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Scoot Over, Cars: Making Space for Small Vehicles

Streetsblog USA recently ran a delightful feature on children’s books. I was pleased to see one of our family’s all-time favorites, Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, make the list.[1]

 "Throughout the book, cars and construction vehicles and buses and trains and bikes and motorcycles (and pickle cars and donut cars and alligator cars) share the road,” Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt describes. “Sometimes it’s messy. It’s kind of like an adorable Mad Max."

Well, the future is coming. And it’s looking pretty Scarry.

In my home city of Boston, you can now find an increasingly madcap array of small vehicles on the streets and sidewalks – regular bikes, e-bikes, electric scooters, hoverboards, manual and electric skateboards of various kinds (though no electric versions of Richard Scarry’s bananamobile yet, alas). There are even electric unicycles, though I have yet to see one of those in the wild.

At the same time, app-based shared mobility is making some of these new types of vehicles available to anyone with a couple of bucks and a couple of minutes to download an app. The dockless bikeshare and scooter-share revolution has come quickly – often causing controversy along the way.

Everyone has their favorite acronym to describe the future of transportation – ACES, FAVES and seemingly a million others – most of which scramble together concepts of sharing, autonomy and electrification.

Here, then, is my humble offering to the acronym gods: AMUSES – Affordable Mobility that is Ubiquitous, Small, Electric (or manually powered!) and Slow. The name sort of fits since riding on, say, an electric scooter can be great fun.

But make no mistake: AMUSES have radical implications for our cities, and for our efforts to curb transportation’s contribution to global warming.

The environmental case for shared electric vehicles rests on three ideas. First, that electric vehicles are vastly more energy efficient than internal combustion engine vehicles and can run on clean energy. Second, that sharing vehicles eliminates the inherent incentive to drive that comes with having a vehicle sitting in your driveway that you are already paying for.

The third – and probably least frequently discussed – idea is that internal combustion engines and individual ownership force a design logic on our vehicles that limits our opportunities to make them more efficient. Internal combustion engine vehicles are mechanically complex, run on liquid fuels that are messy and dangerous, and require sophisticated emission controls to protect public health. It’s hard to make them small, cheap, shared and good neighbors. Individual ownership, meanwhile, drives people to buy cars that are capable of serving any conceivable need – for example, fitting all the supplies for a once-a-year camping trip – even if doing so winds up saddling them with “too much car” 99 percent of the time.

Shared electric vehicles shatter that logic. Electric motors can accommodate a far greater variety of vehicle designs, while the ability to tap into shared vehicle fleets means that individuals don’t need to rely on a single vehicle for all their needs. The combination of these two factors – both enabled by recent changes in technology – allows for the creation of a vast new array of vehicle types that better match individual needs and may be a better match for compact urban neighborhoods than a mobility system built around the car.

AMUSES are not the solution to all our transportation challenges. We should not, as was suggested in a dippy article in the Atlantic a couple of weeks ago, rip up the New York City subway or any other transit system and replace it with individual vehicles. Small, low-speed electric vehicles can’t carry (much) freight and won’t carry you cross-country. But imagine the energy efficiency gains to be had by zapping every two-ton SUV carrying a single passenger down your street and replacing it with a bike, electric scooter or even a small shared electric vehicle.

A 2016 study identified this kind of vehicle “right-sizing” as one of the main potential drivers of carbon dioxide emission reductions in a world of shared autonomous vehicles, delivering a theoretical reduction in energy demand of as much as 45 percent. Add that to the energy efficiency gains delivered by electrification and exciting possibilities for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation open up where they hadn’t existed before.

Replacing trips in full-sized cars and SUVs with travel in smaller, lightweight AMUSES might also reduce the space allocated to vehicle storage in our cities, increase safety for people on foot or on bikes, and cut down on urban noise pollution. And because these vehicles are cheap, small, and can be stationed throughout cities, we don’t even need to wait for automation to arrive to put a wide variety of efficient vehicles at our fingertips.

The arrival of AMUSES won’t all be sunshine and roses, of course. Make things cheap and abundant and put them out on the street without a watchful owner hovering nearby and bad things will happen – vehicles will be stolen, abused and deposited in places where they don’t belong. Cities’ concerns about electric scooters and dockless bikes blocking sidewalks and being tossed hither and yon are real. We should respect the public realm of our cities enough not to accept that.

In addition, small electric transport modes now have to compete for space on streets and sidewalks that were never designed to handle them – sharing tiny strips of already-contested pavement with bicyclists and pedestrians, even as the vast majority of space in our cities continues to be devoted to the movement and storage of large vehicles. As my colleague Alana Miller and many others have noted, cities have a strange and perverse double standard when it comes to “dockless” vehicles – allowing private cars to park for free while fining or confiscating the smaller, more environmentally friendly vehicles that are newcomers to our streets.

In our 2016 report, A New Way Forward, we explored scenarios and storylines for how cities might imagine transforming their transportation systems to curb carbon pollution. In one of those scenarios, for the hypothetical large coastal city of “Centerville,” we wrote the following:

Centerville’s streets continued to hum with an array of vehicles: robot delivery vehicles little bigger than the packages they carried; small vehicles transporting people with mobility limitations; demand-responsive minivans; various types of bicycles and more. The one thing all of these vehicles shared was that they traveled slowly – no faster than the speed of a bike – enabling all users to share the streets safely.

A future in which small-scale electric and manually-powered mobility can work its transformative magic is one in which our cities must make a bold commitment to reallocating space on our streets – giving small, slow, light vehicles at least as much priority as big, heavy ones – and renegotiating the rules of how we all get around. One can imagine a grand bargain in which cities commit a larger share of the public realm to small, slow vehicles – shifting travel lanes to bikes and small electric vehicles, rededicating parking spaces to bike or scooter storage – in exchange for imposing high standards on shared mobility companies for the care and maintenance of their fleets.

The first part of the bargain, however, is essential, and no one can pretend that it will be politically easy. But for the cities that have made increasingly bold commitments to adhere to goals of the Paris climate agreement and be leaders in the fight against global warming, the opportunity presented by AMUSES is too good to pass up. And getting to a more sustainable transportation system might even be fun.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Reuben Strayer, made available via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

        

[1] Among other things, the book inspired a long-running family joke of describing someone who needs to use the bathroom while on a long road trip as a “woodchuck in a hurry.”