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Electric scooters growing at ‘unprecedented pace,’ finds new transit survey

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New micromobility services enjoy “fairly broad public support,” have high adoption rates

Young women ride shared electric scooters in Santa Monica, California, on July 13, 2018. - Cities across the U.S. are grappling with the growing trend of electric scooters which users can unlock with a smartphone app
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As dockless electric scooters enter more and more U.S. cities, these new modes of urban transit continue to outrun the ability of cities to study and regulate them.

A team of MIT and University of California at Berkeley scholars at the San Francisco-based transportation data and analytics company Populus has started to fill in the gaps with a new report assessing user attitudes around the new services.

A new nationwide survey, “The Micromobility Revolution: The Introduction and Adoption of Electric Scooters in the United States,” found widespread support for the dockless electric scooters—70 percent of respondents like these new services—and evidence this new form of transportation can address transit equity issues.

“Our large-scale data from across major U.S. cities reveals that these new micromobility services enjoy fairly broad public support and have remarkably high adoption rates given their recent arrival,” said Regina Clewlow, CEO and cofounder of Populus and former transportation research scientist. She described the adoption rate as “unprecedented.”

Polling 7,000 users across 11 U.S. cities, the study found that adoption was “accelerating faster than ever,” due to both the proliferation of smartphones and the general uptick in new mobility options.

In fact, the adoption rate is exponentially higher than other shared mobility options. In 2013, more than a dozen years after car-sharing services like Zipcar were first introduced, roughly 2 to 3 percent of the over-18 population had used such a service.

In contrast, scooters, which have been active in the U.S. for less than a year, have already registered a 3.6 percent adoption rate.

“There is evidence to suggest that the total trips made via micromobility services could potentially be nearly as large as the future ride-hailing market,” the report concludes, noting that about 40 percent of people in the study had used ride-hailing.

Analysis of transit patterns shows part of the reason why scooters have taken off—these vehicles offer an efficient and affordable option that fits how many Americans get around cities. Populus’s analysis of national transportation data found that roughly 45 percent of trips made in the United States are three miles or less, and 78 percent of those trips are made by personal vehicle. Since scooters are often faster for short distances than taking a car or ride-hailing trip, and the flood of capital into the industry has enabled companies to deploy large fleets relatively fast, startups are quickly establishing a relatively useful network of dockless vehicles in many neighborhoods.

In addition to a great overall adoption rate, electric scooters have also been embraced quicker and more widely by populations that haven’t traditionally been as well-served by transit startups.

The survey found a higher rate of adoption among lower-income groups compared to other micromobility services. Since dockless services require fewer infrastructure investments, they offer a more affordable way to expand transit access. Many of the transit startups in this space have pitched their vehicles as means for cities to create more equitable transit systems. Bird, a scooter startup, recently announced a plan to subsidize rides for low-income users.

The Populus survey also found that the scooter adoption rate for women was much higher than it was for comparable dockless transit options. For instance, 21 percent of men in the study had tried bike-share services compared to 12 percent of women. The discrepancy in scooter usage is less pronounced—4.4 percent to 3.2 percent.

One of the reasons for the discrepancy, the report suggests, is that women are more sensitive to issues of personal safety. Scooters are smaller and easier to ride on sidewalks than bikes—and while most cities don’t want scooters on sidewalks, it highlights the fact that riders want an option that feels safe and avoids traffic.

If streets and systems can be designed so more people feel safe using micromobility services, the authors note, research shows that more people will use these modes, ostensibly in place of cars. A recent report by Lime shows 53 percent San Francisco users chose a Lime scooter over a car for their last trip.

“If cities and private mobility operators are able to coordinate effectively together,” said Clewlow, “the support for these new services could help facilitate a transition away from travel that is currently dominated by cars in most U.S. cities.”