Back in 2018, there was something of an electric scooter craze hitting cities across the U.S. Following companies like Uber and Lyft, as well as bike-sharing installations, several small start-ups poured a ton of money into an attempt at getting electric scooters and rental bikes to be a viable alternative to other transportation.
You mostly saw this in major cities, places like San Francisco, New York, and Seattle, where there’s a huge combination of foot traffic and vehicular traffic. Of course when we say craze, it was really only popular with the companies attempting to start this new business.
People were using the rentals, sure, but in many cases the almost complete lack of prepared regulation made them an expensive nuisance more than anything else. So why did this seem like a good idea? Which parts are worth trying again, and which aspects of the plan should be scrapped altogether?
The idea originated in Amsterdam around the summer of 1965. It was the most basic form of what we have today: bikes were painted white and left for public use, the idea being to find a bike around the city when you need one. Unfortunately, this plays out exactly like most people expect. The bikes are stolen, destroyed, or otherwise lost and the program stops.
Modern bike sharing, with more measures to prevent theft, loss, and damage emerged sometime around 1996. That’s when paying for a bike, having dedicated return docks, and a variety of other features became major components of any bike sharing program. 24 years later, the system is more or less intact. Bikes have better tracking, user tracking, and essentially polished versions of the 1996 design.
The idea of course is providing alternative and economical or environmentally considerate options to vehicle ownership, and it’s remained popular in very large metro areas whether they feature primarily public and pedestrian traffic or more personal transit traffic. Several large cities in China and places like Paris or New York are homes to some of the largest modern day bike sharing companies in the world.
While bikes have been around for ages and many cities had at least some baseline regulation for how bikes and traffic should interact, scooters are a bit new. While there are several reasons that scooter sharing companies haven’t been able to enjoy the same success in volume as bike sharing, the two main reasons are a lack of regulation and upfront and ongoing cost.
In terms of cost, electric scooters are more expensive both to purchase initially and to maintain throughout their lifetime. In an ideal scenario, these scooters are also used with enough frequency that whatever company is renting them out earns a profit. Inevitably this means that expensive scooters are getting run down and repaired more frequently and replaced sooner than later.
The second issue, however, is that many of the cities where these scooters initially appeared didn’t have much official guidance or direction on how to handle these unexpected additions to roads full of people, bikes, and cars. That means that traffic rules concerning scooters were unclear, and general city guidelines about undocked scooters were equally messy.
While some more limited scooter programs were reimplemented or still persist today, they never quite overtook bike sharing or standard forms of public and personal transportation. Many of them failed due to excessive cost and cities making immediate regulation to simply ban electric scooters in city limits for transportation use. They also faced backlash concerning their claims that scooters were more green than cars and public transport.
Scooter sharing isn’t necessarily a bad idea. While their efficacy as a green alternative to cars or a bus is up for debate, the bike sharing program shows that there is some market for people that want rental transport in cities where travel needs are too short for a drive and too long for a walk. However, what is evident for all forms of alternative transportation, is that regulations, traffic management, and road safety guidelines need to be at least partially developed beforehand.
Next to that, an interesting observation is the fact that scooters and bikes, shared or otherwise, are often not accommodated by official road design and infrastructure. Though some larger cities have been working to expand bike lanes and more clearly define how bike riders, scooter users, and pedestrians fit into urban transportation, it’s not a universal fix.
That means the rise in bike use, the sort of social zeitgeist for alternative personal transportation options we’ve seen in the last few years, is a perfect opportunity to see which parts of our roadway safety design are incomplete. In this instance, we see that more signal structure and lane design can help facilitate safer and more efficient bike riding. In the right volume can reduce traffic congestion, increase safety for drivers and riders. Less drivers on the road generally translates to fewer accidents as well.
To start improving roadway safety for bikes, scooters, people skating, or anyone else not in a car or public transit, we need to develop clear guidelines and concrete facets of a road to give them space. We have some now, bike lanes and specialized crossings are good examples of creating real space for people traveling without cars.
Progress depends largely on your goals, of course. For many companies and consumers alike, environmentalism is a big factor driving more bike or scooter use, so alternatives like public transportation and solar powered traffic signals are a good way to bridge the gap between now and the future. Brighter lights, more awareness of how to treat the people we share the road with, and a dedication overall to safer roads may be exactly what we need to enjoy our cities and safer roads.
ELTEC has been a world-class manufacturer and innovator in traffic control signs, traffic safety equipment and overall traffic control products for nearly 50 years. Our goal is to significantly reduce the number of fatalities on our roads each year by implementing warning systems, and we are constantly coming up with new ways to innovate our products to provide you with the best possible safety and warning systems for your community. Contact ELTEC Traffic Products and Warning Systems today to learn how we can meet your traffic signal needs with state-of-the-art systems that are built to save lives.