Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
New data show a staggering rise in shared dockless e-scooter use nationwide. But commuting habits have seen little change since the dawn of micromobility.
From one standpoint, American cities are experiencing a transportation revolution with the rise of shared electric scooters and bikes. From another, the same old hierarchy hasn’t budged, with private automobiles dominating the road.
A new report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) sheds light on the first perspective, enumerating the phenomenal year in “micromobility” that was. In 2018, the number of rides Americans took via dockless scooters, bikes, and traditional bikeshare systems more than doubled from 2017, to 84 million trips.
That’s a lot—year over year, growth in shared bikes had been much steadier in the previous five years. That changed in 2018. Responsible for virtually all of last year’s growth were dockless electric scooters, 85,000 of which were available to rent in about 100 U.S. cities as of December from the likes of Bird, Lime, Spin, and Skip. It really was the Year of the Scooter.
This e-scooter boom has been fueled by much of the same venture capital that buoys the ride-hailing industry. Amid the “little vehicle” frenzy, Uber acquired Jump Bikes, a dockless e-bike startup, while Lyft acquired Motivate, the country’s largest operator of traditional bikesharing systems. Both companies also rolled out e-scooters in dozens of U.S. markets, competing with Lime and Spin, which swiftly pivoted from dockless bikes in 2017 toward spreading the zippier plank-and-wheel devices in 2018. America’s pedal-only dockless bike fleet, briefly the belle of the micromobility ball, all but evaporated over the course of 2018, NACTO says, with just 3 million trips in a few cities in 2018.
Meanwhile, the world of traditional docked bikeshare also grew, with investments and expansions of docked fleets resulting in big jumps in use. In the Bay Area, for example, ridership on Ford GoBikes increased by 260 percent after the company expanded its fleet tenfold, NACTO found. And in Honolulu, Biki’s fleet grew by 30 percent and trips tripled. Battery-boosted pedal bikes, introduced to several docked bikeshare systems in 2018, proved especially popular. In New York City, the electric options attracted as many as three times as many rides per day as traditional pedal bikes.
These numbers indicate that there’s a lot of demand for alternatives to the personal vehicle. Early survey results also suggest that e-scooters do replace car trips in many cases. In all of this, cycling enthusiasts, environmental advocates, and pro-density boosters have real cause for celebration.
But a single year’s worth of trip data doesn’t amount to a full picture of the U.S. transportation landscape. That’s where the American Community Survey is useful, if limited. Every year, the ACS measures how Americans commute to work by mode, including driving, carpooling, taking a taxi, cycling, and walking. Arguably, the most relevant statistic for people who care about urban transportation is the rate of commuters who drive alone, since private cars carry more negative externalities than any other mode—pollution, congestion, precious parking, and so on. And from 2010 to 2017, the share of Americans driving solo to work alone barely budged: It’s still three-quarters of all U.S. commuters, a stunning figure.
On many counts, ACS data is an imperfect measure. First, it doesn’t capture the wide array of mobility options now available to people in cities and suburbs. It’s not clear, for example, whether a ride-hailing trip shared with another passenger would be tallied under the taxi or carpooling columns. Nor is it obvious how scooter trips would be categorized, or trips that comprise multiple modes. And hardly all the traveling that Americans do is to and from work. ACS numbers don’t account for shopping or recreational trips, which are equally popular reasons to use scooters, according to the NACTO report.
But for now, it’s still the best indicator of how most Americans really move, said Meg Merritt, a principal at the urban planning consultancy Nelson\Nygaard in charge of emerging mobility projects. And it will be hard to say whether the micromobility revolution is an actual regime-changing kind of revolution until these larger mode shares register it.
So just because e-scooters are weaving around the sidewalks in so many U.S. cities doesn’t mean that the days of automotive dominance are truly ending. Safer and more expansive infrastructure for non-car modes, putting the proper price on driving, and heavy improvements to public transit systems are all likely required admission for that future. So far, the new technologies alone “are not moving the needle,” Merritt said. “The behavioral change that we all want to see is definitely starting. But we can’t declare victory yet.”