I don’t normally opine too often on transportation issues. I have come to conclusions at the macro level for how we should prioritize public investment for transportation, but generally I find that Seattle Transit Blog, Seattle Bike Blog, and the Urbanist cover a lot of ground with which I agree. But, because I pay for this domain, and have been ruminating on this for awhile, I’m going to dive into a transportation issue (really, a set of issues) that…well, I have thoughts on.
For those who have been engaged on the potential transportation package being considered by the State of Washington’s Legislature, there is much ado about the extent that the package (continues to) prioritize highway expansion, with, if I’m reading correctly, less than 6.1% for non-highway projects. How much of the package is from the gas tax? I don’t know (I’m of the opinion that, at this point, 0% of non-gas-tax dollars should be spent on highways for new lanes, and 0% for general purpose lane maintenance). How much of that expansion could be instead re-invested in maintaining existing infrastructure that is already car-centric? I would posit 100%.
The other part that has raised serious concerns: efforts to, again, modify the valuation tool used by Sound Transit for ST3. While I agree that this should have been modified a long time ago (some may recall that former Governor Gary Locke essentially promised that the State would while encouraging people to vote against I-695. He should have sent legislation making that change regardless), it didn’t. It provided the current mechanism as part of the package authorizing ST3, and trying to change the goal-posts after-the-fact without ensuring that there is no financial hit to the agency is inappropriate at best, and shows a lack of commitment to alternative transportation at worst.
But some people’s tabs went way up!!! Yeah. People with new and luxury cars. And, frankly, I don’t have the most sympathy for folks with new and luxury cars. Don’t get me wrong - the way we collect tab fees and taxes is fucked up (a one-time-per-year tax), and that can create a significant hit for lower-wage workers and small businesses that have a vehicle that is necessary for their work. However, that is an issue that I don’t believe would meaningfully change with a new valuation mechanism, especially considering that older vehicles are unlikely to see much of a change (dollar-wise) in this one-time, annual cost associated with owning a motor vehicle. I would instead suggest that Rep. Kristene Reeves’ bill (proposed last year, if I recall correctly) to allow for installment payments for tab renewals greater than $200 simply makes more sense to spread the cost for households, while ensuring equity for this one portion of tab-fee renewals (which is a Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, based on vehicle value, rather than a flat fee that makes up most of the rest of annual car-tab renewal costs).
This is how car-centered transportation culture works. At a time when climate change is worsening, and vehicle emissions remain the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in our region, I believe that our elected officials should be laying the groundwork for meaningful change in how we get around, giving future generations a fighting chance. Instead, not only are we seeing continued movement for advancing car-centered culture for decades through highway expansion, and de minimus investment in alternative transportation models, but we are, at the same time, working to encourage even more private automobile usage while feeling like we’re being “green" through a new obsession with electric vehicles.
We are seeing this in efforts in Olympia to provide new ways for utilities to support electric vehicle users (essentially allowing public utilities to use ratepayer dollars to provide incentive for folks to buy new electric vehicles, meaning all ratepayers would be subsidizing upper-middle-class and wealthy folks), and here in Seattle with a new push to expand public electric vehicle charging stations using public right-of-way (in some cases, planning to do so on arterial roadways, preventing expansion of bus-only and safe-bike infrastructure without significant cost to ratepayers and/or taxpayers), with minimal [especially by historic scale] efforts to provide credits or incentives for e-bikes (including cargo and family bikes). Not to mention new efforts for so-called “microtransit”, aiming to provide first-mile/last-mile service to connect folks who are unable to (or, more commonly, don’t want to) walk or use other modes to get to a bus stop (including taking another bus and transferring).
While these concepts are embraced, the opposite can be said about modes designed to provide first-mile/last-mile, or an easy way to get around in communities, that aren’t motor vehicles: bike-share and scooters.
Folks in Seattle know that we have had an…interesting go with respect to bike-share. Our first foray was a docked-bike-share network that was curiously placed, and financially unfeasible. Back in 2015, I was asked by a bike-advocacy organization if I would support ramping up investment in this modal, and essentially responded that I am in favor of bike-share, but was not committed to a single model. Following millions of dollars invested by the city to keep it going, the system ultimately failed.
This opened the door for dockless bike share, and brought us Lime, Ofo, and…whatever the orange ones were called. Where docked bike-share created one set of issues with respect to access to the service and service area issues, dockless bike share raised a brand new set of issues. From folks being “cool” and tossing the bikes into lakes, streams, and trees, to riders failing to be considerate of others when parking, leaving bikes askew, blocking sidewalks and curb-ramps.
In response: the City of Seattle has implemented a permitting plan for bike-share that includes annual fees higher than Transportation Network Companies’ (think Uber and Lyft), and a cap on total bikes allowed (which TNCs don’t have). Ostensibly, the purpose for this fee was to enforce safety and accessibility, and also move forward with investing in efforts to provide “corrals”, encouraging dockless bike users to park in designated areas throughout the city (following some pilot examples that apparently worked).
Frankly, I still don’t fully understand why it is estimated to (a) cost so much and (b) place that cost solely on the companies that provide bike-share for improving infrastructure for dockless bike share. We don’t do that for TNCs, I don’t believe we do it for car-share, and placing this burden on a mode of transportation that is (assuming we believe in climate change and the science behind reducing GHGs) one we are aiming to promote is counter-intuitive. And the easiest way to create more bike corrals in commercial cores, downtown, in parks, at schools and libraries: take a couple on-street parking spaces, paint-and-post, and enforce.
I know what you’re thinking: But Michael, what the hell does this have to do with “scootin”? Everything.
In our infinite wisdom as a city, when we adopted the framework for bike-share, we explicitly banned scooter-share as an option. Across the country, e-scooters are becoming a more-and-more popular method to get around for workers who need to get across town, tourists checking out the sights, and folks who are taking that final trip home from a transit stop. While I, personally, am not a fan of using e-scooters, I have seen folks use them to easily get around, and they provide a “green” alternative for people to make short trips with reliable timing.
The question: why do we hate e-scooters? There are two main reasons I hear: safety for the user, and “clutter” associated with scooters being left lying around (with additional accessibility implications). That second one we can thank discourteous bike-share users and the city'. Leaving bikes parked hap-hazardly, blocking sidewalks and curb ramps, thanks to a combination of selfishness and lack of infrastructure (corrals, folks!). Of course, this isn’t surprising: bike corrals are actually really easy to create, but mean loss of on-street parking. I have actually heard the argument that we shouldn’t allow a company to have it’s product in public right-of-way - from folks who don’t want to lose opportunity to store their personal property in public right-of-way. I just don’t agree, and am disappointed at the slow pace of the city in moving forward with parking infrastructure for bike-share (notwithstanding the lack of safe infrastructure for all cyclists and scooter users).
(I do want to make one note - in my experience, I have seen more cars blocking crosswalks, parked on sidewalks, and generally being left in public-right-of-way haphazardly in ways that decrease accessibility significantly, and adversely impact safety for other users. In my 14 months working for Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, I don’t recall receiving a single complaint about this phenomenon, only about bike-share bikes. That’s how comfortable we have gotten with drivers behaving badly.)
As for safety - I’m going to call bullshit. If we actually wanted to address safety concerns for residents, whether through road safety or public health, we would ban cars. Motor vehicles are the most dangerous form of transportation, both for their occupants, occupants of other vehicles, and pedestrians and cyclists. Motor vehicles are the top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, impacting climate change and public health at the local level. Motor vehicles promote a sedentary lifestyle, which has a host of other public health implications that impact taxpayers and consumers through increase costs for healthcare, and increased need for more healthcare services.
Some people point to a recent peer-reviewed study by JAMA Network, that looked at emergency department admissions over a year at two hospitals in Los Angeles, reported by Mother Jones, to suggest that e-scooters are fundamentally dangerous. But when we look closer, we see that injuries relating to scooters were nominally higher than bicycles (249 for scooters v. 195 for bicycles and 181 for pedestrians). And while “head injury” is a common injury, the majority of those (95%) were minor head injuries, and the majority of injuries overall were minor enough to not require ambulance transportation (34% transported by “emergency medical service;” I didn’t see a breakdown of Basic Life Support v. Advanced Life Support). And, most tellingly, almost all of the injured persons presenting were discharged home (94%), with 73% of riders in and out of the ER in under four hours.
CityLab looked at more information, including fatality rates, essentially finding that fatalities-per-100 million miles traveled for e-scooters are essentially the same as bikes and bike-share (2.25-5 for every 100 million miles traveled). However, they also noted that there are inherent personal safety risks that accompany scooters due to the standing nature of the user, and the poor handling of potholes by the scooters. To me, this is all the more reason to improve safe bike infrastructure, and allow e-scooters in bike lanes and cycletracks. Potholes can be disastrous for cyclists, as well, and having a protected lane decreases pothole risk. And having safe bike infrastructure means more people using it rather than riding on sidewalks, or braving general purpose lanes. It makes sense.
But there is also the environmental and public health component: people who have options to get out of traffic, reliably and safely, use those options. Portland conducted a survey of e-scooter users, and found that 48% may have used a private vehicle or car service had the scooter not been available. E-scooter users preferred bike lanes, and many new users to non-car transportation modes were created with this option that works for getting folks around and, as reported by many, is “fun”.
What does this mean for Seattle? Seattle should work to authorize e-scooter share. That’s my initial takeaway. People want options to get around, and if we’re going to allow minimally-regulated TNCs that are clogging our roads, parking in bike lanes, blocking crosswalks, and worsening public health, at minimum we should provide something that, as Portland found, provides a reasonable option for residents.
Of course, such a move must be done with intention. I would suggest limiting speeds on e-scooters to 10 miles per hour, and creating bike and scooter-share corrals immediately, makes most sense. In addition, looking to communities where first- and last-mile is a need, working to ensure deployment includes those areas (I’m thinking West Seattle, Southeast Seattle, Wallingford), and working with residents and businesses in those communities on implementing infrastructure that works to have scooters as a reasonable alternative for first-mile/last-mile. It would also be dope if we could integrate Orca into all bike- and scooter-share in Seattle.
And this is work we can (and should) do if we are basing our decisions on facts and data. The data shows that scooters are marginally less safe than bikes. Yet, still, I would guess that we see more major injuries every year (and deaths) as a result of motor vehicles. We see worse public health outcomes as a result of motor vehicles. And we spend more and more taxpayer dollars to support this data-proven unsafe and unhealthy transportation mode.
We are closing in on a point of no return for climate change. Electric Vehicles are not going to be the catalyst that causes course-correction (although I agree they can be a part, with manufacturing and product sourcing for parts being an important component). Changing how we interact with our environment in how we get around is. While scooters alone aren’t going to do it, providing even more options to vehicles, and investing in safe routes and parking for those options, is how we put our money where our mouth is. Relying on anecdotes rather than data to oppose such measures is a disservice to our region, and perpetuating false information from positions of power is an unfortunate option to lead.
There also appears to be a generational theme playing out. In the L.A. study, 75% of riders admitted were under 40. 72.5% of respondents to the Portland survey were under 40, Much like we have seen with response to zoning changes, opposition to bike-share and e-scooters (and safe bike infrastructure) tends to lean older (and whiter). But if we only build infrastructure for today, we miss the opportunity to prepare for the future. And future users clearly desire - and will use - more options. Making those investments in safe infrastructure, and putting in place clear guidelines to preserve accessibility, is how we build a city of the future, and how we show our commitment to reducing climate change. At least that’s what the data says.