Traffic calming: How electric scooters can transform cities into safer spaces

An almost empty street with a two-way bike lane in the city centre of Madrid.

The phrase traffic calming is often used when talking about the impact of electric scooters on cities, and it’s the reason why so many believe that the e-scooter’s mass adoption will change our urban landscapes for the better. But what does traffic calming mean? And how exactly can e-scooters transform our concrete jungles into safer, greener environments?

What is traffic calming?

Simply put, it’s the process of making roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians through the use of physical design. Speed bumps and speed limits, warning signs and road writing, all of these are traffic calming measures. They fall under three categories, known as The Three ‘E’s: Engineering, Education and Enforcement.

The International Transport Forum (ITF) and the OECD issued a report in February this year, which concluded that cars and motorbikes are responsible for 80% of fatal crashes in cities. These crashes are “much more likely” to result in the death of the driver and pedestrian than ones involving an e-scooter or other Personal Light Electric Vehicle (PLEV). If more car users switched to electric scooters, it stands to reason that road deaths would decrease, and not just in pure statistical terms; increased e-scooter use would transform the roads. 

Traffic calming is an organic process, with urban environments changing to reflect their users. As the UK prepares for rental e-scooter trials and full legalisation, how might we see British cities adapting to increased micromobility? And how will these changes make everyone safer? 

A dog-walker crosses Wott Street in Copenhagen, which is full of wide pavements and protected bike lanes.

Electric scooters and safer cities

The first problem that needs to be solved is that of electric scooter use on pavements. If, as the report mentions, dedicated micromobility spaces were introduced, scooter users would not feel the need to ride along public footpaths. A lack of scooters whizzing down the pavement would then help pedestrians to feel more comfortable, especially those that are more vulnerable such as the elderly and visually impaired people.

Another possible course of action could be to widen bike lanes and physically separate them from the road, so they become easier for cyclists to share with PLEVs (a successful method to keeping scooter riders off the pavement, as we discussed in our previous blog post on bike lanes). This would result in narrower car lanes, which would mean slower speed limits. Minimising the speed differentials between different road users benefits everyone; if cars, bikes and e-scooters all had to travel at 20mph alongside busy pedestrian sidewalks, everyone would be safer.

Another crucial measure is dedicated parking bays for micromobility vehicles. This would eradicate the problem of dockless rental scooters littering pavements, something that has led to a phenomenon in the US known as ‘scooter rage’. Some pedestrians have been so angry at the obstacles that they throw them into the river or the road itself. It’s something that the dockless rental model encourages and, although parking spaces would help, this is an issue Taur hopes to help rectify by persuading consumers to buy, rather than rent their e-scooters. 

A catalyst for calmer streets

The positive impacts don’t end here; choosing to travel by electric scooter will help to set off a chain reaction of traffic calming. For instance, it will shift authorities’ focus back onto the quality of road surfaces. While potholes may be tolerable in a car or on a bicycle, they pose more of a risk to those on electric scooters due to the smaller wheel size. An increase of e-scooter users could well put pressure on local authorities to make our roads smoother.

If bike lanes are widened and roads narrowed, the bike lanes will need protection such as bollards or some other kind of physical barrier. This in turn would encourage bike and e-scooter use amongst those who may be put off by cars speeding past them unsheltered, making our cities greener as well as safer. 

There are some who will say this is too ambitious. Cynics claim that it couldn’t happen in a city like London, with its streets barely wide enough for cars, let alone a variety of different road users. As we touched upon in our post on Building Cities for People, many people claim that countries like the Netherlands have some sort of ingrained cultural advantage when it comes to allowing PLEVs, bikes and cars to share the same streets, one that is inherent and cannot be directly imported. 

But when one looks at what cities like Paris have achieved, with their recently re-elected mayor Anne Hidalgo’s plan to make it a ‘city of fifteen minutes’, we can realise that change is indeed possible. Her ambitious plan, for every street in the French capital to have a cycle path, every bridge to have a protected cycleway, and for over two-thirds of central Paris’ car parking spaces to be removed, just won over 50% of the mayoral vote. 

Even in places without forward-thinking political leadership, people are getting on with the job. In San Francisco, the original home of micromobility, there are serious moves to change the city from the bottom up. The ‘Vision Zero SF’ campaign has already made huge strides in the mass use of automated speed enforcement, as well as its goal towards shifting 80% of trips to sustainable travel methods by 2030; a move they hope will lead to zero traffic deaths by 2024. 

A cyclist rides down a pop-up cycle lane, protected by temporary barriers.
Photography by Thomas Loizeau

Safety spurred on by coronavirus

It is also clear to many of us, as we cautiously re-enter the world after lockdown, that things are already changing. In London, as part of the new Streetspace campaign, roads have been narrowed, pavements extended, and cycleways constructed to aid social distancing for pedestrians and cyclists. This could not have been better timed, as rental electric scooters will finally be made legal to use on UK roads from this month.

Pop-up bike lanes and newly car-free streets will be with us for some time so it’s hard to see how, with an increase of e-scooters on the road, authorities will be able to return to the old layouts. The structure of our cities will have no choice but to change as people’s transport habits respond to Covid-19. If you’re looking for a more in-depth exploration of the pandemic’s impact on electric scooters, you’ll want to check out our previous blog post on Coronavirus: Has it Dampened Our Desire for Dockless Rentals?

The View from the Taur

The electric scooter has a symbiotic relationship with urban safety. Although the safe image of e-scooters has been undermined by a rental model which can cause havoc for pedestrians, collectively they can encourage radical transformations of our urban spaces, by creating demand for more traffic calming measures.

Essentially, the more people choose micromobility as their way to travel around, the safer their surroundings can become. So why not consider using an electric scooter for that next short trip? By doing so, you’ll be doing your bit to create more secure spaces for everyone to walk, scoot, and cycle in. 


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