Miles Stephenson: Let the Bird fly

Thursday, October 18, 2018 - 6:46pm

When I arrived at the University of Michigan at the beginning of freshman year, my friends and I discovered Bird electric scooters on the Diag. I’d never ridden e-scooters since they had not yet made it to my native New York City, where Citi Bike and Uber reign supreme. “Pick up and drop off anywhere,” the app promised, for only 15 cents per minute. We took them for a spin. Soon we were hooked. We used Bird to get to class on time, explore the Ann Arbor downtown scene and visit friends on North Campus, all for only a dollar or two a ride. Birds solved the busy student’s central problem: how to quickly get to a destination that is beyond a walk for a low cost. We kept saying to ourselves, “Why hadn’t somebody come up with this years ago?”

After weeks of Birds popping up everywhere in Ann Arbor, the city began confiscating them off the street. Riders had driven Birds on sidewalks in violation of ordinances and left them parked in the street. Then, in September, the city of Ann Arbor talked about limiting Birds further. In an instant, it seemed the app that had given us inexpensive freedom and utility for weeks was now the vice of delinquent troublemakers. I set out to better understand the Bird: What are the dangers? Do e-scooters bring more benefit than harm to Ann Arbor? What I found is that Bird is the future of transportation for students at the University of Michigan.

First, financially, Birds are for everyone. It is possibly the most egalitarian transportation available on campus. College is expensive and an Uber or Lyft comes with set minimum fees and a calculated route that can add cost. It’s hard to take an Uber anywhere on campus for less than $7. Bird offers point A to point B transportation for a dollar to start and only 15 cents per minute! You can get from the Hill Neighborhood to the Diag for slightly more than a dollar, and you’ll never miss that lecture again. Furthermore, Birds are far less expensive than bicycles. An average “lifestyle” bicycle is priced upwards of $250, and more specialized mountain bikes go for $2,000 and more. In addition, you have to account for maintenance, repair and a bike lock or two. During Welcome Week, we’re told that one of the most frequently stolen items on campus is a bicycle. So, for the hundreds of dollars you’d need to sink into a bike and accessories, you could just take Birds for the semester. 

Second, Birds are one of the most environmentally friendly transportation services on campus. The watts of electricity used by a Bird is nominal, so even if the energy is originally created by a fossil-fuel-burning power plant, the environmental harm is negligible. As electric generation in the state of Michigan gradually transitions to natural gas, solar and wind, the environmental argument for Birds becomes more compelling. E-scooters can also persuade people to use public transportation because most scooter trips are in the last mile of transit, that one to two-mile gap from the station to the final destination.

Third, Bird’s e-scooters are the most consumer-oriented transportation choice. You pay only for what you want and for as long as you want it. Birds don’t have a waiting period of upwards of seven minutes which typical for an Uber, taxi or bus. Just scan it with your phone and go. Birds take you exactly where you want to go, right to the front door. Because of the à la carte nature of Birds, there is no obligation to maintain or lock it up when you’re finished. Just park it on the sidewalk, out of the way of pedestrian traffic, and go about your day.

But what are the downsides of these e-scooters? The most frequently cited concern is the potential for accident and death. Major city newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times, report alarming upticks in e-scooter-related hospital visits, from scrapes and bruises to severe head injuries. As Bird and Lime, two dominant e-scooter providers, both launched their multi-city expansions in 2017, reliable statistics for these incidents have not yet been compiled. For the meantime, all we have to go on are anecdotal, often alarmist, news reports of e-scooter accidents and fatalities.

Since their launches in two dozen cities over a year ago, Bird reports approximately 10.5 million rides and Lime reports 11 million rides. From the combined companies’ recorded deaths involving their rideables, e-scooter usage involves approximately one death for every 10.75 million rides. By comparison, bicycles appear to be quite dangerous and expensive from a health care perspective, and yet remain a celebrated mode of transportation. The medical journal Injury Prevention at the University of California, San Francisco recently reported there were 3.8 million bicycle accidents and 9,839 deaths in the U.S. from 1997 to 2013. In 2016, there were approximately 470,000 bicycle accidents and 840 deaths in the U.S. The majority of those deaths (30 percent) were caused by being struck by an automobile and the next largest statistic (20 percent) involved bicycle riders not paying attention or suffering rider error. The majority of bicycle fatalities (58 percent) do not occur at intersection locations and only 4 percent occurred in bike lanes. The time period of 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. had the highest frequency of bike fatalities (26 percent) and alcohol involvement (BAC of .01) was reported in 35 percent of the crashes that resulted in bicycle fatalities. Despite these rather gruesome statistics, there is no local or national call to eliminate bicycles in our country. Virtually all of the responses to the dangers of bicycle use propose the imposition of stricter safety regulations, changing user habits or improving transportation laws and infrastructure. Apply these precautions to Bird and you’ll make them just as safe as bicycles.

Similarly, the approach by the University and the city to the arrival of the e-scooter should be to find ways to encourage e-scooter usage, admittedly with improved safety and security. The University and the city government should encourage a scenario in which e-scooter companies like Bird unite with bicycle manufacturers to advocate for a shared solution. As scooters operate at much slower speeds than bicycles, the use of scooters on sidewalks should be evaluated. Electric rideables should be allowed wherever bicycles are legal, like bike lanes and protected paths. The statistics from decades of bicycle data should be used to craft sensible policy that recognizes the brilliant potential of an electric scooter future in Ann Arbor.

 

Miles Stephenson can be reached at mvsteph@umich.edu.

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