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With Electric Scooters, Road Space Isn’t So Black and White After All

Over the last year, electric scooters have sped onto the streets of some of America’s largest cities, delighting many riders but also surprising and confusing pedestrians and drivers who aren’t quite sure how to deal with them. Do they belong on the road, like bicycles and cars, or on the sidewalk?

In a video for Vox, Carlos Waters highlights the ways electric scooters challenge conventional urban design, including the right to the sidewalk and street layout.

Who Has the Right to the Sidewalk?

Sidewalks play a distinct role in cities; they are places for public expression, protest, design and commerce. But arguably their primary function, at least since the dawn of the automobile, is to separate pedestrian activity from motorized vehicles. This is an important job – more than 1.25 million people die from road-related crashes ever year, most either pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists – and it’s getting harder as sidewalks get more crowded.

Whether zooming by or littered along the concrete, electric scooters are challenging the common view of shared sidewalk and street space. As Waters points out, the amount of sidewalk space available for travel is misleading. All urban sidewalks have frontage and furniture zones. The frontage zone is the sidewalk space for retail signs, planters and other paraphernalia business owners want outside their storefronts. The furniture zone hugs the space between sidewalk and road. This is dedicated to benches, trees, bus stops, garbage cans, newspaper stands and more.

When you account for both frontage and furniture zones, there’s not much left on most city sidewalks. And now this “free” space is more congested than ever.

Complete Streets and Beyond

Waters suggests many cities will need to rebuild road spaces to accommodate e-scooters and other new modes of transport, pointing to the concept of “complete streets” as a solution. By narrowing traffic lanes, widening sidewalks and introducing protected bike and pedestrian areas, city streets can be made safer and more accessible (a claim we can corroborate!).

Complete streets allow cities to both benefit from the benefits of e-scooters – including improved “last-mile connectivity” for public transit and potentially reduced car congestion – while safely incorporating these new vehicles into the urban landscape.

Safety is a significant concern. In Washington, D.C., where there are several e-scooter companies operating, a man traveling through a busy roundabout on an e-scooter was struck by a car and killed last month. His was the first death of its kind in the United States, but many fear it won’t be the last. Total traffic-related deaths in the D.C. area are on the rise, with 27 fatalities to date in 2018 – including 14 pedestrians and bicyclists – compared to 24 at this time last year.

When it comes to cars, we know from decades of experience that speed is the most important factor to control in order to improve road safety. If a pedestrian is hit by a car traveling 18 miles per hour, there is a 10 percent chance the pedestrian will die. Chances of fatality increase to 85 percent when the car is traveling just 12 miles per hour faster.

Electric scooters can reach more than 15 miles per hour, which is extremely fast for city sidewalks, but they are also vulnerable to motor vehicles, just like pedestrians and cyclists. While we don’t yet have the data to fully understand how scooters are affecting road safety in cities, it’s safe to say that finding new ways to incorporate them into road designs – even complete streets – will be necessary. Cities need to design streets for all users.

Talia Rubnitz is a Communications Specialist at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.