Portland riders say they’re skipping cars, thanks to electric scooters

Electric scooter companies are known to brag about their potential to reshape cities by reducing car congestion and pollution. Today, the city of Portland, Oregon, released a trove of data that backs up some of those claims.

The data, released by the city’s Bureau of Transportation, offers some of the most detailed analyses of the impact that e-scooter services have had on a city. During a four-month pilot period, Portland residents took 700,369 trips covering 801,887 miles on 2,043 e-scooters. Trip data analysis and survey data revealed more about ridership trends.

In a citywide poll conducted by DHM Research for the city, 62 percent of all Portlanders viewed e-scooters positively at the end of the pilot. Support was even higher among Portlanders under 35 (71 percent), from people of color (74 percent), and those with incomes below $30,000 (66 percent).

Moreover, a significant share of residents said they were using e-scooters to replace car trips: 34 percent of Portland riders and 48 percent of visitors took an e-scooter instead of driving a personal car or using Uber, Lyft, or a taxi. To be sure, scooters haven’t led to a wave of car owners flinging their keys into Willamette River: only 6 percent of users reported getting rid of a car because of e-scooters and another 16 percent considered it.

Scooter-related injuries rose during the pilot period, but most injuries seen by emergency rooms across Multnomah County “were not severe enough to warrant emergency transport,” the transportation bureau said. E-scooter injury visits accounted for about 5 percent of total traffic crash injury visits during the pilot period. The bureau additionally received 43 reports of collisions during the pilot period. In other words, injuries were a definite issue, but not nearly as bad as some initial reports seem to indicate.

While scooters were popular among low-income residents, the companies that operate them have done a poor job of complying with Portland’s equity rules. During the pilot, the city of Portland ordered each e-scooter company to locate at least 100 scooters in East Portland communities each day and to offer a low-income fare. But the scooter companies only enrolled 43 Portlanders in the low-income plan overall.

“While many East Portlanders and Black Portlanders expressed enthusiasm for e-scooters, some focus group participants also expressed an overall concern for traffic safety and the risk that Black e-scooter riders would be targeted for racial profiling and harassment,” the bureau reports.

The explosive growth of dockless scooters and their contentious reputation was the surprise transportation story of 2018. Bird and Lime are each worth an estimated $2 billion, and their popularity has given rise to over 30 scooter startups operating in an estimated 150 markets around the world. But as they head into year two, investors are losing interest while the business is growing increasingly expensive to operate.

Cities like Portland and San Francisco are requiring the startups to operate under strict rules, which often includes pilot programs that limit the number of scooters each company is allowed to operate. They are also requiring the scooter companies to supply them with data, which should provide a more complete picture of the scooter phenomenon as cities crunch the numbers. For example, the impact of scooters in Portland may not be applicable to cities with more robust public transportation, like San Francisco.

When the pilot ended in November, Portland cleared all of the scooters off the street as it analyzed the data. The city says it intends to conduct a second pilot in 2019 in order to gather more data, but scooter companies are bristling at the prospect of cities continuing to restrict their growth under these programs.

“That is not letting the market determine how many scooters should be anywhere,” Gabriel Scheer, Lime’s director of strategic development, told The New York Times. “How do you unfetter us in a way that allows us to meet demand?”

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