What Does a Scooter Lane Look Like?

Let’s face it: electric scooters in Indianapolis are probably here to stay. Rather than ask for permission, e-scooter companies Lime and Bird decided to ask for forgiveness when they plopped down thousands of electric scooters on Indy streets earlier in 2018. This led to the previously mentioned Great Scooter Regulation of Indianapolis which, frankly, was not as encompassing or problem-solving as city-leaders and citizens would have liked.

Turns out, there are a lot of intangibles to deal with when you are confronted with a disruptive technology. While scooters aren’t allowed on sidewalks, they aren’t allowed on trails such as the world-class Cultural Trail, either (which seems a bit like a double-standard, considering that the average speed of a scooter compares favorably with that of a bicycle). Nevertheless, this leaves the scooter-riders forced into that Frogger world of vehicular traffic, cruising through the carbon monoxide miasma of Indy’s notoriously broad streets. What could one expect, but a rash of injuries, backlash, and general malaise?

Despite threats from more conservative factions in the City-County council to ban them,  the City-County Council invariably voted to pass Proposal 373 on October 28th, which creates a Multimodal Transportation Facilities Fund (MTFF – isn’t that catchy?) from the fees charged to scooters companies. This fund would be used to pay for the construction and maintenance of alternative transportation infrastructure such as bike lanes.

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There is still uncertainty around how much money will actually go into that fund. According to a general agreement Indianapolis reached with Lime and Bird, the companies each pay a dollar per day per scooter. Some city officials expect upwards of $2.5 million a year from the transportation devices, with a minimum of $400,000 a year according to DPW. This is all money that could theoretically be used for additional bike lanes as soon as 2019.

According to IndyStar,

The move comes as a debate rages over where and how dockless e-scooters should be used in Indianapolis. A July ordinance stipulates that scooters must stay off sidewalks and stick to streets and bike lanes. But scooter riders say say those rules force them into dangerous conditions on busy streets.

The Indianapolis council in July passed the first round of scooter regulations, which set riding rules and imposed an up-front fee of $15,000 on operators that do business in the city, plus $1 per day, per device. The city’s Department of Public Works plans to put the latter fee toward street improvements that will help scooter riders.

So, one assumes this money goes toward bike lane improvements and construction, cleaning bike lanes and resurfacing them. For a city that may be resting on its Cultural Trail laurels, this is magnificent news.

To clarify, the City-County council agrees that scooters do not belong on sidewalks. The general consensus also seems to agree that auto-centric streets are unsafe monsters that offer possible injury or death to those not inside two-thousand pound death machines. To force scooters on them is a bit unfair. Ergo, the middle ground is increasing Indy’s bike infrastructure. This will be sponsored by, at the very least, a $400,000/year windfall created from taxing the scooter companies.

Hang on a second, though. What constitutes bike infrastructure in Indianapolis? There seems to be a bit of confusion on this point, evidenced by the city’s contradictory stance on allowing scooters on bike lanes but not on bike trails. Scooters are not bikes, so, do scooters belong where bikes do? Then there’s the safety element. Couldn’t scooters leftover in bike lanes cause the same hindrance for bikers that they currently cause for sidewalk pedestrians? And, if scooters are allowed in bike lanes, does that mean the bike lane is still a lane reserved for bikes – or does it become a different animal of sorts, an alternative transportation lane or a multi-modal lane?

What if bikes and scooters are just dissimilar enough to warrant a totally different type of infrastructure? Maybe…our working definition of a “bike lane” (you know, the painted lane three-foot wide one) isn’t big enough to include scooters. With that, I agree. That being said, maybe we should think bigger.

While, I am hugely in favor of an expanded bike lane network, I think there is something more to the question of where scooters belong. If they belong with bikes, then there needs to be clarification of the whole not-on-the-Cultural Trail debacle, and further remediation of the width of bike lanes. If they don’t belong with pedestrians, and they don’t belong with vehicular traffic, then they belong in their own lane.

But…what does a “scooter lane” look like?

An interesting proposal was featured on CityLab a couple months back. Renowned transit planner Jerrett Walker, (whose site, humantransit.org is a must-read for transit fans) and Portland urbanist Sarah Iannarone brainstormed a simple approach to accommodate the multi-modal transportation options increasingly offered in cities.

The proposal calls for a redistribution of street-space, arranged by the differing speeds of various mobility options. Taking a lane away from the cars would allow cities to present scooters and bikes with a new home: the midspeed lane.

 

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Photo credit: humantransit.org

 

According to Walker:

The idea here is that a street with a speed limit over 30 km/hr will need to separate these three kinds of traffic, because they differ in both speed and width.  At lower speeds you can mix them more.

Where speed and width come apart, however, speed has to be the defining feature.  You can’t ride a motorbike at 30 km/hr down a “bike” lane, even though it may be narrow enough.  You have to ride it in the traffic lane, even though that’s a waste of space.

All this came up because I was trying to think of the correct new term for “bike lane” as we proliferate more vehicle types that run more or less at the speed and width of bicycles but are clearly not bicycles, such as electric scooters.  The two logical terms seem to be narrow lane or midspeed lane.  One way or another the two concepts will need to track with each other.

I love his divvying up of different mobility options. What I find important is his categorization of scooters as “vehicle types that run more or less at the speed and width of bicycles”. While scooters are definitely different from bicycles, they are more similar than dissimilar. Instead of creating an us vs. them relationship between the two modes, city infrastructure should become big enough for both of them. Traditional bike lanes (that happen to be very narrow) are not going to cut it as a one-size-fits all solution. It should not be a separate scooter lane and a separate bike lane.  We can combine existing roadway into more palatable and cohesive units for all mobility options. Scooters and bicyclists can coexist in midspeed lanes.

 

Creating Midspeed Lanes

With scooters wedging their way into the shades of grey between pedestrians and bicyclists (while still remaining electric vehicles), there seems to finally be an impetus to take away space from cars in lieu of a popular transportation option. This space may be allocated as that missing middle option.

There is difficulty in educating visitors to Indianapolis about the exact parameters of scooter-regulation, so to speak. If I am visiting a city and see herds of people on scooters cruising by, as a curious visitor, my first thought isn’t asking if riding in particular places is illegal. Providing a midspeed lane can be a remedy for the confusion abundant not only in enforcement of scooters in downtown Indy, but in their future as a viable mobility option. Either way, until more space is allocated to multi-modal options, the issue of scooters taking up sidewalk space will be both a problem and a rallying point for denizens against anything but cars. Indianapolis has both the street-space in its downtown streets and a newfound revenue source to pay for such improvements.

Typically, the lane width of downtown streets is between 10 and 15 feet wide. Many of these arterials, such as East, Delaware, and Ohio are nearly 70 feet across. Corralling one lane of traffic and simply adding a bollard can help to create that midspeed lane, giving enough space for scooters and bicycles alike. This would still leave three to four lanes of traffic on these roads, as well as an additional multi-modal option.

For instance, take this block of East St, just north of Washington, adjacent to the Artistry development.

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Look at all this space! The road is nearly 70 wide at this point, with four lanes of moving traffic. On a diagram, it sort of looks like this:

 

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By taking away one (just one!) of those lanes and adding bollards as a separator, East could look something like this, with scooters and bikers sharing a whopping ten feet of space together, rather than the 3 to 5 usually relegated for bike lanes. This isn’t even so militant either, as by giving the midspeed lane only ten feet, we still leave the street with 40. A more extreme option would be taking away two lanes of traffic, although that is probably not politically feasible.

 

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Thanks to Streetmix.net for the neat interactive renderings!

 

As former NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan argues in her book, Streetfight, it does not take much to transform a street from a strictly automobile-centric thoroughfare into an equitable street for everyone. As featured in Streetfight, the picture below shows just how much room a lane of reclaimed street can leave for people. All with bollards! This did not take a huge upfront costs of infrastructure construction! This can be done with Jersey barriers if need be.

 

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From Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan

 

If L.A. can do it, then Indy can. Imagine that image on aforementioned East St. except, instead of restaurant seating and umbrellas, there is a lane and sidewalk with adequate space for scooters, bikers, pedestrians, mothers, wheelchairs, etc alike between them.  Regardless of their mode of transit, there is room for everyone.

Once given the right amount of space on the street, travelers on scooters will cease being a hindrance to sidewalk pedestrians, as they will have the option of safety away from the sidewalk. Because, let’s be real: the only reason scooter users cling to sidewalks is because they are afraid of those two-thousand pound death machines flying past at 40 mph.

As for what this could look like, one option would be to take a cue from Amsterdam and build simple buffered lanes from reclaimed auto space. There is plenty of space on one-way arterials downtown to remove a traffic lane and do something similar to what’s below.

 

Amsterdam’s infrastructure does not need to be a pipe dream

In this example, there is plenty of space for both bikes, scooters, and e-bikes. That reclaimed lane of traffic can now hold far many more people than if it were solely for cars.

The important thing is the buffer. Without a feeling of safety, bikers and recreational scooter riders will not use these lanes. There must be something to differentiate the multi-modal lane from other lanes of traffic. One option presented has been bollards, although planters, Jersey barriers, etc could work just as well. Without the protection from traffic, scooters and skateboarders, et al. end up right back on the sidewalk.

To maintain affordability, Indy could use cheaper buffers such as delineators and, instead of laying costly brick, the city could paint the reclaimed lanes a different color, such as a vibrant red or green. If the scooter money comes anything close to the estimates, building midspeed multi-modal lanes like this should be entirely possible, and probably more effective than traditional bike lanes.

So, a “scooter” lane really just looks like a bike lane …if the bike lane was much wider, delineated, and more prominent. To insist that scooters and bikes can share three feet of painted space is hardly a solution, nor should it be. Sharing is caring, but to share, we must insist on creating and installing more space for differing forms of mobility. A lane such as the ones presented above would create a safer, more accessible street for all. But to call that a bike lane would be a misnomer, as it would really be a multi-modal street lane catering to various forms of transport.

Midspeed, multi-modal lanes that are wide enough to create a feeling of safety for bicyclists and scooterists can incubate and stimulate interest in transit options that are not the automobile. By ensuring equitable streets for all forms of transit, Indianapolis can produce safer, less polluted, more productive streets that allow anyone to have a share of the road. By reclaiming streets for the people, the city could increase reliance on transit and non-automobile options just by making it slightly harder to drive. If Indy is serious about encouraging walking/biking/transit, then it is not enough to just build rapid transit and encourage density. We must make it harder to drive and take away space from cars.

A good start is addressing the fact that scooters are not allowed on the Cultural Trail – this despite going nearly the same speed as bikes. If scooters do not have infrastructure in place, they will not thrive. As many of those riders would be taking an Uber/Lyft or driving a personal vehicle otherwise, Indy must do its best to encourage multi-modal options.

But – if the Cultural Trail rule regulation does continue to stay in place, then Indy has to provide appropriate infrastructure for other modes of transport to get around.

Regular bike lanes won’t cut it. Midspeed lanes created by bollarding lanes of traffic downtown will. Time and time again, cities that have taken space away from cars and given it back to pedestrians and other forms of transport have found huge benefit – from Medellin, Columbia to New York City to Copenhagen.

Yeah, I guess it’s outrageous to think Indy can build or maintain Amsterdam-style cycle tracks. But it was crazy to suggest the Cultural Trail would become reality, too. It would not require massive amounts of construction, and the city already owns the land needed.  We have already seen that no one is missing the traffic lanes used for the Cultural Trail. And if they are, their headaches may be soothed by the over $1 billion of investment along it.

Indy already took a risk by investing in the Cultural Trail – one that paid off handsomely. The city could move even further ahead of the curve by creating a network of downtown streets that cater not only to cars – but exist for pedestrians, scooters, and bikes

Much like asking if a cheesecake is a cake or a pie, the question of where scooters belong might not be so simple. Like the genus of cheesecake, the answer may just require creating a whole new thing.

© Jeffery Tompkins 2018

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