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Cars Still Dominate the Short Trip — Can Cities Change That?

Even with electric scooters readily available in many U.S. cities, research indicates that short-distance travelers are more likely to drive a car than use a rentable scooter or bike. Cities could change that dynamic.

At least a few U.S. cities may want to think more seriously about growing the use of micro-mobility devices like bikes and scooters.

Automobiles were used for about half of relatively short trips in a New Orleans, Honolulu and Nashville, Tenn., according to a new report by INRIX, a company that gathers traffic data and has developed the Road Rules platform, which places street and traffic features into a digital template.

In Honolulu, more than half (55 percent) of short trips of up to three miles, were taken via car, according to the study which reviewed more than 50 million car trips taken in October 2018 across the top 25 most congested U.S. metro areas. And 25 percent of those trips in Honolulu were less than a mile in distance, a trip seemingly ideal for bicycle or scooter use.

“The reality is there’s a huge amount of built in automobile dependency, or cultural bias,” said Trevor Reed, one of the authors of the INRIX report. 

“So there’s a huge potential, especially for how easy it is for micro-mobility platforms, they don’t have to necessarily worry about bike storage facilities or scooter storage facilities for individual users,” he added, calling attention to the grab-and-go nature of many rent-to-ride platforms. “And it’s that flexibility for being able to drop something off and forget about it, that could really put it at a competitive advantage compared to driving.”

In Nashville, a city where 51 percent of short trips — zero to three miles — are taken via car, officials say the city is trying out a range of approaches to reduce single-occupancy trips. In October 2018, Nashville launched a pilot known as the Nashville Connector to encourage transit, carpooling and other traffic congestion mitigation efforts among commuters journeying downtown.

The city remains heavily car-dependent. Only about of 2 percent of workers use public transit in Nashville, according to the 2017 American Community Survey.

But there are a number of projects to build sidewalks and bike lanes, said Sean Braisted, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Planning Department in Nashville.

The city is also in the middle of managing a micro-mobility pilot program that includes some 2,000 scooter devices — down from about 4,000 when scooter operators released thousands of devices before enabling legislation could be approved. Several months ago, the Nashville Metro Council reduced the number of permitted scooters as the city considers added safety regulation, following a scooter-related death.

“We’ve seen a lot of people using them. We’re still trying to get access to the data to drill down into how many of those are say, a resident, versus tourists or other people using them,” said Braisted. 

“As a city, there’s been opportunities with that,” he added. “But there’s been challenges when it comes to restricting access to sidewalks, especially for people that are mobility challenged.”

Both New Orleans and Honolulu have bike-share operations, however, neither city have e-scooter operations. 

The large number of vehicle trips in Nashville could also be a function of some of the challenges around mass transit. Ridership with WeGo, the public transit provider in the Nashville metro area, fell 4.4 percent from 2015. And last year, voters turned down a $5.4 billion transit infrastructure package which would have developed light rail and other amenities. Since then, WeGo has been forced to announce cuts in service due to an $8.7 million deficit in its operating budget. Officials stress that the cuts were made strategically and that 78 percent of ridership will see little to no change in service.

“Although no one ever wants to see a service reduction, the cuts we are putting in place are being done strategically to eliminate redundant and underutilized services, so we can both become more efficient and position future service additions into more productive services,” said Amanda Clelland, a spokeswoman for WeGo.

That said, WeGo is exploring partnerships with bike-share, scooter-share and car-share operations, along with designing an account-based fare payment plan which also integrates other forms of private-sector mobility.

Proponents of micro-mobility options like scooters tout their benefits when it comes to controlling congestion in cities by reducing the need for car trips.

“E-scooters and e-bikes are a convenient and safe alternative, perfectly suited to replace the high number of short trips taken by cars — decreasing commute times, unlocking economic potential, and cutting pollution in the process,” said Ryan McConaghy, executive director of The Micromobility Coalition, an industry group, in an email.

McConaghy urged cities to continue to look at ways to enhance bike and scooter infrastructure.

“Transportation infrastructure should be designed around moving people, in whatever mode they choose, not just about moving cars,” he added.

The findings by INRIX follow other research showing the overall lifetime carbon footprint of electric scooters. In that study by North Carolina State University,  researchers determined that scooters are really only greener than a trip in a car, once the scooter’s short life cycle is taken into consideration, as well as the fact that these devices need to be retrieved, charged and redistributed on a daily basis.

Reed, the author of the INRIX report, pointed to the newness of the scooter technology and the businesses they operate within as starting points for sustainability improvements to come.

“There’s such radical changes going on, year over year. I can only imagine how difficult it is to regulate and manage a network," he added. “Perhaps as inefficient as it is now is a function of how new it is, and how much learning is still taking place.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.