Why riding electric scooters in bike lanes makes us all safer
Do you live in a major city, or frequent one from time to time? Then chances are you’ve seen at least one electric scooter riding past you either in a bike lane, on the pavement, or on the road. And whether you think electric scooters are a fad or the future, with negative views about these vehicles pervading the press, the question of their safety may have entered your mind at some point.
Do electric scooters belong shoulder to shoulder with pedestrians, bikes, or road vehicles? Are they safe enough to ride on the streets at all? These are some of the questions posed by journalists usually in the wake of an accident involving an e-scooter rider. But before jumping to conclusions, we need to ask ourselves if these are the right questions to be asking.
As a new form of technology, the confusion around electric scooters’ place on the road is understandable. But just because they are new, should we immediately push back and point a finger, declaring these vehicles unfit for the road? Or would it be more effective (and constructive) to explore whether our roads are currently fit and safe enough, not only for electric scooter users but for all who use them?
Heightened awareness equals fewer accidents
Technological innovations can feel intimidating to those of us who aren’t early adopters, because they can hold so much uncertainty. When technology is new, how can you be sure about how dangerous or useful it will be? How do you, both as an individual and a collective, manage new technology in a way that is beneficial to everyone?
A lot of the technology now commonplace in our lives was once met with the same levels of cynicism and caution. Consider the car as an example. The first sputtering automobiles provoked visceral reactions from people still used to walking and horse-drawn carriages. In 1927, English philosopher C.E.M Joad condemned motoring as “one of the most contemptible soul-destroying and devitalizing pursuits that the ill-fortune of misguided humanity has ever imposed upon its credulity", exemplifying the views of his time. Fast forward to today, and between 60-70% of trips are taken by car, so it is safe to say the world now welcomes them.
While the familiarity caused by the proliferation of technology such as cars encourages people to embrace them, awareness doesn’t merely translate into acceptance – it can also result in a lower accident rate. Cyclists are currently suffering a similar transition period. Road designs haven't always kept cyclists in mind and neither have other road users, making it difficult for them to respond in safe and appropriate ways. Yet in areas of high bike ridership, studies have revealed a lower rate of accidents due to both a heightened awareness of cyclists and new learned behaviour by other road users.
Despite how the media portrays the data, electric scooters are still so new that they cannot be accurately measured by the universal metric for vehicle safety (the number of crashes over a minimum observation period of 3-5 years). Yet articles condemning electric scooters have focused on fatalities and fail to mention how difficult it is to attribute sole responsibility for those events to electric scooters and their riders. In fact, studies show that the majority of these fatalities result from the rider being struck by a motor vehicle, meaning the rider was a passive – rather than an active – agent in the collision. But some people still maintain that electric scooters are too dangerous and should be banned from public streets.
Yet when cyclists end up in a collision we don’t hear the public calling for a ban on bicycles. Bikes are so established within society that, instead of condemnation, accidents often catalyse the establishment of proper infrastructure, ensuring the safety of both future cyclists and other users of the road. E-scooters are novel in comparison, but we predict that they will follow a similar pattern to bikes as all stakeholders continue to adjust.
Building infrastructure encourages people to use it
Higher awareness alone can save lives. But a much more effective approach to safety is to combine awareness with the development of dedicated and protected infrastructure.
The car-centric infrastructure we find commanding the landscapes of most cities renders cyclists, pedestrians and electric scooter users more vulnerable to car accidents. Without a doubt, these higher impact crashes are much deadlier than colliding with a scooter or bike due to cars’ faster speeds, larger form factors and weight. With current cycling infrastructure lacking a widespread network of interconnected routes, cyclist safety – and that of all other users of the road – is not looked after consistently.
Almost 90% of electric scooter users in a rider study by Bird, the electric scooter rental company, declared that the main improvement to city infrastructure that would enable them to feel safer would be protected or wider bike lanes. Other studies show underrepresented groups within cycling and scooting like women feel less safe and rely more than men on protected infrastructure. So there is a clear demand for these cycling facilities, which can instill confidence into those wanting to use them.
Infrastructure that can segregate different road users into their own spaces, taking account of their significant speed differentials, has proven to reduce traffic casualties by up to 90%. These facilities also have a calming effect on traffic, causing car drivers to slow down and be more wary of their surroundings, further reducing the chance of fatalities and serious injuries. This results in safety for the cyclists or e-scooter riders using the bike lanes, but also for everyone else on the road!
Results show that focusing on safer shared road usage can save lives
Oslo is a prime example of how cities can redesign themselves, transforming their streets into safer spaces. In 2019, the city – which is the same size as Washington D.C. – saw zero cyclist and pedestrian fatalities due to the implementation of car-reducing initiatives in the city centre. As well as reducing speed limits and enforcing congestion charges, the city replaced most car lanes and on-street parking with wider bike lanes and pavements. Oslo, and other cities following in its footsteps, have shown that building more bike lanes is more than a theoretical solution – it is an effective safety strategy that produces tangible results.
In various electric scooter trials, cities have proven the same approach also works for e-scooter riders. In an evaluation of the 2018 e-scooter trial in Portland, Oregon, the Portland Bureau of Transportation found that 83% of e-scooter related injuries were minor, but 13% of these resulted from a collision with a car. Forcing electric scooter riders to use the road, without the protection of a separate scooter or bike lane, may have contributed to this.
Streets with bike lanes saw the highest amount of scooter usage, with people riding on the pavement less when the roads had protected bike lanes. This highlights the importance of developing infrastructure that can keep riders separate from pedestrians on the pavement and drivers on the road, improving everyone's safety because there is less competition for space.
So what actions need to be taken to improve road safety and increase the confidence of all users? City authorities should concentrate less on controlling electric scooters, and instead focus their efforts on eliminating barriers and obstacles that leave road users feeling vulnerable.
One of the universal barriers to safety for all road users is the car-centric landscape dominating most of our cities. It is up to local authorities to legislate on the use of shared lanes and for city planners to create safer infrastructure. Complete and connected cycle path networks are vitally important – otherwise the safety of cyclists, scooter users, and everyone else on the road risks becoming as patchy as the networks themselves.
But improving everyone’s safety doesn’t come down to just painting a few lines on the road with a symbol designating them as cycle lanes. Separation needs to be better implemented. In the US, 16 of the 18 e-scooter fatalities in 2019 involved collisions with heavier road vehicles. These figures, as well as car crash data from around the world, highlight a real need to keep everyone on the road where they need to be. No wonder electric scooter users have suggested that the presence of wider lanes protected by clear barriers, able to accommodate a higher number of riders, are essential to helping them feel safer.
We urge you to check the policies where you live, as some authorities have made it illegal for electric scooter users to ride in bike lanes. But we hope that, after all the evidence confirming that bike lanes can radically improve the safety of e-scooter riders, policies will change and you will become more motivated to scoot along bike lanes whenever you see them in your city. Who knew that markings and protective barriers on the road could make such an impact on the safety of its users?