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.
Most users of micromobility devices like dockless scooters and e-bikes are young men. Fixing that gender gap may take more than just adding safety features.
Bicycles, scooters, Segways, skateboards, and other foot- and battery-boosted “little vehicles” represent a diverse assortment of contraptions, but they’re united by one thing: They all draw significantly more men than women in major U.S. cities, according to new research published last month in Transport Findings.
That paints a consistent pattern with what local ridership studies of dockless electric scooter use in Portland and Austin have found. And the danger factor of micromobility appears to be the main barrier to adoption, both in terms of the vehicles themselves and the infrastructure they rely on.
“Younger males are more willing to give up safety considerations on account of speed or quickness,” said Kevin Krizek, a professor of transportation at the University of Colorado Boulder who co-authored the new research. “That is somewhat of a reflection of the vehicle. But I’d venture to offer that it’s more about safety on the streets.”
To more broadly sketch out who’s using the types of devices that have recently proliferated in electric-powered, shared, dockless form, Krizek and Nancy McGuckin, an expert in travel behavior analysis, studied the most recent National Household Travel Survey, which offers a nationally representative sample of how tens of thousands of U.S. individuals got around on a given day. Although the dataset is small (compared to, say, the census), it’s considered the best indicator of who’s likely to use different transportation modes in the U.S., and what types of trips they’re likely to make with them.
Hence, in 2017, just a tiny number of little-vehicle trips were accounted for in this survey: 8,034 bicycle trips, 826 Segway/golf cart trips, and 503 trips where respondents said they’d used a scooter, skateboard, or similar device. For their purposes, Krizek and McGuckin bundled these mini-modes together, since they operate at roughly similar speeds, exist in the same netherworld of being both banned from sidewalks and out-of-place in vehicle traffic, and are under “heavy policy scrutiny” in the cities where they’re become abundant, they write.
One standout pattern: Men are twice as likely as women to say that they’d used a little vehicle for a trip. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, micromobility is most popular among youths under age 17 and adults in the (rather wide) 18-50 age demographic among adults. Krizek and McGuckin also observed that about 75 percent of these trips were shorter than 2.5 miles, while the median little vehicle trip length was 1.2 miles—creating a potential sweet spot for shifting the 25 percent of personal car trips that are less than 2 miles long to a tiny, zero-emission mode.
The data comes with many caveats, namely its small sample size and the fact that 2017 was at the very beginning of the wave of shared bikes and scooters that has been sweeping U.S. cities of late. It’s possible that rider demographics and use patterns have since shifted. But the trends that Krizek and McGuckin identify are fairly consistent with what more recent ridership studies have found in specific cities.
For example, in 2018 a summer-long dockless scooter pilot in Portland, Oregon, garnered more than 700,000 trips. Through a concurrent survey of riders, officials found a few promising signs about what the devices could do for traffic congestion and emissions. For example, 34 percent of riders said that they had switched over from a car to make their trip—encouraging news for micromobility proponents. But subsequent analysis by researchers at Portland State University discovered that only 34 percent of trips were made by women and gender non-conforming folks. Data from Austin, Texas, shows a similar split.
The reluctance of women and other groups to enter scooter-dom may be a barrier to the broad mode-shifts that little vehicles seem primed to deliver, Krizek said. And the main behavioral explanations are pretty well established, drawing from years of research into why only 24 percent of U.S. bike trips are made by women: It comes down to feeling less comfortable in risky traffic situations, and a matter of convenience.
Vehicle design might be part of the answer for overcoming the gap. In the traditional cycling world, advocates often suggest that public bikeshare systems—which allow riders to avoid the hassle of bicycle locking, maintenance, and storage (plus dealing with male-dominated bike shops)—can make cycling more accessible. And proponents of electric micromobility say that new vehicle formats and designs could help.
The stand-up e-scooters that have caused a stir in recent years, for example, are notoriously wobbly devices that require quick reflexes and a fair amount of physical fitness to maneuver. Horace Dediu, a mobility analyst and the founder of the Micromobility Conference, predicts that the shape and arrangement of electric-powered scooters in particular will evolve to accommodate a broader set of body types and comfort levels. Indeed, that’s already happening, with companies like Revel, Gotcha, and Bird offering mopeds, recumbent bikes, and trikes as shareable options. “The question is, are we going to converge towards a default form factor?” he asked.
Dediu predicts that electric mopeds might be the wave of the future, with their chunky tires, wide seats that fit two, and the fact that they require drivers’ licenses to use and operate with vehicle traffic, eliminating the neither-sidewalk-nor-street confusion of their skinnier, upright kin. They also have some built-in cargo space—a big advantage for riders lugging groceries, briefcases, and other carry-ons.
But there may be only so much you can do to make piloting a small, fragile machine feel safe when you are sharing roads with much larger vehicles. The fear factor keeping people away from little vehicles probably has less to do with the devices and more to do with the lack of fully separated and protected lanes to ride them in. Research has shown that the addition of protected bike lanes can add cyclists to the network, and bring in more women specifically.
As long as falling off a scooter or bike means landing beneath crushing vehicle traffic, Meg Merritt, a principal transportation consultant at the planning firm Nelson\Nygaard, is skeptical that any new designs can add much in the way of real safety.
“It’s a bit like putting your AirPods in a neck holder,” she said. “We need to go back to root of the problem: If you have the right infrastructure, you can try all kinds of cool things, and you will probably make them work."