Greater Greater Washington periodically publishes opinion posts on topics of interest to our readers. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Greater Greater Washington.
Since I left the US Department of Transportation a couple of years ago, one of the most transformative developments in how Americans get around is the e-scooter. I see them every day in downtown Washington, DC and in several major cities where I travel.
With a downloaded app, a rider can unlock an electronic scooter, go for a ride through the city streets, and park it wherever they end.
In just over a year in operation, tens of millions of dockless e-scooter rides have been taken nationwide. This translates to people not getting into a car for a short trip, less congestion on our streets, and importantly, fewer greenhouse gas emissions. E-scooters stand to be a key part of the transportation infrastructure of the future.
Washington was one of the first cities to test how dockless e-scooters work on our streets, rapidly adding them to an existing dockless bicycle pilot program earlier this year. This is in line with DC’s record of promoting mobility options beyond cars. Our docked, bikeshare program is the third-largest in the country, and our bike lane network is one of the most extensive in the United States.
That is why it confounds me why the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) would propose a final regulatory framework for e-scooters that would inhibit the growth and impact of this innovation. If the current proposed rules were to go into effect as written, they would make it virtually impossible for e-scooters to replace cars for short trips, leading to more congestion and more carbon emissions. It would be a huge step backward just when the District needs to be leading cities toward a cleaner, greener future.
Since e-scooters have arrived in Washington, they have been embraced by riders. Riders on Bird – whose safety board I chair – have traveled more than 580,000 miles in just over six months and on a severely limited supply of just 400 e-scooters. The company surveyed its DC riders this past week, and found that nearly 90% of respondents noted that they use Bird to get to work, to run errands, or to commute to school. And a quarter of those surveyed said they use Bird to connect to public transit.
The impact of this mobility shift could go a long way to helping the District reach its ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by the year 2032 as transportation is one of the largest generators of this pollution. In fact, if one assumes that all those Bird rides would have been a car trip, then Bird alone helped Washington avoid more than 516,000 pounds of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere.
The DDOT proposal would render it impossible for any provider to serve the DC community and truly advance the shared mission of reducing short car trips and taking meaningful action in the fight against climate change.
First, DDOT would cap the number of e-scooters at 600 per provider, with an unclear avenue for raising that cap on a quarterly basis – and only by 25%. This number is not nearly enough to meet demand; in fact, 90% of riders we surveyed said they wanted more e-scooters on the road.
If we do not meet this demand, we will doom this affordable, environmentally car-alternative. Just look at docked bikeshare in DC. When SmartBike was launched in 2008, it promptly failed. Yet, two years later, Capital Bikeshare was a huge success. The difference was that DC built a system that had enough bikes to meet demand and were able to rapidly – or as rapidly as that technology allowed – grow to meet it.
When supply met demand, residents knew they could reliably find a ride. This led to a virtuous cycle of more riders, more bikes, and a city more used to having more bicyclists in the roadways. Ultimately, even though cars still injure and kill too many bikers and pedestrians, increasing supply made roads safer for those not in cars.
By capping e-scooters, DDOT is ignoring this history and virtually guaranteeing that e-scooters will not become a solution to the problem of too many cars on the road spewing too much carbon into the air.
Second, constricted e-scooter supply runs counter to DDOT’s goals of ensuring transit equity. E-scooters can provide an affordable solution for commuters in underserved transit areas such as Anacostia, providing vital links to transit lines and jobs. A recent study sponsored by DDOT found that e-scooters are providing: “greater micromobility accessibility across the entire city, and also specifically in Ward 8, which is traditionally underserved.”
However, if supply is constrained, the e-scooter companies will be forced to only serve central business districts, leaving these neighborhoods in the cold. Mandates to place e-scooters in Wards 7 and 8 will be met by the smallest number of scooters possible.
To be fair, the proposed regulations do suggest that e-scooter companies may increase the size of their fleets. However, this is on a quarterly basis, and DDOT provided no guidance for how it will decide whether or not a provider can increase its fleet of e-scooters, raising concerns about the oversight and fairness of this program. The system that regulates any transportation option in the city must be transparent.
Third, DDOT is proposing that e-scooters be limited to only 10 mph, while e-bikes can go up to 20 mph. This proposed policy ignores important evidence which suggests that vehicles traveling at significantly different speeds on the same shared infrastructure — such as bike lanes — will create dangerous conditions and could increase the likelihood of collisions between cars, e-scooters, and bikes. In addition, there is also no data to suggest that 10 mph is a safer speed for e-scooter riders than 15 mph, the limit that Bird sets for itself.
Taken together and along with other onerous regulatory requirements such as providing free rides to every low-income resident of DC, this proposal would ground e-scooters before they have a chance to take flight, and paradoxically, would keep the car-centric status quo.
A regulatory framework for e-scooters is urgently needed, and I appreciate the desire of regulators who want to keep control, order, and safety of their streets. To do that and transform DC’s transportation infrastructure, DDOT will have to do better and amend this proposal so that e-scooters can meet the huge demand Washingtonians have for a convenient, affordable, and environmentally-friendly way to get around the District.