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April 2022 - Episode 3

Sidewalk Riding II: Micromobility & Persons with Disabilities

Charles T. Brown:
In 2019, the city of Portland pulled more than 50 electric scooters from the bottom of the Willamette River. According to some, these scooters had suddenly appeared in cities across the country without much local regulation or information to explain how they worked. New riders sped down footpaths meant for pedestrians, with many claiming they were unaware that they were supposed to stay in the street or use a bike lane. They often parked in the middle of the sidewalk creating a dangerous barrier for all pedestrians, but specifically persons with disabilities. Portlanders and residents of cities elsewhere around the country became frustrated by these behaviors and it perceived lack of clear guidelines from the city. They took matters into their own hands and started dumping e-scooters into the river. It’s up to you whether you think this action was justified.

Electric scooters belong to a growing mode of transportation called micromobility. micromobility devices include bicycles, e-bikes, electric scooters, electric skateboards, shared bicycles, and electric pedal assisted bicycles. You may have seen these in your city. Some popular bike share programs include Citi Bike in New York and Divvy Bike in Chicago. Lime and Bird are two of the largest e-scooter companies. Many of these programs are dockless, which mean they don’t need to be returned to a central hub at the end of a ride. Although micromobility continues to be a work in progress, micromobility vehicles can serve an important role in transportation equity. Consider a situation where a person has to get to their job far away from home. They don’t own a car. Maybe they got their bicycle stolen and they don’t have the funds to replace it. They can take a bus or a train, but they might have to walk a long way to or from the bus stop. Or they may not even have a safe path to or from that bus stop. We call that the first or last mile problem. And micromobility provides a safe and affordable solution.

Many transportation experts want to increase adoption of micromobility infrastructure in underserved under-resourced neighborhoods. But in the last episode, we talked about how sidewalk riding laws are used as a tool of oppression against Black and brown cyclists. And the same is true for people learning to use shared micromobility systems. Now, the question becomes how to expand micromobility while protecting all community members. That means people on their way to work, people with disabilities, children, seniors, and everyone else who is trying to exist in public space. Sidewalk riding laws are just one way that Black Americans have had their mobility arrested. Today we’re breaking out the tension on the sidewalk between scooters, cyclists, and persons with disabilities. I’m Charles T. Brown and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us.

In 2017, electric scooters popped up overnight in cities across the country. Today, most people have become used to their presence on the street, but sidewalk riding is an ongoing concern for cities and micromobility companies. I spoke to Ashley Scott on this point. She’s the head of global policy at Lime.

Ashley Scott:
My name is Ashley Scott. I am the head of policy at Lime, which is the largest shared electric vehicle company where our mission is to make transportation more sustainable, more affordable, and most importantly, make sure that it’s shared. I have been with Lime, wow, almost four years now, so I consider myself a golden girl of dockless shared micromobility.

Charles T. Brown:
Thank you, Ashley. So we’re here to talk about sidewalk riding. Why is sidewalk riding laws such a hot topic for micromobility companies?

Ashley Scott:
Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting place that we’re in now with micromobility. Just stepping back a bit, before it was about creating these micromobility programs, and when I say micromobility, I mean shared bikes, shared e-bikes, shared scooters within the public right of way. And traditionally it would be private actors that were generally subsidized by cities or municipalities to create dock systems. But in 2017, you see companies like Lime where we are bringing these dockless micromobility systems to cities. And with that, the biggest question was, well, how do we regulate this? Where should these vehicles go? How many should there be? Should we start a program? No one has explained how this should work, how you should use this, how you should interact with this, why these new bikes and scooters that are not tethered to anything are popping up in neighborhoods, and how should I interact with this new vehicle in this ecosystem?

Now, we’ve gotten here where there’s a bit more normalcy of having a dockless micromobility program in a city. And so now the question becomes how can we create rider norms? How can we make sure that our riders or riders of dockless shared micromobility have good etiquette? And so what we’re finding is that our technology is bringing in a lot of first time riders, a lot of people that are new to micromobility. We are really getting people to think about how do we shift my frame of reference of transportation, of solely considering the roadway to really thinking of the bike lane and share paths, the sidewalk as a primary tool of getting from point A to point B. But with that comes challenges. So what we’re seeing is that people are engaging in things like sidewalk riding, but I think what it leads to is a greater conversation about where does a rider feel safe to ride?

I’m brand new to using e-scooters. I’m brand new to using bikes. I am going to make a conscious decision as a rider, as a place where I feel more secure. And as you know, historically, states and cities have levied these sidewalk riding laws that prohibit users or cyclists both in shared economy or private cyclists from using the sidewalk. And so what we find are cities are asking us to, all right, detect when a rider is on a sidewalk and then we want you to levy a fine, or we want you to remove this rider from your platform if they are a repeat offender. So bringing an example of this, I am from South Florida. My family is from an historically Black area, south Florida called Liberty City and in that area there aren’t many consistent sidewalks but when there are, they usually are on busy cross sections of the street. So my natural inclination may be to ride on the sidewalk.

So if Lime then offers scooters in that area, and I, rider actually has been detected that I’ve been on a sidewalk two, three, four times and the city now wants to remove me from the platform, what you’re doing is causing a domino effect of victimizing low-income riders or riders that primarily traverse underserved areas that do not have protected bike lanes or shared paths to use. Or two, what you’re doing, which we’ve seen cities across the country do when it comes to parking tickets and low level traffic violations where you get these huge fines and then people get into arrears and then they end up either being jailed or being in this financial black hole, we’re now reproducing. Because if you ask us to produce a report of fines that we have to charge riders, if you are a higher income rider who lives in an area where there is bike lanes, the threat of getting a fine is not high.

If you are a lower income rider in an underserved area or a new rider who’s getting used to this form of technology and where you live does not have a lot of bike lane infrastructure, we are now levying a financial penalty on you. And so I think what’s happening is, is that cities are saying, “Okay, we get it.” Law enforcement is over-policing underserved communities and charging them under these low level offenses. But now what they are doing, and I don’t believe intentionally because they’re trying to keep a pulse on concerns from the disability rights community or a senior community, but they are now taking antiquated laws and enforcement and now privatizing it. And so we understand where cities are coming from, but we do want to raise an alarm that what we’re doing is repeating a cycle that we know does not work and does not speak to all of the factors in the ecosystem that contribute to people making these choices.

Charles T. Brown:
Cities are pushing for companies like Lime to develop technology that automatically detect sidewalk riding. They want Lime to fine riders or ban them from the platform. This is a form of private enforcement as opposed to intervention by a public police force. Even though this technology removes police from the equation, Ashley warns us that private enforcement still perpetuates systems of inequity. Whether it’s public or private, this is really about forcing responsibility on the rider, rather than fixing fundamental problems in our transportation infrastructure. One problem is that our streets are usually not designed thoughtfully for people with disabilities. Let’s talk to Steve Wright, who teaches at the University of Miami School of Architecture, along with his wife Heidi Johnson-Wright. Steve is an advocate for universal design, which is an approach to urban planning that aims to be inclusive of all people. That means all ages, races, incomes, modes of transportation, abilities and disabilities.

Steve Wright:
I’m Steve Wright. I’ve been a professional journalist almost 40 years. I’ve worked within urban design and town planning for more than half of that. I’ve had the very good fortune this semester to create and team teach a course on universal design at the University of Miami School of Architecture. My co-creator, my inspiration, my soulmate is Heidi Johnson-Wright. Heidi is an ADA coordinator and uses a wheelchair for mobility for her entire adult life.

Charles T. Brown:
So Steve, what is universal design and why is it important in the context of equity and inclusion?

Steve Wright:
Universal design transcends the ADA. It just literally is design that is comfortable, usable, flexible, durable for all. So used to be if you were blind, you went to a state school for the blind and were isolated. If you were deaf, there might’ve been one school in your entire state and you were taken away from your parents at age five. If you had a disability, you may have gone to a sheltered work stop even if you had a mind as brilliant as my wife. So it fits with the whole idea of equity and social justice because it removes the barriers that keep people away from jobs, from education, from living. And let me dovetail that less than 1% of all housing is move-in ready for a person who uses a wheelchair for mobility. And almost all of that is multifamily, even though seven out of 10 people live in single family housing in the United States.

So you do the numbers, it’s on a pinhead that a wheelchair user or walker user or crutch user can find housing. And the solution is, oh, pay 50,000 to upgrade it. Well, that’s an incredible social inequity as far as dollar bills. People with disabilities also according to the US Department of Labor, they’re the most underemployed and unemployed of any identifiable minority group. So redoing the built environment to make it easier to get to school, to get to park, to get to a better job, pretty much equalizes the social justice. Even my very conservative friends that don’t seem to have a social heart, I tell them, “Well, do you want to pay two to $400 a day to put my wife in a nursing home way before her time? She could have been sent to one at age 25. Or do you want her to be a taxpayer making a thousand dollars a week or better?”

Charles T. Brown:
Do you think cyclists and scooters should be allowed on sidewalks?

Steve Wright:
I’ll give you a yes and no. My wife has rheumatoid arthritis. A lot of people think if they see a person in a wheelchair, it’s a spinal cord injury. So her spine is fine, but she’s had almost every weightbearing joint in her body replaced. She’s had her hips replaced and revised three times. If a bicycle falls onto her at five miles an hour, she will be fused in a seating position the rest of her life. There’s so little structure of her hip. Or if a scooter goes around the corner hot dogging, instead of just getting to work or school, it could be a very serious injury to her. When there’s two scooters flopped over each other and she can’t depress the crosswalk button, that’s a problem. Or if she gets halfway across the street where maniacs are making right turns on red and et cetera, and sees a scooter in the bottom of the curb ramp, that’s a massacre.

That said, knowing that there are probably nine out of 10 streets you’re taking your life into your hands as a cyclist, I do want there to be room on that. Could we maybe come to a middle ground where it’s an interim and we lobby, we protest, we make such a strong case for infrastructure that’s humane and 50% for those that are not in cars and trucks, that we can have a very wide sidewalk and we can have a bike lane and we can have some sort of marked lane for the scooters, et cetera.

So I kind of give you a halfway answer, but the idea that this is weaponized, that if I hop up on the sidewalk for the last three blocks to get to the grocery because I’m a white male and 5’10” and able-bodied, it’s probably [inaudible 00:15:24] that the odds of me getting whistled or ticketed or screamed at is probably, I could probably do it a thousand times and not get anything. And the idea that a brown or Black person has maybe had a 50/50 chance of getting a ticket or being called over and read the riot act, that’s just disgusting. That’s not a world that I want to live in.

Charles T. Brown:
Steve has legitimate concerns about e-scooters and cyclists, endangering pedestrians with disabilities. He also sees that the streets and sidewalks are not safe enough for micromobility users. They face busy traffic and discriminatory policing. If we want everyone to be safe, we need to be thinking about the middle ground that Steve talks about. So what does the research say about interactions between cyclists, scooters and persons with disabilities? According to Prashant Venkataram from UC Davis, there are not a lot of academic studies to draw from, but we can still come up with some insights.

Prashant Venkataram:
Thank you for inviting me to this. It’s a real honor to be a part of it. My name is Prashant Venkataram. I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, also known as ITS Davis. My area of expertise is better understanding the challenges facing people with disabilities with respect to transportation in the United States. Any views that I express here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of ITS Davis or UC Davis as a whole.

Charles T. Brown:
Thank you, Prashant. Do you have personal concerns about cyclists and e-scooters endangering persons with disabilities on the sidewalk?

Prashant Venkataram:
It’s something that I thankfully haven’t really come across much as a pedestrian with a disability. I myself use a wheelchair and I almost exclusively stick to sidewalks on my wheelchair. Occasionally, if there is a protected bike lane that is well separated from the road and is sort of level with the sidewalk, I might occasionally choose to use the bike lane. Those are in places that I’m very familiar with where I know that the spaces are wide open and that cyclists are alert. I’ve never personally had any issues with those things and I’ve never really run into issues where someone on an e-scooter or a bike chose to come onto the sidewalk and where I felt that endangered my safety.

Charles T. Brown:
What does the research say about the hazards posed to people with disabilities by e-scooters and cyclists?

Prashant Venkataram:
In many cases these issues just have not been well studied. So any opinions that I give are going to be based on somewhat sparse research, anecdotal observations, which may emphasize certain issues perhaps to the exclusion of others and may not necessarily tell the full story. So I hope that can be kept in mind in the context of my answers. I haven’t seen much to suggest a concern about cyclists on sidewalks impeding the movement of people with disabilities acting as pedestrians on those sidewalks. And I haven’t seen that much strong evidence either to suggest a strong reason for concern about people using e-scooters posing a danger to pedestrians with disabilities while they’re moving. There are a couple of caveats, I guess, that I will put in with this. One is that there could be more of a concern with respect to e-scooters, especially from scooter sharing companies, mobility services, being left out on the sidewalks and those posing impediment to the mobility of pedestrians with disabilities who, unlike their counterparts without disabilities, often can’t easily get down and move the scooter out of the way.

At the same time even this has come under question to some degree about whether this is really a widespread phenomenon or whether it’s just a new phenomenon that we tend to take notice of more because it happens more than some other things that are actually more problematic and more dangerous but we’ve gotten more used to. For instance, research from Anne Brown and some of her colleagues looked at issues that people may face as pedestrians in a few different cities in the US admittedly in the summertime, looking into things like what could block the sidewalk, what problems exist with the sidewalk itself?

And again, their survey wasn’t comprehensive, but one of the things they did find was that much more often than e-scooters blocking the sidewalk was the of vehicles blocking sidewalks by jutting out of a driveway. And sure, a person without a disability may be relatively more easily able to move a scooter out of the sidewalk, but no one can move a vehicle out of the sidewalk without just driving it. And yet somehow we accept this as status quo just because it’s been such an issue for so much longer, whereas maybe even because some people can do something about it, scooters are somehow seen as more of an annoyance.

Charles T. Brown:
Think about it, when a parked car creates a barrier to pedestrians with disabilities, it’s often accepted as unavoidable. This is a key insight. Vehicles dominate most of the space on our streets and push micromobility riders to footpaths, but in many cities, vehicles can also get away with blocking our sidewalks. Clearly, the research community is not pushing to criminalize sidewalk riding. Ashley Scott, director policy at Lime has thoughts on where this pressure comes from.

Ashley Scott:
The World Health Organization or WHO has identified traffic injuries and fatalities as among the world’s five most important causes of a natural death. IHS, they’ve identified that in 2019, 6,205 pedestrians were killed in collisions with cars along with 843 cyclists. And so when we frame this, when we talk about sidewalk riding as a safety issue, we also have to remind ourselves that the greatest risk to a pedestrian or a cyclist or a e-scooter rider is actually a car. So not to deflect, but really putting into, I think there was a really great study that came out of Finland where they got about over a thousand responses, and of those thousand responses, they asked people in the last three years, have you experienced a severe injury or a collision as a pedestrian with a cyclist or how many were near misses? And so half of the respondents said that most of the time it was near misses. The fear that a collision was going to happen. Less than 1% of respondents actually had a collision between a pedestrian and a cyclist.

So that is a very long-winded way to say is that, I think cities believe there is a high risk of this type of collision that can cause injury and maybe fatality, but if you look at the numbers, the fear is a lot greater than what happens on the day-to-day basis. And you’re talking about Finland where there is a high use of the pedestrian right of way and a high number of cyclists as compared to fatality numbers where you actually get collisions between cyclists and pedestrians in cars. And so when you marry this together, I think cities are trying to really address the symptom of a greater disease, which is cyclists and micromobility users don’t have a uniform and consistent place where they can be.

As a pedestrian, I know I’m supposed to be on the sidewalk, but when you’re talking about equity areas that can be very shaky or underserved areas. As a car user, I am supposed to be on the roadway, but when you are a cyclist, an e-scooter user, you have to make a conscious decision about where’s the safest place for me to ride. And looking at the numbers many times from the perception of a rider, it can be the sidewalk because we see from the numbers that it can be so dangerous for cyclists to share the roadway with car users without protected lanes.

Charles T. Brown:
How do we decriminalize sidewalk riding? What are some strategies moving forward?

Ashley Scott:
Yeah. One, viewing sidewalk riding technology as a urban planning tool rather than an enforcement tool. Two, micromobility operators really doing a lot of the work that they’ve done to increase adoption in understanding how to properly park and education and so on and so forth, and applying that to behaviors like sidewalk riding or helmet use and so on and so forth. And lastly, it’s always continuing the conversation about infrastructure and advocating for more infrastructure. And we are in a very ripe time now with the infrastructure bill to start having those conversations because I think it was you or someone else that’s told me, you can see a city’s values based on its balance sheet and where it allocates money. And I think a solution is operators like us in the community to really be able to give the facts and data to cities to show micromobility is here to stay and the community is growing and it’s rising. Let’s make sure that’s reflected in how cities allocate money and resources to really accommodate that rising population.

Charles T. Brown:
Jay-Z said, “No one wins when the family feuds.” Somehow we’re all going to have to work together and recognize that our infrastructure is dominated by automobiles. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The first step is to figure out solutions for a peaceful coexistence between cyclists, e-scooters, and persons with disabilities. Let’s return to researcher Prashant Venkataram for some ideas. Let’s talk about solutions. What can we do to ensure that we lessen the potential interactions between cyclists, e-scooters, and persons with disabilities on our sidewalks?

Prashant Venkataram:
Yeah, that’s a great question. So acknowledging that resources across the city are, to some degree limited. Trying to make sure that underserved communities do in fact get sidewalks where they don’t exist and bike lanes where they don’t exist. Wider sidewalks to make room for protected bike lanes as well, to really make sure that these kinds of conflicts can be minimized. And there was one other point I wanted to make in that regard. I’d mentioned before that in some places where I feel very familiar with the area, I do feel comfortable riding on my wheelchair in a protected bike lane.

The legal status of that is actually also quite murky, and it depends very much on the particular locality. There’s very little predictability in that sense. So it would certainly help also to add local education about who can and can’t be using sidewalks and bike lanes in general, making sure that existing sidewalks and bike lanes are kept in a good state of repair and aren’t completely broken down, lighting. This would also help not only pedestrians, but also cyclists and drivers by making abundantly clear who’s on what part of the road or sidewalk or bike lane. This is especially in suburban areas, but even in many urban areas too, this is unfortunately quite lacking.

A lot of these issues about cycling and scootering as they relate to the interaction with pedestrians with disabilities do require further study. And with all of these, just like racial disparities in terms of enforcement of rules about biking on sidewalks and things like that can happen because of many different reasons. Just like that sort of systemic approach, I would also argue for a systemic consideration of transportation for people with disabilities, not just restricting to necessarily one or two different modes, but considering how problems with certain modes can lead people to choose other modes that may come with their own problems too. In terms of why that research hasn’t really been happening, it sort of brings that issue of lack of representation into a broader issue with the planning culture. One example of this is how the New York City subway has, I think only 25% of its subway stations accessible.

I don’t know if that’s fully accessible or accessible to any degree to people in wheelchairs because many of the stations have different platforms for different services, and some of the platforms may be accessible and others might not be within the same station. And having talked to people who have worked in public transit in New York City, their take on it is that it really is a cultural issue because even though Boston and Chicago, for instance, have had public transit systems that are as old as those of New York City and are cities that are just as dense in many areas as many parts of New York City, they have been able to do a much better job of making stations and trains and platforms accessible to people with disabilities. So you really just have to have people that care about it.

Charles T. Brown:
To what degree do the experiences differ from racialized minorities that are persons with disabilities?

Prashant Venkataram:
One significant area that I can think of right off the bat would be people who have cognitive or mental disabilities and may present behaviors even in public that sort of deviate from the norm. And we’ve already seen that in schools, white children who present these kinds of behaviors may be more likely to be referred to a specialist for treatment or some sort of therapy or something like that to be able to socialize more effectively given the conditions of the disability, and in any case, recognizing it as a mental, cognitive or intellectual disability. Whereas for a child of color, especially a Black or Latino child, that might be more likely, especially for a boy, might be more likely to be termed a problem behavior and treated punitively. And this is also something that certainly comes up when police officers may observe and decide to interact with the pedestrians as well.

Charles T. Brown:
In order to achieve true equity and transportation in urban planning, we need to consider every intersection of how people can have their mobility arrested. Enforcement of sidewalk riding laws opens the door to injustice and systemic inequity. We need decriminalization of these laws and better outreach to communities so they understand when and where they can ride safely. The only guaranteed solution is an overhaul of our sidewalks, bike lanes, and micromobility infrastructure for all people in every neighborhood. That means the cars and trucks have to make some room. I want to thank my guests, Ashley Scott, Steve Wright, and Prashant Venkataram. I appreciate your expertise and your time. For Arrested Mobility, I am Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on social media at ctbrown1911 on Twitter or using hashtag Arrested Mobility. To read the research we’ve discussed today, you’ll find all the links on our page for this episode at arrestedmobility.com. You can follow Arrested Mobility on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

Photo by Ranurte on Unsplash
Photo by Ranurte on Unsplash