The Introduction of Micromobility and the Future of Portland Transportation

Photo by Lucian Alexe on Unsplash

Research Question: What Has the Introduction of Micromobility Revealed
about the Future of Portland Transportation?

Introduction

Imagine looking out your window, seeing the usual traffic backed up, angry drivers honking their horns in frustration, oversize trucks belching smoke into the air. Now imagine looking out your window and seeing a quiet yet vibrant “shared street” with people gliding by on a variety of small personal machines — traditional bicycles, e-bikes, e-scooters, electric skateboards, Onewheels — you name it. This is a future that’s attainable, that has been kicked into high gear by the introduction of micromobility. 

As a daily bicycle commuter, I find it frustrating this vision has not yet been realized. It’s important to me that we build a sustainable transportation future, it’s important to the City of Portland — and all of the world’s cities. The challenges we face in Portland: safety, connectedness, public health, equity, and climate change, are globally shared. What can our local governments do to quickly encourage a transportation shift?

In exploring this question, I focused my research on official documents from the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), with additional insights from scholarly sources. With this topic having major developments in just the last year, periodicals and online sources also have timely and relevant information.

While researching my question, I explored the lack of micromobility infrastructure, how car parking wastes vital public space, how bus-only lanes are a step in the right direction. As well as how sharing the street safely with different types of vehicles is possible at slower speeds. While investigating PBOT documents, I learned that with data from micromobilty you can now shape future infrastructure more accurately. The data generated from e-scooters also suggests the uncomfortability users feel when riding on streets next to high-speed motor vehicles. 

Does the name Lime, Bolt, or Bird ring a bell? These are the e-scooter companies that have been popping up recently. In Portland, transportation is changing, and it’s changing fast. With testing trial periods for e-scooters happening over the past two years, Portland’s ambitious goal to have 25 percent of all trips made by bike, or bike-similar vehicles, by 2035 may be more feasible. Begging the question: What has the introduction of micromobility revealed about the future of Portland transportation? 

This essay will analyze PBOT’s Transportation System Plan, micromobilty infrastructure, data from e-scooters and what it can provide, and other topics stemming from micromobilty. As well as new obstacles and problems, and the city’s response. By analyzing this topic, the conclusion to this question may shed light on the logic behind government policy and regulations. As well as emphasizing the need for thoughtful new transportation infrastructure development in Portland.

What Is Micromobility?

Micromobility is a term for a new class of minimal, efficient, active vehicles used for personal transportation. These “minimal conveyances” primarily include e-scooters and electric-assist bicycles, (Dediu). Micromobility is similar to bicycling and other forms of active-transportation, but with the addition of a small electric motor, traveling longer distances becomes more convenient and attractive. In Portland, e-scooters recently went through a pilot trial period to test out their functionality and effectiveness. The response was overwhelmingly positive. 

Micromobility-like vehicles have been around for a long time, scooters, bikes, and skateboards. But the addition of an electric motor now potentially removes reasons people had for not using them. Since e-scooters and bike share are rented, they remove high initial cost of purchase and burden of continual maintenance. Users do not risk theft and the hassle of locking them up securely. You can now enjoy the benefits of an empowering and fun ride without all the work. They combine the comfort of motor vehicles and the freedom of bicycles. They are convenient and integrate with other forms of transportation well — with a whole fleet available whenever and wherever, they are part of our multimodal future. Sharing these vehicles via an app or service removes the otherwise costly barrier to their use, and they are quickly becoming a common sight in Portland and cities around the world. More than just entertaining toys, micromobilty may be integral to helping Portland reach its ambitious future transportation goals.

Future Transportation Goals

Portland anticipates a continuous influx of new residents. Unlike most other cities, horizontal expansion is limited by an “urban growth boundary,” putting even more pressure on the existing networks as the city rapidly grows vertically. The current infrastructure is inadequate for the added demands placed on the current transportation system. “By 2035, if Portland continues to grow as expected and new residents continue to drive at current rates, the transportation system will fail,” (PBOT, Progress Report 22). Through the introduction of micromobility, the city is trying to encourage active transportation as an effective method for moving people around and  reaching its 2035 goals. These are goals that have to be met. “If in 2035, the percentage of people who drive alone to work remains the same as it is now (nearly 60 percent), traffic, carbon emissions, and household spending on vehicles and fuel will all worsen significantly. In order to accommodate this growth, our transportation system must provide Portlanders safer and more convenient ways to walk, bike, and take transit for more trips,” (PBOT, TSP 1). To help with this, PBOT made a detailed list of their future transportation policies to help restructure their priorities.

In the Portland 2035 Transportation System Plan (TSP), a comprehensive planning document from the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) detailing the city’s “20-year plan to guide transportation policies and investments,” there are broad outcomes identified that all transportation policy choices must produce: safety, connectedness, public health, equity, climate goals and mode-share targets.

Safety

Safety is a high priority when looking at future policies. It is an important component, often overlapping with the other transportation policy choices. Portland’s goal is to have zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries. “Working together, we will take equitable and data-driven actions that will eliminate deaths and serious injuries for all who share Portland streets by 2025,” (PBOT, Vision Zero 1). Despite this ambitious goal, there has been no significant decrease in the number of traffic fatalities over the 3 years since the plan was adopted, with 47 killed in 2019 compared to 42 killed in 2016, (Maus, “Fatality Tracker”; PBOT, Vision Zero Progress). Micromobility can play a large role in enhancing transportation safety, with max speed limits below 20 mph, the chances of fatal injuries are greatly diminished.

Connectedness

Micromobility helps us connect to people and get to places without the antisocial strings of pollution, climate change, or traffic attached. Micromobility can facilitate the establishment of an interconnected multimodal transportation system that can transport you anywhere in Portland, conveniently, and spontaneously; making it easier to connect with fellow inhabitants in the city  — creating myriad social and economic benefits.

Public Health

An emphasis on public health has been put onto future transportation decisions. E-scooters don’t emit harmful local pollutants. Most of our traveling consists of short distance trips, whether it be to the store, or to visit your friend a mile away. Anytime you have a choice between a car or micromobility, especially for short distance trips, PBOT emphasizes micromobility. Active transportation — walking, biking, and micro-mobilizing — are easy ways to integrate exercise into your existing daily routine. E-scooters might also provide an interesting mental benefit, a feeling of freedom and ability to make spontaneous choices, one that is often lost in cars.

Equity

Equity is a new but important component to PBOT’s future transportation policies. “At a recent event, PBOT Director Chris Warner remarked that equity was his agency’s “north star” (Maus, “A Decade In”). Equity is a critical component in city policies, having a multitude of voices and types of people is key to the success of projects — community feedback is important. Race and transportation are connected more now than ever before. “Race and mobility are intertwined because we designed segregation into our built environments and how we police them, and racial equity in the distribution of public money isn’t a metaphor or a goal you opt into; it’s a legal obligation, thanks to the civil rights movement,” (Lugo 190). 

With BikeTown (Portland’s bike share program), most of the docking stations are in central Portland, limiting access to the advantaged class who live “close-in” and are the least in need of subsidized transportation alternatives. Due to dockless e-scooters, previously excluded groups in Portland now have more access to options. Equity is a crucial component when planning, there’s no point in making affordable transportation options when the only people using them are the upper-middle class that can afford to live in central Portland. “…those who ride transit by choice are being favored over those who depend on transit; those who can afford to live in the gentrifying core of Portland have more transit opportunities than those who can only afford to live in the transit-poor periphery,” (Ariaga Cordero 104).

E-scooters allow for new connectivity of marginalized groups pushed to the outskirts of Portland. In areas that are difficult to walk in, and have little access to transit, where construction of new transit could advance gentrification with “rising rents resulting from the new rail infrastructure; which in turn negatively affects low-income residents, who may no longer be able to afford to live in these neighborhoods” (Ariaga Cordero 27), decentralized dockless micromobility offers a compelling solution. E-scooters offer a fair transportation option that’s viable for all classes, and the city recognizes that potential. “PBOT required companies to deploy at least 100 scooters or 20 percent of their fleet (whichever is less) in East Portland,” (PBOT, E-Scooter 28). Although this was a small attempt from the city to include underrepresented communities, it was a huge success. “East Portland has historically been underserved by the transportation system, and PBOT was interested in understanding the utility and value of e-scooters… 44,155 trips originated in East Portland during the pilot period,” (PBOT, E-Scooter 26). 

Climate

With PBOT setting challenging climate goals for 2035, e-scooters are seemingly a blessing. They are environmentally friendly and can dramatically help to“…reduce Portland’s transportation-related carbon emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels, at approximately 934,000 metric tons,” (PBOT, TSP Policy 9.49.g). We are currently in the midst of a climate crisis, and the City of Portland is not aligning with PBOT’s expectations. “Today nearly 60 percent of Portlanders drive alone to work. If that percentage were to hold steady through 2035, we would see unsustainably high levels of traffic congestion, pollution, and the share of household spending on things like fuel and vehicle expenses,” (PBOT, TSP). With climate change being a global issue, it is of the utmost importance we achieve our own goals first — thereby possibly serving as an example for other cities.

Mode-share

Mode-share is the amount of people using a specific type of transportation, often in a percentage format. Mode-share priorities and goals are outlined in the PBOT TSP document. While the TSP does not specifically refer to micromobility, this class of vehicles is generally grouped with traditional bicycles. Portland’s order of priorities for all future decisions regarding transportation are walking first, bicycling second, transit third, followed by everything else. By 2035, the city of Portland wants 7.5 percent of all transportation trips to be walking, 25 percent bicycling [and micromobility], 25 percent transit, 12.5 percent carpool, with single-occupant-vehicles at 30 percent or less, and 10 percent working from home, (PBOT, TSP Policy 9.49.f). New micromobility options can help Portland increase it’s bicycle mode-share from 7 percent now, to 25 percent in the next 15 years.

Future Is in Reach

Micromobilty has made these goals set by PBOT more realistic and achievable. Although the bar is high, micromobility is up to task. People are willing to explore new transportation methods, cars are not sustainable and transportation choices are in constant flux. “E-scooters have the potential to advance Portland’s transportation goals. This is one of this report’s key findings. This report demonstrates that as Portland grows and traffic congestion gets worse, e-scooters can move more people safely and efficiently in the same amount of space. This helps reduce reliance on automobiles and shift trips to an efficient, potentially less-polluting travel option,” (PBOT, E-Scooter 7). It seems as if micromobility is the perfect solution for all our problems and can help solve anything. But although micromobilty can help achieve Portland’s goals, there are obstacles in the way.

Bumps in the Road

Current Infrastructure Is Inadequate

The introduction of e-scooters has revealed the ever-growing importance of bike lanes. The current infrastructure was already inadequate. There are not enough quality bike lanes in the city, in the last ten years only 28 percent of Portland’s planned “world class” bike lanes have been funded or built, (Maus, “A Decade In”). When e-scooters were first introduced into Portland during the trial period, they gave the city new precision data about where users were riding. The scooter users instantly went to bike lanes and sidewalks as the primary route for travel, this was due to the uncomfortability of riding/being in the street with cars. “Throughout the city, sidewalk riding was lower along streets with lower speeds or designated bikeways. This clearly demonstrates how important it is to have protected facilities that minimize conflicts between pedestrians, e-scooters, and cars,” (PBOT, E-Scooter 7). The street is public space. If people feel uncomfortable just getting around town, that’s a sign that something isn’t right. The need for car-free infrastructure that micromobility can also use is more apparent now than ever before. 

E-scooters are a huge success among Portlanders, they are removing cars from the cluttered roads. “Thinking of their last e-scooter trip, 34 percent of Portlanders said they would have either driven a personal car (19 percent) or hailed a taxi, Uber or Lyft (15 percent) had e-scooters not been available.  Six percent of users reported getting rid of a car because of e-scooters and another 16 percent considered it,” (PBOT, E-Scooter 20). With the huge increase in new Portlanders, minimizing the amount of single-occupancy-vehicles on the road is of growing importance, the current car infrastructure has a limit. By improving infrastructure for micromobilty, you can encourage more people to try and/or make the switch. 

No Lanes for Micromobility

Without dedicated space for micromobility, e-scooter users will often use bike lanes. But in cases where there aren’t bike lanes, or they feel uncomfortable in the street — they choose sidewalks. “With speeds capped at 15 mph, scooters are appropriate for bike lanes or low-volume streets but they are too fast for use sidewalks,” (PBOT, E-Scooter). Relatively high speeds of motor-vehicles on streets creates an unsafe environment, often resulting in e-scooter users utilizing any bit of protected micromobility infrastructure they can find. “Users demonstrated a strong preference for bikeways and other protected infrastructure. In their absence, or on higher-speed streets, sidewalk riding increased,” (PBOT, E-Scooter 24). The sidewalk is for pedestrians, the streets are for vehicles. However, with cars going at speeds well above 20 mph on average, it is unsafe for e-scooter riders to share the street with them. So the question arises, where should they go? 

It’s unsafe for e-scooters to be mixing with traffic going faster than them. “The average risk of death for a pedestrian [or e-scooter rider] reaches 10 percent at an impact speed of 23 mph, 25 percent at 32 mph, 50 percent at 42 mph, 75 percent at 50 mph, and 90 percent at 58 mph,” (Tefft 1). This is why you most often see e-scooter users in bike lanes, where they are most safe. So why aren’t there more bike lanes? There is a limited supply of precious road width in Portland, and much of it is filled with parked cars.

Limited Street Width, Particularly in Portland

With streets in Portland originally being smaller than most cities, Portland doesn’t have much to work with. The streets in the core of Portland were originally built for horse drawn carriages, then streetcars. There were not engineered for the personal automobile and especially not parked automobiles. Because of this, there is no extra room to work with, demonstrating something has to go. Something you will see lining every street is parked cars — cars take up oversized space when they are in use, as well as when they are parked.

Private Vehicle Storage Blocking Public Space

Along with outdated car prioritization comes car parking, and parked cars lining the streets of not just downtown streets, but every street. It’s a common sight, but what people often overlook is the space underneath. Parking takes the space where bike and micromobility lanes could be. “The best way to encourage active transportation is to stop subsidizing cars. One way to reduce the subsidies for cars is to charge fair market prices for on-street parking and remove off-street parking requirements.” (Shoup). It is a relatively new concept — seeing the curb as a valuable space, but it is one that Portland needs to recognize. Parked cars create a dead zone, a place that could be bustling with commuters or people getting around town.

Bus Only Lanes — Share with Micromobility

The City of Portland has recognized the value of curb space and is going full steam ahead on bus-only lanes, with many miles of lanes planned in the coming years.. These lanes will be off-limits to cars but available to bicycles and micromobility. By having an entirely separate lane, you increase the speed of buses as well as improving micromobility infrastructure. PBOT is calling them ‘rose lanes’ and has painted the first ‘rose’ in red paint on Southwest Main Street, between 1st and 2nd avenues in downtown Portland.

Sharing Streets Is Possible — at Slower Speeds

In cases where there aren’t bike lanes, micromobilty users have nowhere to go. They are not allowed on sidewalks, and in the streets, are slower than cars — it is unsafe. Without separated lanes, the speed of cars must be slowed to create a safer shared environment. PBOT realized this and started a campaign called 20 Is Plenty. 20 Is Plenty is an awareness campaign to reduce the speed limit on Portland residential streets. “Portland City Council approved an ordinance on January 17, 2018, reducing the speed limit on all residential streets to 20 miles per hour. The new speed limit took effect on April 1, 2018,” (PBOT, “Speed Limit”). The goal was to make Portland safer and ultimately reduce traffic fatalities. 20 Is Plenty is a part of Vision Zero which is a goal from the city of Portland to have zero traffic related deaths each year. A movement started by the ideology that any amount of traffic deaths are unacceptable. The city must bear responsibility for the outcomes of its systems.

Most of the city’s streets are residential, “[making] up around 70 percent of Portland’s street network and a large proportion of the city’s total public space. Reducing residential speeds is part of a broader citywide effort to support safe speeds on many types of streets,” (PBOT, “Speed Limit”). While adding bike lanes is a process that can take time and benefits principally cyclists, lowering speed limits is a way to make Portland safer overall — demonstrating that sharing streets safely is possible, as long as speeds are more equal. With this law change quickly accomplished, all that was needed was to spread the news. “In addition to updating speed limit signs, PBOT distributed more than 7,000 “20 is plenty” yard signs to raise awareness of the 20 mph residential speed limit,” (PBOT, “Speed Limit”).

Neoliberalism and the High Cost of Sharing

While e-scooters are a valuable asset to the city, they are owned by and operated by private corporations. E-scooters can be considered an extension of neoliberalism. The companies are here to make a profit, not to help Portland solve its ever growing transportation crisis. With careful regulation and oversight, the city can utilize private e-scooters to accomplish their public transportation and social goals. However despite the free-market capitalist ideology that is embedded in society, we must not forget the encompassing goals of transportation infrastructure. “Transit policy is slowly, almost imperceptibly, shifting away from its broader social purposes. This shift away from meeting social goals toward the more narrow purpose of relieving traffic congestion, from achieving equity toward merely efficiency, is now influenced by a neoliberal political agenda that separates the social from the economic, causing planners to lose sight of the public purpose of mass transit,” (Grengs 52). 

PBOT is staying true to their transportation policies, trying to meet social goals, and incorporate equity by demanding that Lime and Bird deploy some of their e-scooters in less affluent East Portland. While PBOT realizes the potential of e-scooters, they are making sure to have strict policies and regulations and not give free reign to the corporate operators. Ideally micromobility service operators would be required to contribute to the cost of building the separated lanes that will ultimately advance their profit-making agenda. 

As discussed earlier, micromobility is uniquely poised to enhance equitable access to transportation options, possibly averting the “implications for worsening social exclusion under neoliberalism. Low access to transit restricts access to jobs, services, and leisure activities and increases levels of forced car ownership, all of which have negative effects on society. Forced car owners are more likely to restrict their travel to save money on fuel and maintenance, exacerbating social exclusion,” (Arriaga Coredro 106). If the city makes the right choices, this could be a time when the public truly benefits from a public/private partnership.

Shaping New Infrastructure with Trip Data

Previously, Portland would keep track of cyclists based on bicycle counters, however, the limitations from this information gathering method are clear, they only give one perspective. Counters only count the number of bicycles that pass over that single location, and while this provides a number of total users per day, it doesn’t provide information about routes taken or avoided, which is a crucial part of the information needed for a clear evaluation of transportation infrastructure. 

With a new abundance of micromobility generated data, planners can now see a cohesive map of the routes in cities that are actually being used. This previously unseen perspective of transportation can directly show where the most bike-friendly routes are. This allows city planners to look at these routes, see what makes them user friendly, and then model future infrastructure on them. However, cities must be cognizant of privacy issues when handling raw data generated from micromobility. This is another case where partnering with private companies, like a data specialist, can be helpful, (Bliss).

Conclusion

The introduction of micromobility has revealed plenty about the future of Portland transportation. Micromobility, when combined with bicycling must together reach the projected target of 25 percent mode-share by 2035 in order to avert disaster in the city. These travel modes are the most capable of satisfying Portland’s requirements for safety, connectedness, public health, equity and climate. However, there is currently a severe lack of transportation infrastructure for anything other than private motor vehicles, and the places where that infrastructure could be implemented are riddled with parked cars. Some of this can be solved by creating bus only lanes that are shared with micromobility. The city can plan future infrastructure development from the data generated by micromobility, and the data can be interpreted to emphasize the importance of slowing down traffic speeds for public safety and comfort. With micromobility being a predominantly private enterprise there are concerns about data privacy, equal access, and the negative effects of privatizing public transportation and public space.

Micromobilty is dismissed by some as a novelty or annoyance. But there was a time when motor vehicles were also seen as merely an annoying novelty. With enough infrastructure and investment, motor vehicles have become our dominant mode of transportation. Likewise, with thoughtful planning, careful regulation, and bold investments in shared infrastructure, micromobilty can minimize the damage from motor vehicle use and lead the way in Portland’s transportation system — helping propel a safer, healthier, equitable and connected city.

Works Cited

Arriaga Cordero, Eugenio. Explaining Unequal Transportation Outcomes in a Gentrifying City: the Example of Portland, Oregon. 2017. Dissertations and Theses. Paper 3509, pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/open_access_etds/3509, DOI: 10.15760/etd.5393.

Bliss, Laura. “A Controversial Scooter Data Tracking Program Gains Traction.” CityLab, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 23 August 2019, www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/08/scooter-ride-mobility-data-privacy-laws-ecpa-los-angeles/596446/. Accessed 17 December 2019.

Dediu, Horace. “The Micromobility Definition.” Micromobility.io, 23 February 2019, micromobility.io/blog/2019/2/23/the-micromobility-definition.  Accessed 17 Dec 2019.

Grengs, Joe. “The abandoned social goals of public transit in the neoliberal city of the USA.” City, vol. 9, no. 1, 2004, pp. 51-66, www-personal.umich.edu/~grengs/files/Grengs2005_AbandonedSocialGoalsPublicTransitNeoliberalCity_City.pdf, DOI: 10.1080/13604810500050161.

Lugo, Adonia E. Bicycle / Race: Transportation, Culture, & Resistance. Portland, Oregon, Microcosm Publishing, 2018.

Maus, Jonathan. “A decade in, PBOT shares progress report on 2030 bike plan.” BikePortland,  11 September 2019, bikeportland.org/2019/09/11/a-decade-in-pbot-shares-progress-report-on-2030-bike-plan-304557. Accessed 17 December 2019.

Maus, Jonathan. “Portland Traffic Fatality Tracker.” BikePortland, bikeportland.org/fatality-tracker. Accessed 17 December 2019.

PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation). E-Scooter Findings Report (2018), www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/709719. Accessed 16 December 2019.

PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation). “Appendix.” E-Scooter Findings Report (2018), www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/78467. Accessed 17 December 2019.

PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation). Portland 2035 Transportation System Plan (2018). Portland-tsp.com. Accessed 16 December 2019.

PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation). Portland Bicycle Plan For 2030 — 2019 Progress Report. www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/741614. Accessed 17 December 2019.

PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation). “Residential speed limit reduction.” Vision Zero Programs and Projects, www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/669625. Accessed 17 December 2019.

PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation). Vision Zero Action Plan (2016). www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/734630. Accessed 16 December 2019.

PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation). Vision Zero Progress. www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/74093. Accessed 16 December 2019.

Shoup, Donald. “A Conversation with Donald Shoup: Parking for E-scooter.” www.bird.co, 15 July 2019, www.bird.co/blog/donald-shoup-parking-for-e-scooters/. Accessed 17 December 2019.Tefft, B.C. “Impact Speed and a Pedestrian’s Risk of Severe Injury or Death” (2011). AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, aaafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/2011PedestrianRiskVsSpeedReport.pdf, DOI: 10.1016/j.aap.2012.07.022.

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