Sometimes, you just need a good chat on the bus to get a good idea. That’s what happened to the two Portland transit gurus, Sarah Iannarone and Jarrett Walker, when they met on the Oregon city’s 10 bus this Tuesday.
“Jarrett’s my neighbor, but he’s not all small talk,” says Iannarone, who is the associate director of First Stop Portland, an urban sustainability training program at Portland State University. She and Walker, a well-known transit consultant (and occasional CityLab contributor), got to talking about road space—you know, as neighbors do. “If we have a couple minutes, we use that to our advantage.”
The topic of the day: How to categorize and capitalize on the swarm of e-scooters that had just showed up in Portland this July. The rentable conveyances have stormed cities nationwide this summer, joining a whole host of other little vehicles that are blurring the once well-defined lines between motorized and non-motorized road users. Did they belong on roads, or bike lanes, or sidewalks? And does this scooter invasion represent a chance to reframe the distinction between these kinds of spaces? “That’s where Jarrett and I were thinking—where are the opportunities in this?” says Iannarone. “What if you had to start from scratch today with the infrastructure and you didn’t have preconceived notions, especially in downtowns in urban centers as a blank canvas. How would we carve this out?”
So after their conversation, Iannarone ran to her office whiteboard.
Bumped into @humantransit on the #10 bus this am, so of course we started brainstorming ways the “scooter revolution” can help us rethink urban space.
— sarah iannarone (@sarahforpdx) August 21, 2018
The two urbanists came up with pretty simple way to sort out how to allocate space, creating a few categories designating a few different vehicles based on three different speed ranges and wide, mid-width, and narrow lanes. It’s a way of rethinking how planners in the U.S. especially have allowed different modes to share the road when they don’t really fit together.
“We were working out what kinds of modes should be mixing and how much space you’ll need,” she says. “If you’re a faster vehicle, like a car or a faster cyclist, you need more wiggle room. But a slower lane with scooters, more mellow-paced cyclists, skateboarders, and even joggers could share a whole auto lane.” She floats the idea of animals as a designation for lane designation color-scheme: gold-and-black for the fast cheetah lane, green for the tortoises in the slow lane. (No answer yet for the mid-speed lane. “You can’t use zebra stripes.”)
As Walker writes on his blog, Human Transit, he wants to think out loud about whether we should redefine our idea of bike lanes, both to build a bigger tent to include new forms of mobility and to get around the typical War on Cars rhetoric.
All this came up because I was trying to think of the correct new term for “bike lane” as we proliferate more vehicle types that run more or less at the speed and width of bicycles but are clearly not bicycles, such as electric scooters. The two logical terms seem to be narrow lane or midspeed lane. One way or another the two concepts will need to track with each other.
I wonder if this kind of language can make our sense of the role of these lanes more flexible, and thus less divisive.
Iannonrone also asked people on Twitter how we might define an all-inclusive term for this kind of travel. “What do you want to call this stuff? It’s not quite active transportation, not microtransit,” Iannnarone says. “I liked suggestions like ‘low-impact transport’ and ‘light individual transport’ because it can get an acronym: LIT.”
With scooters collapsing the distinctions that divide drivers, bikers, and pedestrians, she sees an opportunity to “ride that wave into government,” she says. “People love these things, so let’s make space from them.”
One key to this approach: building a bigger constituency for urban road and sidewalk space. “We have to think about the allocation of urban space and how we’ve had to fight for modes since the automobile era,” she says. “Retrofitting that space for modes other than auto has been a slog, and a lot of that has been because they haven’t had the numbers. Cyclists haven’t had critical mass to politically demand a fair allocation of urban space. It’s not just a matter of being fair numerically, but also fair from a safety perspective, so that the people that are engaging in other modes besides driving don’t have their lives threatened.”
Another new thing about these modes is the bottom-up nature of the changes that users of private transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft (both of which are leaping into the bikesharing and e-scooter markets) impose on the city. “These mobility options are from private companies that are decentralized—they don’t have strong ties to place,” says Iannnarone. But much like TNCs, an overnight supply of e-scooters presents an option people hadn’t thought about which provides a better chance to shift habits compared to other consumer-driven mode choices. “I’m making a choice to take transit, ride my bicycle, or buy a car. But [scooters are] dropped in on us.”
Just as ride-hailing-related traffic patterns have have scrambled the once-predictable demand for curb space and drop-off lanes, the arrival of scooters and other low-speed mini-vehicles has exposed new questions about why and where we separate road users. While that makes things tricky for planners, it does open up the space where action on redesigning streets is possible, especially as safety challenges on the road spill into sidewalks. “I’m a pretty confident bike rider but pop onto the sidewalk because there’s no room for me given urban congestion,” she says. “I don’t really think scooter people want to be on sidewalks, either. Sidewalks are slower, there’s a lot more obstacles going to impede their ability to enjoy and be efficient with their ride. They’re doing it so they don’t die. And when people are making [the wrong] choices so they don’t die, we’re not doing something right.”
The opportunity, she adds, doesn’t necessarily mean making more specialized lanes, or even rebranding the existing ones. It could just be opening a conversation about using road space in distinctly non-American ways—think superblocks, shared woonerf-style streets, and pedestrian-friendly space. “We could cut up streets to make safer allocations of space. What would it look like to have a grid across the street that was just for individual mobility? Think about we could save money doing that instead of fighting to take away parking or build new curbs.”
Ultimately, the LIT revolution may be a chance to reconsider why roads have been built the way they have by providing an alternative to the ideology of the car—one that appeals to bigger, broader constituency than the hardcore cyclists and safety advocates who’ve traditionally led the battle against car-centric planning.
“It’s an interesting conundrum. We talk a lot of times about automobile dominance as an ideology, but it’s just a habit too,” Iannorane says. And just about any habit can be broken.