The City of Boulder is currently determining whether or not to allow electric scooter companies to operate within the city. In May of this year, the council placed a moratorium on issuing business licenses for e-scooter companies. That expires in February 2020.
E-scooters are part of a category of transportation known as “micromobility”: light, human-powered or electric modes of transportation that “can occupy space alongside bicycles.” If e-scooters do become integrated into the city, they could promote the most commonly cited benefit of micromobility: a decrease in automobile trips.
Less automobile trips mean a reduction in both traffic-related deaths and greenhouse gas emissions. Traffic-related deaths in Colorado have increased by 40% since 2010 and in 2018 Boulder transportation emitted 735,000 tCO2e (metric tons of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in terms of global warming contribution).
The city imposed the moratorium on e-scooters to “explore whether we should adopt e-scooters and, if so, what potential regulations could look like that would guide responsible, safe and beneficial e-scooter operation in our city.” In May of this year, Senior Transportation Planner Dave ‘DK’ Kemp told the Daily Camera, “In the past, some e-scooter companies have deployed e-scooters without coordinating with local municipalities beforehand.”
The city is answering the e-scooter question in part through feedback gained both from live demos offered to University of Colorado Boulder students in September of this year and the almost-700 responses from a survey published by Be Heard Boulder.
What kinds of micromobility are already available in Boulder?
Boulder is widely recognized as a bike town. People For Bikes ranks Boulder as the best town for biking in the United States and the Travel Channel website ranks Boulder among the 13 best cycling cities in the U.S.
The most common form of micromobility in Boulder is biking, which accounts for about 6% of transportation within Boulder’s boundaries. In 2018, each household in Boulder had an average of 2.6 bikes.
In fact, Google employees in Boulder get paid to ride bikes.
Boulder B-cycle, a local non-profit bike-sharing service that provides shared bikes to Boulder residents, students, employees and visitors, has been operating in Boulder since May of 2011. Lauren Lambert, head of external affairs for the southwest region at Google, said that Google employees in Boulder are encouraged to log their methods of transportation and can earn up to $5 a day for logging sustainable methods.
Employees receive free annual Boulder B-cycle memberships. Bike maintenance stations are available on the Google campus, as well as main thoroughfares nearby.
“I use B-cycle pretty much every day myself,” Lambert said. “We’re really trying to make it accessible for folks.”
What are the benefits of micromobility?
The largest appeal of micromobility is its potential to displace automobile trips.
This displacement aids in the goals outlined in the City of Boulder’s Transportation Master Plan such as encouraging “the greater use of alternatives to reduce vehicle miles traveled.”
One of the motivators for decreasing automobile trips is traffic reduction. According to the plan, traffic deaths in Colorado have spiked 40% in the past nine years.
In an interview with the CU Independent, Kemp called automobile accidents in the United States a national epidemic, stating that there is an average of 40,000 deaths annually due to automobile accidents.
A reduction in automobile trips would also lessen greenhouse gas emissions, according to Kemp.
Google recently released data for Boulder for its new Environmental Insights Explorer. It shows that in 2018, Boulder emitted 735,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent contributors to global warming (tCO2e) in transportation emissions. Twelve percent of those emissions, or 89,500 tCO2e, were from trips taken within the boundaries of the city (in-boundary trips).
The Environmental Insights Explorer “certainly highlights that there is still a lot of driving occurring in Boulder … and therefore a lot of GHG emissions from the transportation sector,” said Alex Hyde-Wright, senior transportation planner for Boulder County.
Almost 84% of in-boundary trips in 2018 were taken by automobiles. When including in-boundary trips, inbound trips (entering into the city) and outbound trips (leaving the city), the percentage of trips taken by automobile increases to over 96%.
This percentage “suggests we still have a lot of work to do to reduce transportation emissions,” Hyde-Wright said.
“Our rider surveys always have indicated that about one-third of our trips replace vehicle trips,” said Sara Michaels of Boulder B-Cycle. “We endeavor to collocate with transit to provide a final mile option for commuters.”
A “final mile option” refers to the short distances that people travel to reach a desired location or mode of transportation, such as walking to a bus stop. By cooperating with transit in ways such as placing docks near bus-stops, citizens can more easily navigate the city without the use of a car.
What are the setbacks to micromobility?
Two potential setbacks of e-scooters in particular, as cited on the City of Boulder’s website, are safety and “disruptions to the public right-of-way,” or cluttered sidewalks.
Michaels said that the problem of clutter is largely limited to dockless bikes and scooters. Dockless micromobility companies do not have designated docks for users to station their bikes or scooters. Boulder B-cycle, on the other hand, has built designated docks around Boulder for bikes to be kept.
“Hub-based micromobility systems are proven to avoid many of the clutter and safety issues in cities when used and re-enforced appropriately,” Michaels said, adding that B-cycle hasn’t encountered issues of clutter for “8 years and running.”
As far as safety goes, Michaels says that “designating where people can ride and safe infrastructure are key.” At the beginning of 2019, Denver City Council passed a law designating e-scooters to bike lanes and low-speed roads instead of sidewalks, as they can reach up to 15 mph.
“There’s been a lot of hearsay of scooters and a lot of experiences people have had from other cities like Denver, and I don’t think that they’re getting a very positive impression,” Kemp said. “I think (citizens) might be translating that to what could happen in Boulder.”
This past June, Caitlin Jacobsen, a Boulder resident, was severely injured in an e-scooter crash near Coors Field in downtown Denver. The crash sent Jacobsen into a medically induced coma. She suffered “broken ribs, orbital fractures and other injuries,” according to the Daily Camera.
“We don’t know the details of the crash,” Kemp said. “People get in crashes all the time.”
Kemp added that it is “too soon to say” whether e-scooters are “inherently dangerous.”
Google and B-cycle have gotten the wheels turning on micromobility in Boulder. B-cycle recently added three new stations to the CU Boulder campus and made B-cycle annual memberships free for CU students and discounted for staff and faculty.
“Bike-sharing provides an eco-friendly, convenient and cost-effective way to connect to public transportation, run errands around town, de-stress and navigate Boulder without worrying about parking, locks or bike maintenance,” said a CU Boulder Today article. But Google and B-cycle can’t do it alone.
Late last year, Google executive Lauren Lambert said Google gave a presentation to the Boulder Transportation Commission on how it’s been incentivizing employees to use more sustainable forms of transportation.
In addition to further incentivizing the use of bicycles, “e-scooters might be part of a larger puzzle, or a larger toolbox, if you will, to get more people out of their cars and using other forms of transportation,” Kemp said.
Michaels believes that scooters have the potential to be a “viable transportation option” in tandem with bicycles.
“We definitely want to continue to encourage walking, and we want to encourage transit use, bus use, and we also want to obviously encourage bicycling,” Kemp continued. “If e-scooters can complement … all these other more sustainable modes of transportation, then that’s great.”
Contact CU Independent Senior News Editor Anna Haynes at email@example.com.