Researching micro-mobility and transportation safety in San Diego
Learning about the civics of San Diego from the perspective of micro-mobility safety in urban environments
Back in February, my friend and teammate, Amy and I were researching micro-mobility for our special interests design class in civic design.We learned a lot in this process of going on field observation trips, sending out online surveys, conducting interviews, and going through empathy exercises. We were trying to understand micro-mobility and transportation safety from multiple perspectives and become relative experts of micro-mobility. Through this we hoped to learn more about the issues underlying this efficient and flexible method of transportation.
What is micro-mobility?
First, we defined micro-mobility. In San Diego, micro-mobility is most often seen in the form of bicycles and electric scooters by companies such as Bird, Lime, Lyft, Spin, and more.
Micro-mobility refers to a range of small, lightweight devices operating at speeds typically below 25 km/h and is ideal for trips up to 10km. Micromobility devices include bicycles, Ebikes, electric scooters, electric skateboards, shared bicycles, and electric pedal assisted bicycles. — Wikipedia
Amy and I took the public bus from La Jolla to Downtown San Diego during commuting rush hour (around 5:30 PM) to see what we could see. While we did not come with any expectations, we are not frequent micro-mobility users so were quite surprised by the sheer amount of micro-mobility in use, the many dedicated parking spaces for these vehicles, the lack of dedicated bike lanes, and the lack of helmet or bike-light usage (the electric scooters had lights built into them on the front and back).
There are many electric scooter locations around Downtown San Diego. However, since we got off at a bus a little toward the tail end of commute hours, our first observation was that were not a lot of electric scooters near the bus stop. We hypothesize this is because commuters rode the scooters from the bus to different parts of the city where the apartments and homes are.
Amy took tallies and I scanned for the number of different kinds of micro-mobility spotted, the number of people riding these forms of transporation with no kind of head protection, and general observations. If we were to collect another statistic, we would have added whether bikers had a bike light or not (it was darker during commute hour since it was Winter).
We were seeking not only micro-mobility observations but also safety ones, since placing these small vehicles alongside larger ones like cars and trucks carries as much risk as being a pedestrian but pedestrians are given a sidewalk.
Micro-mobility vehicles are compact, do not take up as much space as cars, and are more environmentally friendly for short transportation than a full-blown car. However, they do have their own dedicated parking areas and this parking lot probably became fed up with micro-mobility vehicles taking up car space. From this, we observed space is very precious and users of micro-mobility vehicles have a responsibility to place their vehicles in the appropriate parking location. However, since these often electric scooters are just ride and park anywhere, there is not a large liability for users.
On the left image below it is clear that the people parking the vehicles were either the micro-mobility vehicle chargers or people that were responsible and understood where to park. On the right image below, we wondered if the reason the person parking the vehicle did not do so correctly was because of a:
- Personal liability issue: being too “lazy” to bring the scooter down to street level to park it
- Communication issue: thought the street was just a label for where to park on the sidewalk
- Safety issue: afraid of going into the street because they could get hit
We observed San Diego streets were farily convoluted. There were quite a few one-way streets, no bike lanes yet a dedicated bus lane, and numerous bikers, scooterers, and motorized micro-mobility vehicles zooming along sidewalks which were supposed to be for pedestrians and the streets which did not have bike lanes.
Once we realized there was a lot of potential dangers in riding micro-mobility vehicles due to the design of the streets, we noticed user interactions with micro-mobility more.
For example, this biker was riding on the street as a vehicle but when it came time to cross the street, he became a pedestrian using the light and moving closer to the sidewalk. We thought that it is interesting bikers feel safer on the street when not having to avoid pedestrians but more in danger at intersections where they would feel smaller in contrast to a car.
We observed the majority of the micro-mobility users did not have a helmet but bikers were more likely to have a helmet. In this example, one biker has a helmet and one does not. We found no electric scooter users wore helmets, perhaps because electric scooters are often used for their convenience factor.
There were a lot of dangerous situations that micro-mobility users put themselves in due to the limits of civic design. This man here was walking very slowly perhaps because of a physical-impairment (there was about 20 seconds left to cross when he began). In the picture, there are only 2 seconds left to cross yet he has only made it about half way. He perhaps does not feel safe enough to use the micro-mobility vehicle to get across the street but it also is not safe to have traffic lights be too short for those that cannot cross as quickly.
While there are a lot of dangerous situations micro-mobility users are put in, there is also the possibility they can put others in danger as well. We observed one of the more serious threats of micro-mobility — drunk electric-scootering. We noticed many electric scooters were parked directly outside bars and were plentiful among the Gaslamp District. Amy points out, “it is normal for police to pull drunk drivers over but would they think to stop drunk micro-mobility users?”
We made a lot of observations in Downtown San Diego that we would have never thought of without experiencing it for ourselves. View some of our live observations in a series of video clips we took:
To get more information on the people that use micro-mobility, we sent out a survey to the Facebook pages “San Diego Cyclists” and “Commuters @ UCSD” who were likely micro-mobility users.
Based on the results collected from 29 participants, we saw that many long time San Diego residents use a micro-mobility vehicles often to reach essential destinations like school and work but fear for safety every day of their commute, even if there is a bike lane.
The majority of survey respondants:
- Lived in San Diego > 10 years
- Use a micro-mobility vehicle > 2x a week for trips 1–5 miles at a time to commute to work or school
- Fear for safety the most with about a 5/10 feeling of safety in the bike lane
After receiving survey responses, we conducted interviews to get more in-depth intel on what San Diego residents thought of micro-mobility. We interviewed 3 people including a UC San Diego student, an active transport project manager at SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) and a regional planner at SANDAG.
We asked general questions like their stances on micro-mobility and their transit options as well as more thought-provoking ones like their opinion on San Diego’s micro-mobility infrastructure, how micro-mobility affects others, and safety issues that micro-mobility faces or poses.
Here are some of the answers we thought were fascinating:
Micro-mobility in San Diego is extremely useful since it is a densely populated city in which there are a lot of things to do, but sometimes citizens cannot be inclined to walk there. Sometimes it is not necessary to drive a car and find parking when some places are a couple blocks away, but it may be too much of a hassle to walk
Electric scooters users may consider them to be a form of entertainment AND transportation, so it is not regarded as seriously.
Sometimes scooters can block ADA ramps, making it hard for people in wheelchairs to ride on sidewalk
Scooter riders are very bold and do not think about risks when riding scooters
Bike lanes are a lot safer than simply weaving between other pedestrians but vehicles driving into them often makes them not as safe
San Diego is the best suited city for micro-mobility due to weather
We both particapted in an empathy excersise to get into the minds of micro-mobility users. We rode electric scooter along the side of the road without a bike lane and without a helmet for about .75 miles.
I wasn’t particularly excited about this since whenever I have had a bike I always ride it on the sidewalk and only in the bike lane if there was no sidewalk present. My logic has always been, “it hurts a lot more to get hit by a car then it does a bike.” However, for the sake of empathy, I did it. I kept joking “if we get hit by a car we are really going to be feeling some empathy.”
For me, riding an electric scooter was about the same a riding a bike, but more thrilling since it was faster without manual pedaling. It also felt more dangerous because I did not have as much control. As I was riding I tried to imagine this was how I would either get to work a few blocks down from an apartment or how I would get to my next transit stop (if my apartment were more than a half a mile from the bus station). Micro-mobility seemed like an efficient and somewhat cost-effective (cheaper than a car) method of commute, but the whole way bumbling along I felt a little out-of-control. If I were to truly ever make this my commute I would probably get a large backpack that had a light reflective strip so cars would not hit me.
Amy’s first impression riding the electric scooter was positive. She thought the vehicle was easy to navigate and took a lot less energy than biking. Additionally, it allowed her to transport herself while wearing certain attire such as a skirt or business wear. Although she was riding next to cars on the street, she followed pedestrian signals at crosswalks since she felt safer. On the topic of safety, the official rules for electric scooters is that a helmet must be worn at all times when operating the vehicle. In our empathy exercise, we wanted to simulate the experiences of real users which unfortunately meant using electric scooters with proper protection. She did not feel particularly in danger without a helmet which is probably due to seeing others complete their rides safety. One feature that she would personally have found useful is a basket or container to hold things. Finally, it was difficult to navigate the route on her phone while paying attention to the road at the same time.
From the combination of observations, surveys, interviews, and empathy exercises, some issues we found included:
- Changing structure of San Diego streets is time-consuming, disruptive, and unnecessary to an extend
- Mobility comes and goes so maybe this will not last or will pivot
- One way streets and streets without lines exist and must be changed first
- Curb dips, potholes, sidewalk uproots, and pedestrians (on the sidewalk) create dangerous situations for micro-mobility vehicle speed
- Illegal parking of micro-mobility can block car parking and ADA access
- Improperly or illegally parked micro-mobility vehicles cause issues for cars on the road
- Physically-impaired people use micro-mobility but do not feel safe enough to cross the street with them
- Bikers and small vehicle users use the street without a bike lane or the sidewalk because they feel the street was is safe
- Drunk people on electric scooters can be hazard
- Bikers and motorized micro-mobility vehicle users alike did not use helmets
- Commercialized bikes disappeared when scooters rose in popularity
- When on the sidewalk, micro-mobility slows pedestrians down
- Max speeds for micro-mobility differ based on location but there is no speed limit or signs
- Shared micro-mobility vehicles may not be sanitary
- Not a reliable method of transportation because there are no reservations or guarantee of use
- Electric scooter riders are difficult to spot and often have sporadic maneuvers which affects car movement
The central paradox of this issue is that micro-mobility users clearly need an alternative transport other than buses and cars whether it be for last-mile challege or simply easier and more affordable travel, but at the same time lack of bike lanes, improper parking, drunk scootering, and micro-mobility vehicle-to-vehicle collision and visibility pose dangers. Micro-mobility vehicle companies encourage safety yet allow safety concerns to fall on the shoulders of riders and cities, so the solutions of improving roadways for micro-mobility is either overcomplicated or not implementing the solution puts the problem to the back-burner.
While we were originally focused on researching micro-mobility and transportation safety during this project, we later pivoted toward micro-mobility contributing to solving the last-mile challenge in the form of a mobile application since it was more feasible to solve from our current position as interaction and design students. Nonetheless, I have been wanting to put together this article for awhile now though because I think these research methods really taught how much one can dive into an issue coming from multiple angles.
It is May now and a lot has changed since Amy and I were going downtown in the dark of Winter despite being the heart of midterm and hackathon season to observe and experience micro-mobility firsthand. A lot of the companies that produce micro-mobility vehicles and transportation in general has downturned greatly. With this, a lot of micro-mobility and public transportation will change due to COVID-19 in the next few years, some vehicle-providers may not even be around. We hope that our observations and research still applies and are considered when thinking about transportation and civic design.
If you would like to see the results of the project we ended up pivoting to you can view the proposal, website, video, and information here:
Project proposal: Document
Implementation plan: Document
Mobile application prototype: Figma