By Madeline Bankson
New alternative mobility programs are shifting low-carbon transportation possibilities to a higher gear. Could these small bikes and scooters have a big impact?
Across the United States, smart bike and scooter sharing services are taking off. This innovative form of urban transportation allows anyone with a smartphone to rent the vehicles for a short one-way trip. Smart vehicle sharing services may utilize standard bikes, electric bikes (“e-bikes”), or electric scooters. While park-anywhere “dockless” systems are most common, cities have also found sustainable success in dock-based setups. Though there are still some kinks to work out, these mobility sharing programs are impressive in their convenience and sustainability. Now anyone with the physical ability can spontaneously hop on a personal vehicle without having to worry about storage or upkeep. Because more people now have the option to choose low carbon travel over their cars, these programs are helping to reduce the high emissions generated by private vehicles. One recent study estimated that for every mile traveled by bicycle instead of by private car, one pound of carbon dioxide is prevented from entering the atmosphere. In fact, the popular bike and scooter startup Lime saved more than 22 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the first three months of 2018 alone. While this may seem like a small dent, Lime is just one of many smart transit programs, and furthermore, its ridership is expanding rapidly. The emissions reduction potential of these programs is extremely promising.
AltaSea’s home region of Southern California is a smart vehicle success story. The city of Los Angeles has announced that it plans to lead the world on local sustainability measures in order to combat the looming climate crisis. No longer “an icon of car culture and urban sprawl,” the city has pledged to make the changes required to cap global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2035. As part of this mission, LA has already made significant strides in implementing personal vehicle sharing programs on a large scale. Bikes and scooters play a part in this goal. Given that about half of car trips in LA are under three miles, transitioning riders out of their cars and into bike lanes is a very realistic path to drastically reducing emissions. As an added bonus, less car traffic will help conserve energy, tackle LA’s infamous congestion, and improve overall public health (NRDC 4-5).
LA’s fleet of bikes, e-bikes, and scooters is expanding by the day. In 2016, Los Angeles Department of Transportation launched Metro Bike Share. This public project complements the city’s existing buses and the Metro train. By solving the “last mile” problem, bike sharing makes riding public transit more convenient for those who may not have considered it otherwise. Metro Bike Share continues to expand, with a new fleet of electric pedal-assisted bikes recently rolled out in June 2019 (Mass Transit). With careful planning, this innovative aspect of the sharing economy has the potential to influence a much needed cultural shift towards collective environmental action. And Metro Bike Share is just one of the smart transit options available for us here in the Port of Los Angeles. San Pedro also hosts privatized options including electric scooters from Bird and Lime. AltaSea understands urban transportation sharing programs to be an important solution to global issues like climate change, ocean warming, sea level rise, and habitat loss. Although the central goal of increasing bike travel is to prevent the worst effects of greenhouse gas driven climate change, a more diverse city transit system will also help Los Angeles to respond to projected environmental shifts. Given that sea levels in LA are projected to rise anywhere from 2 to 6 feet by the turn of the century, the city has zeroed in on bicycles and scooters as a diversified mode of transportation that is highly adaptable to flooding and other major ecological changes. We encourage people in our neighborhood and beyond to give vehicle sharing a try.
Los Angeles companies are also hip to the fact that they must work with the city’s geography to net the most riders. Simply put, people are driven by convenience. With LA’s huge hills and dry heat, many people associate biking with an uncomfortable level of physical exertion and thus are unlikely to make the switch to the zero-carbon standard bicycle. Answering this elevation problem, electrically augmented bicycles and scooters entice people of various fitness levels to do all or part of their commute on two wheels. Though these e-bikes and scooters are not zero-emissions, their increased reach to folks of many ability levels could convince an untapped demographic of city dwellers to reduce their car mileage, greatly decreasing the overall quantity of carbon dioxide introduced into the atmosphere.
However, not everyone thinks smart mobility programs are all sunshine and rainbows. Indeed, this new innovation still has some imperfections to work out. Public safety concerns due to user error is a paramount concern among critics. The companies bear little responsibility for enforcing local traffic compliance and helmet usage laws. Meanwhile, city regulations and pedestrian-centered infrastructure innovations lag behind the rapid pace of the new technology. On a similar note, users tend to illegally park dockless vehicles in pedestrian walkways, hampering sidewalk accessibility. There is also the issue of maintenance. Broken and left behind scooters have an unfortunate tendency to become trash. In San Diego, free standing share bikes actually harmed the environment because people tossed them into the ocean with alarming frequency. Forcing users to return their bikes to a locking dock seems to be one way to avoid these issues surrounding parking and waste. People are bad at following rules, so careful planning to incentivize responsible ridership is a must.
Given their convenience and health benefits, urban bicycling and scootering could serve as the next jumping-off point for a major green cultural shift. When more people visibly traverse the city on two wheels, others are encouraged to make planet-friendly choices for their commute and beyond. A growing cyclist population pushes planners to implement better cycling infrastructure. In response to the increased safety and convenience afforded by improved cycling infrastructure, more and more people will ditch their cars for the less carbon-intensive option. This positive feedback loop could remake the landscape of urban transit in the United States. Currently, a dismal 1% of North Americans conduct their daily travel via bike. According to a study by ITDP and UC Davis, increasing the use of non-carbon transportation methods to 14% of all travel would lead to an 11% carbon reduction in total global emissions. With enough momentum, bike shares are an important piece of the puzzle that is combating the climate crisis in industrialized nations.
With AltaSea’s position at the Port of Los Angeles, our organization has always been a firm believer in Los Angeles’ potential to lead the world in sustainability. We recognize and support the efforts of bike and scooter share programs, especially those right here in San Pedro, as central to our organizational mission of preserving the planet and its ocean habitats.
- National Resource Defense Council and Nutter Consulting. Los Angeles Shared-Mobility Climate and Equity Action Plan. April 2018.
- Mass Transit
- Port of Los Angeles
- 2nd Street
- San Diego Reader
- ITDP and UC Davis
About the author:
Madeline Bankson is a recent graduate of Vassar College and holds a degree in Geography and Hispanic Studies. Madeline works on various issues related to city planning, environmental sustainability, and social justice. Based in North Carolina, Madeline can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mabankson/ or firstname.lastname@example.org.