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Beyond the Scooter Rhetoric

The Advantages and Disadvantages of E-Scooters

No new transportation technology in recent memory has been as politically and socially divisive as e-scooters. What has prevented us from moving beyond rhetoric is lack of clarification and analysis of the alternatives. Based on such data, we conclude that the main advantages of e-scooters include energy efficiency and time-savings. Disadvantages include lack of health benefits of walking and biking, injury risks similar to bicycling, and costs that can actually exceed those of other forms of transportation. While e-scooters have the potential to decrease greenhouse gases, facilitate access to public transport, and decrease motor vehicle congestion, there is no proof that they will do this. The basis for these conclusions follows.

a: Assuming a mile trip, e-scooter easy to access, streets are congested, and limited parking for motor vehicles

b: Assuming gasoline powered vehicles used to pick up/return e-scooters for re-charge/repair

c: Assuming parking of e-scooters is congesting sidewalks

d: Assuming three 1-mile trips per week for 1 year

For decades, society has worked to develop solutions to traffic congestion, long commute times, and dependence on carbon-based fuels. International experts stress that transportation must be made more environmentally sustainable. However, to date, efforts have met with only limited success.

In 2017, e-scooters were introduced in the United States. No new transportation technology in recent memory has been as politically and socially divisive as e-scooters.

Proponents believe that e-scooters will beneficially reshape transportation, but communities have responded to e-scooters by banning them in the name of preventing urban chaos and promoting public safety.

Save time? The ability of e-scooters to save time is a common explanation for their use. An e-scooter trip can often begin and end closer to endpoints than trips by other motorized forms of transportation. And averaging 15 mph, e-scooters are five times as fast as walking and 50% faster than bicycling. Since they can travel on bicycle and foot paths, they can be faster than automobiles when streets are congested or when such paths take a more direct line of travel.

Solve last mile problem? E scooters have the potential to solve the “last mile problem” (making it easier for commuters to traverse the distance to or from public transportation). However, data suggests this is uncommon, as only 10 percent of e-scooter trips being to or from public transport and another 10 percent of trips replacing the use of public transport.

Decrease greenhouse gas? It is misleading to claim (as e-scooter companies do) that every mile traveled benefits the environment because it replaces a trip by car. While the energy consumed by e-scooters (10 watts per mile at a cost of approximately a penny) is markedly less than that of any other motorized vehicles, data suggest that only one third of e-scooter trips actually replace trips by conventional motor vehicles (about half of e-scooter trips are for fun). Conventional motor vehicles are also used to transport e-scooters to and from the streets for re-charging and repair.

Decrease street congestion? While some e-scooter rides clearly replace trips by other motor vehicles, we believe additional data is needed to before one can suggest that this will have a significant impact on congested streets. Right or wrong, the first perception of many people is that e-scooters cause congestion on sidewalks and make walking dangerous . Much of the controversy is due to companies simply “dumping” large numbers of scooters into communities with no forewarning—adopting the “ask forgiveness, not permission” approach used by ride-share companies.

Communities already struggling to provide safe spaces for walkers and bicyclists have been forced to deal with e-scooters suddenly intruding such spaces, leading to regulatory nightmares, lawsuits, and various city responses . Goleta, Santa Barbara, and UCSB have — at least temporarily — effectively banned e-scooters. Denver classified e-scooters as toys and confined them to sidewalks. San Francisco banned e-scooter after they were initially introduced without notice, then permitted reintroduction under strict city regulation, but still found e-scooters littering sidewalks and foot and bicycle paths. Other cities have completely removed all e-scooters by passing laws fining the companies.

Save money? E-scooters do not necessarily make commuting cheaper. Their $1 initial, and $0.15 per minute charge makes the cost of a one-mile trip at 9 miles/hour ($2) similar to that of driving one’s own car. The cost of a one-hour trip is similar to renting a ride-share car. While the of renting an e-scooter is perhaps trivial to middle income users, frequent trips can get expensive for people on tight budgets.

Safety? The standard metric for risk of methods of transportation is deaths per mile or hour of travel. Based on the risk of death, other forms of transportation have a well-documented continuum along which the safest method of travel is by airplane, followed by automobile, rail, bus, bicycling, walking, and mopeds and motorcycles. While the exact place of e-scooters along this continuum is unknown, three e-scooter associated deaths were reported in the news media in 2018. One report suggested that the risk of a death is approximately similar to that of riding an electric bicycle.

The risk of non-fatal injuries is difficult to assess because of a large variation severity and reporting. However reports of a flood of serious injuries and another suggesting that the severity of a collision between an e-scooter and an automobile is similar to that between a pedestrian and an automobile cannot be ignored.

We believe the risks per mile traveled by e-scooters is similar to by bicycles. Properly designed studies will soon provide much better estimates on these risks. An investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the city of Austin will, by April 2019, provide much better estimates of these risks and what can be done to mitigate them.

Possibly increasing the risks of e-scooters is a “double standard of e-scooter companies when it comes to safety”. Although e-scooter companies maintain that safety is first and provide instructions for safe riding, and recommend the use of helmets, public health experts have pointed out that their advertisements put forth by the same companies usually omit key safety messages and portray unsafe practices. The seriousness of the situation is evidenced by a recent report that e-scooter companies are rapidly making changes to improve safety.

Increase physical fitness/public health? An important drawback of e-scooters is that they require little or no exercise. By way of comparison, the health benefits of bicycling are so great that they more than cancel out the risks. Based on these estimates, each dollar invested in bicycling infrastructure is expected to return two dollars in economic benefits. If the rate of injuries among e-scooter users proves similar to that of bicyclists, the lack of exercise benefits may mean that e-scooters are not cost-beneficial to society. Of additional concern is the evidence that use of e-scooters decreases the use of transportation methods that promote health by necessitating physical activity.

Conclusions E-scooters are here — and more are on the way. This article has made a stab at unraveling the controversies about their advantages and disadvantage. It is clear that determining whether e-scooters are a beneficial new technology will depends on what they are compared to and that additional careful research is needed. In the meantime, cities and communities should firmly exercise the authority to control how, when and to what extent e-scooters are introduced and demand that e-scooter companies (1) provide information about, and fund unbiased research on, the issues discussed in this article; and (2) implement agreed-upon structural steps and incentives/disincentives to riders that will promote community benefits and minimize community costs. E-scooter companies are well-funded and are poised to make enormous profits based upon access to our communities. We should welcome them, but only on the condition that they partner with us to ensure that the overall impact of e-scooters is as beneficial for us as it is profitable for them.

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