Post #338: Rental electric scooters, again.

Posted on August 6, 2019

This article is about decisions that the Town must make, in the near future, regarding rental electric scooters and rental bicycles.  It ends with some discussion of the presumed environmental benefits of electric scooters.

Bottom line:  Thanks to a change in Virginia law, the Town needs to come up with some form of regulation for “dockless” rental electric scooters by 1/1/2020.  If not, we end up with open season for rental electric scooters in Vienna, which we probably want to avoid.  Unregulated dockless bike and scooter rentals have become a nuisance in many major cities (see examples in this post).

Here, I line out what a minimum set of regulations probably ought to cover.  (Which is no great shakes — just look at what other local jurisdictions have done.)

Separately, the Town needs to find places for racks for the “docked” Capital Bikeshare rental bikes.

N.B:  In “docked” systems, bikes (or other devices) are picked up from and returned to dedicated racks.  (If not, steep charges mount up for the renter.)  Smartphone apps show how many bicycles/scooters are available for use at each rack.  By contrast, in “dockless” systems, scooters or bikes may be picked up and left anywhere, tracked by a combination of on-board GPS and internet connectivity.  Smartphone apps show the location of available scooters or bikes.   Rental is accomplished via smartphone app and account, or in some cases, via credit card swipe.

Decisions Vienna must make.

Vienna is facing at least two near-term decisions regarding rental bikes and rental scooters.

Decision 1:  Where to put Capital Bikeshare bike rental racks.  I explained this one thoroughly in several posts.  The links to all that work can be found in Post #211.  Briefly, Fairfax County has money available (from I-66 tolls, I believe) that must be spent on non-car transport.  They’ve decided to expand the Capital Bikeshare system out into Fairfax County suburbs.  We’re slated to be part of that expansion.

Bikeshare is a “docked” bike rental system, where bikes must be parked in Bikeshare’s dedicated racks.  So far, Capital Bikeshare has been an outstanding success in the densely-populated urban core of Washington DC.  And it has been a  near-complete flop out here in the remote Metro-adjacent suburbs, as I document in the post cited above.

My guess is, despite the clear evidence of failure – from use of racks at Tysons, at Reston, and in similar end-of-Metro-line suburbs in Maryland — we’re probably going to get Capital Bikeshare racks in the Town of Vienna anyway.  Mainly, it’s somebody else’s money, so, I guess, what do we care if the money is not well spent.  So the Town will have to find locations for these racks in any case.

The main reason I bring this up is that Capital Bikshare is a docked system for rental bikes, including electric bikes.  You have to park the bike in a Bikeshare dock, or they keep charging you for the use of it.  If nothing else, it’s tidy:  You won’t find stray Capital Bikeshare bikes around town.

That stands in contrast to various dockless rental alternatives (see this post for an extensive analysis), where you can leave the rental bike anywhere you want to.  The forthcoming rental electric scooters — Decision 2 — are all about dockless systems.

Decision 2:  How to regulate rental electric scooters and other dockless personal transport rental alternatives in the Town of Vienna.

As I describe in Post #330, The Commonwealth of Virginia has given local jurisdictions a January 1 2020 deadline to pass local ordinances governing use of electric rental scooters and similar vehicles.  If not, as of 1/1/2020, it becomes legal to provide electric rental scooters more-or-less without regulation.  As I note in Post #330, the Town of Vienna appears unprepared to deal with this issue, at least in terms of public discussion and publicly-available materials.

Rental electric scooters have caused a considerable backlash in many of the cities where they have been introduced, as have dockless rental bicycles.  The main objections are that a) they make sidewalks less safe for pedestrians, if ridden on the sidewalk, and b) they become a public nuisance because they can be (and frequently are) left parked on (e.g.) public sidewalks.

Separately, there is a public health issue regarding injuries to scooter riders.  My reading of the data from Austin, Texas is that this is a valid concern — that reportable injuries are at least an order of magnitude higher for rental scooter riders than for bicyclists.

And a little bit of common sense would also suggest that this likely is a valid issue, given that:  Helmets are not included in scooter (or dockless bicycle) rentals; Scooter riders are often inexperienced; Electric propulsion allows riders to achieve speeds they could not achieve on a bicycle; The standing position produces a high center of gravity; The small wheels can catch in relatively small flaws in the pavement; They have no dedicated lanes and must share space either with pedestrians, bicyclists, or cars.

To me, that all adds up to a heightened potential for accidents.  So a materially higher accident rate would not be a surprise.

(I should also say that the typical rental pricing is unhelpful in this regard, and in regard to pedestrian safety.  A typical pricing structure is $1 to rent, plus around $0.30/minute.  Scooter riders have a constant financial incentive to make their trips as quickly as possible.)

So, at a minimum, the Town would need to formulate rules on:

  • When and where electric rental scooters are allowed on sidewalks, and with what restrictions.   (Note that, in Vienna, bicycles are allowed on the sidewalk unless an area is specifically posted for no bicycles.  But in the City of Fairfax,  bicycles are banned from sidewalks unless specifically posted as a bicycle route.)
  • What top speed would be allowed?  (Arlington currently limits scooters to 10 MPH, where most rental scooters are capable of 15 MPH).
  • Where may electric rental scooters be left/parked when not in use?
  • Whether helmet laws or other safety regulations shall be applied to electric scooter users? (Note that adult bicyclists are not required to use helmets in Vienna).
  • How many rental electric scooters, total, would be licensed to be based in Vienna?

To be clear, this may be a moot point.  Dockless scooter and bike rental companies may find Vienna to be unprofitable.  In which case, the regulations don’t matter.  The only reason to have the regulations in place is in the even that these “shared mobility solutions” end up being popular in Vienna.

Other local jurisdictions are already addressing these issues.  Fairfax City, for example, is in the middle of a demonstration project where a limited number of rental scooters have been offered with Fairfax City limits.  In fact, I saw some just the other day (again, in Post 330 cited just above).  Other jurisdictions (e.g., Arlington) already have electric scooter rules (as outlined here.)

Both Arlington and the City of Fairfax ban use of electric scooters on sidewalks.  (Although, in my very limited experience, that ban is not enforced in the City of Fairfax.)  This is a tough issue for Vienna because Maple Avenue cuts the Vienna in half, and riding an electric scooter on Maple Avenue, during rush hour (say), would (in my opinion) be extremely inadvisable.  Hazardous to the scooter user, and a disaster for the flow of traffic on Maple.  E.g., I have only once seen bicyclists, riding in the road on Maple, during rush hour.  I can’t believe the situation would be different for electric scooter riders.  A second factor is that the main road connecting Vienna to the Metro is Nutley, which is a 35 mph street with no separate bike lane.  Again, I think most would agree that roadway electric scooter use (top speed: 15 mph) would be inadvisable.

So not only is there no public draft of a set of proposed rules (that I know of, anyway), Vienna faces some difficult choices due to its unique road layout.  We’re not some dense urban core with low-speed streets.  Instead, two Virginia primary highways (Maple and Nutley) are key for (e.g.) connecting Vienna with the Metro, and both appear risky for riding electric scooters in the roadway.

The Town has sponsored a “multimodal transportation” study of Maple Avenue, which presumably should discuss how these new forms of “personal transportation” will fit into an overall plan for Maple Avenue.  Perhaps the results of that “multimodal” study will address the key issue of sidewalk use by electric scooters in Vienna.  And what restrictions the Town should have, if any, on where scooters may be left/parked when not in use.

Environmental advantages of rental electric scooters.

Originally, I was going to include this as a section, but at the end of the day, a) the data are ambiguous at best, and b) it’s a moot point — Commonwealth law sets a 1/1/2020 deadline regardless.

I’ll just say a few things about the presumed environmental advantages, because most of what I see for the claimed savings is based on obviously incorrect analysis.  Those tend to be incomplete studies by advocates, not realistic assessments by scientists.  Near as I can tell, based on the most recent research, scooters are net energy/carbon emission savers if they displace a single-passenger trip in a traditional (non-hybrid) car.  Otherwise, the case for scooters as being environmentally friendly does not appear to be very solid.  This is due in large part to the short average lifespan of a rental scooter, to the emissions burden generated by collecting scooters for charging and re-distributing them, and separately, to the potential for electric scooters to displace walking and bicycling, rather than automobile trips.

First, just to be sure we’re on the same level playing field, electricity is not clean.  In the Commonwealth of Virginia, given our generating mix, each kilowatt-hour of electricity delivered to the consumer generates about 1.1 pounds of C02 emissions.  At that rate, given the choice between driving my Prius on gasoline or on electricity (from a 2008 Hymotion conversion to PHEV), I find that electric miles result in about 30% less C02 emission than gas-powered miles, in a Prius.  So, an electric car in Virginia is not clean, but it is modestly cleaner than an efficient gas-burning car (at 50 MPG).  (And vastly cleaner than the average US fleet gasoline vehicle at around 21-23 MPG).

Second, batteries and the vehicles themselves embody some energy for their creation and recycling.  And the faster the vehicles and batteries wear out, the more significant that manufacture/recycle energy is on a life-cycle basis.  For example, according to Toyota, a Prius requires about 30 percent more energy to manufacture than a roughly-similarly-sized Corolla, due largely to the energy costs for the electric motors (due to copper and rare earths) and battery (due to nickel).  Yet, over the long average lifespan of the car, those manufacturing and recycling energy costs hardly matter, and are far more than offset by the better gas mileage of the hybrid Prius.

Rental scooters appear to have a remarkably short average lifespan.  I’ll just cite this analysis as the most recent entry on this controversy.  They found the plausible average lifespan for rental scooters to be between 0.5 and 2.0 years.

(I’m going to highlight that, because time alone does not get the story across.   Assume a rental scooter lasts one year, and is rented twice-a-day, one mile for each rental,  365 days a year.  That’s a total lifetime of just over 700 passenger miles.  Whereas (per Consumer Report) the average modern car has a lifespan of about 150,000 miles.  According to the Federal Highway Administration, average passenger-car occupancy rate is 1.67 persons.  Rental electric scooters typically weigh about 30 pounds.  So, under that assumed lifespan, just over five tons of scooters would have to be produced and scrapped to produce as many passenger-miles as the average car.

You can quibble with my assumptions, but the key fact is that rental electric scooters are,  more-or-less, disposables.  And in case you still think I’m kidding about short lifespan, read this anecdote on average lifespan in Louisville.  Or look at more systematic data from Los Angeles.   Both suggest an average lifespan of a few months.)

Third, scooters are picked up and charged on a regular basis, typically using gas-powered vehicles (vans, pickups).  That turns out to be a non-negligible cost, particularly when scooters are charged daily without respect to the state of charge of the battery.  I.e., every mile that a scooter is driven may require a significant fraction of a gas-powered vehicle mile to pick up, charge, and re-distribute the scooter.

Fourth, electric scooters are individuals transport, with no energy savings for multiple passengers.   If you and a friend want to go somewhere, that’s two scooters.  Other modes (bus, car) use just one vehicle, resulting in more passenger-miles for the same energy expenditure.

But finally, I think one of the most important factors is what mode of transport the scooter displaces, and whether or not the presence of scooters induces additional transports beyond what would occur in their absence.  To the extent that electric scooters displace walking and bicycling, that suggest a far lower environmental benefit than if they displace cars.  And the data show that most rental electric scooter trips are well under a mile.  That suggests that they may be viewed as (and largely used as) a quicker alternative to walking.  This article, for example, cites survey data suggesting that half of scooter trips displace walking/biking trips, and only one-third of scooter trips displace car trips.  For half of those trips, then, it’s likely that the use of the scooter increases rather than decreases emissions.

(That last point ignores the fact that bicycles and walking rely on a fossil-fuel-intense form of an exceptionally refined fuel called “food”.  But that’s a discussion for a different day.)

Just as a point of reference, a solo driver in a Prius emits about 195 grams C02 per passenger-mile.  (That assumes 50 MPG, and 21.5 lbs C02 emissions per gallon of gasoline.)  Obviously, two people in a Prius emit just under 100 grams C02 per passenger-mile.

Both of those Prius figures are for the gasoline only, and ignore other lifecycle costs.  But in the case of a long-lived vehicle, that’s only a modest understatement of total emissions.  (E.g., I just replace the traction battery in my wife’s Prius at 178,000 miles.  Pro-rating the manufacture/recycle energy cost of of the NiMH battery over that many miles makes a negligible difference in the calculation).

In the end, these people cited above come up with an estimated average of 202 grams C02 per passenger-mile for electric scooters, on a life-cycle basis. (!) Almost half of that is due to the very short lifetime of rental electric scooters.  That’s much better than the average US gas-powered vehicle urban mileage, but … not much different from a solo driver in a Prius.