The workday commute in New York sometimes seems like part ballet and part grudge match. But whether by subway, bus, car, ferry, bike or their own two feet, millions of New Yorkers safely make their way to their destination and back again every day. Occasionally they even get there on time.
This is no small feat given the explosion of new transportation options that have taken to the streets in the past decade or so. Cycling has grown exponentially, and Citi bikes and e-bikes now share the streets. Ride share services like Uber and Lyft brought alternatives to taxi cabs but also congestion. Segways gave way to hoverboards and today the sight of an electric skateboard whizzing down the avenue isn’t uncommon. The city sometimes seems to be in the midst of a transportation revolution—or apocalypse, depending on your viewpoint.
Now yet another new personal “micro-mobility” device is poised to take on the mean streets of New York: the electric scooter.
Shared e-scooters have already rolled into San Francisco, Portland, Washington DC and many other cities across the U.S. Companies like Bird and Lime typically charge $1 to rent a scooter plus an additional 15 cents per minute. The scooters, which can zip along at up to 15 mph, are pitched as providing a solution to the “last mile” problem: travel that takes place between the home and transit hubs.
Many early adopters who jumped on the new e-scooters found them to be a convenient and economical mode of transportation. And they are also fun to ride. The research firm Populous recently found that 70 percent of those surveyed viewed dockless scooters positively. Scooters quickly became the popular new kids on the block: rides increased 61 percent day over day in San Francisco after Spin launched there early this year.
Yet e-scooters landed with a thud in some cities. The tech-forward practice of deploying scooters before negotiating with policymakers did not sit well with some local governments. And of course there were a litany of complaints: the “dockless” scooters sullied neighborhoods, reckless scooterists were careening down crowded sidewalks, and spikes in injuries were reported. Vandalized scooters were found in trees, lakes, and half buried on beaches like the lost remnants of a disposable society.
To combat backlash, Bird recently launched the “SOS: Save Our Sidewalks” campaign, which promises to re-deploy scooters overnight, tailor availability to meet demand, and even pay cities $1 a day for each scooter in use to fund traffic infrastructure projects.
Given the congestion, pollution and aging infrastructure that many cities now face, new mobility options like e-scooters are appealing. But, as the rapid growth of ride sharing services has illustrated, local governments must ensure that new mobility choices fit in well with their urban landscapes. New regulations must find ways to safeguard city streets while encouraging sustainable transportation alternatives.
E-scooters are currently illegal on New York City’s streets, but this may soon change. City Council members Ydanis Rodriguez and Rafael Espinal (whose district will be impacted by the L train shutdown) are drafting legislation that would pave the way for e-scooters, and they could be available in the outer boroughs by the end of the year.
There will be challenges when the Birds hit the streets. In New York, anything that isn’t a car or a pedestrian is generally thrown into the bike lane and left to fend for itself. Unfortunately, NYC’s bike lanes are already full of cyclists, in addition to e-bikes, joggers, skateboarders, double parkers and tourists. The dockless sharing model may prove difficult in New York, too, where even the smallest public spaces come at a premium.
Of course, when it comes to the dysfunctional state of transportation in New York, the elephants in the room are motor vehicle traffic and an aging, overcrowded transit system. Until the city gets serious about repairing the subways, controlling congestion and reclaiming its streets, Gotham will remain stuck in gridlock.
But tackling these sweeping, systemic challenges in order to build a truly sustainable urban transportation system requires commitment, vision and hard work. And it isn’t nearly as much fun as a new scooter.