For generations, providing for those who must get around cities without a car has proved to be one of the most challenging issues faced by urban planners. Urban subways are expensive to build. Most cities tore up their streetcar tracks a generation ago. And, without dedicated lanes, buses putter through traffic no faster than automobiles with a single occupant.
Recently, however, new mobility options have hit city streets. “Dockless” bike-sharing companies contrast with previous attempts to provide bike-rental networks—like New York’s Citi Bike and Washington’s Capital Bikeshare—because they do not require permanent infrastructure. Likewise, electric scooter rentals provide rides assisted by electric motors powered by onboard batteries. In contrast to their manual alternatives, these new rental devices help overcome some of the limitations associated with traditional, privately-owned, human- or gasoline-powered transportation.
Recent federal data tells us that most trips are short. In fact, nearly 60 percent are less than five miles. More than 35 percent were less than two miles, and these short distances pose particular challenges in urban areas. After all, buses are often irregular and can be hard to plan around. On the other hand, for short trips in dense areas, parking can be costly and hard to find. Walking is sometimes a viable alternative, but it can be more unappealing when travel means walking large hills or along streets with no sidewalks, or in bad weather. Relying on a personal bicycle carries the risk of theft—particularly for more expensive models.
In view of all these challenges, electric assistance combines with a rental-based business model to provide an entirely new form of trip that specifically eases the pains of short and intermediate travel. For example, some cities have parking exclusion zones in places where pedestrian volumes are high. With rentals, such parking concerns are minimal, as they are stored on sidewalks or locked to public bike racks and signposts. Further, any risk of theft is borne by a rental company with the resources to recover stolen vehicles.
Yet, beyond alleviating the need to find a place to park and transferring theft risk, a major source of value in these devices lies in their ability to make particular trips more reliable. On an e-bike or a scooter, the city is functionally flatter. Electric assistance means less effort must be expended to climb hills, which pose obstacles to unassisted traditional bicycles and walking.
A recent experiment by the Washingtonian found that travel by e-bike is almost 10 percent faster than the bus or standard bike for the same trip, assuming no bus wait. My own experience has been similar, with approximately 10 percent time savings from access to electric assistance. With sufficient numbers of vehicles available, the advent of these mobility options turns some hard-to-reach neighborhoods into places where life without a car is actually possible.
These devices exist in part due to advances in battery technology that have made prices competitive with traditional transit service. For instance, JUMP rents its e-bike for the same $2 price as the bus fare in Washington, DC. Scooter prices have settled to a price point of $1 plus a 15 cent per-minute charge. They are connected to an app that shows scooter and e-bike locations to potential users in real time.
Intermediate mobility devices powered by cheap electric batteries has only begun to change transportation demand because new technologies take decades for their full effect to be appreciated. That said, unlike past personal-transportation fads, electric-assisted, rented mobility devices appear to be here to stay, as they have quickly carved out a niche in the American urban transportation market. These stem from corporate ownership, transit-competitive prices, and lack of a need for permanent, dedicated infrastructure. With time, these new technologies have the potential to change the transportation choices of urban dwellers everywhere.