After a few weeks in the scooter-littered District of Columbia, I have a few more nuanced thoughts on e-scooters and how they fit into a US city.
My first experience on an electric scooter was, in a nutshell, quite scary. I didn’t have a helmet on, I wasn’t wearing any protective gear, and I happened to be going down a hill. I did not enjoy it.
I’ve ridden a few more of them since then. And I have thoughts that I think are worth sharing.
They make new journeys possible
I often find myself looking for an e-scooter or a JUMP bike whenever I want to make a journey that isn’t possible on bikeshare, bus or Metro service. (JUMP is currently the only company in the District providing electric powered bikes.)
For example, I most often make trips to Union Market, which would take me about 15 minutes walking from my home but only five or six minutes by JUMP e-bike if I can find one nearby. On a return trip to the grocery store, I can hop onto a scooter and not exhaust myself on a walk home while laden with two heavy bags of baking flour and chicken broth.
My other top use of e-scooters and the JUMP bike is around the National Mall, and to move up and down through breathtakingly beautiful thoroughfares in D.C.. It’s basically a self-guided city tour, and I get the freedom to go whereever I want and explore whatever I wish at my own pace. (I imagine this is what car drivers imagine owning a car is supposedly like.)
One topic that I have seen occasionally brought up, but never explored in much detail, in that these e-scooters and e-bikes don’t make any accommodations for persons with disabilities.
A quick ride around Washington will show that the riders of these e-scooters, particularly in the business district, are predominantly able-bodied, with four functioning limbs and no debilitating diseases that would affect their sight, hearing, or balance.
This affects more than just people in wheelchairs, by the way. A few months ago, I was struggling to walk because of what later was diagnosed as Guillain–Barré syndrome. I could barely make it to the kitchen — there was no way I would have been able to stand on one of these scooters or pedal a bike.
As cities work to restructure their infrastructure around these new forms of transportation, I’m concerned that there isn’t enough being discussed about how to make sure the future of transport works for everyone.
It’s not just the riders or the drivers. It’s the infrastructure.
My biggest frustration — a pain point I’m willing to assume others share — is how scooter riders will weave in and out of pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Legally, they’re allowed to do so. The District has no laws banning the riding of such scooters on sidewalks, except in the central business district. Whenever I ride a scooter, I try to be as polite as possible, keeping my speed slow around pedestrians and shouting quite loudly if I’m coming up behind someone. (I don’t ring a bell. I feel like that’s more stressful for a pedestrian than just hearing a shout.)
I think the main reason why riders go on the sidewalks, even when they’re not allowed to, is simple: Safety.
It’s really, really, really, really, really, really unsafe to ride a scooter or a bike on the roads. You’re afforded no protection in the event of a collision. It’s pretty much just your 150 lbs meat-packed flesh body against around 4000 lbs of aluminum, iron and carbon fiber. As a scooter rider, YOU ARE GOING TO LOSE.
This is the same problem that affects cyclists on the road. It’s dangerously unsafe to ride with cars.
The root of the problem isn’t the riders, who just want a quick and convenient way to make their journeys within the city, or with the drivers, who just want a quick and convenient way to make their journeys into the city.
The root of the problem is simply that our transportation infrastructure wasn’t built to handle this kind of traffic.
Rational Communities Build Protected Bike Lanes
Separated bicycle infrastructure has been strongly linked to lower fatality and injury rates not only for people on bikes, but for people in cars
There’s plenty of good reporting on how cities can change their infrastructure to make journeys safer for everyone. Basically: Pedestrians, scooter riders, cyclists and drivers are all different kinds of road users with different characteristics. Expecting one class of road user to simply work with infrastructure designed for another isn’t going to work.
Case in point: Scooters on sidewalks, weaving through all the pedestrians, because they can’t be safe with cars. Or drivers who pass dangerously close to cyclists because they don’t respect the three-foot rule.
If we’re serious about bringing in a transport revolution, we don’t just need to convince people to share the road. We need to redesign our roads so they can serve these new users.
Our shared future
I can envision this happening. It doesn’t seem ridiculous to me that I’ll soon be living in a city where transportation options are shared, and it’s possible to get from A to B without personally owning any vehicle.
I’m not opposed to it, and I think it’s quite exciting. It opens up a bunch of possibilities for me about where to go because I can now get there. (This week, I visited Eastern Market for the first time, because I could ride the bus for free with my Metro pass.)
What I’m hoping is for a structural change in our urban infrastructure so we can make this happen in a way that eliminates these pain points. I’m imagining something like a bus shelter or a phone booth (remember those?), but for scooters. I’m envisioning protected bike and scooter lanes, and dedicated traffic lights. I’m dreaming of a navigation app that can arrange for MetroAccess services for people who need them.
Whooo hoo! Let’s plan our shared future together.