“If a problem cannot be solved,” Donald Rumsfeld once wrote, “enlarge it.” I’m not about to praise him for his accomplishments, but he had a pretty good eye for diagnoses. Which takes us to the problem of urban transit. I complained recently that I didn’t care about scooter startups, because I couldn’t imagine cities ever changing in a way which made scooters really work. But lo, the scales have fallen from my eyes.
What may seem to be the problem: scooters are useful and fun for many, but discarded scooters are an unsightly mess. What’s actually the problem: cities are ruled by the iron fist of King Car. Even with maximum scooter distribution and zero regulation, the real estate occupied by scooters (and bicycles) will only ever be a vanishingly tiny fraction of a vanishingly tiny fraction of that occupied by roads and parking spaces.
The solution, obviously, is to allocate some of the latter to the former. No, not bike lanes. I mean, they have their place, but they’re cramped, they’re difficult to pass in, and their space is still only ever an adjunct to that allotted to the all-devouring demands of King Car. If you want a fourth form of transport (after cars, public transit, and good old walking) to really succeed, don’t put in more bike lanes. Do something much simpler. Ban cars from roads.
Hang on now. Don’t get apoplectic on me. I don’t mean all roads, by any means. I’m anything but anti-car. I own a car, drive frequently, and Lyft more than I should. But in the same way downtown plazas and streets are being converted into pedestrian-only zones — consider Times Square and Herald Square in NYC, (soon) Ste.-Catherine Street in Montreal, etc. — high-density cities should begin to convert some entire multi-lane roads to thoroughfares for two-wheeled electric/manual vehicles only.
If optimized correctly, the number of cars you’d get off the road because of reduced demand for Uber and Lyft should vastly outweigh the traffic displacement and reduced number of parking spaces. Cars will still be able to cross, of course, at lights synchronized for the reduced pace of two-wheelers. Bike lanes, instead of being haphazardly strewn about in a random and often disconnected series of routes, will become feeders for these scooter/bicycle superhighways. And of course streets not shared with cars will be vastly safer.
Add a congestion charge, such that people are incentivized to park their scooters/bikes either along these arteries or in designated storage zones scattered along bike lanes, and the pull of economic gravity will pull them away from cluttered sidewalks and towards well-understood, well-contained spaces. Businesses might complain — until they realize they have vastly more traffic than before.
Think big. Think Park and Amsterdam Avenues in Manhattan; Turk and Sutter/Kearny in San Francisco; Church / Davenport / Dupont in Toronto. But realize at the same time that you’re thinking small; just a couple of roads apiece, in cities which have been dominated by cars and trucks for so long that alternatives seem impossible, unthinkable, laughable. But thinking that way is a form of learned helplessness. Change for the better is entirely possible on physical, financial, technical, and/engineering levels. All that cities lack is imagination and public will.