The two-wheeled future of urban mobility

By Dima Yankova

[TL;DR] Two-wheeled car alternatives, like (e-)bikes and e-scooters, are spreading fast across our densely populated cities. Yet, unlike cars, these new forms of urban mobility do not have a readily available infrastructure, which raises all sorts of safety concerns. With overcrowded sidewalks and insufficient bike paths, city planners should start claiming more space from car lanes, in order to encourage, not suppress, the uptake of current and future two-wheeled forms of transport.

As the population of our cities keeps growing, the debate over the future of urban mobility is bound to get more and more complex. In recent years, much has been said about the potential of connected, autonomous, shared electric vehicles (also known as CASE) to ease traffic, increase transport safety and reduce carbon emissions. But cars are simply one part of a much more complex puzzle. Currently, two-wheeled alternatives are spreading across European cities at a much faster rate. From the well-known and well-tested conventional bicycle, through to the e-bike, all the way to the most recent innovation hit in urban transportation - electric scooters, which are powered by a small rechargeable battery pack.

Similar to CASE vehicles, these new forms of personal mobility have great potential for decreasing traffic congestion, improving air quality, reducing noise pollution and bringing down carbon emissions - measures that our growing, densely populated cities desperately need. Their swift uptake also signals a willingness among urban residents to ditch the car in favor of something new. But unlike electric or self-driving cars, two-wheelers do not have a readily available well-connected infrastructure to support their use on a large scale and this is where much of the problem lies.

At this point, it is fair to say that most major European cities have some form of a bike lane grid - although its safety, quality and overall connectivity varies greatly across countries. Putting Copenhagen and Amsterdam aside, many city councils are still lagging behind their ambitious targets to build separated cycling tracks that are not just recreational but provide a real alternative to motor vehicles. Even when progress is made, problems persist. Some of the most common ones are bike lanes that end abruptly, lanes that are too narrow and lack any real physical protection from motor vehicles, or those demarcated on top of the sidewalk and riddled with physical obstacles from street signs to garbage cans. These bike lanes are the only infrastructure currently in place to accommodate the sudden surge in two-wheel transport alternatives of any kind, and when they are absent or poor in quality, bike and scooter riders turn into every pedestrian’s nightmare.

Electric scooters are a particular cause for concern, because they can develop speeds of up to 25 km/hour. Data collected by the French daily Le Parisien found that in 2017, electric scooters and roller skates combined caused 284 injuries and five deaths in France, a 23 % increase from the previous year. In Spain alone last year, authorities registered 273 accidents involving personal mobility vehicles (a legal term used unanimously to refer to scooters, segways, hoverboards and other electric transport devices). 200 of those accidents involved a clash with pedestrian(s).

Needless to say, the option of claiming more space from existing pedestrian paths to accommodate emerging two-wheeled transport forms is also not a viable solution. In our fixation with making space for cars (and parking), we’ve ended up cramming everything else on top of the sidewalk. Think of benches, street signs, lamp posts, trees, advertisement panels, cafe tables and chairs, bus stops, garbage cans and all the other hardware we have to zig zag our way around. Pedestrians already have limited walking space so making extra room for bikes, electric scooters, hoverboards and whatever two-wheeler comes next seems like an audacious plan at best and a public safety hazard at worst.

Given the lack of proper infrastructure and the obvious safety concerns arising from it, in many places the sudden boom in electric scooters was met with frustration and sometimes outright opposition. In this backlash, some have gone so far as to argue that the problems scooters cause outweigh the benefits and their role in the micro-mobility revolution we are now witnessing. But I think we should be more careful in how we frame this problem. The issue with any emerging two-wheeled car alternative seems like the classic chicken-and-egg situation. When the infrastructure is lacking or poor in quality, these new modes of transport get in the way of car and pedestrian traffic. The public rails against them and authorities vow to ban the new public space invaders. All the while cars continue to dominate our cities, and cyclists and e-scooter riders are still waiting for a decent, safe and well-connected infrastructure.

We should not forget that cars have been and continue to be the most invasive occupant of our saturated urban realm, claiming more than 80% of our streets and polluting the air we breathe daily.

Yet, we have become so accustomed and so dependent on them, that we somehow overlook the staggering numbers of accidents, injuries and deaths caused by car drivers every day. It is this obsessive attachment to cars that has made it so difficult for us to look beyond and accept that other forms of personal mobility are possible.

Ultimately, we cannot allow public discontent to be directed against bikes and electric scooters. These two-wheel alternatives are spreading fast and for good reasons. They are a somewhat promising start in what should be a global movement to transition away from fossil fuel burning cars. We just have to make room for them and be serious about our commitment to regulate, not suppress, their uptake. We have to consider the importance of more adequate infrastructure, that is both appropriate and safe, and, yes, it will require major investments but the long-term benefits should be enough to tilt the scale in their favor. And finally, we have to start claiming space from car lanes, instead of putting more stress on our already overcrowded sidewalks. Plus, if CASE vehicles turn out to be the breakthrough that so many have been waiting for, and urban transportation becomes more efficient, city planners can seize the opportunity to claim back even more road space by repurposing spare, low-traffic car lanes for other forms of transport. Today electric scooters are the big deal in urban transportation, but tomorrow we might have another smaller, lighter, cheaper, and more efficient two-wheeled alternative. The least we can do is be prepared.