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Opinion: Portland’s scooter success exposes stark double standard

Posted by on January 18th, 2019 at 8:57 am

Scooter riders in the mix of traffic in downtown Portland.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

*This post is by Joe Cortright and was originally published by City Observatory.

Data shows Portland’s scooter experiment worked. Maybe it’s time to critically appraise the failed, 110-year experiment with cars.

Why doesn’t PBOT apply the same approach to private cars that it has to scooters?

Starting in July, Portland, Oregon began allowing fleets of e-scooters, as an experiment, to see how they would work. Portland’s Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) just released its 36-page report on the city’s 120-day trial of allowing fleets of electric scooters on the city’s streets. It’s profusely illustrated — more like a sales brochure than a government report — and it has mostly favorable things to say about the city’s recent experience with scooters.

In four months, scooters went from nothing, to providing more an average of 5,800 trips per day. About 30 percent of city residents rode the scooters at least once during the trial period. The city estimates that roughly a third of scooter trips substituted for private car trips, helping to reduce traffic congestion. Scooters also tended to be used most during peak travel hours, with 20 percent of all trips taking place between 3pm and 6pm on weekdays. City surveys indicate that six percent of scooter users reported getting rid of a private car as a result of scooter availability. In addition, the city’s survey’s also suggest scooters effectively expanded the market for non-automobile transportation by attracting users who haven’t ridden bicycles for transportation. The survey also shows that 60 percent of Portlanders have a positive or somewhat positive view of scooters.

As transportation innovations go, this seems like a pretty wild success.

Scooters are a clean, green, fiscally-responsible alternative for making lots of short trips in dense urban areas. They’re overwhelmingly popular. Thanks to GPS, web-based applications and data sharing requirements, we have a clear picture of where and how scooters are used. If this is a data-driven process, the data clearly make a case for bringing scooters back–and widely expanding the program as well. Which is something that the Portland Bureau of Transportation indicates it will do later this year – although unfortunately, and inexplicably, only as a second trial period.

So that’s all to the good: The city regulated scooters, took a close and careful look at their impacts, and found that they work. But that got us thinking: Why are we applying this standard of scrutiny just to one tiny element of our transportation system. Why isn’t the Portland Bureau of Transportation taking this same careful, deliberate and detailed approach to analyzing all aspects of our transportation, especially the dominant mode of transportation: private automobiles?

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The Double Standard: Why aren’t we holding cars to the standard applied to scooters?

We plainly aren’t applying the same standards to cars that the city has applied to scooters. That’s abundantly clear both in the framing of the report, and in the substance of the questions asked. Consider the first paragraph of the report’s executive summary:

E-scooters emerged in 2017 as a new shared mobility service in the United States. Less than a year after their debut, e-scooters were operating in 65 U.S. cities. They did not arrive without disruption; companies Bird and Lime began operations in 43 markets without government permits or consent. Several cities responded with cease and desist orders, fines, or both. Portland chose a different, proactive path, creating the E-Scooter Pilot Program. With the pilot, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) focused on giving Portlanders access to this new transportation option while also ensuring that e-scooters would support Portland’s fundamental policy values

There’s an almost insufferable tone of condescension about the idea Portlanders have any right to use scooters on the public streets. It is as if the mandarins of PBOT have deigned, for a brief period, to suffer to allow the presence of these scooters on their streets. The report’s opening paragraph sets the tone: while scooter companies set up shop without asking permission in many cities, Portland strictly regulated their presence. And, as if to remove all doubts about the bureau’s hegemony of public streets, it terminated the operation of scooters entirely on November 20. The New York Times applauded Portland’s aggressive approach to regulating the entry of scooter companies into the city.

We’re waiting for a similarly incisive assessment of the city’s policy of allowing these vehicles to run rampant in the public realm.

One is left to wonder, at what point was it determined that small, personal two-wheeled electric vehicles required special bureaucratic dispensation (and per trip fees paid to the city), and that large gas guzzling, polluting, frequently deadly four-wheeled ones were allowed to roam free in unlimited numbers?

What if BPOT took a similar attitude, not to the paltry 2,000 scooters that operated on city streets for a few months, but instead at the hundreds of thousands of motor vehicles that have inundated the city over the past century? We’re waiting for a similarly incisive assessment of the city’s policy of allowing these vehicles to run rampant in the public realm. If we applied even a fraction of the scrutiny to cars that PBOT has applied to scooters, and applied even a tenth as stringent a standard to their performance, we’d be looking to have radical change. When will PBOT do a similarly rigorous assessment of the climate, health and safety, fiscal, equity and land use impacts of unfettered car use on the public streets?

Let’s focus just one issue: How much do scooters and cars pay to use city streets? The PBOT report indicates that the city levies a charge of 25 cents per trip for each scooter. The average length of a scooter journey, according to PBOT, is 1.1 miles. This means that scooter rider is paying 21.8 cents per mile to use city streets.

(Chart: City Observatory)

How does that compare to what people pay to drive cars?

Let’s take the gas tax, which is the major source of state and local road finance. Oregon’s gas tax is currently 30 cents per gallon, and the City of Portland has a gas tax of 10 cents per gallon. With the average vehicle getting about 20 miles per gallon, this means that the average automobile pays about 2 cents per mile (40 cents divided by 20 miles per gallon equals 2 cents per mile). And it has to be added that these are total taxes paid to city and state–the city receives only a fraction of the state imposed gas tax to pay for its streets. Bottom line: Scooter riders pay ten times as much in fees per mile traveled on city streets as car drivers pay in gas taxes.

And as we’ve pointed out before, its vastly unfair to charge scooters more than cars. Whether proportionate to vehicle value, the space vehicles take up on the roadway (in use and when parked) weight (and therefore road wear and maintenance costs), or pollution generated, cars should be paying anywhere from 10 to 1000 times more for use of the roadway. Instead, they pay ten times less.

Why doesn’t PBOT apply the same approach to private cars that it has to scooters? Why doesn’t it impose a cap on the number of cars in the city, to be sure that cars don’t overwhelm the street system? Why doesn’t it impose a fee of 20 cents per mile on car trips? Why doesn’t it require that cars operating in the city have electronic speed governors that keep vehicles from being operated at unsafe and illegal speeds? Why doesn’t it require that every trip by automobile be reported to a centralized database operated by PBOT: After all, if we can insist that the operators of 35 pound, $500 scooters share detailed telemetry on every trip taken in the city, why shouldn’t we have similar data about the two-ton, $20,000 or $50,000 vehicles.

There’s a clear double standard here: Scooters have been put to the test, and they’ve passed. Scooter operators have provided detailed data, have electronically limited vehicle speeds, reduced traffic and pollution, and paid the city generously for city streets. When will PBOT ask the same questions or impose the same standards on our car-dominated transportation system? We’re really looking forward to that report.

— Joe Cortright, @CityObs on Twitter.

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Middle of The Road Guy
Guest
Middle of The Road Guy

There’s an almost insufferable tone of condescension with this article.

billyjo
Guest
billyjo

I wish you had your chance to ban cars entirely. The backlash would be swift and brutal.

I don’t understand people like this. Why can’t you function in realty? Instead of wasting so much time in la la land? You just make everybody look bad. Ever wonder why so many people immediately dismiss bikers?

cars aren’t going anywhere. Trying to figure out a way to work within the parameters that we have would be so much better.

Doug Hecker
Guest
Doug Hecker

Yawn.

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

One of several errors in this opinion piece is the confusion of private autos with rental vehicles owned by a private company seeking to operate their business within the public rights of way. All private companies that do so pay fees to the people of Portland to use the people’s space in such ways. If Mr. Cartwright was comparing the scooter companies with Hertz or Enterprise, it would be apples to apples. Considering his stellar reputation for economic analysis, this clear error reveals bias, IMO.

Isaac Hanson
Guest
Isaac Hanson

This is fascinating. It’s similar to how, if alcohol were a new drug introduced today, it would be banned worldwide. We’re inured to the death, injury, noise and pollution of motor vehicles.

Twenty-seven emergency room visits a day due to traffic crashes (during the trial period) is considered normal. It’s hard to spark safety improvements with this level of complacency. But one idea mentioned here – speed limiter devices on cars – is a great practical way to start. Some public service vehicles in the UK already require these devices. They would save lives if made standard in new vehicles.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

I eat mandarins for breakfast.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

I’ve been hesitant to make this comparison.

The big difference between scooters and cars is that the scooters are owned by a private company that is putting them on the street without any infrastructure, laws, education, etc.. in place.

Whereas cars are owned by individuals (banks too, but that’s beside the point) and we already have an entire system of education, infrastructure, and laws to deal with them.

That’s why I think PBOT has a more protective, careful approach with the scooters — not to mention as a gov’t agency they must be careful of public opinion, political optics, and so on.

That being said, I do think the way PBOT handles scooters is interesting given the relative hands-off approach they take to cars.

SD
Guest
SD

It is important to consider the societal value and cost of cars compared to other forms of transportation despite the fact that they are very common. This article provides a valuable perspective on the costs of cars that are often overlooked or taken for granted.

q
Guest
q

“About 30 percent of city residents rode the scooters at least once during the trial period.”?

I must be out of touch. I personally know only one person who I know rode one, and that was once, for a couple minutes. Isn’t 30% about 150,000 people?

In articles here about the pilot program, people have pointed out very believable reasons the statistics don’t paint as positive a picture as PBOT concludes, and pointed out reasons the review of the pilot project was skewed in favor of scooters. What I don’t like about this piece is the apparent blind acceptance that the pilot was incredibly successful and conclusive.

And I’m generally a fan of scooters.

Orig_JF
Guest
Orig_JF

STATS! 99% of the statistics I generate only help my argument 43% of the time.

Scotchbreath
Guest
Scotchbreath

Clearly whoever wrote this article should go to a doctor because they have a blood clot that seems to be restricting air to the brain. For those of us who have actually seen the scooters in use know the truth. Piles of junk thrown into people’s Lawns and all over the streets not to mention the river and the only people riding them are drunk people who crashed everywhere if anybody said that they were a helmet they were lying and so many injuries went unreported. Also whatever happened to walking? Seems the Youth and the new to town just continually get more and more lazy. Try to convince people to ride the bus or their bike not pick up a dangerous toy and get themselves killed. And speaking of bikes it’s about time that the city took action and Required licensing for all bicycles and license plates and helmets and lights and reflective gear so dangerous riders can be held accountable ,and pay their fare share for using main streets and causing delays and accidents. Hate to think of restrictions on bikes but 80% of the horrible bicyclists on the road give the the rest of us a bad name.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

>>> six percent of scooter users reported getting rid of a private car as a result of scooter availability <<<

How many have since repurchased a car now that the scooters are gone?

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

Not sure it is really condescension, but logic applied to a failing mythology that has been engrained in peoples psyches and the culture at large for the last 100 years. If perfectly objective transportation engineers from another planet were to land here and be tasked with evaluating our transportation system they would make the exact same observations. Cars are not human rights, or religion (some people think so) or real culture values, they are just an outdated and wasteful way to get around that people have become emotionally attached to. If we are to solve the many resource and pollution problems that our society is faced with we will have to subject our “auto habit” to the bright cold light of scrutiny and logic and move passed worrying about the feelings of the auto addled.

Jordan
Guest
Jordan

This article truly reads like it was written by someone who couldn’t possibly fathom that people might not be able to afford a $1400/month studio in The Pearl and that life exists East of 39th Ave. One of those people that thinks “just take the bus!” is an adequate solution for, say, someone trying to communite between outer SE and NW despite the fact that they’ve probably never set foot on a bus. This is honestly such a tone-deaf, privileged article.

ugh
Guest
ugh

As others have stated, this article is based on ridiculous and uneven comparisons. The city is looking at rental companies, not scooters in general. Get a personal scooter and off ya go.

Additionally, private cars are heavily regulated (though poorly enforced). Insurance requirements, tags, registration, fees, taxes, licensing and a thick book of laws.

This may be one of the worst articles ever put on this site(and that is saying something!). I happen to hate cars and scooters. Somehow I also now dislike this author…

Ovid Boyd
Subscriber
Ovid Boyd

I love this SO much. You

I even love how it rattles a less than pro-car audience so much

To be totally fair, we ought to ban cars until we can be quite sure they’re a safe and equitable mode of transport? And if we find that they injure and kill people and pollute? Certainly we wouldn’t allow them back 😀

J_R
Guest
J_R

As many others have pointed out the comparison of scooters to private autos is inappropriate.

Another minor point: What’s the reason for excluding the federal gas tax component from the mileage tax burden comparison? Most of that money comes back to local communities including federal contributions for non-highway projects as well as operating and capital funding for mass transit projects.

X
Guest
X

“Isaac Hanson”

“. . .Twenty-seven emergency room visits a day due to traffic crashes (during the trial period) is considered normal. It’s hard to spark safety improvements with this level of complacency. . .”

I’m interested to know where that figure came from, the context seems to suggest it is due to injuries in car crashes? Perhaps in the Portland metro area? Certainly if there had been that many injuries from scooter crashes we would have heard about it.

https://money.cnn.com/2018/03/19/news/economy/emergency-room-er-bills/index.html

One source, above, says the average cost of a trip to the ER is $1917. Multiplied by 27 that would be $51,759. Another hidden cost of car transportation.

Spark97
Guest
Spark97

You seem to be missing the fact that these scooters belong to a private company, which are in turn rented by consumers. Comparing these to privately owned vehicles makes no sense when analyzing fees paid to the city. The scooter fees are in place for a private company looking to make an earning through the use of public roads. Residents already pay for use of public roads through local taxes, pay fees to DMV for license and registration, have their vehicles regulated for pollution through DEQ, and pay these (ridiculous) gas taxes

Bj
Guest
Bj

Yes let big brother dictate more of your choices in life!

mran1984
Guest

Private profit on a public space. If your life is confined to the Internet and a few square miles around your tiny house scooters with motors are perfect for your single existence. Stay off the sidewalk and the Esplanade…oh, I forgot that ZERO traffic laws are enforced in Portland. The opinion has little to do with fact.

9watts
Subscriber

Hello, Kitty
>>> six percent of scooter users reported getting rid of a private car as a result of scooter availability <<<How many have since repurchased a car now that the scooters are gone?Recommended 2

I know.
That has to be the most ridiculous of the many whoppers in the PBOT survey, which had its share.

Gil Johnson
Guest

I’d like to see the methodology of the survey and the sample size, because a 60% approval rate for scooters seems awfully high. I live in the People’s Republic of Inner SE PDX, and I’d say maybe 25% of the people I encounter liked them.

I suppose if Joe’s dream comes true and the city could drastically reduce auto use, scooters could fit right in, but during the trial period they were a hazard to pedestrians and bicyclists, often ridden on sidewalks or in bike lanes.

If they are to be allowed permanently, the city needs to reduce their top speed to 12 mph (some go 20), which thus conforms to the traffic light frequency downtown and is more in line with the average bicyclist.

Sheilagh
Guest
Sheilagh

Go give feedback at their online open house survey! https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/E-ScooterOnlineOpenHouse

Scatterly
Guest
Scatterly

I have to drive. It is a prerequisite for my job working with the disabled. Trust me, they do not pay well. Any further car expenses would hit me hard. Also, I am physically incapable of travel by scooter or bike. This is a privileged and abilist diatribe.

X
Guest
X

Hello, Kitty:

“cars provide a transportation service. . .well worth the cost.”

Mr. Cortwright would be among the first to point that the cost to users (motor vehicle operators) is a small part of the cost to other people. To society. To us. It might cost a person an additional $2.00 to make a trip to the store but they’re not paying me to breathe the fumes from their exhaust. They, collectively, are not paying the residents of a fishing village in Lousiana threatened by sea level rise as well as by the historic operations of oil companies. The Maldive Islands? Bangladesh? Forget about it.

Scott
Guest
Scott

This has got to be the oddest article I have read. Let’s start first with the claim that this is an experiment. 110 years ago we did not all of a sudden go “Lets invent cars and experiment for the next 110 years to see how well it goes”. What has happened as been a 110 year evolution of motorized vehicles being integrated into society and creating rules based on the time.

So why are they treated different? Because there were no scooters 110 years ago to integrate into society. And bikes never filled the growing demand of speed and efficiency for transportation in a day and time where you did not have amazon or Walmart delivering your new Iphones to your door step. The laws have been wrote, adjusted and enforced over the whole time based on the needs of the society at the time. To say that its unfair suddenly when you have the majority of modern society dependent on that vehicle for job, health, school, etc is very short sighted.

As for the point on the cost, please also include the price of title and registration, insurance, driver’s license cost and all the fees associated. If you want to make this all fair, then all vehicles that use the road or designated paths should have their bike, scooter and car all titles, tagged, have collision and liability insurance, and take a moving vehicle license to drive the bike, car, scooter, etc. Now that you have put that all the same level, now the laws and regulations can be adjusted to include all vehicles.

It would be better to encourage a shift in the laws to bring all regulations modern. But this would mean that if a scooter hits and damages property, another scooter, car, bike, etc that they have insurance to cover that cost and are current on all title, registration and tags for their scooter. This would be the exact same for a bike. Now the playing field is level. I drive a car and ride a bike and if I want to have the same rights on the road, then I should be willing to have the same standards and regulations for all of them. This also means obeying all the same rules for road safety.

Tom
Guest
Tom

Since this article was written, a study about high accident rates has been published. Before going gung ho on scooters, we need to better understand why people are getting hurt.

Clark in Vancouver
Guest
Clark in Vancouver

All the cars in the world will not disappear.

In Vancouver I’ve seen many construction workers with their tools on the bus and Skytrain going to and from work. (A toolbag is smaller than a stroller.) I know a few people who are general handymen who bike and bus to work, renting a van on those days when they need to bring supplies or dispose of garbage. There’s one guy who uses a cargo bike with a secure box for his tools. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tradesman-ditches-van-for-custom-made-bicycle-1.2820484
People are pretty inventive when they look at their options.

Chris I
How would someone living in Battleground get to his construction job downtown if all of the cars in the world suddenly disappeared?Recommended 13