by Nate Lowry, ASLA
Demand for flexible urban transportation options is on the rise and becoming even more vital these days. Bike, scooter, and other options have reshaped how people access, mobilize, and interact with urban spaces. Many large cities have been slow to adjust to these quickly shifting trends and the need for alternative solutions. Shifts from traditional automobiles and associated infrastructure to more micro-scale transportation uses will continue to test local government’s ability to provide adequate planning approaches.
Micromobility devices offer flexibility and freedom that traditional passenger vehicles cannot and cost less, emit little to no emissions, and are much easier to park/store. Micromobility is defined by Wikipedia as a range of small, lightweight devices operating at speeds typically below 15 mph for trips up to 6 miles. Micromobility devices include bicycles, Ebikes, electric scooters, electric skateboards, shared bicycles, and electric pedal-assisted (pedelec) bicycles.
As you can imagine, transitional passenger vehicle infrastructure does not adequately provide for micromobility device use. The City of Seattle has recently taken a different approach to traditional transportation, permanently closing down 20 miles of streets to most vehicles and making them for public access only. In Portland, Oregon, building codes recently changed to require additional micromobility storage in new structures to meet increasing demand while trying to avoid safety concerns about them littering the sidewalk. The City of Atlanta’s Department of Transportation recently approved more than $200 million in funding for transportation improvements focused on pedestrians, bikes, scooters, and other micromobility devices.
Multimodal transportation involves several different modes of activity; the micromobility devices listed above are a subset of multimodal transportation, as is public transit and walking. Providing adequate spaces to house, secure, and take micromobility devices with you is key to providing successful multimodal transportation access to transit facilities.
Most cities have not performed adequate planning to accommodate these devices and existing infrastructure typically is prohibitive to their use. A grid of facilities to park and lock up your bike or scooter vs. crawling over five scooters to get into the coffee shop is a thought. Could we see micromobility-based, small scale drive-throughs in America in the future, or even a secondary, dedicated small scale parking lot just for these devices? According to Stanford economist Tony Seba, private car ownership in America could drop 80% by 2030 and passenger vehicle trips on American roads is expected to go from 247 million in 2020 to 44 million in 2030. If accurate or close to accurate, these are staggering numbers that cities must adequately plan for.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shifted the focus toward micromobility transportation, with many people looking to get around while adhering to social distancing. Beijing alone saw a 187% increase in bikeshare program usage that has not waned much even with social distancing restrictions largely lifted. Several rideshare companies have chipped in, providing free e-scooter or bike rentals in many places for first responders and other frontline workers, likely contributing to increased use in the future. New York City also temporarily closed down several streets to passenger vehicles to promote walking and other multimodal options during the pandemic, with other large cities urging leaders to follow suit (including Denver, Boston, and Philadelphia). Bike shops and bike repair was even deemed an essential service during the pandemic to respond to shifting needs and anticipated increased bicycle use.
What are some of the ways cities can plan or have been planning for these shifting transportation trends? Extra wide sidewalks, different surfacing choices, expanded access nodes, dedicated or segmented lanes, and accommodation of micromobility devices in public transit are just a few of the ways cities are planning for their use.
In Honolulu, Bill 44, enacted in 2019, aimed to achieve an expansion of Honolulu’s micromobility fleet. Honolulu identified safety concerns associated with not accommodating micromobility devices early on, and with year-round nice weather, ignoring the problem was not an option. City planners went straight to the source, working with a non-profit bike-share company for initial studies, administrative support, funding, and locations to provide bike-sharing stations. Bill 44 and other legislation like it have positioned Honolulu to open the first major driverless urban metro rail line in the U.S focused solely on micromobility and multimodal access.
Support and planning for these facilities is gaining ground elsewhere. The City of San Francisco pioneered a robust micromobility program in 2013, expanded it in 2017, and soon thereafter partnered with other Bay Area cities, including San Jose, that felt compelled to follow suit. Technology is playing a part, too; the New Urban Mobility alliance (NUMO) has launched an extensive global platform mapping the rapidly changing urban micromobility landscape, with use of drones and autonomous vehicles planned for inclusion in future versions.
Micromobility and changing multimodal transportation needs cannot be ignored and are strongly in-demand. Flexibility and alternate circulation routes are becoming more commonplace, with a marked turn away from traditional passenger vehicle transportation in urban areas (particularly in younger generations). Major U.S. ride-share companies are even offering micromobility options now, realizing their customers don’t want to hail, wait, pay, and then wait again in traffic in the confined backseat of a traditional passenger vehicle.
Freedom of movement, exercise, reduced costs, less travel time, little to no carbon footprint, and more flexible routes are all big draws traditional passenger vehicles typically do not provide. Some of our largest generations are also some of our youngest—doing an about-face and proactively tackling and planning for these emerging trends will be vital to the future success of urban areas.
Nate Lowry, PLA, ASLA, is a licensed landscape architect for MacKay Sposito Engineering in Federal Way, WA. He has over 16 years of experience predominantly in the Puget Sound area. He is also a City Councilmember and member of the Pierce County Regional Council planning body.