Electric scooters have been getting a lot of attention lately thanks to e-scooter share companies like Lime, Skip and Jump dropping thousands of scooters in over 100 cities across the country.
News coverage regularly described a scourge in which the scooters cluttered sidewalks, broke rules and generally wrought havoc on city streets.
Which is surprising considering the biggest rule-breakers are automobiles. That's right: Motor vehicles are many times more likely to double-park, block driveways, obstruct bike lanes and violate other parking rules than e-scooters, as revealed by a new study from Cornell University and the University of Oregon.
To better understand how people use scooter shares, the authors of "Impeding Access: The Frequency of Improper Scooter, Bike and Car Parking" sent out observers (including myself) to document micro-mobility and automobile usage in Portland, Austin, San Francisco, Santa Monica and Washington, D.C.
Our aim was to discover how often and for how long micro-mobility devices (scooters, bicycles) and motor vehicles impede a street user's right of way.
After observing 2,631 motor vehicles, which ranged from personal cars to rideshares and food delivery trucks, and 865 bikes and scooters, the data revealed that nearly one-quarter (24.7%) of motor vehicles were improperly parked, compared to 0.3% of bicycles and 1.1% of scooters.
The data also suggests that scooter and bike users do "use parking infrastructure when provided, especially in San Francisco, where 97.7% of scooters and bikes were parked at a rack or in a corral."
At the same time, scooter regulations don't necessarily lead to better behavior. The authors found "no micro-mobility regulation stood out as the clear policy lever to reduce violation rates. Austin had by far the largest micro-mobility fleet of the five case study cities, while Portland and San Francisco had the smallest allowed fleet sizes, yet Austin had the second-lowest rate of micro-mobility parking violations (0.6%), behind San Francisco (0%) but ahead of Portland (2.3%)."
While I was surprised by the size of the gap between motor vehicle and bike/scooter violations, I did suspect it. I spent hours walking up and down Southwest 10th Avenue in downtown Portland and had seen cars double-park, hop on the curb and generally ignore the rules of the road. A whopping 22.6% of motor vehicle observations in this city included a parking violation — and Portland wasn't even the leader in that category.
Some motor vehicles are more likely to break the rules than others; 63.6% of the motor vehicle violations were for commercial, ride-hail, taxi and delivery vehicles, which represented only 23.8% of all motor vehicle observations.
This is a striking finding, considering the rise of Amazon and rideshare providers like Uber and Lyft. It suggests we need to come up with new street layouts that give these vehicles space to operate without impeding other street users.
Right now, cars are a greater menace than scooters in our downtowns. Cars are more likely to break the rules of the road as they congest, pollute and bring death to our city centers by hitting pedestrians.
We can afford to work out the kinks to make scooters more efficient and carbon neutral; we cannot afford to wait to diminish the inefficient and destructive role motor vehicles play in our society.
Henry Latourette Miller is a Portland-based writer completing his master's degree in urban and regional planning at Portland State University.
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