The e-scooters are good, let’s cap the number of cars instead Santa Monica.
(edited 9:00am June 12th to include an additional paragraph referencing studies on “safety in numbers” effects for vulnerable road users)
Rental share light weight electric upright scooters, currently operated by Bird & LimeBike in Santa Monica represent a newer entry to on-demand “micro-mobility.” We don’t yet have extensive public surveys for this mode of travel locally, but anecdotally in my observation biking around town, and occasionally trying out one of the scooters myself, it is bringing in new people that may not have considered bicycling or conventional bike shares. This represents an exciting opportunity to expand the share of trips by alternative means to cars, which is something that for a variety of reasons we should be encouraging and facilitating.
Their recent entry and quick growth, without always clearly understood conventions for their use and storage have presented certain dilemmas prompting the consideration for new regulations to be presented at this Tuesday’s council session on June 12th. However I strongly urge against regulatory approaches such as those adopted in San Fransico that would substantially limit their use and availability such as hard caps. To do so would also establish a double standard that in practice would arguably function as protectionism for car trips and services that the e-scooters and dockless e-bikes compete with for short to moderate distance trips, many of which are still made in cars that are vastly more negatively impactful to the public and to the environment.
Forbes recently reported based on public data that Uber on average has about one mile of deadhead travel without any passenger for every mile carrying a passenger, which is probably similar across ride hailing services, multiplying VMT, congestion and emmisions impacts from trips taken. In essence for those e-scooter trips which supplant ride hailing trips, they are replacing twice that mileage that would have otherwise been in a car.
As a frequent pedestrian myself, I share many of the concerns regarding sidewalks. Such as some system users riding on the sidewalk or encumbering sidewalks when parking dockless scooters or bikes, but these are in effect symptoms of a deeper root cause, knock-on effects that cascade from a car culture which remains aggressively hostile, and hogs tremendous amounts of land area in our public rights of way both when automobiles are in use and when stored, leaving less room for every other purpose, travel mode and street user. The sidewalk issues, which to an extent still persist with bicycling as well, could be mitigated to a relative non-issue with further implementation of our existing plans for bikes, which share many of the same characteristics.
More bikeways, bikeways of higher quality and protection from automobiles, & more on street bike (& scooter) corrals especially in busy areas, are solutions we already have plans for & that were already necessary to meet many existing sustainability goals. More partnerships with private businesses to use setback space, private parking and other places off the sidewalk such as LimeBike is working on, will also help with this, and the compactness of the scooters allows for even very small footprint areas to be used for this purpose.
There are certain things these companies could be doing better on, or done better in their initial rollout, but their take off in usage is revealing many continued deficiencies in our built environment for accommodating bicycling (and a legacy of too often cramped sidewalks to accommodate cars) in a manner that encompasses not just the hardcore and the dedicated, but for everyone. The scooters are just speeding up the timeline by adding a new ridership on top of cycling. Many people drawn to the e-scooters & dockless e-assist bikes may have ridden bikes before but perhaps not as urban transportation and a familiarity with etiquette around bike parking, and their potential to be left anywhere, has created some legitimate issues of complaint. In some cases there is available space more out of the way adjacent to existing street furniture, but are left in less than ideal places instead, something I anticipate will improve in time and education, and already seems to be improving recently since Bird began obligating users to photograph where they park.
While the various issues and complaints regarding the scooters absolutely do need to be addressed and taken seriously, as someone deeply alarmed by the many ongoing consequences inherent to our predominant transportation status quo, it is frustrating to see some reactions and proposals which are out of all proportion relative to the far more pressing and dire issues we face in transportation. No matter how many people are maimed with serious injury or killed with automobiles, or how clogged and congested car traffic becomes despite the colossal never ending local, regional and state public investments made in their capacity, or how many consequences we face due to their emmisions, we never go so far as to cap cars, and the ride hailing services that compete for on-demand mobility and share similar business models face no such regulatory constraint.
It’s staggering to me that city governments which acknowledge the science of climate disrupting emmisions are freezing, capping or contemplating capping, a form of mobility which has zero direct operating emmisions, and requires far less grid demand for miles traveled than electric cars, enabling the possibility of scaling up to many more users without need for grid capacity expansion, as well as less demand on raw materials. As a society, even in progressive cities with sustainability plans, we are far, far behind the curve of where we need to be on reducing CO₂ & other GHG emmisions, of which transportation is by far our biggest major source locally, regionally and throughout the state and more recently the country as a whole as well. In the absence of any federal support for acting on climate emmisions now, people are looking to California for leadership. We should not be trying to suppress speed capped light weight zero emission mobility that presents vastly less potential harm to others while being far more energy efficient than fully electric cars which expend most of their energy to carry dead weight and predominately empty seats as all cars do.
The likely effect of the proposed policy cap would also do more to make the services functionally inconvenient to Santa Monica residents than it would slow the flow of significant numbers of micro-rental e-scooters into the city. That is assuming that they continue in Venice & elsewhere in the Westside without the proposed city of L.A. policy cap that is opposed by Los Angeles Council Member Mike Bonin representing our adjacent neighborhoods. The proposed cap in combination with limits on providers would mean the scooters would not be as widely distributed to points spread across Santa Monica, but would end up focused only where each scooter could get the highest daily trips in only the busiest areas, making for a more lopsided system favoring visitors to the city at the expense of resident accessibility in many areas outside the downtown core.
It also important to note the well documented concept of “safety in numbers” effects that apply to bicycling (as well as pedestrians), whereby growth in cycling rates does not create a linear growth in cycling injuries, and has in some especially successfully contexts reduced total serious injuries and fatalities despite overall greater numbers of riders. The exact mechanisms of this effect are difficult to precisely parse out, but include and likely involve varying degrees of drivers taking greater care due to increased awareness and expectation of vulnerable road users, reinforcing social learning among vulnerable users, and governments responding to greater numbers with improving design and infrastructure conditions for vulnerable road users. I strongly believe the sooner these newer mobilities can become normalized, it will act as corrective to certain issues of concern with their use, and the better it will be for public safety for everyone in Santa Monica by inducing more cautious behavior among drivers who impose the greatest potential risk to others, and by building upon a growing constituency for improved bikeways that in addition to improving safety for bikeway users, are known to improve overall public safety on streets for everyone on streets.
Like the roll out of dockless e-bikes in Seattle which drew many similar complaints, I suspect that here with the e-scooters and dockless e-bikes, that there is a similar dynamic in which the city found that a public survey on the matter showed overwhelming support despite the vast majority of submitted comments being critical. With every step away from the entrenchment of car centrism there will be unavoidable friction, but the only ethical path is that each step must be taken, and the success of these of these systems shows a pent up and previously unmet demand for alternatives to a mono-culture of car travel, and which also close the gaps for accessing our regional transit investments for those reaching or traveling to points not conveniently close to Expo Line stations.
Staunch car advocates and critics of bike advocacy often see facilities like bikeways as serving only a few, those who were already biking as though it were fixed number, but the goal is as conditions improve it expands comfort and accessibility of riding to potentially everyone. While I personally may be most passionate about bicycling, I also acknowledge some will not share an interest in taking up bike riding, but if people instead want to jump on one of these e-scooters that’s great. Such mobility is similarly aligned toward breaking the total stranglehold of cars and expands the constituency of active users of bikeways.
I urge the Santa Monica city council to not impose a hard policy cap on new dockless micro-mobility services like Bird & LimeBike scooters & dockless e-assist bikes. If the supporters of these forms of mobility cannot persuade not imposing a cap, higher caps should be considered so as to not overly constrain the availability to only select areas of the city. Additionally I would like to see the city support the state legislative effort to create more legal clarity on e-scooters and bring them in-line with the rights, equipment requirements and regulations applied to e-bikes of similar capability. The sooner these new mobility options can be become normalized and ambiguities clarified the better. A sustainable future of electric vehicles, especially in city centers, is going to resemble devices closer to what Bird and LimeBike are deploying than a mirror of our current bloated car culture with the only difference being EV’s that are still prone to congestion and every other problem with conventional cars beyond the fuel and tail pipe.
If we were treating the still accelerating global climate warming crisis with anything close to the urgency the mountains of consilient science supports is necessary to avert global and dire future impacts, including the possibility of mass human displacements, mass species die offs amounting to a 6th global extinction event already underway, resource conflicts and severe economic turmoil, the policy cap we might be implementing in place of this proposal would be to bring the cap on automobile growth imposed in Avalon, CA to the mainland, and setting a sunset date on the sale of internal combustion engine cars. We should be capping the growing problems upending the period of relative stability of climate and life on Earth in which all human civilization developed, not suppressing their solutions.