes (e-bikes) in both Montreal and Calgary in the past year.
“We watched a lot of cities worldwide. We’re interested in how new technology influences travel behaviour,” says Andrew Sedor, business development coordinator, transportation strategy, with the City of Calgary. “Providing options for Calgarians was our main driver.”
Shared “micro-mobility” — transportation services targeting short trips or the first and last mile of longer trips with small, personal electric conveyors such as bikes, scooters and skateboards — has been relatively slow to come to Canada, largely due to restrictive (and lagging) provincial regulations. Municipalities seeking to bolster their mobility options are doing so via special exemptions while the provinces work on developing new rules.
But while they’re new here, e-scooter and e-bike sharing services are experiencing a wave of skyrocketing ridership as well as vociferous backlash elsewhere. Planners and other officials are having to react to assess and manage trade-offs between enhanced mobility and concerns over riders’ safety and the safety of vulnerable pedestrians.
Also, because dockless scooters and bikes aren’t returned to lock-up stations, there’s potential chaotic blight from hundreds of bikes and scooters dropped wherever users please when their rides are up.
Each city is finding its own way while drawing on others’ experiences where possible. To that end, Electric Autonomy Canada took a closer look at Calgary’s approach (which is technically still in a “pilot” phase) to shepherding in shared micro-mobility.
E-scooter popularity a surprise
The shared micro-mobility trend has taken many U.S. cities by surprise. Shared e-scooters — unlocked by smartphone app and typically paid for by the minute — made 38.5 million trips in the U.S in 2018, outnumbering those made on docked bike systems according to the North American Association of Transport Officials (NACTO).
The same report found shared e-bikes of both the station-based and dockless variety are on the rise. Despite only 6.5 million trips being made on shared e-bikes, where they’ve been introduced, they are up to three times as popular per bike as pedal bikes. In New York, for example, its Citi-bike sharing service found new e-bikes are used 15 times per day in peak season while pedal bikes are taken out five times.
In Calgary, as noted above, the 1,500 e-scooters deployed have been extremely popular. “Lime had their most successful opening week of all time,“ says Sedor. “For rides per scooter, we’re told we are consistently in the top three world-wide.”
By comparison, it took the sturdier e-bikes six months (admittedly much of that during winter) to reach the 100,000-rides milestone — not a bad number, but not in the same ballpark as the 300,000 e-scooter rides.
Potential market is huge
E-scooter popularity in Calgary has caught everyone’s attention, says Chris Schafer, senior director of strategic development for Lime in Canada. “Lime as a company is pleased with the results and is now paying a lot more attention to Canada.”
What’s behind the success? Sedor says it’s too early to say for sure, but he is willing to speculate. “Our parking rate is a bit more expensive. We have lots of high rises in a small area, constrained by railway and a river. We already knew Car2go was popular here and we have about a 50 per cent transit modal share in our downtown which is little heard of in North America.”
That is to say, owning and running a car isn’t that convenient and most trips in the downtown are short, made by people without access to a car for the day. Fundamentally, these are the situations to which micro-mobility services cater.
“In the U.S., 60 per cent of trips are [eight kilometres] or less. That market is huge. If you can shift even a fraction of those, and hopefully a lot more, be it from a personal automobile, car share, ride share — all of which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion — the opportunity is huge,” explains Schafer.
Sidewalk access controversial
Calgary’s quick success has not been without issue, however.
“While we’ve allowed them in pathways, bike lanes and sidewalks, sidewalks have been a bit controversial,” says Sedor.
Neither Edmonton nor Montreal permit e-scooters on sidewalks.
The fact that dockless scooters and bikes can be left anywhere also presents potential safety issues. The operators’ contracts with the city stipulate unattended scooters or bikes must be moved by the company within two hours — but that can still mean an obstruction in the meantime, particularly for blind, visually impaired or mobility impaired people.
“There are some people who are not considerate who leave them in the middle of the sidewalk. Sometimes people just don’t know it’s an issue” says Sedor, who notes the city is putting a major focus on educating users about responsible parking.
No sure-fire solutions
Looking elsewhere, no municipality seems to have entirely figured this one out. Approaches to date include more use of existing street space for parking, creating designated parking zones or applying GPS-backed penalties for irresponsible parking.
When e-scooters and e-bikes are in use, they are safest on bike lanes and shared pathways (largely avoiding pedestrian and automobiles). But most Canadian cities lack complete biking networks. This explains why scooters often end up on sidewalks.
Sedors says Calgary’s policy was informed by the results of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control study of e-scooter related injuries in Austin, Tex., which found the main factor in collisions is speed. As a result, the city’s contract with operators imposes a 20-kph speed limit, bans their use on major roads, and also prohibits their use in the winter when snow and ice reduce space on the sidewalk. The city also strongly encourages helmet use but doesn’t mandate it. It is argued requiring helmets would be an overreaction and significantly suppress their use.
There is the possibility of limiting speeds further if evidence supports it. “We want to look at complaints in other jurisdictions and figure out what works best for Calgary,” says Sedor.