How Can Cities Get a Handle on Electric Scooters?

Bird electric scooters in Santa Monica, California / Madeline Eskind Twitter

Electric scooters have become a familiar sight throughout the country. Dotting street corners in tidy rows in the mornings, placed haphazardly outside office buildings after the lunch hour, and zipping down streets and sidewalks at all hours of the day, electric scooters are fast becoming a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape. The rapid expansion of electric scooters has drawn both support and criticism. By understanding the pros and cons of electric scooters and various regulatory considerations, landscape architects and urban planners can help cities make the most of this significant private investment in the public realm.

The potential benefits of incorporating electric scooters into a city’s transit infrastructure are substantial. Leading electric scooter companies, such as Bird and Lime, tout their products as an alternative non-vehicular means of transportation, a zero-emission people-moving mechanism that can reduce short distance single-occupant car trips. Commuters who use public transportation for the bulk of their commute and who cannot or do not wish to use a bike for the final distance to the office can avoid a taxi or ride share trip by hopping on a nearby electric scooter. As many scooter riders will tell you, electric scooters also have the benefit of being fun to ride. Tourists are a major subset of electric scooter riders, as they enjoy the ability to see a new city at a leisurely pace without breaking a sweat.

Renting an electric scooter for a ride isn’t quite as simple as hopping on and zipping off. Riders must first download each company’s app using a smartphone. The app shows locations of nearby scooters that are currently unoccupied and ready to be checked out. Typically, scooters are placed in neat rows in groups first thing in the morning, after being charged overnight. Later in the day, scooters may be distributed in more irregular groups as they are ridden and parked in various places by the riders. First-time users of an app also need to enter a credit card for payment (entered one time then used for all subsequent purchases, similar to the way the Uber and Lyft apps work), and a photo of a driver’s license to verify age.

Access to Bird app / Wikipedia
Bird app display / Bird.co

Critics have noted these requirements limit use across the socioeconomic spectrum; Washington D.C. is hoping to develop a method for cash payment. Rides are priced by the minute, timed from check-in to check-out using the app. Some apps also require riders take a photo of the scooter where it is stopped at the end of the ride, in order to record potentially illegal parking practices used by some riders. Riders can expect to pay a typical fee of $1 to unlock the scooter, plus $0.15 per minute.

Lime scooter in San Diego / Wikipedia

Electric scooters may have launched in California, but 2018 saw the trend spread across the country and throughout the world. With such exponential growth, many cities have multiple competing brands of scooters within the same area. Austin, Texas, has had such high rates of usage that scooter providers have needed to schedule mid-day servicing of their fleets to charge scooters’ batteries. The usefulness of scooters in urban settings and the potential to replace short car trips has increased enormous investment to electric scooter companies. Ford recently purchased Spin for nearly $100 million, while Uber has partnered with Lime.

The first of many regulatory challenges comes with the way a scooter company might choose to launch a fleet in a new city. Several companies initially gained the industry the reputation of “begging for forgiveness rather than first asking for permission” after launching electric scooter fleets without consulting city officials. This prompted San Francisco to temporarily ban all electric scooters, eventually offering two permits to electric scooter companies Skip and Scoot. Other cities issue permits to a certain number of total electric scooters, split among different providers.

If an electric scooter company approaches a city first to request permission to operate locally, how might a city respond? Some jurisdictions might be glad for the private investment in public transit and permit operation without caveats. Others, hesitant of the demands electric scooters place upon the public right of way, may take a different approach — as did New York City, when, considering the density of sidewalks and bicycle lanes without scooters, issued a firm “thanks, but no thanks” to scooter companies.

State regulations may also play a role in whether electric scooters must operate on city streets, sidewalks, or not at all:

To address safety concerns, electric scooter companies require all scooter riders wear helmets and meet a minimum age requirement. These requirements are frequently violated by users, as are regulations requiring scooters be ridden on the sidewalk, roadway, or in a bike lane. Conflicts between pedestrians, bicyclists, vehicles, and scooters are difficult to avoid without formally set and well-understood rules for where and how a scooter should operate. One particularly active period of reported scooter accidents in Austin, Texas, led the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to partner with Austin city government to study the most common source of incidents. This study is currently underway, but Austin is already planning to put a safe riding ordinance into effect in the spring of 2019.

Bird electric scooter riding rules, which are often ignored / Wikipedia

Electric scooter companies are beginning to put money and effort toward improving the safety of scooter riders. Bird scooters recently announced plans to form a Global Safety Advisory Board, led by the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with the goal of improving electric scooter safety. Bird has also proposed a funding strategy whereby $1 daily per vehicle in a city’s fleet would be dedicated to a fund for improving bicycle lanes and infrastructure in that city. Bird scooters currently offers cities data on usage within that city, which can be a valuable data metric in understanding the flow of people through the city, scoping a site pre-development, or for post-occupancy analysis.

Electric scooters can replace much more vehicular use, particularly single-occupant, short-distance car trips, in congested urban environments. At the same time, city management and planning authorities must carefully weigh the risks to public safety before approving electric scooter programs for operation.

With clear rules and robust public awareness campaigns to ensure all users understand the rules for legal operation, scooters may come to safely co-exist with existing users of the public right of way. Electric scooters are here to stay, and cities have the opportunity and challenge of establishing a safe framework in which citizens and visitors can enjoy the full benefits of this technology.

This guest post is by Alison Kennedy, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP ND, a landscape architect with O’Dell Engineering in Modesto, California. She is the co-chair of the ASLA Women in Landscape Architecture professional practice network (PPN) and chair of the ASLA Archives & Collections Committee.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 1 – 15)

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Lake Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Lake Park Friends

Atlanta’s Plans for Parks over Highways Get National Attention Bisnow, 1/2/19
“Atlanta’s efforts to create new swaths of green space over its major interstate has taken the national spotlight.”

Spotlighting Historic Landscapes Could Benefit Milwaukee The Shepherd Express, 1/8/19
“Milwaukeeans have inherited a treasure trove of historic parks and other public landscapes rivaling in significance those in Chicago, Minneapolis and other major cities.”

CRÈME Proposes Floating Timber Bridge to Connect Brooklyn and Queens The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/10/19
“Currently the only link between the rapidly developing neighborhoods of Long Island City, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is the Pulaski Bridge, a six-lane drawbridge with a narrow pathway where pedestrians and bikers jostle for space.”

National Parks Get Some Volunteer Love During Government Shutdown CityLab, 1/10/19
“With National Park Service employees furloughed and trash mounting, cleaning up ‘helped me feel like I was doing as much as I could,’ said one volunteer.”

Expressway Hideaways a Chance for Urban Renewal The Bangkok Post, 1/13/19
“Areas under expressways in Bangkok often go overlooked. Despite some of this space being located in business areas, the property remains untouched.”

A Model Plan for Protecting Vital Coastal Habitats

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Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats / The Nature Conservancy

Sea level rise is coming, and its impacts will be far reaching. For the state of California, the threat of sea level rise may prove existential. More than two-thirds of its population lives in the states’ 21 coastal counties, which are responsible for 85 percent of the state’s GDP.

However, sea level rise will not just impact human activity. Rising tides will also drastically alter, and in some cases destroy, important coastal habitats. Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats, a new report from The Nature Conservancy, provides a startling analysis of the future of California’s coast and charts a path forward for coastal conservation efforts.

The California coast represents the most biodiverse region in the country’s most biodiverse state, lending nationwide significance to coastal conservation efforts there. “The state of California has been a leader in environmental policy for over a century,” say the report’s authors, praising the state’s “legacy of coastal conservation.”

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California’s coastline / Sue Pollock, The Nature Conservancy

“However, current policy and decision-making frameworks were developed to reflect static existing conditions and are not well suited for the dynamic needs of adapting to sea level rise,” the authors warn.

At risk are “nesting areas along global migrations for diversity of species, as well as nesting and pupping habitat, nursery habitat, and important feeding grounds critical to populations of many species, some which are found nowhere else in the world.”

Sea level rise threatens areas of human settlement and activity, too. The conversion of land to tidal and subtidal coastline will reduce the size of natural buffers, providing less protection to human settlements in coastal flooding events. Saltwater intrusion will impact agriculture. According to the authors, “sea level rise and associated flooding will threaten nearly $100 billion worth of property along the California coast by 2100.”

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Coastal infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise / Thomas Dunklin

The report’s authors used GIS to identify and map the coastal habitats, ecosystems, and infrastructure most at risk from sea level rise. They based their projections on two and five feet of sea level rise, which they say are in keeping with projections issued by the California Coastal Commission. The authors then developed metrics to measure the potential impact of sea level rise on a given area and the area’s vulnerability and ability to adapt.

Their findings are worrying. “As much as 25 percent of the existing public conservation lands within the analytic zone will be lost to subtidal waters,” they warn. Habitats for eight imperiled species will be completely inundated. Large portions of other significant coastal habitats are “highly vulnerable,” including 58 percent of rocky intertidal habitats, 60 percent of upper beaches, and 58 percent of regularly-flooded estuarine marshes. “At least half of the documented haul-outs for Pacific harbor seals and Northern elephant seals, and nesting habitats for focal shorebirds like black oystercatchers, are also highly vulnerable.”

The report’s maps show that habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area are particularly at risk. There, vulnerable landscapes and habitats–such as 87 percent of the state’s regularly-flooded estuarine marsh–will be trapped between rising seas on one side and human development on the other. “The built environment–including roads and other infrastructure–creates barriers that prevent coastal habitats from moving inland,” while “dikes, levees, and other water control features negatively impact the health and function” of these threatened landscapes.

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California Coastal Conservation Assessment / The Nature Conservancy

The authors found that sea level rise could adversely affect public access to California’s coast. “Sea level rise will diminish coastal access opportunities throughout the state by reducing beach widths, submerging rocky intertidal areas, and flooding coastal beach infrastructure.”

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Sea level rise threatens access to California’s beaches and coastal public lands / Sylvia Busby

In the face of these potentially-devastating impacts, the report’s authors present a suite of strategies for conservation in the era of climate change. According to the authors, conservation managers need to “conserve and manage for resilience.” This includes maintaining the conservation status of existing conserved lands and identifying and protecting resilient coastal landscapes that are not vulnerable to sea level rise.

The Nature Conservancy recommends managing for resilience through the use of sediment augmentation and sand placement. “The majority of highly vulnerable conservation lands in need of managing in place for resilience are found in the San Francisco Bay Delta,” an observation that speaks to the importance of landscape-led initiatives such as the recent Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge.

The authors also call for conserving nearly 200 square kilometers of potential future habitat areas and adapting the built environment “with more natural coastal processes in mind” – in effect, giving the coastline room to change.

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California’s coastline / Taylor Samuelson, California State Coastal Conservancy

“As sea levels rise, California’s coast will erode and evolve, and habitats will need to shift. Our current conservation efforts and land use management decisions must focus on further supporting these natural processes and enabling the transition and movement of coastal habitats as sea levels rise. Conservation in the face of sea level rise requires an adaptive process that embraces the reality of a dynamic coastline.”

The reports’ recommendations and strategies are “spatially explicit,” with specific recommendations for areas depending on their vulnerability and adaptive capacity. There are detailed high-resolution maps that illustrate the location, distribution, and severity of risks as well as opportunities.

“The results of this spatially explicit assessment provide a foundation of information to support immediate action to conserve habitats and biodiversity in the face of sea level rise,” the authors argue. “With so much of California’s coastal habitats, imperiled species, and managed lands at risk from sea level rise, immediate collective action is necessary to conserve these natural resources into the future.”

Download the full report and maps.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2018

Approach to Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, Australia / TCL

As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2018. Readers were most interested in the debate over whether beauty still matters in an age dominated by science; how the practice of landscape architecture is evolving to deal with climate change and increasingly diverse communities; how urban sprawl is impacting biodiversity; and the interesting relationship between landscape architecture and retail. As in past years, new research on the health benefits of nature remains a favorite topic.

Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

1) Is There Still a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?

Kicking off a two-day planting symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, professor emeritus Marc Treib posed the question: Is there still a place for the “art of landscape design” in an age “dominated by the science of landscape ecology?” Planting design is often brushed aside as superfluous or unserious. British historian and critic Tim Richardson reminded the audience of the litany of unfavorable adjectives associated with artful planting: the bourgeois, the small-scale, the amateur, the hobbyist, the ephemeral, the female.

2) Best Books of 2018

If you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into over the winter break, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2018, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape.

3) To Become More Resilient, Boston Takes a “Landscape First” Approach

Instead of simply responding to catastrophe, Boston is getting out front on climate change. As part of its Climate Ready Boston plan, the city of 670,000 aims to act fast and protect two coastal neighborhoods most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms: East Boston and Charlestown. New plans for these neighborhoods explain how a simple fix like creating a temporary flood wall at the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway, at a cost of just $100,000, would protect 4,300 residents, 70 businesses and critical infrastructure, and result in $17 million in benefits.

4) Landscape Architects May Be Liable for Climate Impacts

When a neighborhood floods, who is at fault? A class action lawsuit in Houston asks that question. The residents of a master-planned community that flooded during Hurricane Harvey are suing the engineering firm that designed the neighborhood’s stormwater management system. While that suit targets engineers, it nonetheless represents the heightened risk landscape architects face from climate impacts on their projects.

5) New Maps Show How Urban Sprawl Threatens the World’s Remaining Biodiversity

At the United Nations World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next month, the McHarg Center for Ecology and Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania will display an alarming set of new maps. They show, in bright red, that the growth of cities worldwide is on a direct collision course with the world’s remaining biodiversity.

6) MIT Researchers Seek Optimal Form of Urban Stormwater Wetland

Cities are sitting on a largely underused public resource: urban stormwater wetlands. If properly designed, these landscapes can reduce flooding, support urban wildlife, and serve as public space. A new report Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands authored by an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism led by Celina Balderas Guzmán, Heidi Nepf, and Alan Berger — advocates for the positive role wetlands can play in cities and outlines research that provides insights for landscape architects, engineers, and planners.

7) This Is Your Brain on Nature

Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.

8) Interview with Robert Gibbs: Trees Cause You to Spend More

Trees are really essential for a competitive shopping district. There was a study by Kathleen Wolfe that indicated trees increase price elasticity by 9-12 percent. In other words, people feel comfortable paying up to twelve percent more for the same product if they purchase in a well-landscaped place with nice streets. Also, when properly located, street trees keep people in the downtown district longer. They feel more relaxed and are more likely to spend more money.

9) Participatory Design Must Evolve

Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”

10) New Study: Technology Undermines the Restorative Benefits of Nature

We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.

GGN Re-envisions the Monograph

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GGN Landscapes 1999-2018 / Timber Press

In 2013, urban landscape historian Thaïsa Way, FASLA, embedded herself in the office of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) in Seattle, Washington in order to understand the firm’s inner workings. That initial academic curiosity sparked a collaborative relationship, the remarkable result of which is GGN Landscapes 1999-2018, a compendium of GGN’s projects that interweaves theory and practice. The book sets a new standard for landscape architecture monographs.

It was the goal of both Way and GGN to improve upon the typical monograph, characterized by photos of finished, successful projects and not much else. Both parties were also wary of getting too much into the weeds of each project. GGN Landscapes struck that balance, presenting not only each project’s final design but its evolution, told through detailed written accounts and built upon by process sketches, models, and photos.

The book’s richness is the result of the access Way was granted at GGN. Way looked over shoulders, asked questions, and attended meetings. Details such as which team members led discussions, which incessantly sketched, and on what sort of paper were all taken note of. Way pored over working documents and memos to clients and consultants, seeking to understand how GGN made and maintained relationships. Not confined to the office, Way visited each of the book’s featured projects, accompanied by their respective lead designers (save for one instance in which that designer was unavailable). She stressed that this effort would have been impossible without the benefit of GGN’s trust.

Way’s research paints a picture of an especially collaborative firm that is interested in the intersection of analog and digital techniques and embraces experimentation. It’s worth emphasizing that many firms would claim these same traits. Way witnessed them at GGN. Her analysis is borne out in the book’s featured projects, all of which could stand alone as case studies.

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GGN associate Rebecca Fuchs sketching over a digital model / Kyle Johnson

The first project presented in the book, and perhaps GGN’s most famous, is Lurie Garden in Chicago. Way’s text tells the story of GGN’s involvement, from the project’s procurement through research, design, and resolution. The book describes the technical challenges encountered and thought process behind GGN’s decisions. Iterative sketches show variations on the garden’s iconic breastplate form and planting scheme. And, of course, there are plenty of photos that attempt to capture the power of the space (Way thinks that even GGN failed to foresee just how impressive Lurie Garden would become).

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Early studies drawn for Lurie Garden / GGN

If the Lurie Garden chapter shows us a young firm getting a feel for itself, India Basin Shoreline Park, the book’s final featured project, shows a mature practice in full command of its faculties and with a firm grasp of landscape’s agency. Shannon Nichol, one of GGN’s three founders, led the concept design for the park in the Bayview-Hunters point neighborhood of San Francisco. The concept is, as Way describes it, “emblematic of 21st century design,” negotiating issues of environmental degradation, access to the water, historic preservation, and neighborhood revitalization. GGN’s concept includes a large meadow reminiscent of a patent slip that once existed on site. Included in the chapter are Nichols’ sketches showing the meadow’s origin in the concept, and a series of plans show its refinement over time.

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An aerial view of India River Basin Park concept / GGN

The book also contains less project-oriented views into GGN’s process. Way believes understanding the designer is crucial to understanding their approach. As such, we learn how GGN’s founders came to landscape and their attitude toward design. We also learn of how their practice benefited early on from successful collaborations with outside architects and engineers and how this helped form their broad view of landscape architecture.

With GGN Landscapes, Way and GGN have constructed a monograph better suited for backpacks than coffee tables. I cannot think of higher praise.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

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St. Louis Gateway Arch Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Rebuilding a City from the Eye of a Child CityLab, 12/17/18
“The ambitious mayor of Tirana, Albania, is selling a wary constituency on economic transformation by putting kids at the forefront of his agenda.”

Climate Gentrification: Is Sea Rise Turning Miami High Ground Into a Hot Commodity? The Miami Herald, 12/18/2019
“Miami is the first city to study the impacts of climate gentrification, a shift in consumer preferences for higher ground as climate change sends sea levels rising that displaces poor residents of color in Miami’s few high elevation communities.”

2018 Was the Year of the Aspirational Park CityLab, 12/26/18
“Private funding and high-impact design were recurring themes of parks that opened in 2018. So was the hope that parks can unite, repair, and invigorate cities.”

Bangkok Is Sinking and Here Is the Solution Land8, 12/16/18
“Just as New York has Central Park, Bangkok has just received its lungs of the City – the Chulalongkorn Centenary Park, the first sizeable green infrastructure project, which has been designed for the city to face the inevitable realities of climate change.”

When a Developer Comes for Your Little Neighborhood ParkThe Intelligencer, 12/31/18
“This is a tale of two parklets, 1,000 miles apart. Combined, they cover less than an acre. They harbor no endangered species and embody no distinguished landscape design.”