Urge to Be heard

Scooters: What are we waiting for?


Across the world, cities are doubling down on active transportation. Spurred by an unprecedented public health crisis, we’re seeing what was once incremental, hard-fought change happen in a matter of weeks. Protected lanes for bikes and scooters and pedestrian spaces are popping up from Milan to Minneapolis.

New York City is being more cautious, but it’s finally responding to the overwhelming chorus of residents demanding more space to socially distance. Bit by bit, it is starting to repurpose its under-used streets for people. The Open Streets program is reallocating more than 100 miles of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. There is still more work to be done to welcome micromobility. Shared, small, light-weight electric vehicles have been a boon to cities around the world, whose essential workers are now fearful of public transit and ride-sharing. An optimal post-COVID recovery won’t be one where residents trade subways and buses for cars, it will be with the support of bikes and scooters, especially ones with an electric boost to support commuting. As a result of the crisis, the U.K. has moved its plans for micromobility forward a full year and hopes to launch services in June.

Try driving on the Belt Parkway or BQE and you will quickly find that New York is already seeing the early return of cars to its streets, despite the fact that Gov. Cuomo’s “New York on Pause” is still in effect. As city and state orders begin to lift, traffic volumes could quickly overwhelm city streets if necessary steps aren’t put in place today. As a Vanderbilt University study found, New York City, already severely congested, is one of the most at-risk cities when it comes to a looming congestion crisis, with the potential mass mode-shift to cars adding up to nearly 20 minutes on a one way commute.

The costs of this carmaggedon could be catastrophic. We already know that communities with higher levels of pollution are more susceptible to COVID. In New York, these communities are lower-income communities of color. A congestion crisis means more cars on the Cross Bronx, BQE, Belt Parkway, the Grand Central Parkway and the Bruckner Expressway — the same roads that have spewed pollutants into these very neighborhoods.

Beyond the acute burdens on these communities, the looming congestion crisis will also stymie New York’s economic recovery. According to data from a 2018 study conducted by the Partnership for NYC, pre-COVID congestion levels in the New York Metro area cost the region $20 billion annually. For individuals with the worst commutes, the personal costs reached up to $1,900 per year. A post-COVID New York, where transit riders retreat to cars, would send these costs soaring far higher.

In a city where 51% of car trips are under three miles, there’s tremendous potential to replace them with micromobility transportation options. Citi Bike already proved that New Yorkers are eager to adopt new ways of getting around, but the 20,000 bikes, largely centered in Manhattan, and western Queens and Brooklyn, aren’t able to absorb the millions of transit riders now looking to travel in a more socially distant way. Nimble, free-floating scooter fleets can help.

It’s clear we have to start taking action now to avoid the bleak future just months away. One of the quickest, easiest and tax-free ways to address this is putting all socially-distant transportation options on the table. Earlier this year, Cuomo and the Legislature opened the door for localities to implement e-scooter programs. It is now up to cities to codify this policy into their laws and fully legalize this form of micromobility.

We are pleased that a veto-proof majority of City Council members are co-sponsoring Fernando Cabrera’s bill to create a pilot program for shared e-scooters. It’s time for the de Blasio administration to support this legislation. Our city can’t afford not to have all the clean transportation options available as we ride out of this crisis.

Tighe is president of the New York League of Conservation