Traffic is always a contentious topic, I always appreciate your views (agreed or not). Curious of your thoughts on the growing micromobility options (electric bike/scooters, etc) and how they may affect our current traffic situation as it grows (as projected)? My industry organization had a recent article about it with some concerns over insurance/registration and before that I hadn’t even thought about it. Here’s the link (page 20-21)
This is a can of worms. I’ve written around the central issue here a few times, but thanks for framing it with the ARA article, because it shows that it isn’t just “bike guys” and pedestrian safety advocates like me who are thinking about it. Unfortunately, I have yet to see any proof that any government is really thinking about it with any seriousness. And that’s a problem.
There is a revolution happening in personal transportation, and I do not think that is hyperbole. Advancements in technology borrowed from smart phones (inertial sensors, compact computing power) and electric vehicles (battery and power management tech) are delivering what was probably initially envisioned by the inventors of the Segway as a re-thinking of personal transportation. They promised it 20 years ago, but it is here now faster than government appears to have expected.
There are powered skateboards, balancing mono-wheels, scooters, and bicycles of varying shape and utility. They are getting cheaper and easier to access every day, and in the rush to “disrupt” traditional market systems, they are being introduced not just as consumer products, but as shared mobility devices you can use by the minute or mile and leave behind. They are breaking down the barriers between automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians.
That could be a really good thing.
E-bikes have opened up cycling to a whole cohort of people who may not have been able to use a bicycle for transportation, my Mom and my Mother-in-Law included. Both have reached a stage in life where cycling is still accessible until hills get in the way. Their e-bikes have kept them active and out of their cars for some trips, especially as both live where public transit simply does not exist.
There are other people for whom electric mobility aids have extended their neighbourhoods and independence, by extending the distance they can comfortably travel without Transit or a car COVID has only made these personal mobility options more attractive. When you think of these devices from the lens of not replacing a car trip, but instead expanding your walkshed, you can envision how impactful these devices can be on our neighbourhoods and business districts. Taking a bunch of cars off the road and reducing the need for parking, traffic management, and other negative externalities of automobile reliance is really just the bonus.
The other side of the coin are the inherent problems that come from that old regulatory trichotomy of automobile–cycle –pedestrian. Those aren’t just social categories, they are codified in law. The Motor Vehicle Act and local Bylaws are structured to define transportation by these categories. Pedestrians are walkers and people using mobility aids because of a disability; automobiles are everything that has an engine and a license plate; cycles are big-wheeled human-powered devices people sit astride. Most legislation is designed to safely separate automobiles and pedestrians, with cycles somewhere in between in an already-fuzzy area. There is a category of “motor assisted cycles” in the BC Motor Vehicle Act, and many e-bikes currently available fit within the strict definition therein, but even that rule is an ineffective and oft-criticized bit of the MVA.
Last time the city updated the Streets and Traffic Bylaw a couple of years ago, I noticed the blanket prohibition of all skates, blades, and boards on City streets – a bylaw probably never enforced except to occasionally hassle skateboarders. I pushed back and asked that the bylaw be changed to put these devices into a similar category as cycles so people can use them as long as they are not endangering others – a bylaw probably never enforced except to occasionally hassle skateboarders. But even then, the surge in micromobility devices was not something we were thinking about.
How are they going to affect traffic? They won’t. I can go down the long path here of writing up Induced Demand and The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion, and a pair of paradoxes called Jevons and Braess’, but I’ll sum up all that potential background reading by saying we will always have the traffic congestion we are happy to tolerate: no more, no less. Nothing will fix that short of societal collapse.
What these new micromobility devices can do is give people different options so those with a lower tolerance for congestion can avoid being the traffic those with a higher tolerance are stuck behind. In that sense, they don’t need to reduce traffic congestion in order to make our communities more livable, easier to get around in, and more accessible for more people.
The insurance/liability concerns always arise when alternate road users are viewed through and auto-centric lens, but it is not a real concern. People operating powerful, heavy, fast-moving machinery in shared public spaces are required to purchase liability insurance for that use, because of the significant risk those devices cause to other users of that public space. Pedestrians are not required to have this insurance, but they still have liability for damage they may cause to others sharing those spaces. If I am inattentively running down the sidewalk and knock a person to the ground causing injury, I am liable for that injury and can expect to be dragged into court if we cannot come to some agreement about compensation. Like most, I carry homeowners insurance that includes third party liability for incidents like this (assuming I am not intentionally breaking the law). It costs almost nothing for the insurer to add this to my home insurance because the risk is so low. Cyclists and skateboarders are (mostly) covered in exactly the same way.
The problem with the raft of new mobility devices is that they sit in a grey area of the law, and though their users are likely covered by personal liability insurance, it’s hard to determine if they are breaking the law when using an electric scooter or hoverboard on a sidewalk, city street, or bike lane. If there is no legal space for them, is their use even legal? Ask a lawyer.
Formally recognizing these various devises as legitimate users of our transportation space also gives us the opportunity to design that space to work for them. How we design will have a bigger effect than how we regulate when it comes to preventing people using mobility devices from getting injured, and from injuring other people. I suspect most of this work will be in assuring new bike lane designs can also accommodate common devices that move at a similar speed with a similar mass as cyclists.
I summary, I suppose you can throw this on the pile of issues that are raised whenever we talk about changing the 1950’s-era Motor Vehicle Act and replacing it with a Road Safety Act. Our current Motordom-derived model of how we regulate our transportation space needs a re-think, because the revolution in technology is happening fast, and we are simply unable to manage it through the existing paradigm. This is also why I am a firm believer we will not see Level 5 Automated Vehicles any time soon: the technology may get there, but the regulatory environment will take much, much longer. But that’s a whole other rant.