Scooters are coming!

22 Jul

The headline in the World Herald read, “Love them or hate them: Electric scooters are returning to Omaha.” Certainly not the most encouraging framing of the issue. Establishing a binary of good or bad, positive or negative leaves little room for nuance. Instead, we should look at the use of dockless electric scooters on the spectrums of safe to unsafe, inclusive to exclusive. To that end, we can look at the policies, and enforcement laid out in the updated rules regarding the use of scooters in Omaha and see where the second pilot lands.

First, it should be clear that Mode Shift neither endorses nor disparages the use of electric scooters. We advocate for all forms of transportation to the end that they make the city more accessible to everyone. A critique of the implementation is not an indictment of the mode.

Is it safe?

Scooters are not inherently safe or unsafe, any more than any other transportation device, especially one that is new to the user. It takes time to learn how to ride a bike or drive a car — it takes time to learn how to walk or ride a wheelchair. So, setting aside the initial learning curve, are scooters safe to operate? The answer depends on the environment provided for their operation. 

In the city of Omaha, scooters are required to operate on city streets with speed limits of 35 miles per hour or slower. The guidance is to use bike lanes where available. The recommendation is to use a helmet. There are a number of “no go” zones where scooters are drastically slowed and where they cannot be “docked” — these include university campuses, the medical center, around the convention center, the riverfront and the Old Market.

While these “no go” zones are ostensibly for safety, they have the effect of slowing or excluding connectivity between nodes of activity. For example, the “no go” zone around the convention center creates a barrier between the Capital District and North Downtown, an area promising exciting future developments. The “no go” zone around the Med Center creates a barrier between the Blackstone and Aksarben or Benson.

Scooters are specifically excluded from city sidewalks, though users are encouraged to park them on sidewalks and not in the street where they are to be operated. This is to limit friction between people riding scooters and people otherwise using the sidewalk. This policy means people riding scooters are competing for road space with motor vehicles. Even where there are bike lanes, Omaha still has no on-street, protected bike infrastructure. Cars often park in designated bike lanes. Without dedicated spaces for vehicles like bikes and scooters, the danger factor operating them on the street increases.

The fact is that riders will ride where they feel most safe. For some, this will mean the sidewalk in the absence of a safe, specific designated space to ride a scooter.

Is it inclusive?

Making a scooter share fully inclusive of the entire population would be a challenge, but there are a few areas where geographic, demographic, capability and economic factors remove Omahans from the opportunity to use the scooters.

The new rules limit the users to individuals 18 and older who have a state ID or driver’s license, a stricter limit than we have for other motor vehicles. To unlock a scooter, you need to have a smartphone and a credit card. Anyone without any of these three items is effectively excluded from using a scooter, especially with the new policy that each user can only unlock one device.

Councilman Gray initially voted against accepting the proposals of the scooter vendors because he didn’t feel like the distribution of scooters would effectively include his North Omaha district. He changed his vote when the vendors assured him they included North Omaha in their plans. 

We have seen no plans to include adaptive scooters in Omaha, but it is a technology being rolled out in other cities that allows users of a range of physical ability to use the service.

Another question of inclusion is how the city intends to enforce/encourage cooperation with the updated policies. The answer is enforcement. Infractions of the ordinance regarding scooter use will incur a $100 fine, issued by the police. These fines would disproportionately burden poorer people and (depending on patterns of policing) minorities.

What can others teach us?

In San Francisco, the city found that friction diminishes with time, “scooter parking citations and related 311 complaints to the city  . . . dropped.” This suggests that time and familiarity can establish better habits and less distrust. The city also encouraged technological innovations to prevent cluttering sidewalks and making  the devices more accessible to all users.

According to a NACTO study of micromobility, scooter shares work best in conjunction with bike share programs. It seems the two modes are used in very different ways, with bike shares being used during commute times, and scooters being used most during weekends, likely for recreation. According to noted planning theorist, Jeff Speck, “Bikeshare without good bike lanes is foolhardy” a sentiment he echos in his works longer than a tweet. This same idea applies to scooter sharing programs as well.

Where do we go from here?

Scooters are a fine mode of transportation. Most users report a positive, even gleeful experience riding them. In Omaha, when it comes to safety, they have a lot of the same risks as other active modes, such as walking and biking, with an added learning curve that initially may make them seem “more dangerous.” If the city wants to make them safer, they need to create dedicated infrastructure, including on-street parking zones. Creating dedicated lanes for scooters and bikes will establish a protected, middle-speed space that will separate scooters and bikes from pedestrians as well as automobiles. 

With the destination data we have from the last pilot, we should also establish recommended saferroutes for scooter users to and from popular stopping points. Another positive step would be to reexamine the no-go zones, and whether they promote safety or create a barrier to mobility.

Finally, we should not make scooters yet another issue the police are tasked with. Enforcement should be a last resort dealing with scooter traffic. Education and infrastructure are our best tools for compliance. 

Without creating a safer, inclusive environment, we fear that shared scooters will not succeed in Omaha. It would be a shame to lose a form of transportation that encourages people to get out into their community and experience it from a unique speed and point of view.

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