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E-scooters may be rolling into Pa., but are Philly streets prepared? Pro/Con | Opinion

The disagreement of our local and state policymakers highlights just how polarizing e-scooters have become within the public discourse. The Inquirer reached out to transportation experts on both sides of the debate to get their takes on whether Philly is ready for e-scooters.

An e-scooter zips along a Washington, D.C., street.
An e-scooter zips along a Washington, D.C., street.Read moreSalwan Georges

If you’ve recently visited another city, you may have been surprised to see people zipping around the streets on e-scooters. Around the world, including American cities such as Austin, Texas; Santa Monica, Calif.; Nashville; and Atlanta, dockless scooters have become a quick and affordable way to get from point A to point B. The dockless scooters are similar to the kick-scooters kids use to dash up and down your block on summer nights, but instead of being fueled by feet, they are powered by an electric motor and capable of speeds up to 20 miles per hour.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a bill to permit e-scooters on streets across the commonwealth. The City of Philadelphia, however, has expressed objection to this bill and would seek a ban on e-scooters should the bill pass.. The disagreement of our local and state policymakers highlights just how polarizing e-scooters have become within the public discourse. The Inquirer reached out to transportation experts on both sides of the debate to get their takes on whether Philadelphia is ready for e-scooters.

The city holds scooters to different safety standards than cars

Before launching into a debate of e-scooters’ “pros and cons,” it is important to recognize the inequity in banning scooters on the grounds of safety, accessibility, fear of scooter blight, and other arguments while automotive mobility is not (and has rarely ever been) held to the same standard.

In Philadelphia, parked cars block crosswalks and access to ADA-critical ramps and warning strips; cars park in roadway medians; Ubers idle in bike lanes; drivers roll through stop signs with such casual indifference and frequency that Philadelphians sometimes call it the “Philly Slide.”

As you read about scooters, consider the word car in place of scooter and see if the standards being argued for hold true for automotive travel. See if the fears of dangerous interactions and blight seem more or less appropriate when considering a 30-lb scooter or a 4-ton vehicle. Consider our prioritization of vehicles at all costs: then consider these costs’ effect on our city’s safety, equity, health, and climate; consider how these costs impact our most vulnerable neighbors and our children.

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Rather than disproportionately fixate our transportation concerns on one form of travel, Philadelphians must demand better and safer streets for all modes. Our transportation system has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of traffic deaths per capita. Nearly half are pedestrians and cyclists; 10 percent are children. Counting crashes and fatalities obscures an even more treacherous reality. The number of traffic deaths — as staggeringly high as it is — nowhere near covers the unmeasured safety hazards that force people to limit their mobility. For every reported crash, there are an estimated 20,000 “near misses” or dangerous roadway interactions.

If this is Philadelphia’s current state, how will scooters integrate into the city’s already diverse transportation system?

There are three classic transportation concepts that will tell us the answer: mode shifting, safety in numbers, and induced demand.

Mode shifting: Scooters offer a new mobility option, one which has significantly reduced demand for rideshare and driving in peer cities. New scooter riders increase drivers’ awareness of everything moving on the road that isn’t a car.

Safety in numbers: This phenomenon encourages more people to get out and bike, scoot, or walk. Demand for separated, protected, multipurpose bike/scooter lane infrastructure will become impossible to ignore. Once built, it will induce new demand, and with better infrastructure, more and more people will be comfortable using bikes and scooters.

Induced demand: We have seen induced demand at work in Philadelphia already: Our bike lanes have propelled us to first place among big cities for our share of bicycle commuters; our pedestrian- and bike-friendly paths and river trails are packed people with of all ages year-round. It is clear that when we give Philadelphians access to safe and enjoyable alternatives to driving they will use them.

But is it really safe to scoot in Philadelphia?

New scooter riders increase drivers’ awareness of everything moving on the road that isn’t a car.

As with all modes, safety will be contingent on the quality of the infrastructure available. The only way we will achieve Vision Zero (zero traffic deaths) and mitigate hard-to-measure safety hazards is through infrastructure design that slows traffic, makes pedestrians and cyclists more visible, and physically separates vehicles, bikes and scooters, and pedestrians.

Philly’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability (oTIS) understands this: Its CONNECT plan is centered on holistic design improvement for all modes. The residents of Philadelphia understand this: 28 neighborhoods filed Slow Zone applications in January 2019, demonstrating broad support for slowing down traffic and creating safe infrastructure. Yet only two proposals were chosen due to funding constraints, highlighting how proposals for safe transportation infrastructure projects still struggle to generate the political buy-in for implementation.

We as a city must proactively build safe, separated urban transportation infrastructure. Fundamentally, complete streets — with protected spaces for vehicles, bikes and scooters, and pedestrians — make movement safer, more efficient, more reliable, and more enjoyable for all.

Megan S. Ryerson, Ph.D. is the UPS chair of transportation in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. Carrie Sauer is director of University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Safe Mobility.

E-scooters are fun, but not safe or sustainable

Human life takes precedence when making transportation policy decisions. That’s the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability (oTIS)'s Vision Zero policy and one my colleagues and I keep in mind when promoting transit, walking, and biking to give residents safe sustainable options to get around in a growing city.

Last October, our office released CONNECT: Philadelphia’s Strategic Transportation Plan. The fundamental values of equity, safety, sustainability, and health laid out in CONNECT form the basis for evaluating all transportation policy and design decisions, including questions about electric scooters.

E-scooter companies and their promoters promise to benefit Philadelphia in two main ways: through increasing mobility and accessibility for individuals, and through improving sustainability through the shift to smaller electric vehicles.

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However, the truth is that much is still unknown about the safety and sustainability of e-scooters, and initial data show that e-scooters are very dangerous. It is in the best interest of the city and its residents to refrain from promoting or permitting dockless e-scooter programs until the benefits and risks to public safety are better understood.

My oTIS colleagues and I have been in contact with many companies seeking to operate dockless e-scooters in Philadelphia and with peer officials in the cities where they operate. This open dialogue has been beneficial, and has provided us with some understanding of the upsides of e-scooters as well as the potential trade-offs and inherent dangers.

Early reports from our peer cities, such as Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, lead us to believe that we must proceed with caution. Reports of crashes and injuries are commonplace in cities where e-scooters have been deployed, while survey research shows that e-scooters mostly replace trips already made on the clean, safe modes of transit of walking and biking.

Currently, there are few comprehensive studies of crashes involving e-scooters and little data on national trends. What research exists points to a popular and novel form of transportation that has shown relatively high risk of crashes and injuries by users.

Research compiled by Consumer Reports show high crash fatality rates compared with bike share programs. This includes four e-scooter-related fatalities across the country in 2018 alone versus two fatalities in nine years of bike share program operation.

Reports of crashes and injuries are commonplace in cities where e-scooters have been deployed.

A new study from the city of Austin showed that out of 936,110 e-scooter trips, 271 people reported e-scooter-related injuries. Comparing these crash rates to data from several sources (Fatality Analysis Reporting System (fatal injuries), General Estimates System (nonfatal injuries), and National Household Travel Survey (person-trips) shows that people riding e-scooters have two times more crashes than people riding motorcycles, 13 times more crashes than people riding bicycles, 25 times more crashes than people driving cars, 100 times more crashes than people walking, and 130 times more crashes than people riding the bus. And 74 percent of crashes did not involve a motor vehicle, meaning that no amount of protected infrastructure will prevent these crashes. The “safety in numbers” theory likely does not apply to scooters.

E-scooters seem to be inherently unsafe, regardless of what infrastructure cities build to support them. They do not seem to fill an existing mobility gap or missing piece of the transportation puzzle, but instead replace clean, safe, healthy existing modes, especially walking. Cities from Nashville to Paris are looking to ban or limit e-scooters after having experiences with them.

Electric scooters are not currently legal per Pennsylvania state law. Any action on the city’s part will be subject to permissions at the state level. There are bills in Harrisburg to legalize e-scooters, but I hope legislators will look closely at the experiences of other cities and states before bringing e-scooters to Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia needs clean, safe, and affordable transportation, but e-scooters are not it.

Christopher Puchalsky is the director of Policy and Strategic Initiatives with the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability (oTIS).