The Strong Towns Podcast

E-Scooters and Who Takes Up Space in Cities

August 2, 2018

A long-time volunteer and contributor to Strong Towns, Andrew Burleson is a software engineer and project manager in San Francisco, California. He currently serves on the Board of Strong Towns. Andrew has been a key advocate for the transition of the group from an engineering-centric blog to a broader movement-building organization.

Today, Andrew joins Chuck Marohn on the podcast to discuss the 2018 trend sweeping many of America's major and somewhat-less-major cities: electric scooters.

Andrew tells Chuck about his experience with the rollout of a fleet of rentable, dockless, drop-off-anywhere scooters in San Francisco—before the city instituted a moratorium on the fledgling transportation revolution—and his conversion from skeptic ("It's not for me. I'm a grown-up; I bicycle. Scooters are a kid's thing.") to fan ("The low learning curve really is real. Just about anyone can do it.").

San Francisco is in an unusual place among North American cities: it has "hit the parking ceiling." The city has a highly compact, walkable development pattern, but mobility issues for its residents center around limited space: space on packed trains, and space on the city's streets. Virtually "every inch of San Francisco that's not a building is a parking space," says Burleson.

And yet, a dramatic expansion of the city and region's rapid transit offerings, to create a truly universal alternative to driving, is not in the cards. The Bay Area lacks the resources or the political will to build out subway lines that have been proposed over the years. What it can do is think differently about how urban space is allocated, and maybe teach other cities a lesson or two in the process.

Cars take up a tremendous amount of space. Cars parked, or looking for parking, or waiting to drop someone off, are a major cause of urban congestion. The result, in a city like SF, is that the fastest way to get across town, for those able-bodied enough to do it, has long been bicycling. Bicycles can "fit through the gaps" while cars sit at congested intersections.

Scooters, were they to become widespread, could dramatically expand a constituency that now consists mostly of cyclists: those interested in reconsidering how much space on our public streets should be dedicated to car drivers versus other users.

Listen to the whole thing to hear Chuck and Andrew discuss these issues as well as:

  • Are scooters a form of "clutter" in the cities where they've been rolled out?
  • What cultural norms govern the way we perceive scooters versus parked cars, and will those evolve?
  • Are people comfortable with the hierarchy of urban street space now, or is there tension?
  • How profitable is the e-scooter industry?
  • Why are cities seeking to ban or restrict the proliferation of e-scooters?
  • What is the future of scooters in our cities, given the current regulatory backlash?
  • How could scooters affect other aspects of our development pattern, including the political acceptability of Missing Middle housing?