Micromobility usage was at an all-time high before March 2020. The culmination of decades of growth and industry involvement in the United States resulted in nearly 350 million rides taken on shared bikes and scooters since 2010. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) reported this astounding statistic in their Shared Micromobility in the U.S.: 2019 report.
In 2019, more than 134 million shared trips were taken, 60% higher than trips taken in 2018. NACTO reported the average trip in 2019 was 11-12 minutes, covering a distance of 1-1.5 miles. These numbers are significant because they represent trips that may otherwise have been taken by car. 46% of all U.S. car trips are under 3 miles. Replacing short vehicle trips with micromobility trips helps decrease carbon consumption. It can also increase access to new forms of transportation for low socioeconomic status and minority communities in cities.
However, micromobility in cities can and should be doing better. The adoption rates for Capital Bikeshare, a cheap and widely available bike-sharing service in Washington, D.C., is significantly lower among the Black and African-American population than among the White population. This is surprising at first when you consider that micromobility enjoys a positive perception from diverse groups of people.
However, positive perception does not always translate into access. Micromobility needs to be made widely available to all populations in the cities in which they operate. Many bike and scooter sharing services are dockless, and thus can be left almost anywhere. Many scooter companies rely on contract workers to pick up scooters at night when the batteries are dead, charge them overnight at their residence, and redistribute the scooters in the morning. This method allows the scooter companies to rebalance their fleet, and direct where scooters are first released in the morning, and how many scooters are dropped off in each area.
Logically, companies have figured out where scooters are ridden the most. They have access to incredible real-time demand and use data. But this can lead to a feedback loop. Suppose early micromobility adopters are predominately white, male, and young. In that case, scooters will be placed where that demographic is likely to find them first in the morning. In cities where scooter numbers have a firm cap, access to scooters is a zero-sum game for things like early morning work commutes or grocery runs.
One solution to the access problem is having cities work with micromobility companies to ensure scooters’ placement is not only profitable but equitable. Scooters should be located in all communities, not merely in ones that have shown early to use micromobility most frequently. These goals can be accomplished by cities working directly with the providers to access the data and share public-private goals. It could also be done by working with unbiased third-parties to make recommendations for what policies will make micromobility systems most widely available.
Something the current pandemic has provided micromobility companies is a different picture. The NACTO report found that micromobility usage in cities was utilized at higher rates when made free to essential workers. The most-used Citi bike stations were at hospitals in April. Black workers are disproportionally found among essential workers, and essential workers’ utilizing micromobility systems revealed new commuter patterns. The pandemic may provide a picture of what access should look like while simultaneously exposing micromobility systems to underserved communities as cheap and viable transportation options. There is clearly work to be done, and the information is out there. It is time to put the information to use.
The last few years have seen an explosion in the number and size shared micro-mobility systems (“SMMS”) across the United States. Some of these systems have seen extraordinary success and the potential benefit of these systems to communities is considerable. However, SMMS have repeatedly ran into legal barriers that either prevent their implementation entirely, confuse and dissuade potential users, or otherwise limit SMMS’s potential positive impact.
This paper reflects a detailed study of state laws relating to SMMS and the platforms commonly used in these systems. The study uncovered many inconsistencies with micro-mobility laws across the country. Currently, many states lack clear definitions for these emerging forms of transportation, which do not otherwise fit neatly in the categories contemplated by existing law. Several states lack clear, state-level policies, which has led to discrepancies between state and local regulations. Further, there are several areas of micro-mobility law that are sharply inconsistent between states. All of these differences leave users confused as to what the law is and may discourage them from riding.
A number of states are attempting to remedy inconsistencies and legislative silence by passing and proposing laws that regulate the use of electric bikes (“e-bikes”) and electric scooters (“e-scooters”), but even these efforts are unlikely to bring the consistency that is needed. Federal authorities should act to create uniform laws and work with states to adopt them, otherwise, the lack of a legal infrastructure may threaten to stifle the innovation and undermine SMMS’s promised returns.
Funding for this research was provided by a grant from the Pacific Northwest Transportation Consortium (PacTrans), USDOT Transportation Center for Federal Region 10. Additional funding for research assistance was provided by the University of Idaho College Of Law. Thanks also to Ken McLeod of the League of American Bicyclists, Andrew Glass Hastings of Remix, Steve Hoyt-McBeth and Briana Orr of the City of Portland, Chris A. Thomas of the law firm of Thomas, Coon, Newton and Frost, and Asha Weinstein Agrawal of San Jose State University, all of whom were generous with their time, responding to questions and requests and advising the authors on these topics. Credit for design and creation of the searchable state law database, and all the coding it required, belongs exclusively to Timothy Koglin. Thanks to Spencer Felton, Erin Hanson, Brandon Helgeson, Jacqueline Maurer, and Jamie Schwantes for outstanding research of the laws of all 50 states and of the District of Columbia, for populating the database, and for assistance in compiling the report and the early drafts of this paper. ×
The first bike-share programs in the United States appeared in 2010 and since then micro-mobility sharing of electric bikes (“e-bikes”) and electric scooters (“e-scooters”) has greatly expanded.22.
Alex Baca, What Cities Need to Understand About Bikeshare Now, Bloomberg Citylab (April 24, 2018, 10:17 AM), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-24/a-mostly-complete-taxonomy-of-bikeshare-so-far. ×
The legal environment, however, has been slow to embrace these innovations, or even to address them. The success or failure of shared micro-mobility systems (“SMMS”) may turn on the legal environment in which they attempt to operate. This study surveyed the laws governing bicycles, e-bikes (bicycles equipped with electric motors to assist in propulsion), and e-scooters (stand-up kick scooters powered by an electric motor) in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, and created a searchable database summarizing these laws as they may affect SMMS. The survey revealed serious issues and challenges for SMMS, as the development of the legal landscape has failed to keep pace with shared micro-mobility innovations.
Structure of the sharing systems
Two separate models of SMMS have emerged. Some systems have fixed docking stations where bicycles are picked up and returned. Other systems are “dockless,” and use GPS systems and cell phone apps to help users locate available bicycles. The user can leave the bicycle in almost any location when the trip is completed, and the next user can find and claim it for its next use. While bike-share systems have been implemented using both docking and dockless systems, e-bike and e-scooter systems overwhelmingly favor the dockless approach. It is common to see multiple systems using different mobility devices in operation side-by-side in the same municipality, essentially competing with each other.33.
Susan Shaheen & Adam Cohen, UC Berkeley: Transp. Sustainability Research Ctr., Shared Micromobility Policy Toolkit: Docked and Dockless Bike and Scooter Sharing (2019), https://escholarship.org/uc/item/00k897b5#main; Nicole DuPuis, Jason Griess & Connor Klein, Nat’l League of Cities, Micromobility in Cities: A History and Policy Overview (Laura Cofsky ed., 2019), https://www.nlc.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/CSAR_MicromobilityReport_FINAL.pdf. ×
These dockless systems raise additional challenges not seen in earlier docked systems. Docked systems typically require some level of municipal cooperation to provide land in ideal locations to place the docking stations as well as lengthy investments of time and capital to get the systems up and running. Dockless systems require none of these. Instead, they can pop-up in a city overnight with little to no notice to any government officials or the general public. This lack of notice and cooperation can lead to serious legal problems down the road.
Regardless of how the SMMS is structured, the legal regime that governs the use of the mobility – rules governing who can ride, where they can ride, how riders must be equipped, etc., as well as riders’ perception of those laws – can have an outsized impact on the success of the system. This project was aimed at ascertaining and analyzing these various laws across the country.
Potential benefits of shared micro-mobility
SMMS serve a wide variety of purposes, including flexible mobility, emission reductions, individual financial savings, reduced traffic congestion, reduced fuel use, health benefits, improved multimodal transport connections, “last mile” connection to public transport, and equity (greater accessibility for minority and lower-income communities).44.
Peter Midgley, Urban Mobility Advisor, Address at Global Consultation for Decision Makers on Implementing Sustainable Transport (2019), https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/4803Bike%20Sharing%20UN%20DESA.pdf; Benjamin Schneider, What Keeps Bike Share White, Bloomberg Citylab (July 14, 2017, 9:07 AM), https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/07/what-keeps-bike-share-white/533412; James Woodcock, et al., Health Effects of the London Bicycle Sharing System: Health Impact Modelling Study, theBMJ (Feb. 13, 2014), https://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g425. ×
Most of these objectives – with the exception of health benefits – are served equally well by e-bike and e-scooter sharing systems.
But while e-bikes and e-scooters cannot deliver the health benefits that would come from getting users to travel under their own power, they offer other benefits that traditional bicycles lack. These include (1) the ability to travel with minimal physical effort, (2) the ability to use without getting sweaty, (3) the capacity to travel longer distances or on hillier terrain, (4) the ability to use in all types of clothing (at least for e-scooters – which are compatible with dresses in a way that bicycles are not) and, (5) the promise of an entirely different level of fun. To the extent that these attractions lure people out of their cars, when traditional bicycles would not, these new micro-mobility sharing systems have the potential to generate societal benefits well beyond the promise of a basic bike-sharing system.
All of these benefits speak strongly in favor of SMMS, suggesting that local governments should be supportive of them. Indeed, some municipalities have invested heavily in these systems, subsidizing them, or otherwise committing public funds to their installation and operation. At the same time state and, to a lesser degree, local governments operate legal regimes that have the potential to undermine all these benefits, particularly where users receive confusing or mixed messages about what is legal and what is not.
The research team set out to examine the relevant laws in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. It developed a list of questions related to sharing platforms, falling into nine categories: Definitions, Age Restrictions, Safety Equipment, Licensing Requirements, Where to Ride, Riding Under the Influence, Insurance Requirements, Sidewalk Clutter, and Shared Micro-Mobility Regulations. The research team then developed a database in Microsoft Access to facilitate the collection, storage and analysis of the state laws, and employed graduate students from the University Of Idaho College Of Law for the summer of 2019 to research the laws in each state and input them into the database.
The researchers used the LexisNexis legal database, Westlaw, and state-operated websites in each assigned jurisdiction to find the relevant laws. Since this is an emerging field of law, many states have legislation pending at various stages of the legislative cycle. For the purposes of this study, any laws that had been fully enacted by the state government were included as the relevant law, even if they had not yet gone into effect. Any laws that were pending in the state legislature or were awaiting the governor’s signature were not considered for this study.
The research team met weekly to discuss any unclear laws and to ensure that similar situations were logged in a consistent manner. After the states were completed, researchers checked a sampling of each other’s work to ensure that the data collection had been done in a consistent manner. Any and all discrepancies that were identified were raised for discussion, clarification, and ultimately harmonization.
Even the most cursory review of the data collected reveals some compelling conflicts and gaps in the legal and regulatory regime that governs micro-mobility-sharing systems in the United States. These legal deficiencies threaten the success of such ventures, and limit society’s ability to achieve the myriad benefits that such innovations promise. Most of the examined laws regulate the use of micro-mobility (bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters) and not sharing systems. While the problems discussed below do not apply exclusively to these shared systems, many of them are made exponentially more problematic because of the typical role shared mobility plays. The following discussion will highlight some of the largest legal problems and the specific difficulties they pose for the successful implementation of SMMS.
The most prevalent legal problems the study revealed were the numerous inconsistencies and ambiguities in the laws regulating the use of micro-mobility. Inconsistencies arise in a few distinct ways and each presents a slightly different problem to SMMS. Each of these inconsistencies is no more than a minor inconvenience to experienced riders who are either familiar with their local specifications, or know what kind of laws vary in different states and how to fill those gaps when riding in a new location. Anyone who has invested in a means of micro-mobility is likely to have invested some effort in learning the rules that govern its use. To misquote Socrates, they are wise because they know what they do not know.
However, the inexperienced or recreational rider, or the tourist, may be caught completely unaware of any variation or change in the law. Since these casual or inexperienced riders are the target market for most SMMS, inconsistent laws pose a potentially crippling impediment to their success. In our research laws were grouped into two categories. First, laws that are inconsistent with other laws in the same state, here called internal inconsistency. Second, laws that are inconsistent between states, here called external inconsistency – but perhaps better characterized as state-by-state variations in the law. Before addressing the external consistency issues, we will turn to the more acute problem of internal consistency: where even within a single state, sharp differences, ambiguities, and even conflicts exist in the applicable laws.
a. Internal inconsistency in the laws
While most laws are not facially inconsistent, several states’ statutory schemes create confusion that unnecessarily burdens riders. E-scooters in Oregon, for example, are banned from sidewalks and prohibited from traveling faster than 15 mph. But simultaneously, mobility devices used in the street are prohibited from traveling in the roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic.55.
Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 814.512-524 (2020) (Defining the offense of “unlawful operation of a motor assisted scooter.”). ×
Thus, if traffic flows at 25 mph, the scooter is required by law to travel no faster than 15 mph, but no slower than 25 mph.66.
The conflict is arguably reconciled Or. Rev. Stat. § 814.520, which suggests that a rider may avoid liability for the separate offense of “improper operation of a motor assisted scooter” for driving too slowly if she keeps as close to the right edge of the roadway as possible. But because it is not clear whether “improper operation” is the same offense as “unlawful operation,” the legal requirements remain, at best, ambiguous. At worst we have an outright conflict. ×
Even if there is a way to read these laws together consistently, it is certainly not clear at first glance. The resident who may want to use the new SMMS to help commute to work or the tourist who wants to use it to get around town cannot easily tell how fast or where they can ride.
Other issues can arise when a state does not clearly define e-bikes or e-scooters. Even when an e-bike or e-scooter is not defined by statute, it may fall within another statutory definition, such as motorcycle, moped, or more broadly, motor vehicle. This categorization can lead to more restrictive regulations of e-bikes and e-scooters, such as requiring driver’s licenses, registration, or insurance. For example, New York does not define e-bike or e-scooter. Because motor vehicles are defined as “every vehicle operated or driven upon a public highway which is propelled by any power other than muscular power,” e-bikes and e-scooters both fall within this category.77.
N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law § 125 (McKinney 2020). ×
New York state law also requires that every motor vehicle be registered in order to drive on public highways.88.
N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law § 401 (McKinney 2020). ×
However, as of 2019, the Department of Motor Vehicles did not allow for the registration of e-scooters or e-bikes, which appeared to render riding these devices in public illegal according to their website at the time.99.
Motorized devices that cannot be registered in New York, N.Y. State Dep’t of Motor Vehicles, https://web.archive.org/web/20190316092234/https:/dmv.ny.gov/re gistration/motorized-devices-cannot-be-registered-new-york (last visited July 25, 2020) (That agency site was recently changed to indicate that e-bikes may be operated “on some streets and highways in New York State,” and e-scooters will receive the same treatment later this year). Electric Scooters and Bicycles and Other Unregistered Vehicles, N.Y. State Dep’t of Motor Vehicles, https://dmv.ny.gov/registration/electric-scooters-and-bicycles-and-other-unregistered-vehicles (last visited July 25, 2020). ×
This is but one example of how bureaucratic operations can frustrate legislative actions. The inconsistency, in turn, is likely to result in user confusion.
Additionally, state laws can conflict with the laws of the state’s own counties or municipalities. In an emerging field such as shared micro-mobility, some city ordinances conflict directly with their state law. Direct conflicts are likely to occur when a city chooses a position quickly and the state subsequently adopts a contrary position that is incompatible with the local law without allowing for local variation of the matter. While the state law presumably supersedes the local ordinance, the conflicting local law remains on the books. A couple of examples may illustrate.
Sometimes a local law is more restrictive than a state law, so the discrepancy may not create a direct conflict. California state law, for example, identifies three classes of e-bikes and allows all to be ridden on sidewalks.1010.
Cal. Veh. Code § 21207.5 (West 2020). ×
West Hollywood, CA, however, recently banned the use of all classes of e-bikes on sidewalks.1111.
West Hollywood, Cal., Mun. Code § 10.04.030 (2020). ×
In this situation, it is possible for both laws to be valid, depending on whether the state law is read to pre-empt local variation or not. If not pre-empted, the local, more restrictive law simply imposes higher standards than required by the state. Nonetheless, the inconsistency can create difficulties for riders. In King County, Washington, for example, adult users of bicycles are required to wear helmets, but elsewhere in the state they are not.1212.
King County, Wash., Bd. of Health Code § 9.10 (2018). ×
Once again, the SMMS user – i.e. an occasional or casual rider – is far more likely to be caught off guard.
Finally, state and local laws may define or classify mobility devices differently. For example, the city of Seattle defines e-bikes in a manner that does not mirror the three-category classification system for e-bikes adopted by the State of Washington.1313.
Seattle, Wash., Mun. Code §11.14.055; Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 46.04.169 (West 2020). ×
The definition provided by Seattle only encompasses what would be Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes according to Washington State law, leaving Class 3 e-bikes outside of the city’s definition. This creates the potential for regulatory issues if Class 3 e-bikes are not considered e-bikes at all in Seattle, affecting riders’ abilities to ride on bicycle paths or be subject to other restrictions or protections offered to e-bike riders.
b. Externally inconsistent laws
The legal system has long grappled with the problem of state-by-state variations in the law. Some such variations have been celebrated, where local control has been hailed as a benefit of federalism. But there are limits to how and where such variation can or should be tolerated, and the problems of “external inconsistency” have at times demanded remedial attention. Sometimes the federal government has to step in and pre-empt the field, in order to achieve a desirable consistency in the law: examples include historically federal concerns, including bankruptcy,1414.
See generally, Oleksandra Johnson, The Bankruptcy Code as Complete Preemption: The Ultimate Trump?, 81 Am. Bankr. L.J. 31 (2007). ×
securities and banking regulation,1515.
Jay B. Sykes, Cong. Research Serv., R45081, Banking Law: An Overview of Federal Preemption in the Dual Banking System (January 23, 2018), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45081.pdf. ×
See generally, 8 U.S.C. ×
and national security.1717.
See, e.g., USA PATRIOT Act, Pub. L. No. 107-56), 115 Stat. 272 (2001). In the 1990s, federal jurisdiction expanded to include violence against women. The inability to enforce restraining orders across state lines prompted Congress to federalize an area of law long reserved to the states. Lisa N. Sacco, Cong. Research Serv., The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA): Historical Overview, Funding, and Reauthorization, 3rd ed., (2019), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45410.pdf. ×
Other times, states have chosen voluntarily to align their laws with each other’s: examples include the adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code.1818.
States’ eagerness to facilitate commercial transactions for businesses within the state meant that states were happy to adopt a national standard, so interstate transactions could be more easily affected. At present 49 of the 50 states have adopted all or substantially all of the UCC. Tracey George & Russell Korobkin, Selections from the Restatement (Second) Contracts and Uniform Commercial Code, 4-5 (2019). ×
Similar efforts have yielded an overwhelmingly consistent motor vehicle code, making it easy for drivers to traverse the country without worrying that they will run afoul of obscure and idiosyncratic state laws. At the same time, some areas of law – such as Tort Law and Family Law – have been held to be squarely within the province of the states, where uniformity is not necessarily desirable as a matter of federalism.1919.
Tort reform laws are all over the map, with all kinds of different approaches taken in the various states. Family Law, of course, has become a battleground as these local variations – affecting the rights of interracial, same-sex, and polygamous unions, among others – have come under attack for perceived violations of constitutional guarantees. See e.g. Reynolds v. U.S., 98 U.S. 145 (1879); Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967); Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015). ×
Justice Louis Brandeis famously praised this aspect of our federal system, noting that “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”2020.
New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932). ×
The “laboratories of democracy” concept has borne fruit for micro-mobility use. The state of Idaho adopted in 1982 its “Idaho stop law” that allows cyclists to treat “stop” signs as if they were “yield” signs, and to treat red lights as if they were “stop” signs.2121.
Asmara M. Tekle, Roll On, Cyclist: The Idaho Rule, Traffic Law, and the Quest to Incentivize Urban Cycling, 92 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 549 (2017). ×
The resounding success of this experiment has led other jurisdictions to follow suit.2222.
Delaware has adopted the stoplight portion of the Idaho Stop, redubbing it the “Delaware Yield.” Del. Code Ann. tit. 21 § 4196A(c) (2020). Colorado State law specifically allows for local adoption of either the Idaho or Delaware models but does not adopt either at the state level. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 42-4-1412.5 (2019). Oregon has adopted the limited Delaware model. Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 814.414, 416 (2020). Arkansas has fully adopted the Idaho Stop. Ark. Code. Ann. § 27-51-1803 (2020). Washington has enacted legislation authorizing the Delaware version which will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2020. Increasing Mobility Through the Modification of Stop Sign Requirements for Bicyclists, 2020 Wash. Sess. Laws 6208. ×
At the same time, the patchwork of legal requirements for bicycle and other micro-mobility use in different states may sow confusion, particularly for travelers who may find themselves using bikeshare in different states, or in communities situated on a state border. Such issues arise, for example, on roads surrounding the Chipman Trail bike route, which connects Washington State University in Pullman, Washington (WSU), with the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, eight miles east. At the start of a recent community-organized ride that started on the WSU campus, the riders had to be cautioned that they were in Washington now, and needed to stop at stop signs.2323.
The Tour de Lentil, associated with the annual Lentil Festival in Pullman Washington, is a 50k/100k/150k ride that takes place every August. John Nelson, Tour de Lentil Provides Challenging Ride Through the Palouse, The Spokesman-Review (Aug. 11, 2017), https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2017/aug/11/tour-de-lentil-provides-challenging-ride-through-t/. The Fondo on the Palouse, a “century” (100-mile ride) which starts in Moscow, Idaho, encounters similar issues, as its route straddles the Washington-Idaho border. About the Fondo on the Palouse, The Fondo on the Palouse, http://fondopalouse.org/ (last visited July 19, 2020). ×
There, the ride was organized by a local cycling club who was familiar with the differences and intricacies of the two states’ laws, so the riders were able to prepare for the change in laws. However, if a solo rider or group of friends decided to take the bikes from WSU’s campus bike sharing program along that same trail for a Saturday ride, they would be unlikely to know that the governing laws had changed on them mid-ride. Absent a reminder or notification of some kind they are unlikely to even think to look up the law to see if there was any discrepancy.
While the laws governing cars are largely consistent across the country, inconsistency persists in the laws applying to bicycle use and even more so in those governing e-bike and e-scooter use. This is a particular concern given that a significant number of users of such systems are travelers and tourists – people from outside the relevant jurisdiction and therefore ill-equipped to know local laws.2424.
Virginia Tech, Virginia Tech Capital Bikeshare Study: A Closer Look at Casual Users and Operations 10 (2012), https://ralphbu.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/vt-bike-share-study-final3.pdf. ×
Similar problems emerged in the early days of automobiles, and the need for consistent laws governing motor vehicle transportation became apparent. A special committee was appointed at the federal level to draw up a uniform code – one that facilitated effective automobile use – and pressure was put on the state legislatures across the country to adopt it. This eliminated idiosyncratic rules that may have existed in different cities and states and allowed manufacturers to produce vehicles that were legal in every state.2525.
See J. Allen Davis, The California Vehicle Code and the Uniform Vehicle Code 14 Hastings L. J. 377 (1963). ×
Drivers could then have some confidence of the rules of the road when crossing state lines. While traffic laws are not entirely uniform in the U.S. (e.g. some states – including Washington, Oregon, and Idaho – allow left turns on red lights when the driver is turning onto a one-way street, for example), the exceptions are very few and largely minor. Even the traffic signals and signage have been made standard across jurisdictions.2626.
This standardization occurred over time as automobiles became more widespread. Clay McShane, The Origins and Globalization of Traffic Control Signals, 25 J. of Urban History 379, 389 (1999), https://sites.tufts.edu/carscultureplace2010/ files/2010/09/McShane-traffic-signals-1999.pdf. ×
Efforts to bring uniformity to the laws governing cycling – much less to the laws governing the use of e-bikes, e-scooters, or SMMS in general – have yet to bear fruit.
Laws that dictate where each platform can and cannot be ridden, “where to ride” laws, present particularly troublesome external inconsistency. Most states allow bicycles to be ridden on the sidewalk or the street so the rider can choose to ride where they feel the most comfortable. However, e-bikes and e-scooters, the primary platforms for dockless SMMS, are restricted much more and far less consistently. E-bikes are burdened slightly, as in about half of states they cannot be ridden on sidewalks. E-scooters, as the newest platform on the scene, are treated the most inconsistently. Over a third of states do not have any regulation at all regarding where e-scooters are allowed.2727.
See infra Section 2.b. and Figure 4. ×
In those states that do address e-scooters, about half allow them to be ridden on the street and half do not. A handful of states prohibit e-scooter use on the shoulder of the road or the bike lanes. Twenty-three states allow e-scooters to be ridden on sidewalks while six prohibit their use there; the remaining states are silent on the issue. If an individual purchases one of these platforms, especially an e-scooter, it is reasonable to expect that they would look up the rules for the use of their new device in their own state.2828.
A neighbor of author David Pimentel, however, acquired a motorized scooter in 2019, and after a discussion with a police officer, is now afraid to ride it anywhere. The police officer was unable to advise him where, or whether, such a vehicle could be used in the city limits. ×
However, it seems far less likely that the typical SMMS user would know the details about where they are allowed to ride or take the time to research the question, even if it were easy to find answers, which it often is not. Further, many riders who do not know where they can ride may forgo using the SMMS altogether because of their questions.
Other types of laws also raise external inconsistency issues. For instance, helmet laws vary dramatically in various states (see Figures 1.1 and 1.2). In over 20 states, there is no requirement that anyone wear a helmet when using a bicycle, an e-bike, or an e-scooter. Many states impose helmet requirements on bicycle riders under a certain age. Six states require helmets for all users of e-bikes.
FIGURE 1.1 – Mandatory Helmet Laws
Helmets are required . . .
FIGURE 1.2 – Mandatory Helmet Laws
Helmets are required . . .
Laws requiring helmet use can be particularly burdensome for bike-sharing systems because the typical user does not carry a helmet with her/him.2929.
Gigi Douban, A Pothole for Bike-Sharing Programs: Helmets, Marketplace Morning Report (Sep. 4, 2015), https://www.marketplace.org/2015/09/04/business/pothole-bike-sharing-programs-helmets/; David Gutman, Will Helmet Law Kill Seattle’s New Bike-Share Program?, Seattle Times (Dec. 19, 2016), https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/will-helmet-law-kill-seattles-new-bike-share-program/; Emily Elias, Helmets Pose Challenge For Vancouver Bike Share Program, CBC (July 19, 2013) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/helmets-pose-challenge-for-vancouver-bike-share-program-1.1379433. ×
Attempts to share helmets along with bikes have not been well received by the public, presumably because of concerns about the cleanliness of shared helmets.3030.
Gutman, supra note 29. ×
Some speculate that the failure of Seattle’s first bike-share venture was due to the strictures of the mandatory helmet law there;3131.
more recent success with SMMS in Seattle may be due to local police’s decision to relax their enforcement of King County’s mandatory helmet laws.3232.
David Gutman, Helmets may be Seattle Law, but Many Bike-Share Riders Don’t Wear Them, Seattle Times, (Aug. 9, 2017), https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/helmets-may-be-seattle-law-but-many-bike-share-riders-dont-wear-them/. ×
The “ins.tructions” commonly provided by the micro-mobility sharing services are unhelpful on this score, as they may simply tell the user to wear a helmet, without indicating whether the helmet is required by law (e.g. the instruction video for Bird scooters, inside the Bird app, includes a “Bring your own helmet” instruction, without further elaboration to clarify whether this is a legal requirement or just a prudent recommendation).3333.
App: Bird, How to Ride, (Bird Rides, Inc.) (available on Google Play or the Apple App Store), www.bird.co/how/. ×
This uncertainty can serve as a deterrent to would-be riders.3434.
Ronald W. Pimentel, Michael B. Lowry, David Pimentel, Amanda K. Glazer, Timothy W. Koglin, Grace A. Moe, & Marianna M. Knysh, If You Provide, Will They Ride? Motivators and Deterrents to Shared Micro-Mobility, 6 Int’l J. Bus & Applied Soc. Sci. 26, 31 (2020). ×
E-bike and e-scooter riders also face uncertainty about the application of Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”) laws. In many states, it is not at all clear whether the e-bikes and e-scooters qualify as “motor vehicles” for purposes of DUI statutes. A small handful of states have attempted to clarify this by passing separate laws governing Riding Under the Influence (“RUI”), which explicitly apply to micro-mobility users. These laws typically impose lesser punishments for RUI than the state imposes for DUI violations, which makes sense since an intoxicated driver is endangering the lives of others (pedestrians, car passengers, etc.) at a level far beyond the dangers posed by an intoxicated e-scooter rider. A general breakdown of state law treatment of these issues is shown in Figure 2.
FIGURE 2 – “Riding Under the Influence” Legislation*
*A few states have both RUI laws specifically applicable to micro-mobility, and separate DUI laws that apply equally to micro-mobility, introducing potential for contradiction and inconsistency (see discussion of such issues above). The states that fall into both the DUI and the RUI categories are depicted in the “RUI Law Applies” section of the pie charts above.
Naturally, some level of inconsistency is necessary. Not every community has the same needs, and the laws that are appropriate in New York City may not be appropriate in Moscow, Idaho (pop. 24,000). However, a common foundation of legal rules for micro-mobility use, short of complete uniformity, is important if those transportation modalities are to take hold in American cities. For instance, some kind of baseline system that applies broadly but allows for limited local variation based on the specific needs of the location, where those local variations could be clearly demonstrated to potential riders, would go a long way to solving both internal and external inconsistency issues.
(Lack of) Awareness of the law
Even if inconsistent laws were aligned, micro-mobility users still might not know what the laws are. Someone who is unaware of the law will have difficulty complying with it and, as noted above, the uncertainty may scare riders off altogether.
a. Ignorance and (mis)perception of the applicable laws
It is far from clear, even for a lawyer trained to interpret statutes, which existing laws may apply to a particular mode of micro-mobility. In some states, the term “pedestrian” is interpreted to include bicyclists on sidewalks, so laws that give pedestrians the right-of-way simultaneously give bicyclists the right-of-way.3535.
E.g. Mich. Comp. Laws § 257.660c (2020). ×
In thirty-five states, the word “vehicle” is interpreted to include bicycles, which lumps bicycles in with other vehicles and subjects them to the laws governing vehicular traffic.3636.
E.g. Or. Rev. Stat. § 814.400 (2020). ×
As for e-bikes and e-scooters, the problem is even more difficult. Because most of these laws were passed before e-bikes and e-scooters came on the market, laws cannot reflect the legislature’s intention concerning them. Pullman, Washington, requires that all scooters be equipped with a “muffler,” for example, in an ordinance that must have been drafted during an era of gas-powered scooters;3737.
Pullman, Wash., Code § 12.11.020(8) (2019). ×
it is, of course, a ridiculous requirement to impose on virtually silent e-scooters. Even the most well-informed user is left to wonder whether an e-bike is a “motor-driven cycle” within the meaning of the statute, for example, or whether an e-scooter is a “motor vehicle.” Exacerbating the problem, there does not appear to be any consensus or consistency, state-by-state, on what these terms mean.
Potential users of SMMS being unaware of the laws governing the mobility presents two separate problems. The first is that users may unwittingly violate the law. They may assume that e-scooters are legal on sidewalks, and ride them there, illegally disrupting pedestrian traffic and unwittingly subjecting themselves to liability. The second concern is that the uncertainty itself will be a deterrent to use of the mobility. A potential user may be tempted to rent a scooter or a bike but may err on the side of caution and avoid using the device altogether when unsure of whether it’s legal to ride without a helmet, or to ride without a driver’s license, or to ride on the running path that goes through the park or along the river. A July 2019 survey of users and non-users in the Northwest suggest that uncertainty about the law can significantly discourage use of SMMS.3838.
Pimentel, supra note 34, at 31. ×
Uncertainty about where it is legal to ride provides at least a slight deterrent effect for 74% of potential users (See Figure 3).
FIGURE 3 – Deterrent Effect of Legal Uncertainty
b. Statutory silence
The lack of legislation in many jurisdictions leaves both the purveyors of SMMS and their customers in the dark about what is legal and what is not. The laws are reasonably comprehensive as they apply to bicycles, but significant gaps exist for newer technologies, particularly e-scooters, which do not fit so easily into pre-existing categories. While some states are already working to get laws on the books that govern the use of such mobility, many more legislatures either have failed to perceive a need or have been unwilling or unable to muster the political will or material resources to respond to it. Figure 4 shows the conspicuous gaps which exist in several states’ legislation regarding where riders can use various devices, particularly e-scooters. It unrealistic to expect states to have comprehensive legal regimes in place regarding these newer devices; it is understandable that legislatures may have trouble keeping up with new technologies. However, SMMS will be hamstrung in any states that fail to grapple with basic issues, such whether these devices can be ridden on their sidewalks, or on their streets, or on both, or on neither.
FIGURE 4 – Where to Ride Table
c. Emerging legislation
By 2019, new laws were in the works in a number of states. New York’s legislature introduced a bill that defined “bicycles with electric assist” and “electric scooters,” stipulating that e-bikes are subject to the same regulations as bicycles while e-scooters are subject to new regulations laid out in the bill.3939.
S.B. 5294 (N.Y. 2019). The bill was vetoed by the Governor in December 2019. ×
The Hawaiian legislature introduced two separate bills to govern the use of these devices. The first set a minimum age of fifteen for e-bike riders, and included e-bikes within the definition of bicycles, thus subjecting them to most of the same regulations that govern non-motorized bicycles.4040.
H.B. 812 (Haw. 2019). ×
The second defined “electric foot scooters,” set a minimum riding age of fifteen, and subjected e-scooters to many of the same laws that govern bicycles.4141.
H.B. 754 (Haw. 2019). ×
Similarly, Alaska introduced a bill that defined e-bikes without a classification system, and clarified that they are not motor vehicles or subject to any registration requirements.4242.
H.B. 123 (Alaska 2019) ×
The wave of new legislation presents both challenges and opportunities for SMMS. If the laws passed aid the implementation and operation of SMMS or facilitate the platforms that they use, then SMMS may be well on their way to becoming a permanent fixture of American cities. Additionally, states have the opportunity to see what laws are the most successful and to copy them, laying the groundwork for a more consistent, if not entirely uniform system. One example is the three-tiered e-bike classification system. This system was first implemented in California in 2015 and has since been adopted almost completely in twenty-five other states, making it by far the most common classification system.4343.
Claudia Wasko, Why More States Need to Adopt the Three-Class Ebike System, Bosch, https://www.bosch-ebike.com/us/everything-about-the-ebike/stories/three-class -ebike-system/# (“In 2015, California was the first state to adopt this ‘3-Class’ approach, and since then, 25 other states followed suit: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.”). ×
A consistent and coherent classification system is a prerequisite to any unified e-bike laws that could come in the future. However, advocates (including SMMS providers) must act quickly to lobby for favorable laws, as it will become much harder to implement favorable laws after states have enacted barriers.
Laws addressing shared micro-mobility implementation and use directly
Some states have adopted laws that focus on sharing systems, recognizing the difference between regulating e-bike or e-scooter use and regulating the businesses or systems set up to share them. As of this writing, Alabama is the only state that has comprehensive shared micro-mobility law that covers bicycles, e-bikes, and e-scooters. Four other states, Arkansas, Nevada, Utah, and Washington, have enacted statewide regulations concerning e-scooter sharing systems exclusively. However, most states’ statutory schemes are either silent on this issue or leave the regulation of these systems to the local government.
Without any laws regulating the sharing systems directly, many problems are likely to arise which are specific to SMMS. One such problem is the “pop-up” SMMS start-ups. Without statewide regulations in place, SMMS providers may be able to enter a market more or less overnight with no warning to the local government. This presents a number of problems, many of which have already been discussed. These problems can be prevented with simple state-wide schemes which include regulations for startup procedures that allow SMMS to operate but require additional cooperation between the providers and the cities they serve.
Even when states do enact SMMS-specific laws, another issue emerges: shared micro-mobility laws that differ from the existing laws. For example, Alabama defines a “scooter” as:
[A] device weighing less than 100 pounds that satisfies all of the following:
(a) [h]as handlebars and an electric motor;
(b) [i]s solely powered by the electric motor or human power; [and]
(c) [h]as a maximum speed of no more than 20 mph on a paved level surface when powered solely by the electric motor.4444.
Ala. Code § 32-1-1.1(60) (2020). ×
By this definition, an e-scooter would qualify simultaneously as a “scooter” and as a motor vehicle in the Alabama Code.4545.
Ala. Code § 32-1-1.1(33) (2020). ×
Conversely, the definition for a “shared micromobility device” is a type of transportation device, including a scooter that is used in a shared micro-mobility device system.4646.
Ala. Code § 32-1-1.1(64) (2020). ×
The “shared micromobility device[s]” are subject to the same laws and regulations as a bicycle, and not a motor vehicle.4747.
See e.g. Seattle Times Editorial Bd., Opinion, Hold Bike-Share Vendors Accountable, Seattle Times (Sep. 5, 2019), https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/editorials/hold-bike-share-vendors-accountable/; Quemuel Arroyo, Op-ed: Where Do We Put All Those Dockless E-Scooters?, StreetsBlog NYC (Feb. 4, 2020), https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2020/02/04/op-ed-where-do-we-put-all-those-dockless-e-scooters/; Elizabeth Chou, LA Looks to Improve Parking of Dockless Scooters and Bikes. Here’s How, L.A. Daily News (Oct. 22, 2019), https://www.dailynews.com/2019/10/22/la-looks-to-improve-parking-of-dockless-scooters-and-bikes-heres-how/. ×
As a result, scooters that are privately owned are subject to rules and regulations pertaining to motor vehicles, such as licensing requirements, while scooters that are used within a SMMS are subject to a different set of rules and regulations, including an exemption from the licensing requirement.
Parking and Storage
While there are several deficiencies in the laws governing SMMS (including the absence of them), the research painted a more encouraging picture about the problems of parking and storage. One of the most common complaints about dockless systems is the concern that the bicycles, e-bikes, or e-scooters get left in inconvenient places.4848.
See Arroyo, supra note 48. ×
Accordingly, the research team looked at the laws governing the problem.
Part of the concern is one of untidy or unsightly clutter, but the greater concern is about obstructing sidewalks and other thoroughfares of pedestrian traffic, creating a nuisance and a safety-related tripping hazard, as well as limiting access to the sidewalk for people with disabilities.4949.
See Arroyo, supra note 48. ×
While this concern often prompts critics to call for banning SMMS,5050.
Leif Reigstad, The Rise and Fall of Dockless Bike Sharing in Dallas, Texas Monthly, (Aug. 7, 2018), https://www.texasmonthly.com/news/rise-fall-dockless-bike-sharing-dallas/. ×
most states already have statutes that address the issues of clutter or obstruction, and the problem is simply a matter of finding a way to enforce these laws in the context of shared bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters. Alabama, the state with the most comprehensive statewide shared micro-mobility legislation, specifically prohibits shared micro-mobility devices from being parked in a manner that impedes normal pedestrian movement.5151.
Ala. Code § 32-19-2(c) (2020). ×
However, many other states that currently lack shared micro-mobility legislation already have laws that prohibit all vehicles or specific micro-mobility devices from impeding pedestrian and other traffic. Still others list specific locations where such vehicles can and cannot be parked or delegate such decisions to local authorities. In total, thirty states already have statutes preventing micro-mobility devices from being strewn on or about the sidewalks.
Since laws preventing SMMS devices from cluttering the street are already in place, the problem may come from the difficulties of enforcement. Law enforcement may be hesitant to seize or ticket SMMS devices without clear directives. They are also likely even more hesitant to ticket a user who leaves them in an improper location because they plausibly may not know the requirements. Perhaps comprehensive SMMS laws such as those discussed above can help clarify these laws with regard to shared devices and enable law enforcement to manage the situation more effectively.
This problem may be one of perception more than reality. People are more likely to remember the few times they were walking down the sidewalk and had to step around an obstructing scooter or bicycle than they are to remember the countless times that they walked down the street without any such obstruction. Or they may remember an inflammatory picture they have seen in the press of unwanted and unloved bike-share bikes heaped in huge piles, and perceive a problem in the U.S., even though those pictures were taken in China.5252.
See generally, Dan Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t-- and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger (2008) (discussing the “availability heuristic”). ×
Indeed, despite conspicuous complaints about the clutter associated with shared micro-mobility,5353.
Reigstad, supra note 50. ×
a study in Spokane Washington found the problem to be at most minor (finding that 96% of e-scooters were parked in a “preferred area” and that 98% of them were parked upright).5454.
Toole Design, Spokane Shared Mobility Study Final Recommendations 18 (2019), https://static.spokanecity.org/documents/projects/shared-mobility/spokane-shared-mobility-report.pdf. ×
Creating laws that favor bicycles and other micro-mobility to further promote SMMS
Laws that make bicycling, and other micro-mobility use easier will necessarily make SMMS more attractive to potential users; and laws that burden the mobility-user will have the opposite effect. The Idaho stop laws, for example, make cycling vastly more efficient and attractive.5555.
See Tekle, supra note 21. ×
State laws that expect cyclists to adhere to the laws that govern motor vehicles, in contrast – failing to account for the fact that bicycles have different capabilities, needs, and safety concerns – impose heavier burdens on cyclists and place them at greater risk of harm.5656.
David Pimentel, Cycling, Safety, and Victim-Blaming: Toward a Coherent Public Policy for Bicycling in 21st Century America, 85 Tenn. L. Rev. 753 (2018). ×
As noted above, mandatory helmet laws may also be a barrier to SMMS success. While it is tempting to cling to these laws as a fundamental safety measure, such laws have been sharply criticized as counter-productive, from a safety perspective,5757.
Luke Turner, Australia’s Helmet Law Disaster, 64 IPA Review 28, 28–29 (Apr. 2012), http://www.vehicularcyclist.com/ozdisaster.pdf; Craig Baird, Bike helmets can make roads more dangerous for cyclists, says Bike Regina, Regina Leader-Post (May 2, 2017), https://leaderpost.com/news/local-news/bike-helmets-can-make-roads-more-dangerous-for-cyclists-says-bike-regina; Sue Knaup, Are Helmet Programs Scaring Kids Away from Bicycling?, The Bike Helmet Blog (Nov. 10, 2015), https://www.bikehelmetblog.com/2015/11/are-helmet-programs-scaring-kids-away.html. ×
and for the implicit message that micro-mobility is very dangerous and therefore something to be avoided.5858.
Rosenthal, E., To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2012), https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/sunday-review/to-encourage-biking-cities-forget-about-helmets.html; Knaup, supra note 57. ×
That message, as well as the victim-blaming message that responsibility for cyclist safety lies solely with the cyclist, rather than with the drivers who hit them, can only discourage ridership.5959.
Peter Walker, The Big Bike Helmet Debate: “You Don’t Make it Safe by Forcing Cyclists to Dress for Urban Warfare,” The Guardian (Mar. 21, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/mar/21/bike-helmet-cyclists-safe-urban-warfare-wheels; Pimentel, supra note 56. ×
Laws that permit, or prohibit, riding bicycles on sidewalks or off-road paths and trails may have an impact as well. If people know that they can be cited for riding where they feel safe to ride, they may opt not to ride at all. For example, in a busy urban center, someone may be happy to ride an e-scooter on the sidewalk, but if they know that e-scooters are legal only in the street (as is the case in the states of Washington and California), they may stay off the scooter altogether.6060.
Cal. Veh. Code § 21235(g) (Deering 2020); Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 46.61.710 (LexisNexis 2020). ×
Of course, the laws of states, such as Florida and South Dakota, that ban the use of scooters in the streets too, or of the twenty states that are silent on the subject, generate serious uncertainty about whether they can be used legally anywhere.
The wheels of transportation innovation turn much faster than the wheels of legislation. The legal system struggles, playing catch-up with industry changes. That alone does not necessarily constitute a problem. However, the lack of a legal infrastructure may threaten to stifle the innovation and undermine the potential benefits of SMMS in America. This comprehensive study of applicable laws exposes the gaps and inconsistencies in these laws and illustrates some of the impact of these legal deficiencies. The hope is that federal authorities may intervene, promulgating standardized legal rules for shared micro-mobility, as they have for automobiles, which would clarify and harmonize the scattershot approach heretofore taken. If the federal government is unwilling or unable (politically or otherwise) to act, perhaps interested parties – bicycling advocates, safety advocates, industry representatives, and regulators – can combine forces to produce a “uniform law,” one that states may be willing to adopt, much as they have the Uniform Commercial Code. The searchable database of the compiled state laws on this subject created in this study can support such efforts, as well as future research. In the meantime, innovators should be aware of and sensitive to how the variegated legal landscape may impact the results and the future of shared micro-mobility.
† David Pimentel is Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Idaho. Before beginning his academic career, he served as staff in the U.S. federal judiciary, including one year as a Supreme Court Fellow, before going abroad to do rule of law development work in post-conflict countries (Bosnia, Romania, and South Sudan). He also spent four years with a United Nations war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands, where he developed an appreciation for cycling as transportation. Intrigued by Idaho’s bicycle laws, he has recently published scholarship on the public policy behind legal regulation of bicycle usage and of shared micro-mobility systems.
† Dr. Michael Lowry is an associate professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Idaho with a research focus on transportation planning. He serves on the National Academy of Science Committee for Bicycle Transportation and the Committee for Transportation Investment Decision-Making. He teaches courses on transportation safety, benefit-cost analysis, and geographic information systems. He was awarded the College of Engineering Outstanding Young Faculty award for excellence in teaching and research. Dr. Lowry has been a visiting scholar in Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
† Timothy W. Koglin is a recent graduate of the University of Idaho College of Law and (soon to be) member of the Washington State Bar Association. He spent time at the United States Military Academy and Washington State University before graduating from Liberty University with a B.S. in History. He spent the last two years of law school as the research assistant for David Pimentel working on a wide range of legal topics including parenting, sports, and transportation.
† Ronald W. Pimentel has been a marketing professor for 30 years and also had a 12-year career in industry doing marketing and sales. He completed a BA in Art/Design at BYU, an MBA at UC Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in marketing at The University of Arizona. He is currently a Scholarly Associate Professor of marketing and the Faculty Director of the Professional Sales Certificate program at Washington State University Vancouver. Ron has published three book chapters, and many journal articles and conference proceedings. Recent research has included inter-disciplinary work on shared micro-mobility.
This blog post kicks off a month of coverage focused on micromobility – check back tomorrow for a new journal article on micromobility laws nationwide!
A few weeks ago I wrote about how COVID-19 has disrupted the ridesharing industry, with Lyft and Uber struggling to find their place in our changing world. Those same disruptions have sent ripples through the various bikeshare and e-scooter services that make up the micromobility industry, though that segment of the greater mobility ecosystem may be better positioned to continue functioning during the ongoing pandemic.
First, the bad news – earlier in the pandemic, both Lime and Bird, major e-scooter operators, laid off staff, with Lime shedding 13% of its workforce and Bird laying off a full 30%. Part of this was due to the companies suspending some service in the face of the pandemic. In May, a huge number of bikes owned by JUMP, a Lime-owned dockless bikeshare service, were shown being destroyed in videos posted to social media.
Yet at the same time as those JUMP bikes were being destroyed, the U.S. found itself in the middle of a major bicycle shortage. Even now, months into the pandemic, bike producers are struggling to keep up with demand, though industry leaders acknowledge that they were very lucky to dodge the business losses they originally had feared as the pandemic began. Bicycles represent a convenient means of mobility, and as city dwellers sought to avoid public transit, they turned to their bikes to get them where they need to go. Indeed, in New York City, bike riding increased over 50% across the city’s bridges in March as the weather improved. Likewise, also in March, the city’s docked bikeshare, Citi Bike, saw a 67% increase in demand.
That last number is very interesting to me – even at some of the darkest points of New York’s outbreak, people were still flocking to use bikeshare. Indeed, of all the modes of mobility, micromobility seems the most pandemic-proof. To ride carefully all you really need to do is wipe the scooter or bike’s handlebars down, or generously sanitize/wash your hands after your ride. One company, Wheels, has even released rentable e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars! And, of course, don’t forget your mask, which frankly could improve the ride experience as it shields your face from the wind. I’ll admit that other than my car, a Spin scooter is the only form of transportation I’ve used since the pandemic began – and I would consider myself more paranoid about COVID exposure than the majority of people.
So what can the micromobility industry itself do to encourage consumers to use their services, especially those who can’t afford for get their hands on a bike of their own? As often is the case in the mobility space (or at least our coverage of the space…) Michigan offers a potential path forward. At the end of June, the City of Detroit announced a new pilot program to connect essential workers with affordable e-bikes and scooters. In this case, two micromobility providers, Spin and MoGo, along with GM, leased scooters and e-bikes to the employees of hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, and manufactures – but only to those employees living within 6 miles of their workplace. Here, micromobility companies are getting their vehicles into the hands of people who need them the most – and giving them a reliable new way to get to work. While far from a full solution to the companies’ woes, it shows that they can reach customers while also providing a public service.
An IBM report released earlier this month revealed some significant changes in consumer sentiment and public willingness to use certain mobility methods as a result of COVID-19. The study polled more than 25,000 adults during the month of April. Of the respondents that regularly used buses, subways, or trains: 20 percent said they no longer would utilize those options; an additional 28 percent said they would use public transportation less often. 17 percent of people surveyed said they will use their personal vehicle more; 25 percent of that 17 percent said it will be their exclusive method of transportation going forward.
Consumer perception of public transportation and the ways we move has shifted dramatically in just three short months. These results indicate that a significant number of U.S. consumers intend to drastically change the ways they travel in the aftermath of COVID-19. If these sentiments remain in place in the coming years, the decrease in public transportation ridership would mean decreased fee collections, which can lead to several options for cities to fund public transportation, including (1) an increase in ridership fees, (2) an increase in general tax revenue devoted to public transportation, or (3) a decrease in service offerings. All of these options are undesirable, especially in cities where private vehicle ownership is low, and many workers may have no option other than public transportation. The cities with the largest annual ridership numbers for subway or metro are New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Removing 20 percent of public transportation riders completely and decreasing the usage of nearly 30 percent more would be financially catastrophic for any city transit authority. In 2019, the New York MTA brought in nearly $17 Billion. The current decrease in ridership (down 74 percent) has already required the MTA to seek billions in aid from the federal government and led to a first-ever decrease in working hours to sanitize trains overnight. A sustained decrease of more than 30 percent of rides per year would require a systemic overhaul of the metro system or some other drastic measures.
While some respondents indicated they will use their personal vehicles more, it is clear that in cities where public transportation is most utilized, many people do not have access to a personal vehicle. This will place a difficult decision on many underserved and minority communities: return to using public transportation and face an elevated risk of potential infection, struggle to find a job closer to home to avoid transportation, or save for a personal vehicle to avoid public transportation. Owning a vehicle in major cities can be prohibitively expensive for low-income households, and affordable parking can be nearly impossible to find. As transit authorities raise prices to compensate for lost riders, more riders may depart as the cost of ridership becomes too high for their budget. This could lead to a death spiral for public transportation. These systems simply cannot sustain 90 percent ridership decreases.
The same IBM survey also found that the decision to buy a personal vehicle after COVID-19 was “greatly” influenced by a constraint on their personal finances for more than 33 percent of respondents. 25 percent said they would hold off on buying a vehicle for more than 6 months. So for many people who wish to stop using public transportation, there is no safe and affordable option immediately available. Some may point to rideshare services as a safer alternative to the cramped quarters of public transportation. But according to the survey, of the respondents who used rideshare apps and services already, more than 50 percent said they would use the services less, or stop entirely. Uber and Lyft are going to see an incredible drop off in ridership; Uber and Lyft both halted their carpooling services in March. Uber trips were already down 70 percent in some cities in March. These numbers are sure to increase, and the companies will recover financially due to the increase in demand for UberEats during this crisis. However, the surge in ridership seen in recent years will take many years to reach 2019 peaks.
Finally, the IBM survey also asked about working from home, a topic I wrote about at the end of March. Around 40 percent of respondents indicated they feel strongly that their employer should provide employees the option to opt-in to remote working from home going forward. 75 percent indicated they would like to continue working from home at least occasionally, and more than 50 percent indicated they would like working from home to be their primary work method. Perhaps companies will heed the desires of their employees. It is unlikely that many companies will offer the “work from home, forever” option that Twitter and Facebook have provided. But almost certainly we will see an increase in the ability of employees to work from home, now that their ability to do so has been demonstrated. Especially in cities like New York and San Francisco where the annual cost of office space is more than $13,000 per employee. If more tech companies follow Facebook’s lead and allow many employees to work remotely forever, we may even see housing prices start to decrease in some select areas and a further decrease in public transportation ridership in cities like San Francisco.
Mobility is going to change immensely once this crisis is over, whenever that may be. Public transportation must be overhauled in its current processes and operations if it hopes to regain public confidence and achieve ridership numbers anywhere near 2019 levels during the next decade.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and our memories of the “before time” feel ever more distant, some have begun to wonder how this crisis and its aftermath could change how and where people live. Will people abandon expensive and dense major cities for smaller cities, suburbs or even small towns? On the one hand, I’ll admit that living in a small city like Ann Arbor has made weathering the lock down rather easy, which could lead credence to these ideas. Personally, I’ve had no issues finding supplies, or taking a walk without running into too many other people (though my apartment building’s shared laundry rooms are now a fraught location). Of course, Ann Arbor, a wealthy, educated college town with excellent access to medical care has a lot of resources other cities do not, so it may not be the best example.
Alternatively, there are those who argue our cities won’t actually change that much post-COVID-19, and there are even ways that the outbreak could make cities better (with the proper investment). Cities have survived disease outbreaks for millennia, and given that so much of our economy, culture, and infrastructure is built around cities it would be hard to seismically shift to some other model of living. Yet the economic upheaval that the pandemic has ushered in will no doubt influence where and how people live, and could last a good deal longer than the disease itself.
So what changes are well already seeing in cities, and what could that indicate about where we’re heading? In a number of cities, including New York, Seattle, and Oakland, are closing streets to open up more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Streets could also be closed to provide more outdoor space for restaurants, to help them reopen while preserving some measure of social distancing. New Zealand has gone as far as to make such street alterations national policy. Cities and towns in that nation are able to apply for funding to immediately expand sidewalks and modify streets, with the national government covering 90% of the cost. Some suggest these closures and modifications should be permanent – that we should take this opportunity to create more walkable and bikeable cities now, when we have the chance. In many ways these modified streets are similar to proposals for automated vehicle (“AV”) dominated cities. Supporters believe that wide adoption and deployment of AVs would mean more streets could have one lane of traffic in each direction, with the extra space turned over to alternative uses. The current demands of social distancing dovetail with those ideas – could cities use the current crisis to prepare themselves for an autonomous future? Given the difficulty of building new infrastructure, it may not be a bad idea to get ahead of the curve.
As noted by Phillip in a post earlier in the crisis, another effect of the global lockdown has been improved environmental conditions in cities around the globe. In India, for example, where cities have significant pollution problems, massive reductions in travel have led to clear skies. For the first time, we are seeing clear examples of what cleaner energy production could bring (pun intended). Such improvements could lead residents to demand continued reductions in emissions even after this crisis passes. These and other changes made to cities in the short term to cope with lockdowns and social distancing could dictate the future of urban design, but only if governments and citizens are willing to adopt them and protect them from being undone once the crisis passes.
P.S. Those of you who are interested in buying a bike to help navigate the new socially-distanced world may run into an issue – just like masks, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper, bikes are now becoming a scarce resource in some places.
Up to now, the way forward for roadways-based, commercial automated mobility remained somewhat of a mystery. Surely, we would not see AVs in the hand of individual owners anytime soon – too expensive. “Robotaxi” fleets commanded by the likes of Uber and Lyft seemed the most plausible option. There was, at least in appearance, a business case and that most industry players seemed to be putting their efforts towards an automated version of common passenger cars.
Over the course of 2019, the landscape slowly but steadily changed: public authorities started to worry more about safety and the prospects of seeing fleets of “robotaxis” beyond the roads of Arizona, Nevada or California seemed remote. This is how automated shuttles found their way to the front of the race towards a viable business model and a large-scale commercial deployment.
Many now mock these slow-moving “bread loafs,” ridiculing their low speed and unenviable looks. However, some of these comments appear slightly disingenuous. The point of the shuttles is not “to persuade people to abandon traditional cars with steering wheels and the freedom to ride solo.” I don’t see any of these shuttles driving me back home to Montreal from Ann Arbor (a 600 miles/1000km straight line). But I see them strolling around campuses or across airport terminals. The kind of places where I don’t quite care about the good looks of whatever is carrying me around, and also the kind of place where I wouldn’t take my car to anyway. There might be much to say about how certain electric vehicles marketed directly to the end-user failed because of their unappealing design, but I don’t plan to buy a shuttle anytime soon.
Looks aside, these automated “turtles” have a major upside that the “hare” of, say, Tesla (looking at you, Model 3!) may not dispose of. Something which happens to be at the top of the agenda these days: safety. While notoriously hard to define in the automated mobility context (what does safety actually imply? When would an AV be safe?) removing speed from the equation immediately takes us into a safer territory; public authorities become less concerned, and more collaborative, agreeing to fund early deployment projects. Conversely, scooters irked a lot of municipal governments because they go too fast (among other things). As a result, there was little public appetite for scooters and operators were forced to withdraw, losing their license or failing to become commercially viable.
As a result, it is the safe vein that various industry players decided to tap. Our turtles are indeed slow, with a top speed of 25mph, usually staying in the range of 15 to 20 mph. This is no surprise: that is the speed after which braking means moving forward several dozen if not hundreds of feet. Within that lower bracket, however, a vehicle can stop in a distance of about two cars (not counting reaction time) and avoid transforming a collision into a fatality. Hence, it goes without saying that such shuttles are only suitable for local transportation. But why phrase that as an only? Local transportation is equally important. Such shuttles are also suitable for pedestrian environments. Outside of the US, pedestrians have their place on the road – and many, many roads, across the globe, are mostly pedestrian. Finally, they can also be usefully deployed in certain closed environments, notably airports. In many places, however, deployment of such shuttles on roadways might require some additional work – creation of lanes or changes to existing lanes – in order to accommodate their presence. Yet the same observation can also be made for “robotaxis,” however, and the adaptations required there may be much more substantial. The limited applications of automated shuttles may be what, ultimately, makes them less appealing than our Tesla Model 3 and its promises of freedom.
Overall, turtle shuttles appear closer to a marginal development from widely used rail-based automated driving systems, rather than a paradigm shift. That might precisely be what makes them a good gateway towards more automation in our mobility systems; there is wisdom in believing that we will have a better grasp of the challenges of automated mobility by actually deploying and using such systems, but it is not written anywhere that we need to break things to do so.
If there are any ideas that the internet believes to be the truth in this modern day in age, I think that the following would at least make the list: the government is likely watching you through the camera in your laptop, and Facebook’s algorithm may know you better than anyone else. While the internet normalizes being surveilled – and George Orwell can be heard continuously rolling over in his grave – the collection, analysis, and sale of information and user data is something to, at the very least, keep in mind.
can predict when a shopper is due to give birth based on subtle changes in
shopping habits (going from scented to unscented soap, for example); your
phone tracks where you are and how often you go to the point that it
recognizes your patterns and routines, suggesting certain destinations you
visit regularly; and health
insurance companies believe they can infer that you will be too expensive
to cover simply from looking at your magazine subscriptions, whether you have
any relatives living nearby, and how much time you spend watching television.
It is both fascinating and startling in equal measure.
When we narrow our focus to transportation and mobility,
there is still an entire world of information that is being collected, sold,
and turned into, for example, new marketing
strategies for companies purchasing that data from brokers. Other times,
the actor using that data-turned-actionable intelligence is a government
entity. Either way, it’s good know and understand some of what is being
collected and how it may be used, even if it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Car
insurance companies track and collect data on how often drivers slam on brakes
or suddenly accelerate and offer rewards for not doing those things. People
have been subjected to police suspicion or
even been arrested based on incorrect geolocation data collected from their
Despite the potentially grim picture I may have painted,
user data isn’t always wielded for evil or surveillance. Recently, popular
navigation app Waze
added a feature that allows its users to report unplowed roads plaguing
drivers during the winter months. The feature was developed through
collaboration with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Users in
areas with inclement winter weather are now notified when they are coming upon
a roadway that is reportedly in need of a snowplow. In addition to providing
users with information and warnings, Waze also partners with transportation
agencies across the U.S. and provides these agencies or local governments with
this winter transportation information through the Waze for Cities Data program.
The point is to make responsible parties aware of the areas that are still in
need of a snowplow and assist them in prioritizing and deploying resources.
This sort of data collection is innocent enough and helpful
in a person’s everyday life. According to Waze, the
data is anonymized and contains no personally identifiable information
(PII) when it becomes accessible to government agencies. However, as cars and cities
become smarter the risk of an individual user’s data being used for more
concerning purposes is likely to increase. This danger is in addition to the
privacy risks that come from carrying around and depending upon personal
devices such as cell phones.
“[Cars are] data-collecting machines that patrol the streets through various levels of autonomy. That means that our mobility infrastructure is no longer static either, that infrastructure is now a data source and a data interpreter.”
Uber went through a
phase of tracking users even while not using the app; a number of smart
city technologies are capable of capturing and combining PII and household level data about
individuals; and the City of Los
Angeles wants to collect real-time data on your individual e-scooter and
bikeshare trips – California’s legislature doesn’t
exactly agree. As these capabilities are advancing, so is the law, but that
doesn’t necessarily mean that the race is a close one. So, while our cars and scooters
and rideshare apps may not yet be the modern iteration of Big Brother, there’s
These past few weeks millions of people
went online, added various items to their cart, and hit “submit order.” From
Thanksgiving until the end of December, the volume of packages hitting the road
will be substantial. With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and holiday shopping all
taking place in a short time span, the resulting packages will cause delivery
trucks in heavily populated cities to disrupt road traffic more than ever.
New York City (NYC) has the highest population density
of any city in the United States with over 27,000 people per square mile. Not
only is NYC the most populated, it also has more packages delivered than
anywhere else in the country. There are nearly 1.5 million packages delivered
a day in NYC and during the holiday season that number climbs even higher. When
making deliveries, trucks park in bus lanes and bike lanes, double-park, cause
a significant number of cyclist accidents, and contribute to congestion.
Additionally, delivery trucks pollute the air by sitting in traffic and idling
its engines throughout the day.
Delivery companies and the Department of
Transportation (DOT) are recognizing the rate people are ordering online and
have begun to realize that large trucks may not be the most feasible option to
navigate the busy streets. Recently, the city approved a new program in which
cargo bikes operated by Amazon, UPS, and DHL will be allowed to make deliveries
for the next six months. The Commercial Cargo Bike Program consists of around
100 pedal-assisted, electronic cargo bikes that are ready to
replace some of the delivery trucks on the road.
“There’s no doubt the rise in deliveries has caused chaos on our streets–but there are plenty of thoughtful solutions out there to make our streets safer and more sustainable. I’m excited to see DOT exploring this new technology which will help bring NYC’s freight and delivery systems into the 21st Century. I look forward to seeing these cargo bikes on the road and working with DOT in the near future to take a comprehensive look at how we manage these deliveries.”
The goal of the program is to monitor and
collect data on how the cargo bikes handle the streets by looking at the cargo
bike’s speed, size, parking, use of bike lanes, and effect on overall traffic
in Manhattan. The data will be assessed by the DOT to determine whether a more
permanent implementation of cargo bikes is appropriate for NYC. In the
meantime, cargo bikes are permitted to travel on the street and in bike lanes
at a maximum speed of 12mph as well as park in existing commercial loading
areas without paying the meters. According to DHL, their cargo bikes can hold 300 pounds, which depending
on the size of the packages, could be around 100 to 150 shipments per day. For
each cargo bike put on the road, there is meant to be one delivery truck taken
large cities such as Paris, London, Dublin, and Seattle, have found success in
using cargo bikes. UPS has cargo bikes in over 30 cities all over the world. In NYC, however, Amazon
is at the forefront of the cargo bike movement. Amazon’s cargo bikes comprise
90 of the initial 100 bikes deployed for the program and they hope to add more
soon. Amazon began putting their cargo bikes on the streets before the
Commercial Cargo Bike Program was officially approved. Their cargo bikes were
first put to use ten months ago for Prime Now grocery deliveries.
The convenience, flexibility, and
efficiency of cargo bikes make them just one of many possible solutions for
package delivery in densely populated cities. Now that cargo bikes have the
support of NYC and the DOT, residents might begin to see some much needed
relief to the vehicle congestion caused by too many trucks on the road.
If 2018 was the year of the electric scooter, 2020 might be the year of the electric moped. Revel, the New York-based electric moped start-up, has placed more than 1,400 mopeds across Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn and Queens, New York, with plans to expand to 10 cities by mid-2020.
Revel’s mopeds operate in much the same manner as the many
electric scooters offered by companies like Spin, Lime, and Bird. Riders sign
up, pay for, and lock/unlock the vehicles through an app. But where scooters
are suitable for last-mile travel, mopeds may fill a medium-trip sized gap in
micro-mobility. Mopeds are better for longer trips where being able to sit down
and travel at faster speeds is desirable. They are a good compliment, not a
rival, to other micro mobility services. The more mobility services available
to the public, the more comfortable people will be using them. Overcoming the
threshold is important to increasing the use of alternative transportation
However, in stark contrast to the drop and run business method initially employed by many electric scooter companies, Revel differentiates itself by emphasizing safety and garnering regulatory approval before deploying. When Washington D.C. announced in August that the city was launching a demonstration pilot for “motor-driven cycles” (“mopeds”), Revel CEO Frank Reig expressed immediate interest in participation:
“We share their goals of providing new, reliable transportation options that work seamlessly in the city’s current regulatory, transportation, and parking systems and help the District meet its aggressive carbon emissions goals.”
Revel’s policy is not just to work with regulators when
required; they seek to foster a cooperative environment that sets the company
up for long term success and partnership with the cities where the mopeds
eventually deploy. Whereas many cities have banned
scooters, temporarily or permanently, working upfront with city officials may
benefit Revel in the long-term — potentially protecting them from being
required to pull
their vehicles from city streets.
The cooperative method should provide an example of conduct to other micro-mobility companies seeking to expand their operations; sometimes, it is better to ask permission rather than forgiveness. The goodwill from the city may pay off in the long run if local governments decide to limit how many companies may operate in the city. They also avoid the potential regulatory gap that electric scooter fall into; mopeds are definitely a motor vehicle, CEO Reig has made sure to emphasize:
These mopeds are motor vehicles. This means there is no regulatory gray area: you have to have a license plate. To get that license plate, you have to register each vehicle with the Department of Motor Vehicles in each state and show third-party auto liability insurance. And then because it’s a motor vehicle, it’s clear that it rides in the street, so we’re completely off sidewalks.
Another area of differentiation is safety and employment.
Revel’s mopeds are limited to riders aged 21 and older, capped at speeds of 30
miles-per-hour, provide riders with two helmets, and require riders to submit their
driver’s license for a safe history driving check. Moreover, unlike electric
scooter companies that rely on people working in the so-called “gig-economy” to charge their
scooters, Revel relies on full-time employees to swap out batteries on the
vehicles. This employment structure is another selling point for cities:
full-time jobs and payrolltaxes. The company is making an investment
that other mobility companies that operate on an independent contractor model
do not make. The relationship provides benefits for the cities and Revel, according
to CEO Reig:
Our biggest lesson from New York and Washington is that Revel works for cities as they exist today. They work for our riders. They work for our regulators who are seeking ways to enhance their transportation networks, not disrupt them.
After receiving nearly $27 million in Series A funding,
including an investment by Toyota AI Ventures, Revel could potentially increase
its vehicle fleet 10-fold,
aiding them in meeting their ambitious expansion plans by the middle of next
While AVs have a lot of technological leaps to make before
widespread deployment, developers and governments alike also need to also
consider the human factors involved, including good old fashioned human fear.
Earlier this year, a AAA study showed that almost
three out of four (71%) Americans are afraid to ride in an AV. This is a
10% rise in apprehension from earlier studies, a trend that could be connected
to the publicity around the 2018 Uber
crash in Tempe, Ariz., where a test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian.
This lack of trust in AVs alone should be concerning to developers, but in some
places that lack of trust has turned into outright enmity.
Test deployments, like the one undertaken by Waymo in Arizona, have become the targets of anger from drivers and pedestrians, including an incident where man pointed a gun at a passing Waymo test vehicle, in full view of the AV’s safety driver. In that case, the man with the weapon (who was arrested) claimed he hated the vehicles, specifically citing the Uber crash as a reason for his anger. Waymo test vehicles have been also been pelted with rocks, had their tires slashed, and motorists have even tried to run them off the road. The incidents have led to caution on the part of Waymo, who has trained their drivers on how to respond to harassment (including how to spot vehicles that are following them, as witnessed by a group of Arizona Republic reporters last December). Arizona is not the only place where this has happened – in California, during a 3 month period of 2018, 2 of the 6 accidents involving AVs were caused by other drivers intentionally colliding with the AV.
So where is this anger coming from? For some in Arizona, it was
from feeling that their community was being used as a laboratory, with them as guinea
pigs, by AV developers. Ironically, that line of thought has been cited by a
number of people who currently
oppose the deployment of test AVs in and around Silicon Valley. It’s rather
telling that the employees of many of the companies pushing for AV testing
don’t want it to occur in their own towns (some going as far as to threaten to
city hall” if testing came to Palo Alto…). Other objections may stem from
people seeing AVs as a proxy for all automation, and the potential loss
of jobs that entails.
So what can be done to make people trust AVs, or at least accept them enough to not run them off the road? On the jobs front, in June a group of Senators introduced a bill to have the Labor Department track jobs being displaced by automation. Responding to the changes brought on by automation is a center point of Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign, and the issue has been raised by other candidates as well. The potential of automation to take away jobs is a long-standing issue made more visible by AVs on the road, and one that won’t be solved by AV proponents alone. What AV supporters have done and can continue to do is attempt to educate the public on now only potential befits of AV deployment (which PAVE, an industry coalition has done), but also better explain just how AV technology works. At least part of the AV fear stems from not understanding how the tech actually operates, and transparency in that vein could go a long way. Future test projects also need to be sure to get input from communities before they start testing, to ease the feeling of AVs being imposed upon an unwilling neighborhood. A recent debate over AV testing in Pittsburgh, where the city obtained funds for community outreach only after approving testing, leading to push back from community members, is a good example of how a proper pre-testing order-of-operations is vital.
For now, there is clearly a lot of room for public
engagement and education. Developers should take advantage of this period where
AVs are in the public eye without being widely deployed to build trust and
understanding, so that once the vehicles start appearing everywhere they are
met with open arms, or at least tolerated, rather than ran off the road. After
all, while AVs themselves may not feel road rage, it’s already clear they can
be victims of it.
P.S. – If you’re interested in learning more about negative reactions to robots, a good starting point is this NY Times article from January 2018.
In 2015, Google’s parent, Alphabet, decided the time was
ripe for establishing a subsidiary in charge of
investing in “smart infrastructure” projects – from waste to transport and
energy. Its aim was specifically to implement such projects, transforming our
urban landscape into a realm of dynamic and connected infrastructure pieces.
Fast forward two years, and Sidewalk Labs had become embroiled in a smart city
project covering a somewhat derelict (but highly valuable) area of the Toronto
along the shores of Lake Ontario.
Already in 2001, the Canadian metropolis set up
the aptly named Waterfront Toronto (WT), a publicly-controlled corporation in
charge of revitalizing the whole Lake Ontario waterfront along the city. WT
then published early in 2017 a “Request
for Proposals,” looking for an
“investment and funding partner” for what would become known as the Quayside
project. By the end of the year, the Alphabet subsidiary was chosen by WT.
It is important to note that this project was
initially thought as a real estate one, and the desired innovation was to be
found in building materials and carbon neutrality, while achieving certain
goals in terms of social housing. There was no express desire for a model
“smart city” of any sort, although the document does mention the usage of
“smart technologies,” but always in the context of reducing building costs and
improving the carbon footprint.
And then came Sidewalk Labs’ detailed proposal.
The visuals are neat; tellingly, there is not a
single electronic device to be found in those
pictures (is that one man on his cellphone?!) The words, however, tell
another story. Carbon footprint and costs of building take a second seat to
(personal) data processing: “Sidewalk expects Quayside to become the most
measurable community in the world,” as stated in their winning proposal. One wonders whether the drafters of
the proposal sincerely thought that, in this day an age, such a statement would
fly with the public opinion.
Critics of the project (who have since coalesced
in the #BlockSidewalk movement) used the opportunity to dig deeper into WT itself, highlighting
governance issues and the top-down
character of the original Request for Proposals, beyond the plethora of data
privacy questions (if not problems) the Sidewalk Labs proposal raised. In
response, Sidewalk Labs deployed a vast campaign of public relations, whose success is far from guaranteed: they have
“upgraded” their project, aiming
for a bigger plot of land and even a new light rail plan (funded mostly on
public money). At the time of this writing, WT has
yet to make its final decision whether to retain the
project of the Alphabet’s subsidiary.
What lessons can we draw from this Toronto experience? “Smart city” projects are bound to become more commonplace, and while this one was not meant as such, some will be more straightforward in their aims. First, we should question the necessity of connecting every single thing and person. It matters to have in mind the social objectives of a given project, such as carbon footprint or building costs reduction. Collection of personal data can thus be articulated around and in function of those objectives, rather than as an end in itself. Connecting the park bench may be fancy, but for what purpose? More down to earth, the same question can be asked of street lights.
As Christof Spieler reminds us in a recent tweet thread, certain municipal governments may be approached with “free” turnkey projects of connected infrastructure, in exchange (oh wait, it’s not free?) of both data and integration of the developer’s pre-existing systems into that infrastructure. Think of advertisements, and all the other possible monetization avenues… As Spieler points out, monetized smart infrastructure may come at a heavy social cost.
Beyond that, one may wonder – who do we want as developers of such projects? Do we need the Sidewalk Labs of this world to realize the post-industrial heaven shown in the visuals of the Proposal? How will multinational data crunchers with an ominous track record make our cities smarter? The burden of proof is on them.
Anyone currently living in a large city or an American college town has had some experiences with scooters – would that be the mere annoyance of having them zip around on sidewalks. Or, as a friend of mine did, attempt to use one without checking first where the throttle is…
Montréal, the economic and cultural capital of Québec province in Canada, has recently given temporary “test” licenses to micromobility scooters and bikes operators Bird, Lime and Jump, the latter two being owned by Google and Uber, respectively.
Operations started late spring, among some skepticism from Montrealers. Not only in face of the strict regulations imposed by the city’s bylaw, but also the steep price of the services. As one article from the leading French language daily La Pressecompares, a ride that takes slightly more than 20 minutes by foot would cost more than 4 Canadian dollars (about $3) with either Lime (scooters) or Jump (bikes), for a total ride time of 12 minutes. The subway and the existing dock-based bike-share service (BIXI) are cheaper, if not both cheaper and quicker.
While Montréal’s young and active population segment can be understood as the perfect customer base for micromobility, its local government, like many others across the world who face a similar scooter invasion, really mean it with tough regulation. Closer to home, Ann Arbor banned Bird, Lyft and Lime earlier this spring for failure to cooperate; Nashville mayor attempted a blanket ban; Boulder is considering lifting its ban; several Californian cities are enforcing a strict geofencing policy; further away from the US, Amsterdam is also going to put cameras in place in order to better enforce its bikes-first regulation after having already handed out 3500 (!) individual fines over the course of a few months. As NPR reports, the trend is toward further tightening of scooter regulations across the board.
So is Montréal’s story any different? Not really. It faces the same chaotic parking situation as everywhere else, with misplaced scooters, found outside of their geofence or simply where they should not be. In its bylaw providing for the current test licenses, the city council came up with a new acronym: the unpronounceable VNILSSA, or DSUV in English. The English version stands for “dockless self-serve unimmatriculated vehicles”. The bylaw sets a high standard for operators: they are responsible for the proper parking of their scooters at all times. Not only can scooters only be parked in designated (and physically marked) parking areas, but the operator has two hours to deal with a misplaced scooter after receiving a complaint from the municipal government, with up to ten hours when such a complaint is made by a customer outside of business hours. In addition, customers must be 18 to ride and must wear a helmet.
Tough regulations are nice, but are they even enforced? The wear-a-helmet part of the bylaw is the police’s task to enforce and there has not been much going on that front so far. As for the other parts, the city had been playing it cool, so far, giving a chance to the operators to adjust themselves. But that did not suffice: the mayor’s team recently announced the start of fining season, targeting both customers who misplace their scooter or bike if caught red-handed and the operators in other situations. The mayor’s thinly veiled expression of dissatisfaction earlier prompted Lime to send an email to all its customers, asking them in turn to email the mayor’s office with a pre-formatted letter praising the micromobility service. The test run was meant to last until mid-November, but it looks like may end early… The mobility director of the mayor’s team pledged that most of the data regarding complaints and their handling – data which operators must keep – would be published on the city’s open data portal at the end of the test run.
If Chris Schafer, an executive at Lime Canada, believes that customers still need to be “educated” to innovative micro-mobility, Montréal’s story may prove once more that micromobility operators also need to be educated, when it comes to respecting the rules and consumers’ taste for responsible corporate behavior.
One of the most persistent issues in public transportation is the so-called “last mile” problem. The essence of the problem is that, if the distance between the nearest transit stop and a rider’s home or office is too far to comfortably walk, potential riders will be more likely to drive than use public transit. The rise of smartphone enabled mobility options like ridesharing, bike-share, and e-scooters have been pitched as potential solutions to this problem. However, some cities have found that these technologies may create as many problems as they solve.
This post will focus in particular on the rise of
e-scooters. Over roughly the last two years, e-scooters from companies like
Bird and Lime have proliferated across American cities. Often appearing seemingly
out of nowhere as companies frequently launch the product by dropping off a
batch of scooters overnight without warning, they have been a source of angst
for many city officials.
As the scooters spread, ridership has proliferated. Thanks
to ease of use, the proliferation of smartphones, and increasing comfort with
new forms of mobility, ridership
has accelerated at a faster pace than ride-hailing apps, bikeshare
programs, or other mobility platforms that have developed in recent years.
With this growth though has come challenges. In June, Nashville
chose to ban e-scooters in the aftermath of the city’s first rider death. Last
year, in response to concerns about safety and obstruction of sidewalks, Cleveland
banned e-scooters. In the initial rollout period Cleveland was far from alone,
as cities from St. Louis to San Francisco to Santa Monica also moved to ban
or significantly reduce the number of scooters allowed.
of these bans, or at least use restrictions, may have been justified. Because
they have no defined ports at which to be put away, scooters are often left
blockading the sidewalk. At least 8 scooter riders have
died in crashes, and users often remain confused about what laws apply to
them and where they can ride. Hospitals across the country have seen a
spike in emergency room visits related to scooter crashes, and the Centers
for Disease Control has found that head
trauma is the most common injury resulting from a scooter crash.
though, cities have begun experimenting with ways to let scooters in without
letting them run wild. Last month Cleveland
allowed scooters back in, with new limitations on where they are allowed to go
and who is allowed to ride. Norfolk,
VA recently contracted with e-scooter company Lime to allow them to have a
local monopoly over scooter service in the city. The move may allow Norfolk
greater control over how Lime operates within its borders, which could
ultimately increase safety.
the obvious potential for e-scooters to increase mobility to parts of a city
that aren’t within easy walking distance of transit stations, cities should
continue working to find ways to allow them in while mitigating safety
concerns. The results in cities like Norfolk and Cleveland that are working to
introduce regulation to this new industry will be important to watch in the
In my previous posts, I have written a lot about city
design and integrating
emerging forms of transit, primarily automated vehicles, into the
transportation landscape of a city. I am spending this summer in Washington,
DC, and am getting an up-close look at this city’s transit options. I left my
car behind for the summer, so for the first time in years, I am entirely
reliant on public transportation, ridesharing apps, and my own feet to navigate
the city. In the process, I have learned a few things that I plan to explore in
more depth over the course of the summer. For now, here are the highlights:
1. Scooters do provide important transit for at least some people:
My house is about 0.6 miles from the bus line I take to work. So far, I have walked to that stop every morning. Along the way though, I see people riding by on scooters between the metro or bus station and their homes. It may yet be the case that scooters are a passing fad, and for now they appear – at least anecdotally – to have been adopted primarily by younger people. And to be sure, regulating them has been controversial in cities across the nation, which I plan to address in a coming post. For now though, they do show promise as a “last-mile” transit option for people who prefer not to drive.
2. A wide range of transit options improves access and reliability:
I ride the bus to and from work every day. When I want to explore the city on weekends, I take the metro downtown. I was running late to meet a friend the other day, and got an Uber. Others use scooters or the city’s bike-share program to get where they need to go. All of these options will work better or worse for different people, and for different purposes. All of them operating together can create a more functional, accessible transit system that serves the entire city.
3. Walkable neighborhoods ease the burden on a city’s transit system:
I live in a neighborhood with a grocery store, a Target, and a handful of bars and restaurants within a few blocks radius. As a consequence, I can walk just about everywhere I have to go except my office. Later this summer, I plan to explore ways in which cities can encourage development of walkable neighborhoods, thus easing the burden on overtaxed public transit systems and reducing the use of personal cars in the long run.
4. Affordable housing is directly linked to transit equity:
Perhaps this goes without saying, but a good, comprehensive transit network within a city does little good for the people who cannot afford to live in that city. This week, I’ve spoken with a couple people in my office who live an hour outside the city because it’s more affordable than living here. They drive to the farthest out metro stations, park there then ride into the city. To be sure, this still reduces congestion within the city. But good, reliable public transit is primarily important for the quality of life, cost savings, and environmental benefits that come with reduced use of personal automobiles and shorter commutes. People who have to commute a long way to even get to the public transit system in the city where they work are largely left out of those benefits.
All the way back in December, I wrote about how various companies, including Amazon (in partnership with Toyota), Postmates, Domino’s and Kroger were all working on using CAVs and drones to deliver goods to consumers. Since then there have been a number of news stories on similar projects across the globe, which deserve some attention, as you’ll see in this, the first of three posts:
On the Ground
In my December post I talked about Postmates’ testing of
delivery robots that could bring products directly to your door. This winter
similar ‘bots were deployed on the campuses of the University
of the Pacific (sponsored by PepsiCo), and George
Mason University (via start-up Starship Technologies and food-services
giant Sodexo). College campuses, which tend to feature greater walkability and
an always snack-craving populace, seem to be the perfect testing ground for
such systems. And the robots seem to have made a difference in the eating
habits, at least at George Mason – with an additional 1,500 breakfast orders
being delivered via robot. This may be due to the fact the robots were
integrated into the campus meal plan, meaning students weren’t just able to order
snacks, but could order full meals and pay for them via their meal plan.
While these delivery services may be seen as saviors to hung-over college students in need of a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, the expansion of such programs does raise issues. Just as ridesharing has changed the way cities have to manage curb space, delivery ‘bots raise questions of sidewalk management. Just how much of public space should we cede to commercial use? How will the ‘bots be programmed to “share the road” with pedestrians. Of course, that may not be as big of an issue in more sprawling American cites that don’t have the same density of foot traffic. They’ll also have to content with being messed with by humans, as was the case in this video, where a ‘bot’s cameras were intentionally covered in snow (there is a happy ending, as seen in the footage – after a good Samaritan cleaned off the camera the ‘bot continues on its way, after saying “thank you!” to its’ human helper). In an attempt to get ahead of these issues San Francisco banned sidewalk delivery ‘bots in 2017, and has only slowly opened up room for testing. Will other cities follow suit? Or will they open the floodgates? Currently, the California DMV is considering new rules on delivery ‘bots and car-sized autonomous delivery vehicles, so look for a follow-up blog once those are out.
Given my continued interest in data
collection and privacy,
(an interest echoed in more recent blog posts by Kevin – available here,
I’d be remiss to not flag those issues here. (those issues also come up in the
context of aerial deliveries, discussed in our next post). Not only would
sidewalk based delivery ‘bots collect data on the items you order and when,
they could potentially collect data about your home or its surrounding environment
(think back to when Google was caught collecting
wi-fi data with its’ Street View cars).
After introducing a discussion of mobility justice last week,
I planned to highlight a few cities that were doing particularly well at
enabling transit equity across racial or economic lines in their cities. While
I did not expect to find many cities excelling across the board, I hoped to
find some places with best practices that could be used as models along one
dimension or another of mobility justice.
What I found instead is that to date, no metrics exist that
appear to capture the full picture of mobility justice without leaving out
significant elements of the challenge.
For instance, 99% of San Francisco’s population lives within
half a mile of public transit. In one sense, this is a positive
development, as a city cannot have accessible transit options unless those
options physically travel near people’s homes. However, other authors have
pointed out that high housing costs have driven many of the most vulnerable
communities in the San Francisco metro area beyond city limits, where transit
options become sparser. Furthermore, the fee
structure of San Francisco’s public transit can serve to make
mobility unaffordable for low-income riders. The region has recognized transit
equity as a problem, creating the Bay
Area Equity Analysis Report to explore ways to improve access to
transit across the region. The report includes proposals such as a region-wide
reduced fare pass and a simplified process to apply for reduced fares. Both
proposals appear to be positive steps. Their effectiveness at improving access
to transit must be evaluated in the coming years.
New York’s subway system is by far the busiest in the
nation. Virtually the entire city has either subway or bus service near
their home, and the city’s buses and subways provide roughly 7.7
million rides per day. However, the high usage rate is straining the system. In
recent decades New York’s subway has been chronically
underfunded, and thus subject to increasing delays and needs for
repair that limit its usefulness for many city residents. Furthermore, it is
unclear how much even a fully functional New York subway could serve as a model
for other cities. New York is among a limited number of American cities that
grew up before the rise of
the automobile. As such, it is more compact as a whole, and its
transit system was able to grow with the city in a way that would not be the
case for the more sprawling cities investing more heavily in transit in recent
A recent study
by Greg Griffin and Ipek Nese Sener from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute
analyzed transit equity in nine major metro areas across the nation. The
authors found that cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles, which have an
integrated system of both bus and rail service, are among the most equitable in
the nation. However, they cautioned that their study focused primarily on
access across incomes, rather than overall access. A city such as Atlanta “may
rank low on overall accessibility while doing well in terms of equity by
income. Of course, lower transit accessibility overall will undoubtedly impact
low-income communities more than others. While their research did not account
for such issues, the development of a metric to study transit equity is a
valuable contribution to the mobility justice conversation.
On the whole, no city in America is a great model of
mobility justice. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering that mobility
justice involves the interaction of a wide range of factors such as pricing,
changing housing patterns, and planning of effective combinations of rail, bus,
bikeshare, and other programs. In each city, adequately meeting this challenge
will require significant local engagement with the most impacted communities,
and a constant willingness to adapt their system. Plans such as the Bay Area’s
Equity Analysis Report are a step in the right direction. As automated vehicles
and other new forms of transportation emerge, cities need to be especially
attentive to their impacts on marginalized communities.
Whenever connected and autonomous vehicles are considered,
some people envision a mobility paradise. They see current parking areas making
way for more productive buildings or green space, pedestrians and cyclists
sharing the roads with vehicles that can seamlessly respond to every move, and
a dramatic decrease in traffic fatalities. Such visions are behind much of the
push towards autonomous vehicles, and the hands-off regulatory approaches I’ve
written about before in states like Arizona.
Grand visions of the future of mobility frequently focus on
socioeconomic segments of our society from the middle class up. This focus is
rarely stated explicitly. However, it is generally assumed that autonomous
vehicles will be hailed with a smartphone. Major beneficiaries of the CAV
revolution will be information sector employees who could work
from a laptop during their commute. Reuse of space currently
dominated by parking is primarily an issue for affluent downtown business
districts. While CAVs could ease transportation for many people, it is
important that affirmative steps be taken to ensure access to adequate
transportation for poor and minority communities in the new world we are
The advent of CAVs would not be the first time a new
transportation technology has left disadvantaged communities behind. The rise
of the personal automobile led to a transportation boom for the middle class,
while many poor neighborhoods were forgotten or paved
over to facilitate the creation of new highways. Many poor and
minority communities today are in “transit
deserts,” areas of a city with high demand for public transportation
but poor service.
Some of the problems stemming from past transportation
shifts were borne of malice. The history of redlining and efforts to design
cities in such a way as to keep minority communities segregated from middle and
upper-class white residents is well documented. Much of the problem may have
also been simple negligence. People with disposable income, cars, and
cell-phones are better able to make their voice heard in corridors of power.
Without an active effort to reach out to other parts of their constituency,
government officials may only hear the needs of those with the means to
There are early signs that cities are considering how to make new transit systems accessible by the whole community. While light on detail, a recent document from the National Association of City Transportation Officials lists “mobility for the whole city” as a key principle of the coming urban transportation environment. The World Bank has noted the importance of transit opportunities to the economic prospects of impoverished city-dwellers. To follow up on that high-minded vision, city leaders will need to not only engage the usual stakeholders and governmental departments, but the entirety of the effected community. Mayors, council members, and planners must actively reach out to poor and minority communities to discuss their transportation needs, and develop concrete plans. Such outreach may not be easy, particularly given the need to account for the time constraints of people who work multiple jobs or lack disposable income. It is the type of work that is necessary though if the CAV revolution is to fulfill its potential for all of a city’s people.
No matter how you get to work, chances are you’ve spent at
least a handful of hours frustrated by the commute. At some point,
construction, poor weather, or simply congested roadways have taken valuable
hours from all of our days. Given the constant annoyance of bad traffic, it is
unsurprising that people get excited about any technology that may reduce the
problem. Such was at least part
of the hope for ridesharing technologies like Uber and Lyft.
To date, that hope has been at least premature, if not
misplaced entirely. Recent studies have shown that the introduction of Uber and
Lyft to a city actually increases
traffic. A study by transportation analyst Bruce Schaller found that
popular ridesharing apps were responsible for 51% of the increase in traffic in
San Francisco between 2010 and 2016. Results in other major metro areas were
The increased traffic appears to be primarily attributable
to two things. First, rideshare drivers spend around 40% of their road time
between passengers, merely taking up space on the road without moving customers
where they want to go. Second, Schaller’s research suggests that the
convenience of ridesharing has increased the total number of trips taken. He
finds that 60%
of trips taken with rideshare apps replace trips for which people
would have either taken public transit, biked, walked, or simply not made the
trip. Uber and Lyft dispute
some of Schaller’s methods, arguing that he does not adequately account for
factors like increased tourism and freight delivery as causes of increased
Even if some of the companies’ criticisms are valid, the
challenges of passenger-less rideshare vehicles and rideshare trips replacing
non-car travel are almost certainly both real. It is possible that, as Uber,
Lyft, and others collect more data about patterns of mobility, they will be
able to effectively limit the amount of time their cars are on the road with no
passengers. By contrast, increased traffic due to rideshare replacement of
non-car travel will not be abated by the companies alone. Their incentives
align with reducing the amount of time drivers have no passenger in the car,
but not with ceding a share of their market to public transit or other modes of
The challenge of rideshare trips replacing non-car travel
will require affirmative government action to overcome. Broadly, cities may
take one of two paths, or a combination of both. First, they can design their
infrastructure and public transit systems in such a way as to make walking or
public transportation a more attractive option for the individual consumer than
a solo car trip. Second, they may choose to limit the number of rideshare
vehicles allowed on the road. Such a program would be similar to the grant of a
set number of taxi
medallions. Some cities, such
as Chicago, have begun charging a tax on Uber and Lyft rides
specifically to help fund improved public transportation. Such a scheme may
enable the city to keep its other transit options competitive with rideshare
and reduce overall traffic congestion.
To date, the growth of Uber and Lyft present a cautionary tale for tech optimists. On one hand, the growth of these companies has presented riders with a convenient way to travel, and has enabled some people to forgo owning their own car. However, there is evidence that the explosion of vehicles on the road has dramatically increased traffic congestion in the nation’s largest cities. While some of the traffic problems may be solved as the companies continue to collect data, it will likely take affirmative action by local governments to make other transportation options more compelling and abate the worst of the traffic problem.
This fall we’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about how connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) will change the structure of our cities, from the curb, to public transit, and beyond. In my last post before the holidays, I want to take a look at how CAVs could change the way goods are transported and delivered within cities. While they probably won’t reach Santa-levels of delivery efficiency, CAVs may help make last-mile deliveries more efficient (and could help fill the current shortage of truck drivers in the US, but that’s a subject for another day).
CAVs are already being tested as delivery vehicles by companies like Domino’s and Kroger, while earlier this year Toyota announced delivery partnerships with Amazon and Pizza Hut, and Waymo’s CEO recently highlighted it as an area of opportunity. This week the New York Times profiled Nuro, the start-up working with Kroger to test robotic delivery cars in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nuro’s vehicles are designed in-house, and look like “toasters-on-wheels.” Currently they followed everywhere they go by human safety drivers in conventionally driven “shadow car,” since the vehicles are still in testing. When the vehicle stops for a delivery, customers enter a PIN code into a small touch pad to open a compartment containing their order. The current charge for same-day delivery using the system is around $6. Ford has also flagged the delivery market as an area they’d like to explore, citing projections that, by 2026, the last-mile delivery market for CAVs will hit $130 billion.
But the roads are not the only path automated vehicles may soon tread in their mission to bring you your takeout order. A number of companies, including Postmates, are working on delivery robots that will cruse down the sidewalk and roll right up to your door. Last year I even personally witnessed Postmates’ bot rolling along the streets of Washington. As exciting as it would be to have R2-D2’s cousin deposit an order of egg rolls on your doorstep, the deployment of delivery bots raises an interesting question of how much space we’re willing to give up to automated devices. The sidewalk is a human dominated space, and, especially in cities, is already busy with foot traffic. Will people be willing to cede some of this space to a robot? Yet another question that city regulators and individual citizens will be forced to answer as automation makes greater inroads to our daily lives.
P.S. – Last week a delivery robot caught
fire in Berkeley, leading some locals to build a memorial
in its honor.
Recently, Kevin wrote about how CAVs could alter the shape of cities. While CAV deployment is still in its infancy, the boom in ride sharing is already changing the design of cities. In Washington, D.C. the city government has announced the creation of five pickup and drop off zones that are reserved for ride shares 24 hours a day. The zones are also used for commercial loading and unloading, and are located near highly trafficked areas.
The creation of these zones in D.C. are part of a greater discussion of how cities use the curb. Right now, there is a lot of competition for the curb, from parking meters, to bike lanes, to drop off zones like the ones in D.C. And companies like Coord have started to keep track of everything that is going on near the curb, with an intent to build out a database that can be used by city planners and anyone else interested in what’s happening at street level. Any changes that CAVs make to cities will no doubt start at the curb – which means city governments need to figure out just what’s going to happen on the curb. Will cities be willing to give up their venue from street parking? Or will a boom in AVs cause that revenue to disappear on its own?
I’ve written in recent weeks about the impact of autonomous vehicles on city design. Choices made by both city planners and CAV operators in the coming decades will play key roles in determining whether our new transportation paradigm is one of compact, walkable cityscapes that accommodate traffic of all sorts, or one that spurs increased suburban and exurban sprawl and is truly designed only with car transport in mind. One particularly important aspect of this question is to what extent CAVs will integrate with current mass transit rather than attempt to replace it.
Some companies, such as Ann Arbor based May Mobility,are purposely seeking out opportunities to integrate with local transit. The company recently contracted with Columbus, OH to begin operating their CAVs on a short loop through downtown along the Scioto River. A small-scale project like this has the potential to improve traffic flow in the central city without incentivizing people to move ever farther away from the urban core. A deal was also announced between May and the state of Rhode Island to run autonomous shuttles that will connect public transit lines in the nearby cities of Providence and Olneyville.
Its certainly possible that May’s long-term ambitions are bigger. They may hope to use their autonomous technology to compete with companies like Ford, Waymo and Uber to provide people with a primary mode of transportation. For now though, services like this should be viewed as a model for cities seeking to promote vibrant urban centers.
Many cities across the country, even those without longstanding strength in public transit, have already committed serious resources to revitalizing and maintaining their urban cores. Kansas City is planning a roughly $300 million extension of an existing light rail line. Phoenix, which first opened its light rail line ten years ago, passed a ballot initiative in 2015 to raise new funds fora 66-mile expansion of the system. And public transit is not supported only by public money. In South Florida, a privately owned, high speed commuter train recently opened to carry passengers between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.
Cities investing so heavily in large-scale public transit certainly have a demonstrated interest in the economic development that comes with urban revitalization. Furthermore, they see transportation as a key factor in spurring renewed growth. If these localities are not careful though, they may see their careful plans laid to waste by the onset of CAVs. In the post-WWII era, the dominance of the automobile contributed to the emptying out of city centers and the paving over of vast swaths of land. Looking ahead, it’snot hard to see the rise of this new technology thwarting the plans of the most well-intentioned cities.
Those that hope to back up their commitment to public transit and sustainable living will need to think carefully about how transportation technologies should be accommodated. For now, the May Mobility model may be attractive for its intentional compatibility with other forms of transit. Looking ahead, as CAVs become more advanced, such companies will likely move to take over more of the transportation market. Cities need to be aware of that possibility and consider how to design their infrastructure and transportation policies to integrate CAVs into existing plans, lest they betaken over by them.
City design has long been shaped by modes of transportation. The transition is easy to spot as you move westward across America. Relatively compact eastern cities initially grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people traveled by foot or by horse. Scattered across the plains, and particularly throughout the vast expanses of Texas and the Southwest, are cities filled with wide thoroughfares and sprawling suburbs, designed to match the rise of car culture. A large-scale shift to autonomous vehicle transportation will once again mold our cities in new ways. I wrote recently about this coming shift, focusing in particular on the reuse of space currently dominated by parking. This post will build on that theme by exploring the ways in which big data generated by new transportation technologies will guide city planners and business strategists in creating new urban environments.
Many cities already take advantage of more traditional forms of transportation data to improve urban planning. For example, analysis of population density and traffic patterns facilitated Moscow’s 50% increase in public transit capacity, which enabled the city to reduce driving lanes in favor of more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Looking to the future, New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress seeks to help cities harness the power of big data to “become more productive and livable.” Today, more data exists regarding our transportation habits than ever before. Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, along with the popularity of “check-in” apps such as Foursquare, have exponentially increased the amount of data collected as we go through our daily routines. The advent of CAVs, along with smaller scale technologies such as bike-share and scooter-share programs, will only accelerate this trend.
Currently, most of this data is collected and held by private companies. This valuable information is already being aggregated and used by companies such as Sasaki, a design firm that uses data from Yelp, Google, and others to help businesses and developers understand how their planned projects can best fit in with a community’s existing living patterns. The information is able to help businesses understand, on a block-by-block basis, where their target market lives, shops, and travels. As companies such as Uber and Waymo roll out fleets of autonomous vehicles in the coming years that collect data on more and more people, such information will increasingly drive business planning.
Just as this wealth of data is impacting business decisions, making it available to the public sector would mark a significant upgrade in the capabilities of urban planners. To be sure, granting the government easy access to such fine-grained information about our daily lives comes with its own set of challenges, which my colleague Ian Williams has explored in a previous post. From the perspective of planning utility however, the benefits are clear. By better understanding exactly what times and locations present the worst traffic challenges, cities can target infrastructure improvements, tollways, or carpool benefits to alleviate the problem. A more detailed understanding of which routes people take to and from home, work, shopping, and entertainment districts can allow for more efficient zoning and the development of more walkable neighborhoods. This type of improvement has the potential to improve the livability of city centers so as to guard against the danger that CAVs will facilitate a new round of exurban flight.
As with previous shifts in transportation, the widespread move to CAVs expected in the coming years will be a key driver of the future shape of our cities. Urban planners and business strategists will play a featured role in determining whether this technology ushers in a new round of sprawl, or facilitates the growth and attractiveness of metropolitan centers. The intelligent and conscientious use of data generated by CAVs and other emerging technologies can help fuel smart development to ensure that our downtown spaces, and the communities they support, continue to thrive.
The rapidly approaching deployment of commercially available CAVs has led city planners to begin grappling with the ways in which this new technology is expected to shape our built environment. A 2017 report from MIT’s Urban Economics Lab and Center for Real Estate, financed by Capital One, explores potential real estate changes driven by CAVs. The report describes two theories of what the effect will be. First, CAVs could reinforce demand for central city living by relieving congestion and need for parking, making cities more livable. Alternatively, they could lead to a new wave of suburbanization by increasing the distances people are willing to travel.
As much as CAVs will shape the future of cities though, design choices made by city planners today will also impact the ways in which CAVs are utilized. Cities that are designed primarily for drivers, with limited walkability and few public transit options, are likely to experience a rehash of all the problems with 20th century suburban sprawl: congestion, increasing infrastructure needs on the urban fringe, and a reduced tax base within city limits, to name a few. There are, however, affirmative steps that cities can take to disincentivize sprawl in favor of growth in the urban core. Two of these policy options, which I will discuss below, are smart pricing of vehicle travel and increased walkability of city centers.
Many cities have already taken steps to make solo trips in cars less attractive. Whether these policies take the form of increasing options for light rail and other public transportation, designating carpool lanes, or varying parking costs depending on the time of day, many of them may not be significantly altered by the arrival of CAVs. One change that could be facilitated by CAVs is the possibility for more fine-grained trip pricing. A city that is committed to reducing congestion could vary ride pricing for people who carpool, or for trips made outside of the heaviest use periods. Those hoping to incentivize public transit could provide reduced fares for “last mile” trips to and from light rail or bus stations.
The prevalence of CAVs will also provide cities an opportunity to rethink the design of their urban landscapes. Most American cities are dominated by parking, with 30% of the space in many downtown areas being taken up by parking spaces. This is unsurprising in light of the fact that the typical car is parked around 95% of the time. The rise of CAVs will provide cities with an opportunity to adapt much of this space to more productive use through business development, building downtown housing, and expanding green space. A key challenge here for cities will be in managing the transition. A study by the Regional Planning Association for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut found that land use planning is unlikely to be “permanently altered” by CAVs until 2040 and beyond. In the intervening years, cities can begin to take steps to plan for adaptive reuse of space. This includes such design choices as building parking garages with features that allow them to be easily converted into housing and considering zoning changes that will facilitate a more livable, walkable urban core.
CAVs have the potential to contribute to the continued revitalization of city centers through the creation of more resident-friendly downtowns, or to kickstart an accelerated urban sprawl. Smart, data-driven trip pricing and infrastructure designed to smooth the transitioning needs of cities can help guide the use of CAVs in ways that facilitate compact growth and walkable communities.
This fall, the University of Michigan Law School is offering its third Problem Solving Initiative (“PSI”) course concerning connected and automated vehicles. The first class, offered in the Winter 2017 semester, involved a team of fifteen graduate students from law, business, engineering, and public policy who accepted the challenge of coming up with commercial use cases for data generated by connected vehicles using dedicated short-range communication (“DSRC”) technology.
In the Fall of 2017, we offered our second PSI Course in CAV—this one to 23 graduate students. That course focused on the problem of Level 3 autonomy, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (“SAE”). Level 3 autonomy, or conditional automation, is defined as a vehicle driving itself in a defined operational design domain (“ODD”), with a human driver always on standby to take over the vehicle upon short notice when the vehicle exits the ODD. As with the first course, our student teams spent the semester collecting information from industry, governmental, and academic experts and proposing a series of innovative solutions to various obstacles to the deployment of Level 3 systems.
This semester, our PSI course is entitled Connected and Automated Vehicles: Preparing for a Mixed Fleet Future. I will be co-teaching the course with Anuj Pradhan and Bryant Walker Smith. Our focus will be on the multiple potential problems created by unavoidable future interactions between automated vehicles and other road users, such as non-automated, human-driven vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists.
Although cars can be programmed to follow rules of the road, at its core, driving and roadway use are social activities. Roadway users rely heavily on social cues, expectations, and understandings to navigate shared transportation infrastructure. For example, although traffic circles are in principle governed by a simple rule of priority to vehicles already in the circle, their actual navigation tends to governed by a complex set of social interactions involving perceptions of the intentions, speed, and aggressivity of other vehicles. Similarly, while most states require bicyclists to obey stop signs and traffic lights, most cyclists do not; prudent drivers should not expect them to.
Can cars be programmed to behave “socially?” Should they be, or is the advent of robotic driving an opportunity to shift norms and expectations toward a greater degree of adherence to roadway rules? Will programming vehicles to be strictly rule compliant make CAVs “roadway wimps,” always giving in to more aggressive roadway users? Would that kill the acceptance of CAVs from a business perspective? Is reform legislation required to permit CAVs to mimic human drivers?
More generally, is the advent of CAVs an opportunity to reshape the way that all roadway users access roadways? For example, could the introduction of automated vehicles be an opportunity to reduce urban speeds? Or to prohibit larger private vehicles from some streets (since people may no longer be dependent only on their individually owned car)? These questions are simply illustrative of the sorts of problems our class may choose to tackle. Working in interdisciplinary groups, our graduate students will attempt to identify and solve the key legal, regulatory, technological, business, and social problems created by the interaction between CAVs and other roadway users.
As always, our class will rely heavily on on the expertise of folks from government, industry, and academia. We welcome any suggestions for topics we should consider or experts who might provide important insights as our students begin their discovery process next week.