Pedestrians and Sidewalks

By David Pimentel†, Michael B. Lowry†, Timothy W. Koglin†, and  Ronald W. Pimentel†


Cite as: David Pimentel, et al., Innovation in a Vacuum: The Uncertain Legal Landscape for Shared Micro-mobility, 2020 J. L. & MOB. 17.



Abstract

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.

Introduction 1 1. 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. 2 2. 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. 3 3. 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). 4 4. 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.

This study

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.

Discussion

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.

  1. Legal Inconsistency/Ambiguity

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. 5 5. 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. 6 6. 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. 7 7. 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. 8 8. 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. 9 9. 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. 10 10. Cal. Veh. Code § 21207.5 (West 2020). ×  West Hollywood, CA, however, recently banned the use of all classes of e-bikes on sidewalks. 11 11. 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. 12 12. 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. 13 13. 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, 14 14. See generally, Oleksandra Johnson, The Bankruptcy Code as Complete Preemption: The Ultimate Trump?, 81 Am. Bankr. L.J. 31 (2007). × securities and banking regulation, 15 15. 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. ×  immigration, 16 16. See generally, 8 U.S.C. ×  and national security. 17 17. 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. 18 18. 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. 19 19. 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.” 20 20. 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. 21 21. 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. 22 22. 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. 23 23. 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. 24 24. 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. 25 25. 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. 26 26. 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. 27 27. 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. 28 28. 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. 29 29. 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. 30 30. 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; 31 31. Id. × 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. 32 32. 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). 33 33. 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. 34 34. 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.

  1. (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. 35 35. 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. 36 36. 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; 37 37. 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. 38 38. 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. 39 39. 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. 40 40. 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. 41 41. 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. 42 42. 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. 43 43. 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.

  1. 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. 44 44. 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. 45 45. 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. 46 46. 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. 47 47. 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.

  1. 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. 48 48. 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. 49 49. See Arroyo, supra note 48. × While this concern often prompts critics to call for banning SMMS, 50 50. 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. 51 51. 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. 52 52. 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, 53 53. 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). 54 54. Toole Design, Spokane Shared Mobility Study Final Recommendations 18 (2019), https://static.spokanecity.org/documents/projects/shared-mobility/spokane-shared-mobility-report.pdf. ×

  1. 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. 55 55. 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. 56 56. 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, 57 57. 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. 58 58. 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. 59 59. 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. 60 60. 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.

Conclusions

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.

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.

Earlier this month, Connecticut’s Governor Ned Lamont announced and released the details of his plan to upgrade and “transform” the state’s transportation system. The plan, Connecticut 2030 (CT2030), allocates $21 billion primarily to improving Connecticut’s highways, airports, mass transit, and ports and is pitched as “what Connecticut families and employers deserve.” While that is a wonderful goal, as usual, I have questions. However, I want to go over the basics of CT2030 before getting into those questions.

“CT2030 will result in nothing short of a transformation of the economy and quality of life in Connecticut. When residents are able to travel to and from at drastically quicker rates, families can thrive, employees are more productive, and businesses are able to grow and provide more opportunities.”

Impact of CT2030

Overall, the main point of CT2030 seems to be enabling people and business to move more quickly and more efficiently. Gov. Lamont aims to achieve CT2030’s goals by addressing four main focus areas mentioned above: highways, airports, mass transit, and ports.

Highways. The main thrust of CT2030’s highway plans appear to center significantly on I-84, I-91, and I-95. This makes sense, seeing as to it that multiple spots along each of these highways rank within the top 100 worst traffic bottlenecks in the United States. These three highways will be the focus of projects such as lane additions, exit enhancements, bridge improvements, and “user fee” installations (i.e. tolls).

Mass Transit. This portion of CT2030 focuses on public transportation in the forms of railways and buses. Again, the plans here are “all about less time commuting and more time with your family.” Railways would look forward to projects for straightening and upgrading tracks, replacing aging bridges, installing new signaling systems, and adding new cars and locomotives. Buses, in a much smaller endeavor, would receive upgrades providing consistency for users across the state’s bus system. These upgrades include fitting all bus stops with shelters for protection against bad weather and signs with information on operating routes, as well as providing real-time information updates via text message or phone app.

Airports. This seems to be one of the most underdeveloped aspects of CT2030. The two enhancements to Connecticut’s aviation sector are (1) connecting the Bradley International Airport to surrounding areas via direct railway lines, and (2) the development of a “fully functioning regional airport in South-Central CT.”

Ports. Connecticut’s four major ports and the associated maritime industry annually generate an estimated $11.2 billion. The projects for these ports are unique to each location. They include dredging to allow for larger ships and freighters to pass through more frequently and the implementation of a high-speed ferry system to provide services for commuters as well as tourists.

Now for some questions:

What about induced demand? Congestion can’t always be solved by simply adding more lanes, no matter how logical that solution would seem. And it does make sense: remove the congestion by removing the bottleneck. However, this reasonable answer runs full speed into the issue of induced demand. The phenomenon of induced demand can be stated simply: “When you provide more of something, or provide it for a cheaper price, people are more likely to use it.” This means that increasing capacity does little to relieve busy roadways when traffic acts as a “gas” and the “volume expands to fill the capacity.”

“Widening a highway is no more a solution to traffic than buying bigger pants is a solution to overeating.”

David Andrew, Hartford Courant

While some experts argue that induced capacity doesn’t cause as much strife as people claim, the potential is still something that should be taken into account. If CT2030 centers on reducing highway commute time through widening projects, there needs to be at least some discussion addressing the possible negative impacts, such as an increase in urban sprawl, carbon emissions, and more.

What about pedestrian infrastructure? While CT2030 allocates approximately $21 billion to its various projects, only an estimated $52 million would be dedicated to the Community Connectivity Program (CCP), a “grant program for municipalities to make improvements to sidewalks” that “helps local communities make necessary improvements for pedestrians.” If my math is even close to correct – honestly, no promises – this amounts to less than half of a percent.

Admittedly, I’m using the term “pedestrian infrastructure” broadly to include traffic calming and bicycle infrastructure in addition to traditional pedestrian infrastructure while CT2030 narrows the scope of CCP down to sidewalk projects. However, this doesn’t defeat the question of why so little focus is dedicated to pedestrian infrastructure.

There are plenty of unanswered questions and unaddressed concerns still surrounding CT2030. One major question mark is whether it will actually be implemented. This is thanks to Gov. Lamont and state legislators starring in leading roles opposite one another in a multi-season drama. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how and if Connecticut moves forward with CT2030 or any rival transportation plans.

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. 

Critics were quick to point out the puzzling choice; as innovative as it may be, Alphabet has no experience in real estate development. Rather, its core business is data processing and analytics, sometimes for research and often for advertisement purposes. What was meant to be a carbon-positive real-estate project seemed to be morphing into a hyper-connected (expensive) urban hub. 

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.

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, here, and 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).

In our next post – aerial delivery drones!

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.