Why Aren’t More Women Riding Electric Scooters?

Bicycles, scooters, Segways, skateboards, and other foot- and battery-boosted “little vehicles” represent a diverse assortment of contraptions, but they’re united by one thing: They all draw significantly more men than women in major U.S. cities, according to new research published last month in Transport Findings.

That paints a consistent pattern with what local ridership studies of dockless electric scooter use in Portland and Austin have found. And the danger factor of micromobility appears to be the main barrier to adoption, both in terms of the vehicles themselves and the infrastructure they rely on. 

“Younger males are more willing to give up safety considerations on account of speed or quickness,” said Kevin Krizek, a professor of transportation at the University of Colorado Boulder who co-authored the new research. “That is somewhat of a reflection of the vehicle. But I’d venture to offer that it’s more about safety on the streets.”

To more broadly sketch out who’s using the types of devices that have recently proliferated in electric-powered, shared, dockless form, Krizek and Nancy McGuckin, an expert in travel behavior analysis, studied the most recent National Household Travel Survey, which offers a nationally representative sample of how tens of thousands of U.S. individuals got around on a given day. Although the dataset is small (compared to, say, the census), it’s considered the best indicator of who’s likely to use different transportation modes in the U.S., and what types of trips they’re likely to make with them.

Hence, in 2017, just a tiny number of little-vehicle trips were accounted for in this survey: 8,034 bicycle trips, 826 Segway/golf cart trips, and 503 trips where respondents said they’d used a scooter, skateboard, or similar device. For their purposes, Krizek and McGuckin bundled these mini-modes together, since they operate at roughly similar speeds, exist in the same netherworld of being both banned from sidewalks and out-of-place in vehicle traffic, and are under “heavy policy scrutiny” in the cities where they’re become abundant, they write.

One standout pattern: Men are twice as likely as women to say that they’d used a little vehicle for a trip. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, micromobility is most popular among youths under age 17 and adults in the (rather wide) 18-50 age demographic among adults. Krizek and McGuckin also observed that about 75 percent of these trips were shorter than 2.5 miles, while the median little vehicle trip length was 1.2 miles—creating a potential sweet spot for shifting the 25 percent of personal car trips that are less than 2 miles long to a tiny, zero-emission mode.

The data comes with many caveats, namely its small sample size and the fact that 2017 was at the very beginning of the wave of shared bikes and scooters that has been sweeping U.S. cities of late. It’s possible that rider demographics and use patterns have since shifted. But the trends that Krizek and McGuckin identify are fairly consistent with what more recent ridership studies have found in specific cities.

For example, in 2018 a summer-long dockless scooter pilot in Portland, Oregon, garnered more than 700,000 trips. Through a concurrent survey of riders, officials found a few promising signs about what the devices could do for traffic congestion and emissions. For example, 34 percent of riders said that they had switched over from a car to make their trip—encouraging news for micromobility proponents. But subsequent analysis by researchers at Portland State University discovered that only 34 percent of trips were made by women and gender non-conforming folks. Data from Austin, Texas, shows a similar split.

The reluctance of women and other groups to enter scooter-dom may be a barrier to the broad mode-shifts that little vehicles seem primed to deliver, Krizek said. And the main behavioral explanations are pretty well established, drawing from years of research into why only 24 percent of U.S. bike trips are made by women: It comes down to feeling less comfortable in risky traffic situations, and a matter of convenience.

Vehicle design might be part of the answer for overcoming the gap. In the traditional cycling world, advocates often suggest that public bikeshare systems—which allow riders to avoid the hassle of bicycle locking, maintenance, and storage (plus dealing with male-dominated bike shops)—can make cycling more accessible. And proponents of electric micromobility say that new vehicle formats and designs could help.

The stand-up e-scooters that have caused a stir in recent years, for example, are notoriously wobbly devices that require quick reflexes and a fair amount of physical fitness to maneuver. Horace Dediu, a mobility analyst and the founder of the Micromobility Conference, predicts that the shape and arrangement of electric-powered scooters in particular will evolve to accommodate a broader set of body types and comfort levels. Indeed, that’s already happening, with companies like Revel, Gotcha, and Bird offering mopeds, recumbent bikes, and trikes as shareable options. “The question is, are we going to converge towards a default form factor?” he asked.

Dediu predicts that electric mopeds might be the wave of the future, with their chunky tires, wide seats that fit two, and the fact that they require drivers’ licenses to use and operate with vehicle traffic, eliminating the neither-sidewalk-nor-street confusion of their skinnier, upright kin. They also have some built-in cargo space—a big advantage for riders lugging groceries, briefcases, and other carry-ons.

But there may be only so much you can do to make piloting a small, fragile machine feel safe when you are sharing roads with much larger vehicles. The fear factor keeping people away from little vehicles probably has less to do with the devices and more to do with the lack of fully separated and protected lanes to ride them in. Research has shown that the addition of protected bike lanes can add cyclists to the network, and bring in more women specifically.

As long as falling off a scooter or bike means landing beneath crushing vehicle traffic, Meg Merritt, a principal transportation consultant at the planning firm NelsonNygaard, is skeptical that any new designs can add much in the way of real safety.

“It’s a bit like putting your AirPods in a neck holder,” she said. “We need to go back to root of the problem: If you have the right infrastructure, you can try all kinds of cool things, and you will probably make them work.”

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Can Green License Plates Help Plug Electric Cars?

It could soon be much easier in Britain to recognize the cleanest cars on the road: green license plates. Stemming from a proposal released for consultation this week by the U.K. government’s Department for Transport, the special number plates would be reserved for ultra-low emission vehicles such as electric or hydrogen-powered cars, making them instantly visible on the road.

This should make it easier for civic authorities to give the greenest vehicles preferential treatment, such as allowing them to drive in bus lanes, use special parking spaces, or access areas that are barred to more polluting alternatives. Such spaces are expanding in Britain: London, for example, launched an Ultra Low Emission Zone in the central part of the city in April, which levies drivers of more-polluting vehicles a penalty charge of £80 ($103)—a cost that is doubled if not paid within two weeks—should they enter the controlled zone. In a new report, the city claims that pollution in this zone fell by more than a third in the six months since implementation began. The city plans to expand that zone further in 2021.

The special green plate is also designed to be a visibility campaign and an incentive program to speed the adoption of zero-emission vehicles. As Transport Secretary Chris Grayling put it on the government’s release on the subject: “Adding a green badge of honour to these new clean vehicles is a brilliant way of helping increase awareness of their growing popularity in the UK, and might just encourage people to think about how one could fit into their own travel routine.”

The concept isn’t exactly newdrivers of hybrid and electric vehicles in Ontario, Canada, for example, have been issued special green plates for the last decade. But the U.K. proposal goes a bit further than existing schemes in Europe. Paris has required cars to display a shield detailing its emissions grade since 2016, as a way of banning more polluting cars from entering the city. Many German cities have a similar system that bars cars without the right shield on the windshield from entering special environmental control zones. While these alert authorities to a vehicle’s emissions status, they don’t specifically identify electric cars, and remain relatively subtle markers.

Norway, however, has gone a step further, by prefixing all registration numbers for battery-powered cars with an “E” to make them instantly identifiable. That makes it easier to control access to EV-only spaces, such as special parking lots equipped with charging stations. The Nordic nation leads the world in electric-vehicle adoption, thanks to a remarkable suite of government programs and incentives.

Britain’s yet-more-visible green plates represent an effort to tap into that success story, and stoke more EV enthusiasm among the British motoring public. At present, most of the greenest vehicles don’t look much different from regular gas-burning cars. The government hopes that making other drivers more aware of EVs—and the enviable perks their drivers enjoy—will encourage buyers to consider switching to an e-vehicle themselves. Green plates might even become a form of chic signaling of a driver’s environmental conscience.

Britain is promoting EVs through other means already, of course, currently offering a £3,500 subsidy for all-electric vehicles (although possibly not for much longer), and has committed £70 million to doubling the existing number of charging points in the U.K.’s now-patchy network. Such infrastructure investments are vital if the government wants to meet its goal of phasing out all sales of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, a goal it is now considering bringing forward to 2035.

Still, the public remain as yet largely unconvinced by the new mode, with only one in four drivers saying they would consider buying an electric car in the next five years.

Some environmental activists have expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the license scheme. “If ministers really want to boost the take-up of electric vehicles” a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth told the Independent newspaper, “they should introduce more charging points and better financial incentives.”

Letting green-plated drivers use bus lanes and other forms of private electric-vehicle promotion might also accomplish little in the larger effort to rapidly transform a car-centric regime that plans to spend £30 billion on roads between 2020 and 2025. Regardless of the tailpipe emissions of the vehicles that use the roads, there are significant environmental costs to driving of any sort. (Even cars powered entirely by renewable energy produce, for example, particulate emissions from brake pads.) Giving EVs a green badge of virtue might help get more of them on the road, but if the ultimate goal is reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, it’s not going to be the only answer.

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