How I learned to stop hating micromobility

dockless bike

… and start loving smart streets

Sidewalks are under attack! Or, maybe mobility options are proliferating faster than cities are changing streets to accommodate them.

Bikes, e-scooters, electric unicycles, hoverboards, and all the other micromobility vehicles now zooming down sidewalks don’t belong there. Even in cities that allow them to share space with pedestrians, they shouldn’t. Injuries to pedestrians and class-action lawsuits over sidewalk access serve as evidence that this is a real problem.

Ironically, walking is coming under threat just as Americans are starting to see its value. Property values are rising in cities and neighborhoods where it’s possible to work, shop, and be entertained without getting in a car. Many Americans, not just millennials, are flocking to these areas after decades of suburbanization and the decline of city centers. Now, new modes of transportation are starting to invade the urban sidewalks that make these areas walkable.

Until recently, who belonged where in a streetscape was mostly a settled matter, for better or worse. The last time the division of street use was in play to this degree was nearly a century ago, right before automotive interests established cars as the primary users of roads and relegated pedestrians to sidewalks and crosswalks. Cyclists were left to fend for themselves.

How should pedestrians negotiate the changes in street use this time around? Are we in danger of being pushed aside once again? As a daily pedestrian and transit rider in San Francisco, I’ve thought about this question for months. In that time, my feelings have shifted from outrage to understanding – within limits.

The part where I whine

San Francisco is both the birthplace of many of the new modes of transportation and a battleground over how to deal with them. This didn’t happen out of the blue. I’ve observed some degree of contention over sidewalk space as a pedestrian here for decades. Even before the first wave of new mobility options arrived, in the form of docked rental bikes, I was perturbed by cyclists on their own bikes speeding down sidewalks and warning me to get out of the way. It was especially galling when there was a bike lane 10 feet away on the street.

With bikes that could be rented on the street through an app, the problem got a little worse. There were more inexperienced riders who didn’t know they weren’t allowed on sidewalks. When dockless scooters arrived last year, the tension went up a notch or three. Many riders seemed to be hopping on one for the first time without a clue about how or where to ride them, and often they left the scooters in the middle of the sidewalk, creating a hazard for some and an obstacle for all.

Pretty soon, I started to wonder where all this was going. If the number of wheeled vehicles on the city’s sidewalks kept growing at the current rate, how long would it be before they effectively outnumbered pedestrians? Due to their speed, size, and risk, bicycles and powered vehicles might effectively take over some stretches of sidewalk long before they became the numerical majority. Police might start forcing them off the sidewalk, but they didn’t appear to be doing it yet. When would it be too late?

The part where I learn some history

While this may sound absurd, there is some precedent for it. For the first few decades after automobiles debuted, city streets remained shared public thoroughfares where people had the right to walk, cross, stop and chat, and even play anywhere they pleased. Horses, wagons, and streetcars coexisted with pedestrians, and cars had to accommodate those existing street users by going slowly and being prepared to yield at any time. But what set the automobile apart was its potential speed, and starting in the mid-1920s, the car industry and auto clubs set out to turn the street into a place where cars could move freely and quickly. Lobbying, advertising, and other tactics rapidly changed the way Americans understood their public streets, as Peter D. Norton recounted in his recent book, “Fighting Traffic.” The purpose of road design and regulation became maximizing automotive traffic flow. Walking anywhere other than a sidewalk or a crosswalk became jaywalking, and no real accommodation was made for cyclists, the other major users of the street.

In the new age of micromobility, would a growing number of intimidating encounters lead everyone without wheels to give up on walking and hail an Uber instead? Would richly funded scooter and bike rental companies — with some assistance from ride-hailing giants that were starting to acquire them – eventually throw their weight behind laws that made pedestrians’ defeat official and assigned sidewalks to wheeled vehicles?

It started to look as if pedestrians’ rights to the sidewalk had to be defended vigorously and immediately, or the war would be lost in a matter of years.

The part where I change my mind

But then a couple of things happened: I began to learn more about what cyclists and other riders face when trying to share the road. And I started paying more attention to what sharing sidewalks actually looks like, day in and day out.

While bikes usually have the same rights on the road as cars, legally, their real freedom to use the street is much more limited. Urban cycling is dangerous. In 2017, 783 cyclists died in crashes in the U.S. In urban areas, the number of cyclist fatalities has risen 13 percent since 2008. Bike lanes appear to provide a safe path, but if you watch closely or listen to cyclists’ stories, it turns out they often don’t – unless there are poles, curbs, or traffic islands to separate them from traffic. Traffic-calming features such as sidewalk bulb-outs and narrower lanes can also help to make these lanes safe, as former New York City Traffic Commissioner Samuel Schwartz described in his book, “Street Smart.” In San Francisco, most bike lanes are just painted on, with no other modifications to the street. They end up blocked by double-parked cars, ride-hailing pickups and dropoffs, and inattentive drivers opening their doors.

Not being a cyclist, I hadn’t realized this. But given the dangers that cyclists face on the streets, even where a lane painted on the asphalt appears to protect them, it’s understandable that some use sidewalks instead.

Here’s the other ground truth: Not every sidewalk scofflaw breaks the rules in the same way.

A few ride aggressively, demanding space even in bustling crowds of pedestrians. Others are oblivious, uncertain, or uncaring enough to disrupt foot traffic without even noticing. But micromobility vehicles show up every day, on sidewalks all over the city, and in most cases you wouldn’t even notice them unless you paid attention as closely as I do. They aren’t noticeable because they’re not getting in anyone’s way. The various sidewalk users find their way around each other.

A way forward

Pedestrians in cities where micromobility is booming are annoyed. Occasionally, they’re at risk. People with disabilities are sometimes prevented from getting around. It’s a problem, and sidewalk laws should be enforced. But an all-out war on micromobility by pedestrians isn’t the answer – at least, not yet.

By the same token, those who promote these vehicles at the expense of everything else are shortsighted. When challenged on the dangers of their favored device, they argue simply that cars are more dangerous. At its worst, this lesser-evil argument is used to dismiss objections to any business model or rider behavior. This turns mobility into a zero-sum game, a simplistic world of cars versus everything else. And that’s where the car-centric establishment wants the conversation to stay.

Ignoring the need to protect all street users pits pedestrians and micromobility riders against each other when we should be allies, acknowledging our differences and working to expand alternative street space.

No street is truly walkable unless it’s also bike-able, and scooter-able, and hoverboard-able. Walkers and riders need to find common ground – and then claim more ground.