Mini-Motorized Machines

Hmmmm. Things are changing in city life. Electric bikes, electric scooters, electric skateboards, even hoverboards and Segways, are successfully competing against cars, at least within a 10-mile radius of downtowns. Regular bikes as well, but electric bikes and other motorized mini-vehicles, with improved battery performance, are providing more potential for commuting and running errands for a wider range of folks, including those who really don’t want to get sweaty on their way to work or to struggle with parking. And this is providing a major benefit in fighting climate change.

So, first, let’s put all these new contraptions in a category called mini-motorized machines (MMM). Well, darn, I wrote that – and 80% of the rest of the article, and then I found a similar start in an article by CityLab, who came up with the term “Little Vehicles.” The term “Vehicles” makes more sense – as the definition means “to carry.” But googling “little vehicles” turns up pictures of Volkswagen beetles, which is not what either I or CityLab are aiming for. So I’m going to use the term mini-motorized vehicles (MMV). So name is now attached. [P.S. I don’t include velomobiles

Image result for velomobiles

An example velomobile.

here, like CityLab does, as I don’t consider them “mini.”]

So, what are people saying about MMVs? That they have the potential to usher in a new age of transportation, where downtowns will be transformed from supporting cars to supporting far less bulky, far less polluting transport (The CityLab article is a great read regarding this: https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/06/welcome-to-the-tiny-vehicle-age/563342/). MMVs are currently taking cities by storm – often without city governments even knowing about it until the scooters start showing up on sidewalks (https://dc.curbed.com/2018/7/3/17530508/arlington-officials-electric-scooter-bird). They do have their issues – safety especially – but the potential for MMVs to make an impact on both transportation itself and supporting infrastructure is very impressive. It is already impacting, for the good of the planet, carbon dioxide production by cities. As more and more people adopt, and if cities retool for these – the impact on climate change could be huge.

I first noticed the MMV wave when many commuter-biker friends here in the Washington DC region started adding an electric bike to their collection to help with daily commutes – yes, Fred and Dan, I am talking about you. Then I saw a guy just breezing downtown on and off sidewalks, on and off bike paths, without a helmet, on a Lime (the company name) scooter. Electric skateboards started popping up. Hipsters in my neighborhood bought e-scooters.

The scaling up, however, is through the existing and new bike share companies who have started putting MMVs in DC and other cities, not just regular bikes, having realized that they can find even more riders if the equipment (bikes or scooters) has a little electrical assist [https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/gotcha-group-electric-scooter-systems-expansion/528288/.] Especially in towns with hills. I certainly know that although I’ll bike downtown (down being the operative word here), a particular hill has really crushed my motivation to bike home – until now. But to have a little electrical assist – sweet. Valerie, a 72-year old bicyclist who prefers to pedal and a member of our public Facebook Climate Steps discussion group admits: “I can glide up hills with no effort.” I love the word ‘glide.’

Another great benefit of MMVs to users is parking. First, 90% of the time, you don’t have to pay for parking. If you own an bike or MMV, they fit easily into your building’s garage, or some can be folded and stored in your office. For some shared MMVs, you can dock (park in a special rack) in a variety of locations, or for others, now that GPS apps are a dime-a-dozen, just leave it on a street corner, dockless so that someone else can use it – hopefully in an out-of-the-way place from disabled pedestrians.

As a result of these benefits, in the past year, the companies providing a range of regular bikes and MMVs have expanded dramatically: in DC, 2018 has been a test case for 7-8 dockless MMV companies. Four dockless bike companies (including at least one that was an e-bike company [Uber’s Jump]), and at least three dockless e-scooter companies (REF1, REF2) have operated, though each were capped at 400 MMVs by DC during this test period. Despite that cap – the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) said that, for the test with the dockless companies – “In May alone, more than 55,000 users took over 140,000 trips,” (REF).

These newcomers are in addition to Capital Bikeshare, a well-established docked-bikeshare started by DC Metro region governments in 2010. Capital Bikeshare has been going incredibly strong, and guess what – it is now adding e-bikes! (I am so excited.) Since it began (even before e-bikes), people have utilized Capital Bikeshare in DC alone for 20 MILLION trips; and daily ridership is ~6,000, but with records of up to ~19,000 trips a day (https://ddot.dc.gov/release/capital-bikeshare-celebrates-20-million-trips-and-highest-daily-ridership-record).

Bikeshare Station map 8.30.2018 after evening rush hour

The Capital Bikeshare system in Washington DC, on 8.30.2018 after evening rush hour, showing empty docks downtown, and filled docks further out. Each dock holds 10+ bikes.

What will the future be like? Five companies remain in DC in moving forward now towards a Fall test phase, and, as it turns out that e-scooters are more profitable than e-bikes, three of the bike companies are switching to scooters. Many of these new e-bike/e-scooter companies started on the west coast and have already tested the waters regarding electric scooters. Spin, a bikeshare, started providing electric scooters in San Francisco, and has seen a 61% increase in rides per day. The electric scooters are cheaper than bikes (less than $500), and get 4-5 rides per day. Most rides are $1 per 30 minutes. “Every scooter that survives a month or so pays itself off.” (https://www.wired.com/story/shared-electric-scooters-rolling/). Survive being an interesting word – as discussed further below.

Anyway, in the next phase of testing, DC still has a cap on the number, but this time there’ll be more locks required for scooters and bikes. But to show where this is trending — advocacy groups have petitioned for at least 20,000 dockless bikes in the city alone (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2018/07/30/dear-ddot-we-want-20000-dockless-bikes/?utm_term=.c86f6a1523c2), not even considering the number of dockless e-scooters . That many bikes, in addition to Capital Bikeshare’s system and e-scooters, will create a critical mass that will build even more use, and result in safer streets, less pollution, and, frankly, healthier people.

Note: There is no mention of shared Segway systems in most of these articles, and I have never seen anyone commute via Segway, but DC tour guides use them all the time (see an old blog of mine about my Segway tour), and Segways do allow our police more maneuverability in our neighborhood, letting them stop on sidewalks and talk to neighbors, and hopefully to catch criminals running on foot. A great DC pizza place delivers via Segway: https://petesapizza.com/stores/silver-spring/, and saves tons of money in the process. But whether it also contributes to the movement for mini-vehicle commutes? — I need to do more research. Segways are hard on your toes (you have to read my blog).

Note 2: I do see hoverboards occasionally around some in DC, but I travel a lot for work to college campuses, which are kindof mini-cities, and that is where I see a large number of them.

Anyway, let’s breakdown benefits and burdens of the popular MMVs. These articles give a great overview: https://www.wired.com/story/shared-electric-scooters-rolling/; https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/06/welcome-to-the-tiny-vehicle-age/563342/. I’ve summarized the main points below, and added some more thoughts from additional references, our Climate Steps FB group, and my friend Dave.
Whopping Benefits for Traffic – and Carbon Control

Less Traffic. Once things settle down, electric bikes and scooters could (and should) provide great benefits for the city commute. The roads used for cars can fit seven times the number of people on bikes (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2017/jul/31/swapping-cars-for-bikes-not-diesel-for-electric-is-the-best-route-to-clean-air). Commuting into town can be almost as fast if not faster, depending on car-associated traffic jams. Regular bikers can hit 40 mph (Cycling News Forum, 2009), but electric bikes can legally only hit 20 mph though several can go as fast as 50 mph (on a flat surface – imagine downhill, whew) (http://forum.cyclingnews.com/viewtopic.php?f=21&t=11015; https://www.electricbike.com/10-fastest-ebikes; https://www.giant-bicycles.com/us/news/how-fast-can-an-e-bike-go/21531). Wait, that’s interesting – if electric, you legally have to travel slower! I assume that’s only when the power’s on.

There are two types of “e-scooters”: one more like a motorbike (i.e., a moped)

(a Genze e-scooter example) that can go (legally?) up to 30 mph, the other more an e-assisted foot-pushed scooter, hitting 15 mph.

Image result for lime scooter washington dc

(Example: Lime e-scooter).

All are faster than walking, however, and are especially mobile within the city. And within those speed limits, special licenses aren’t needed.

As regards less pollution, Capital Bikeshare, which, as yet, does not have electrically assisted bikes, has “reduced 28.64 million pounds of carbon dioxide, saved 1.72 million gallons of gasoline, and burned an astonishing 1.8 billion caloriessince 2010 (REF.) I need some data on pollution by electric MMVs, but MMVs have motors often only as “assist” systems, and, as they carry less weight, would use less electricity than electric cars. Remember, unless you are purchasing renewable energy or have your own solar panels, electricity mostly comes from coal plants. So MMVs still generate CO2, but as far less time is spent in traffic due to MMVs, less CO2 overall should be produced. You get the picture, but I’ll do more research.

As mentioned earlier, the ease of parking is a major benefit of MMVs. Some scooter share companies even “offer discounts for users to charge them at night at their homes, and then put them out for use in the morning” (https://www.wired.com/story/shared-electric-scooters-rolling/.) No parking need yields three additional benefits as regards climate change:

  1. Major parking infrastructures are not needed. Cement/concrete manufacturing is a large source of CO2 (REF; although the concrete industry notes that concrete, once manufactured, absorbs CO2 (REF), but there is the steel manufacturing to consider as well). Also, less land is taken up that could be supporting trees.
  2. Obviously, less steel and plastic manufacturing is needed to create a little mini e-scooter than a car (nevermind an SUV.)
  3. These shared systems allow for more diverse usage – providing more flexibility for folks to travel within and between neighborhoods for errands (I’ve used them for grocery-shopping), especially where some people can’t afford cars or where it is difficult to commute via larger vehicles (https://wtop.com/dc-transit/2018/02/ddot-dc-favors-dockless-bikeshare/). For instance, four out of ten Capital BikeShare users don’t have access to personal transport – REF; MMVs open up opportunities.

As for saving wildlife, I imagine there’d be a lot fewer deadly impacts – deadly to the animals anyway, but I haven’t found a data source yet. Definitely, the noise will be a lot less within the cities – which will help save animals’ and our own sanity. As FB ClimateSteps member Kirianne has noted regarding her Genze e-scooter:

“It’s so quiet I can hear a squirrel scampering past me to the sidewalk.”

Another benefit is that they can be easy to drive. As my friend Dave noted in his e-scooter comparison: some have apps that easily zoom out to show you the nearest available scooter, starting is as easy as pushing a button, and driving with your thumb on some scooters is “easy” (although that’s a rather suspicious sounding phrase – how much control does one have?). Plus, some have speedometers – which is always a good thing to have.

Another great quote from Kirianne:

“The feel of the wind is beautiful, and at 30 mph it’s never too much.”

All Sorts of Challenges

Well, rain.

Snow.

Ice.

“oops, sorry kid.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ulkn6KkV6Jo

But there are all sorts of protection systems coming out, just google “e-bikes and rain”:

http://www.veltop.eu/us/rain-cold-protection-bike.html

Favorite: https://www.aliexpress.com/item/Motorcycle-ebike-rain-poncho/820890161.html.

But besides that – all MMV types pose new challenges both for the company and for the city. Operate a system of MMVs that people take into the wilds of streets, usually with a severe lack of helmet or other protection from giant metal machines called cars – or, horrors, semi-trucks, and you can see how it would require hefty insurance. If you hit a even a curb at 15 mph, you go flying. I have seen it happen with a Segway. I mean, the inventor of the Segway was killed by his own machine (though he went off a cliff). I have seen not a single scooter rider wear a helmet. (Oh, there’s also the risk of damage to the MMV.)

And city infrastructure, as yet, does not have a dedicated space for MMVs. In many places, anything with an electric motor is legally supposed to use the streets, especially in the business district – but without protection from the much bigger cars, that is dangerous. People on scooters are zipping in and out of traffic, but are difficult to see (multiple personal sources, experience, and references). But, if scooters and electric bikes hit the sidewalks – and they do, pedestrians are in danger – especially the handicapped and elderly. And then the MMV is often left on the sidewalks in pretty inconvenient places – like smack in the middle.

Any town or city that is growing – and most are – need to factor these new, clean machines into their communities’ designs, however, and not fight them. Dedicated lanes, for instance, would be excellent (if one can be taken from cars). Cities are definitely thinking about MMVs, and planning for them. “D.C. wants to reduce the auto mode share for commuters from 39 percent to 25 percent by 2032.” (REF). But examples of some of the issues and rules they include:

As Valerie noted in our FB group: “It takes the city to create safe routes to grow ridership.

Finally, theft is an issue: 122 Spin bikes were stolen in DC over five months (https://wtop.com/dc-transit/2018/02/ddot-dc-favors-dockless-bikeshare/.) And that sucks for the company. That’s why “locks” was referred to earlier in this post.

dsc06017

Stolen or drunkenly deposited bikes fished out of Amsterdam canals, 2017

But, in general, the benefits are outweighing the costs – for the commuters, companies, and cities, and for the environment. And even though more bikes and MMVs are getting out there, we need for these MMV-share companies to make a profit; as we need them to grow — fast. The potential is vast for completely changing the horn-honking, heat-producing, time-consuming, polluting commute within cities.

So as a Climate Step: please support your MMVs – directly, or via their incorporation into a well-functioning city infrastructure – and help ditch those larger vehicles downtown.

Other references:

1. Understanding and Visualizing the District of Columbia Capital Bikeshare System Using Data Analysis for Balancing Purposes.

2. http://www.metrobike.net/the-bike-sharing-world-map/. (pretty cool.)

3. https://d21xlh2maitm24.cloudfront.net/wdc/Capital-Bikeshare_2016MemberSurvey_Final-Report.pdf?mtime=20170303165531.

Background picture by Alex Genz, CC-BY-SA, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0.

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