In the new podcast The War on Cars, journalist Sarah Goodyear likens the way people drop scooters just anywhere—as amply documented on social media—to the way her teenage son drops his socks around the house.
Docklessness has become synonymous with lawlessness, a plus in the eyes of the disruptors, a minus in the eyes of those who are don’t view “disruption” as a merit badge. This is partially positional: When you are riding a scooter, it’s a convenience; when you are looking at a scooter, it’s a tripping hazard.
As any parent knows, the best defense is good offense. A laundry basket in a prominent place, not inside the closet. A shoe bench with baskets, one for each family member. A drop zone just inside the front door with a spot for keys, mail, tote bag, coat.
But for the average city-dweller, the “drop zone” actually begins further out, in the shared space of the block: yards, stoops, the entrance of the apartment building, sidewalks, streets.
Some of this space may be civic, but the principles we use at home can still apply.
Mobility companies have opened up a conversation about how we use our streets. It’s time we rethink how we organize the cities outside our front doors with as much intention as we do our homes.
Laura Bliss recently wrote in CityLab, “if you want to see what your city is failing to provide proper space for, look on the sidewalk. It’s probably there.”
Kyle Rowe, head of government partnerships for Spin, calls the area between the curb and the walking lane the “furniture zone.” “It can have benches, newspaper boxes, trash cans, trees, utility poles. Everything that doesn’t fit on the sidewalk, we put it all there, and that zone in current U.S. cities carries incredible weight.”
The two largest areas on any block are for movement, the car lanes and the center of the sidewalk. If you are lucky, there is a bike lane. If you’re luckier still, a protected bike lane. But the sidewalk needs protection too.
As cars, and now e-scooters and e-bikes speed things up, maintaining a clean slow zone becomes even more important. All lanes need to be free of personal property so that everyone can move freely. (In other words, do not just drop your backpack in the middle of the hallway.) No double-parked cars, no errant trash cans, no bikes chained to fences. If you see a cracked sidewalk, or a car blocking the bike lane, use your city’s complaints app to call it in.
In your home, it may be the mail that collects in a heap in the entryway, ready to be stepped on. Outside, maybe it is your scooter, your bike, or your stroller that’s in the way. Maybe your entryway isn’t the best place for that… and the sidewalk isn’t either.
Take a look at those parking spots: You can park a car there. You can park a motorcycle there. That’s an awful lot of real estate. What would it take to park another form of wheeled transportation there? As a symbol of how mobility companies are also starting to think about storage, DIY street design site Streetmix just added icons for bike-share stations, ride-hailing drop-off, and food trucks.
After you’ve identified the mess, the next step is finding the proper receptacles. Get a shallow box for your mail. Get a rack for everyone’s house keys. Buy a welcome mat, not because it is cute, but because it says: stop here, take off your shoes.
The street version of the welcome mat is a designated drop-off zone, of the type being designed in new buildings. That way, Ubers and Lyfts don’t block traffic and, since they carry many more passengers daily than a line of parked cars, get a designated space. This spring, Lyft initiated a pilot project on San Francisco’s Valencia Street, trying to use their data to create a safer arrangement for users in an environment used simultaneously by personal bikes, delivery bikes and trucks, and rideshare vehicles. They created geo-fenced “hotspots” on side streets, redirecting riders who called for cars to pick-up spots—which should eventually get their own signage and set-aside curbside space. As Lyft’s Debs Schrimmer writes, “The digital and physical environments should reinforce each other.”
The key rack of the street is a dock, not just for shared bikes, but for all human-powered wheels. Because New York City’s urban mobility began with docked Citi Bikes, it has been late to the dockless revolution. When those Citi Bike stations first debuted, many reacted with horror. They are disrupting the historic fabric! They are taking over a parking spot! They are so huge! Why does everything have to be stainless steel? (I’ll admit, the last one was me.)
But as transportation advocates painstakingly explained, it was still parking: seven bikes in the space of one car. And because those docks were so big, so shiny, so FIXED, with a financial penalty to boot, there was no choice about where to put your bike away.
The stations made it clear that this was a network, like the subway, and their design vocabulary established them as kin to bus stops. Like trash cans on major thoroughfares, bike share was not a recreational pastime but a public utility. While parking your bike, scooter, or stroller at home was your problem, these bikes, at least, were someone else’s problem. For people whose apartments are too small to store a bike inside, being offered street real estate changed their relationship to biking.
It is in mobility companies’ interest to straighten up the street. One promise dockless companies have made to get back into the San Francisco market is to keep better track of their stuff. Jump (a company that Uber purchased in April) requires its electric bikes to be locked to a pole or rack, and has shown designs for bent-metal scooter racks. Lyft offered renderings for a painted scooter parking zone in pink-to-purple ombre, weakly contained by a couple of circular stanchions.
I found it unbelievable that the four-letter-word companies did not think of what might happen to their devices after users dismounted, preferring instead to rely on underpaid, after-dark armies of “Bird hunters.” Rowe explained to me that the permitting required to create on-street parking for bikes and scooters would have pushed back dockless launches for months, if not years. And besides, the data from pilot programs could be used to site those parking zones better than any engineer.
In Seattle, where Rowe was bike-share manager for the city’s Department of Transportation, “that was the intent: to get data and then get use it to implement a parking strategy.” The City of Toronto just launched the BikeSpace app, which allows cyclists to report problems with public and private bike parking. Data from the app will then be used to set locations for more, and higher-quality bike parking.
So far, Seattle has rolled out six painted parking zones in the Ballard neighborhood, but he sees the future as 100-plus parking zones, established by the city and paid for by dockless company permits. Seattle Bike Blog wrote, “While the sidewalk-located bike share parking is a pretty cool experiment, my favorite idea for painted bike parking is to add space to new and existing on-street bike corrals.” My family’s bikes live in my living room, because my husband has had every part of his bike (as well as the whole shebang) stolen off the street in his youth. Wouldn’t I just love to reclaim that space?
A spray-painted symbol of a bike in a box is better than nothing, but any organization expert will tell you: It is better to have structured storage. Seeing how easily bikes fit into a car parking space should also tempt businesses to fill the space in front of their doors with a bike corral. On the same episode of The War on Cars podcast, Doug Gordon mentions the bureaucratic hoops he had to jump through to get a corral outside his daughter’s school. Few children’s attractions, much less homes, have the inside square-footage to accommodate the mass of strollers that accumulates—why shouldn’t they, too, have a piece of the street?
The holy grail of home organization is closed storage: a cupboard, a wardrobe, a closet. Once you see parking spots as fair game, a person starts to get greedy. Los Angeles has wedge-shaped bike lockers at Metro stations, easily legible as such thanks to an elegant perforated-metal design that wordlessly says “bicycle”—but what happens at the other end of the line?
In April, Shabazz Stuart and Manuel Mansylla, co-founders of bike-parking startup Oonee, installed the first Oonee Pod at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 14-foot, 100-plus-piece cube that could hold up to 20 bikes in less than two parking spots. Three more will be installed at Water-Whitehall Plaza in lower Manhattan, Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, and Queens Place, sponsored by local businesses and property owners. The designers circumvented some permitting hassles by making the structure temporary, anchored by two water- or sand-filled plastic Jersey barriers, more often used to block than to support movement.
“We think about it as an oversize LEGO kit that’s easily deployed in a public space,” says Mansylla, who also serves as Oonee’s creative director. “You can interchange components, and can customize it to what your what constituency really wants”—including green walls, benches, lighting and space for public art (or advertising). Or solar panels for charging stations, which would make a great addition to this shipping container-turned-street closet in Cleveland.
I know homeowners who live in buildings with covered parking, but who don’t own a car, who have converted their parking spot into a closet. The Oonee Pod does the same, taking back the space non-drivers aren’t using for other forms of transportation. Bikes, scooters, strollers: all would have a lockable home. For many, getting the wheels out of the house could be like uncovering a whole new room. (Something else that would give families a whole new room? Play streets. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
The last step for the declutterer is the simplest of all. Don’t let things build up. Put your things away, as soon as you get home. Once not-car users have reclaimed a piece of the street, you’ll be halfway there before you even unlock the front door.