Electric scooters promise to be a lasting urban transportation solution — as soon as cities and manufacturers resolve existing obstacles
The new-fangled world of micro-mobility is one that seems to have the transportation industry buzzing, with record user growth rates and even more dizzying company valuations. It’s not without good reason either. Micro-mobility, which could easily be just described as small personal transportation devices, like bicycles, scooters and everything in-between, has been greatly enabled by electrification and app-based sharing, which has unleashed all sorts of new innovative business models.
The premise makes complete sense. Why take a car in a dense urban setting when a small device that consumes far less energy and space can be used instead? The low vehicle cost and low operating cost means trips are cheap, effectively a great enabler for those with lower incomes. It also addresses the problem of “first and last mile” — getting from major transit routes to home or work and vice versa. These enablements, plus the convenience of having a mobility solution close by wherever you are, especially with dockless devices, makes for a very enticing mobility solution.
Fun to ride
Another aspect about micro-mobility, and scooters in particular, is that they’re fun to ride. In our annual Mobility Study, published last year, we found that it’s easily the No. 1 reason to ride a scooter. Fully 25% of respondents who ride scooters cited this factor, and it is likely a key attribute propelling their record growth.
It’s this idea of fun — plus the efficiency, convenience and urban suitability — that proponents rightly key in on and promote.
However, micro-mobility solutions as a whole have a bunch of problems. They are open to vandalization and abuse, can’t be used in poor weather (especially unsuitable for cold winters), and have an unsavory habit of bringing out anti-social rider behaviour. As well, electric bikes and scooters need to be charged, which is especially problematic for dockless business models where scooters can be left almost anywhere.
But dangerous, too
Scooters have another unique and far reaching problem — safety. Technically, it would be defined as high levels of instability due to a combination of short wheelbase, small wheels and high centre of gravity. In short, most scooters are dangerous because they’re hard to control and easily tripped up. Take a quick look at the design and riding position of a scooter and it’s easy to figure out: riders stand with their feet just behind a tiny front wheel.
Add to that a top speed of up to 25 kilometres per hour and almost no helmet usage, and it’s no wonder that injuries from scooter accidents often result in severe trauma, particularly head injuries. Two studies, one done by Austin Public Health and supported by the U.S. Center for Disease Control in Austin, Tex., and the second by the New Zealand Medical Journal, showed that injuries sustained are often similar to severe car accidents. In fact, the CDC study showed the rate of injuries in the U.S. per given distance covered were around 27 times higher than for cycling — in a country known for very poor cycling infrastructure and much higher cycling injury rates than in Europe.
For any safety advocate and concerned citizen this is a disastrous situation, and one that micro-mobility companies gloss over. They point to the fact that there are many more car accident injuries and deaths; of course, conveniently ignoring that car usage is many, many multiples higher than scooter usage. It’s like saying that base jumping and free climbing El Capitan is safer than driving your car because there are fewer total injuries and deaths from people doing these activities.
Micro-mobility, especially scooters, has also proven to have a unique ability to create public anger and consternation. There are plenty of videos of pedestrians getting hit by inattentive scooter riders, scooters being left strewn on foot paths and blocking entranceways and generally giving the city an untidy look. Even if these things don’t result in injuries, they sure arouse strong feelings among citizens; for elected officials, supporting such activities could be the kiss of death. Already, more than a few cities have banned scooters and more again are taking plenty of time to think about appropriate introduction and rollout.
On a visit to Washington, D.C., earlier this year, I took the opportunity of the well-stocked micro-mobility scene to take a couple different options for a spin. The first was a Bird scooter. It was, by any practical measure, truly appalling to ride. Terrible ride quality made my face shudder over the smallest bump, pavement joints became major obstacles and braking was almost non-existent. I had to keep my eyes peeled for unexpected obstacles like tree roots or broken pavement, as well as unaware pedestrians. The riding position also felt quite unstable — I knew that if I got in to trouble, I was down and hurtin’ bad.
Scooter vs. bike
Having said all that, cruising Washington’s National Mall on a warm spring day on a scooter was a delight. It was fun, as our survey indicated, almost like being transported upright to the next sightseeing adventure.
Jumping onto a Jump e-bike straight after was a revelation. Greatly enhanced power, stability and braking made it much safer to ride, even if the brake’s effectiveness were no match for the hydraulic discs on my mountain bike. I could safely jump curbs and unexpected 4-inch high obstacles were never a problem. The pedal activated e-motor rocketed me ahead from a standstill and it didn’t take long to hit the maximum speed of more than 30 kilometres per hour. Strangely, I put the e-bike away earlier. Somehow it wasn’t as fun or cool. Was it the styling or riding position? And why were scooter riders out numbering cyclists by about five to one in that area?
Indeed, why are scooters so popular, yet so hated? With twice the growth rate of ride hailing and seemingly five times the opposition, what is next for e-scooters and micro-mobility?
A harmonious service?
Without doubt, there’s more than sufficient demand, and the promise is admirable. Thus, the question that really interests me is how can micro-mobility grow beyond its problematic introduction to truly become a harmonious service to a city and its residents?
To start, both scooters and bikes need to be dropped off in specific areas that represent a tidy solution to the city landscape. This means that they aren’t in the way and not a danger to pedestrians and those with disabilities.
Rider training needs also to be substantially improved, including wearing a helmet. The CDC survey found that a high propensity of accidents involved riders with very limited experience; in cases where riders were hospitalized, more than half the time it was to treat head injuries.
Most importantly, e-scooter design needs to be safer. The current crop of e-scooters are not more than toys, and frankly it’s not a hard fix: bigger wheels, better brakes, suspension, a longer wheelbase, wider deck and a seat would fix just about all the major problems. If that sounds like a mini moped, you’re probably correct. But who wants to ride a moped? Audrey Hepburn’s “Roman Holiday” was a long, long time ago.
It’s as though safety and cool need to come together in a harmonious package, and the recent scooter updates by Bird and Lime are laughable. Today, there’s a yawning gulf between these two ideals, and it continues to create all sorts of consternation, anger and, sadly, frequent serious injuries and deaths. The scooter company that figures out what truly is safe and cool, will be an out-of-the-park success. It’s only then that a safe, efficient, last-mile solution can be realized, something that micro-mobility has promised, but not yet delivered.
James Carter is Principal Consultant of Vision Mobility, a Toronto-based consultancy that provides services to OEMs, Tier 1s, dealers, startups, industry organizations and companies on strategies to succeed in a New Mobility environment. Prior to that, James worked for Toyota for 19 years in Australia, Asia and North America.
It’s hard to take a person who used to work for Toyota seriously when they downplay the disastrous damage cars and auto-dependency has done to cities and communities all over the world. This excerpt right here tells volumes about the author’s bias against newer, cleaner, and yes safer forms of mobility:
“For any safety advocate and concerned citizen this is a disastrous situation, and one that micro-mobility companies gloss over. They point to the fact that there are many more car accident injuries and deaths; of course, conveniently ignoring that car usage is many, many multiples higher than scooter usage. It’s like saying that base jumping and free climbing El Capitan is safer than driving your car because there are fewer total injuries and deaths from people doing these activities.”
So because automobiles are used more, those 36,000+ deaths every year are less important than the <100 injuries/death combined from scooters so far? Carter’s analogy is flawed and completely illogical since it doesn't compare one mode of transportation to another properly (skydiving doesn't fit the same use case as scooters/micromobility). It would be better to use driving vs flying since both are widely used, mature modes of travel, and have entire industries focused on them being safer. And guess what? Flying has much fewer deaths plus injuries while universally being safer but those deaths/injuries become much more widely digested in the media and press in the same way scooter injuries are highly controversial, while driving deaths are swept under the rug.
Cleantastic – Thanks for the comment on the article. The point here is to highlight rates of injury, especially as the e-scooter industry is at a nascent stage with little regulation or oversight. E-scooters are definitely NOT safer than cycling or driving, and the statistics make that VERY clear; and in my opinion, major micro-mobility operators are not successfully recognizing or addressing the problem.
The injury rates per million miles traveled for light vehicles – (cars, pickups, SUVs) are around 1, between 7 and 60 for cycling (depending on the data you use – the former from NHTSA, the latter from Bird) and 214 for e-scooters, as per the Austin Health/CDC study. In other words, you are ~214 times more likely to be injured riding an e-scooter than driving a car, or 27x / 3.5x vs cycling over a given distance. As you point out flying is even lower, but certainly not a practical everyday commuting option for most people.
Car trips and driving distance is MANY, MANY multiples higher than e-scooter riding, hence why the numerical death rate is so high and the injuries per mile so low. However, you’re correct, 36,000+ deaths per year IS a disaster and that must be addressed. Is it a priority? Absolutely!
I personally would like cities to discourage the use of cars, and as an avid cyclist, I very much support the growth of cycling infrastructure and safety for cyclists – a much healthier, safer and more environmentally friendly transportation option vs e-scooters.
James, a great article.
The issues are real and clearly articulated. I think you are on-point with your comments regarding the manufacturers and operators of the current ride-sharing solutions, the wider public frustration and broadly speaking, the operating environment.
The end of the ICE-age and the rapid emergence of the EV-age is a given and not for debate. The winners and losers will play out over time. I personally have no preference and little bias for any form of mobility. All forms have their relevant applications. Buses, trams, trains, planes and cars for mass mobility, trucks and vans for moving things, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, and various types of boards for individuals, self-propelled, partially or fully assisted. I enjoy two wheels and more wheels, big wheels and small wheels (I struggle with one), flying and boating, all forms and modes of mobility have their place.
Finding the ‘right’ outcome, be it the safest, most efficient, most fun or most cost effective, lies not in the pros or cons of each design, but in the fact that we can choose. It might not be the perfect choice, but we should have the freedom to decide.
The operating environment should be designed to best accommodate this freedom where-ever possible. This must include the development of an appropriate societal mindset for all.
Foot traffic and road traffic have long coexisted but with some degree of segregation. This ensures a heightened degree of safety and delivers the greatest amenity for both. While people will continue to step out in front of cars without looking and drivers will fail to give right of way to pedestrians from time to time, the operating environment is designed to try and accommodate both. So too we should try and accommodate all forms of mobility in ways that are appropriate to the given application and local environment.
How we approach the issues around mobility is largely dependent on our collective attitudes toward each other as cohabitants. The solutions will take time to evolve and any expectation that we will implement the perfect solution from the outset is misguided. With the right mindset and goals that are appropriate, we can create more inclusive, diverse and enjoyable mobility models.
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