TEL AVIV – 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. But 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 ten miles (16 kilometers) per day produces 3,500 grams less carbon dioxide than a car traveling the same distance. If 10,000 people were to switch from cars to scooters, their combined CO2 emissions would decline by 35 metric tons per day; if five million people did so, they would produce a mere 370 metric tons per day, or just 2% of that generated by the equivalent number of cars. The problem, of course, 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 now 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 the 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. And last year, an additional 414 people were hospitalized as a result of reported accidents involving scooters, almost a quarter of them under the age of 16. Of the cases involving head injuries, 95% involved riders who were 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. But 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% of articles have been uniformly negative, 13% neutral, and only 20% even remotely positive. Worse, the scorn heaped on this promising new transportation technology has generated a wave of disinformation.
So, a few facts are in order. First, more scooters actually mean fewer accidents. Countries with the highest number of cycling trips per inhabitant have the fewest fatalities per billion kilometers of bicycle travel. The cycling fatality rates in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland are one-quarter that of the United States, even though per capita bicycle travel in each country is about 20 times higher. When bicycle travel reaches a critical mass, drivers are more aware, and policymakers are compelled to provide the proper infrastructure.
Such awareness can also be legislated. In 2014, Queensland, Australia, passed an ordinance requiring motorists to keep at least one meter between themselves and cyclists whom they are passing; and at speeds above 60 kilometers (37 miles) per hour, the required distance increases to 1.5 meters. Within a couple of years, the new rule reduced cycling-related traffic fatalities by 35%, while halving collisions requiring hospitalization. Several cities across North America have since adopted similar rules.
Moreover, contrary to the usual complaints from politicians, protected bicycle lanes are not a budgetary or economic burden. By reducing traffic jams, infrastructure that encourages cycling can yield impressive economic dividends.
In Israel, a recent report from the Ministry of Environmental Protection finds that Israeli car drivers spend an average of 40 minutes per day sitting in traffic. And, owing to the rapid growth in population and car ownership rates, this daily dead time is expected to increase to 90 minutes by 2030, implying tens of billions of dollars in lost output per year. Given that people who must sit through daily traffic jams are prone to higher rates of depression and even domestic violence (in the case of men), it stands to reason that more commuters would readily adopt an alternative if they could.
Finally, scooters and electric cycles have a crucial role to play in combating climate change. For countries as hot as Israel is in the summer, banning these forms of transportation would dramatically reduce non-car vehicular traffic just when it is most needed. A far more environmentally- and economically-friendly strategy is to invest in the infrastructure and enforcement mechanisms needed to maximize the benefits of scooter usage. Rather than denounce those who have already opted for a more ethical and efficient form of urban transport, smart municipal governments should clear a path for them.
Alon Tal is Chair of the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.