By Paul Steely White
In October, I made an important decision — an uncomfortable decision that impacted my family and left others scratching their heads. I decided to leave Transportation Alternatives to join Bird. Many asked, “why?” And six months into my new adventure, it’s finally time to answer their questions.
I joined Bird to free us from cars. The world is, literally, on fire. So creating a sustainable, safe, and affordable mode of transportation is critically important. When I first visited Bird’s office, I saw dog-eared copies of the works of Jane Jacobs, Peter Norton, Mike Lydon and Janette Sadik-Khan laying around. I said to myself, “This must be the place.”
My parents, however, just didn’t understand. “Scooters?” From the tone of my mom’s voice, you’d think I joined a startup that’s devoted to commuting by shared autonomous pogo stick (for the record, that is not a form factor that is on my radar). “Are you sure people want to use scooters? Aren’t they dangerous?” she pleaded. ”Once upon a time, you said the same thing about bicycling,” I replied.
It’s been a long road to respectability, but the bike movement has grown up. In my fifteen years as executive director of New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, I’ve seen the bicycling and livable streets movement go from being ignored, mocked, and feared to loved. e-scooters have the same potential.
Nearly overnight, e-scooters have become more popular than bikes in many cities. After millions of Bird rides, it’s clear that a real revolution in urban transportation is happening. I’m proud to have joined the ambitious team at Bird who created this industry. While the popularity of this new mode of transportation continues to skyrocket, one giant obstacle stands in the way of our industry’s success: 100 years of culture prioritizing cars.
In the early 1900’s, New York City’s traffic engineers — in cahoots with the same auto companies that ripped out urban rail and bus lines — began the decades-long process of radically altering city streets to make way for millions of automobiles. At the time, they couldn’t foresee the consequences. People sounded the alarm about wide sidewalks being sheared away to make way for car lanes, playgrounds, or and convivial public spaces turned into crash zones. In 1922, 10,000 children marched in the streets of New York City to protest the “Death Machines” and honor the 1,054 who had died the year before.
Even the champions of yesteryear couldn’t have predicted the colossal downside of relying cars would become. 40,000 traffic deaths occur each year in the United States — over a million per year worldwide. Countless hours and dollars have been lost forever to crippling traffic congestion. We’re long overdue for serious change. We need green, compact cities, and efficient city streets that accommodate more people.
For 25 years, I’ve promoted alternatives to relying solely on car. I’ve been arrested at protests, written policies that were actually implemented, and raised millions of dollars to support a city-wide team of brilliant activists. If I’m being honest, our progress has been inadequate. The car is still king, and bikers, pedestrians, and now e-scooter riders are left fighting for scraps.
So how do you get people out of their cars? Birds, of course. Not believing the hype? Then believe the facts: after tens of millions of rides, leading cities are finding that e-scooters are much more popular than bike or e-bike share, and reducing car trips in much greater numbers. At least a third of shared e-scooter trips in Portland, Denver, Santa Monica, and Phoenix would have been car trips. Demographically, e-scooter riders are much more representative of the actual population. 78% of Portland, Oregon e-scooter riders haven’t even used local bike share systems.
Despite everything I just said, bikes will always be my first love. There’s nothing better for trips longer than two to three miles. Yet there is something uniquely attractive about the ease of e-scooters, especially for short trips. And with their enormous popularity — more than 50 million total shared e-scooter rides were taken in 2018 — the elusive “critical mass” constituency is now within reach. This term, coined in the 1990s, refers to the threshold number of riders needed to kickstart the cycle of less driving to more space for biking and riding e-scooters … and on until our cities are transformed.
So what’s in our way? I see three obstacles:
1) Modalism. I’ve heard people shout, “Why is that scooter in my bike lane?” Surely, the bike people, the e-scooter flock, and the public transit enthusiasts can work together to reshape city streets. However, some people still see competition instead of coalition. e-scooters aren’t here to displace bikers out; they’re here to give bikers more room and safer streets. Car alternatives are symbiotic and benefit equally from the same street design and land use policies. If we’re smart, all the downtrodden modes should fight together for safer streets that are designed more efficiently.
While only representing about 2% of total commuters, the bike lobby has been punching above its weight for years and has made enormous gains. Imagine what an organized ‘big tent’ movement of scootering, bicycling, transit, environmental and social/economic justice advocates could do to transform city streets.
2) Misperceived danger. People say e-scooters are inherently dangerous. Those same people said the same thing about bicycling until safety in numbers took root.
As Bird’s new safety report reveals, shared e-scooters have a crash rate about the same as bicycling. Let’s work together to debunk the myth that e-scooters are dangerous.
3) Safety Second. The third obstacle to wider adoption of shared e-scooters is the tendency to put safety a distant second to car driving convenience. Vision Zero says otherwise. Vision Zero is a revolutionary traffic safety policy that targets zero traffic fatalities. Vision Zero, now being pursued by over 40 US cities, is different because it says that the safety of road users — especially vulnerable road users traveling outside of cars — must truly come first. Inspired by this audacious policy, Bird is leading the fight to make e-scooters even safer by enforcing safer speeds, keeping riders off sidewalks, encouraging helmet use, and prohibiting underage riding. Fostering a culture of safety and respect means reporting bad ride behavior via the Community Mode feature in the Bird app. We must also make Vision Zero policy a reality to address the most dangerous obstacle: Too many cars and too many drivers not acknowledging our presence on the streets. Cities say they’ve adopted Vision Zero, yet refuse to challenge the primacy of the car. Real Vision Zero means controlling car speeds, reducing car trips and giving all vulnerable road users physical protection in the roadway.
I joined Bird to dismantle these roadblocks. And I’m tackling my new job with a deep sense of urgency. Streets have changed a lot in recent years, but the next step of the post-car revolution must happen quickly. Kicking the cars out of Times Square was discussed for 25 years before it became a reality in 2009. The battle for a car-free Central Park was waged for 35 years before it finally happened last summer. After decades of work, congestion pricing — charging a toll to all drivers entering the congested city center — will likely be a reality for the streets of Manhattan’s Central Business District in 2021.
Good ideas never go away. How long will we accept the status quo before choosing better transportation alternatives? We can’t afford to wait any longer — we have to revolutionize and improve transportation now.