Hippy Daydreams and Climate Silver Bullets

I used to think Bike/scootershare was going to save the planet. Then the bikes and scooters were in the San Francisco Bay. Then they were a touchstone for gentrification. Then they lined homeless encampments. And then the pandemic struck and their use plummeted. And then the pandemic struck and their use soared. Growing pains and scapegoating aside, what is the state of bikeshare and “micromobility” in the United States today?

Policymakers and jurisdictions nationwide have been working for decades to get their citizens to move away from single occupancy vehicles—the solo trip to the store, to work, to just about everywhere. Of course these efforts are akin to rolling a boulder uphill, with the auto industry—and to be fair, America’s long-standing love affair with the car—representing the boulder. Efforts to get folks out of their cars and onto public transportation being pursued on one side of City Hall are almost without fail being undermined on the other side of the building by plans to expand the boulevard/parkway/highway by departments of public works who are simply and legitimately responding to their citizenry who don’t like being stuck in traffic (even though they are traffic).

The first/last mile conundrum of public transportation has long been a nefarious nut to crack. The train/ferry/bus gets you 80%-97% of the way to your destination, but you still gotta get from your house to the station, from the station to your end point. Enter Micromobility. Beginning around 2017, battery advances and the same smart phone technology that allowed for the rise of ride-hailing industry giants Uber and Lyft to whisk us anywhere, anytime, at the swipe of a thumb, also allowed the birth of modern, app-enabled bikeshare.

To many, this looked like the silver bullet planners and policymakers had long been hoping to fire. For the urban dweller in particular, they could now grab a bike or a scooter from down the street, pedal or scoot to the transit center, leave their wheels and board the clean, gleaming, electric, (free?) public transit vehicle of the future. They’d be fitter for it, having gotten some exercise before work, and, what the heck—they’d probably have whiter teeth and have gained a few IQ points to boot.

So, five years after this transportation transformation that promised to reduce VMT (vehicle miles traveled), greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and deliver us neatly to our collective climate goals, has it? The climate catastrophe is a multi-headed monster that no one approach can hope to solve in isolation, but the transportation sector is the largest contributor to GHG so it’s a worthwhile endeavor. And the achievements to date are quite impressive.

According to the North American Bikeshare and Scootershare Association’s (NABSA) 2022 State of the Industry Report, 128 million trips were taken using a pedal bike, e-bike, or e-scooter across North America (U.S., Mexico, Canada) in 2021, and at least 298 cities had at least one bikeshare or e-scooter system, and 97 had both.

Image: NABSA

“Bikeshare is generally thriving, with Boston’s BlueBikes regional program as a great example—they are expanding and breaking records. The San Francisco Bay Area program has struggled a bit, in part due to its launch occurring during the 2017 dockless bike share craze, and the region’s love/hate relationship with tech” said Kara Oberg, Active Transportation Planner for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in San Francisco. “Cumbersome insurance requirements resulting from Assembly Bill 371 targeting e-scooters could kill micromobility by making the companies responsible for user behavior, which is pretty extreme if you think about it.” Indeed. Cars kill roughly 46,000 people every year. Are Ford and Toyota held responsible? They are not. 

Despite these growing pains, NABSA’s aforementioned report states these 128 million rides and scoots offset approximately 54 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions by replacing car trips, and that folks gained almost 15.5 million hours of additional physical activity via new trips or by ditching the car. Additionally, 63% of riders report that they use micromobility to connect to public transit.

These numbers bode well for “Seamless Mobility,” the next step towards a green transportation revolution. The idea that there should be a seamless connection between a bike or scooter share and fixed public transit routes—all services wired together via smartphone with discounts, incentives, payments, real time trip info and intuitive mapping—might have seemed like a shiny, futuristic impossibility just ten years ago. It is at our doorstep today. However, local, regional, state and federal entities will need to coordinate, collaborate, and yes—subsidize—these efforts. Nefarious and wicked problems like climate change will require no less.

TCI is sponsored by Shimano North America. Check out their urban component line.

Join the conversation
  1. TominAlbany says

    I was in D.C. for a weeklong conference a few years ago. I took the train from the airport to the city. I went everywhere on a scooter rental. It was fun and less expensive than a taxi. And, since the weather was good, I got to see a gorgeous city the best way possible!

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