Electric bicycles and scooters are taking a lot of heat. Concerns about traffic fatalities, terrorized pedestrians and urban lawlessness have led a growing chorus of politicians and media commentators to conclude that the technology should be banned outright.
However, these critics are missing the point. Small, portable, electric transportation options are a tremendous opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, avoid traffic jams and relieve human frustration.
A scooter that averages 16km per day produces 3,500g less carbon dioxide than a car traveling the same distance. If 10,000 people were to switch from cars to scooters, their combined carbon dioxide emissions would decline by 35 tonnes per day; if 5 million people did so, they would produce a mere 370 tonnes per day, or just 2 percent of that generated by the equivalent number of cars.
The problem is that transportation managers, and the politicians who set their budgets, have not yet made the policy and infrastructure adjustments to accommodate such a transportation revolution.
For lessons on maximizing the benefits of this technology without compromising public safety, they can look to Tel Aviv, which is home to more than 5,000 rental electric scooters.
To help the city’s transportation and police departments formulate the best policies for managing them, my graduate students and I have delved into usage data.
For starters, we find that while electric two-wheelers can indeed be dangerous, the hazard is primarily to the rider.
Since 2014, the number of riders in Israel who died in accidents has increased from one per year to 19. Last year, an additional 414 people were hospitalized as a result of reported accidents involving scooters, almost one-quarter of them under the age of 16.
Of the cases involving head injuries, 95 percent involved riders not wearing helmets, and most were the result of riders being forced into the street, owing to a lack of proper bike lanes and a prohibition against riding on the sidewalk.
These findings suggest that most accidents and injuries are preventable, either through enforcement or proper infrastructure.
In Israel, the number of citations filed against riders —-— most of them for riding on the sidewalk — increased from 12,356 in 2015 to 30,178 last year.
Municipal governments have also introduced new laws requiring riders to wear a helmet, setting the minimum riding age to 16, barring scooters from pedestrian crosswalks, prohibiting more than one rider per scooter and banning the use of cellphones or headphones in both ears.
As an additional measure, two-wheelers should also be required to have a license plate to enable police and municipal authorities to bring some order to the chaos.
These enforcement measures are prudent and justifiable. However, by focusing solely on scooter riders, they tend to contribute to the broader vilification of those who have embraced a socially optimal form of transportation.
In Israel, the media have led the charge against scooter riders. In our analysis of scooter-related coverage in the country’s main online newspapers over the past few years, we found that 67 percent of articles have been uniformly negative, 13 percent neutral and only 20 percent even remotely positive.
Worse, the scorn heaped on this promising new transportation technology has generated a wave of disinformation.