E-scooters began flooding Atlanta sidewalks in spring 2018. Cheap and easy to use, they were frequently seen zipping around downtown, Midtown or the BeltLine — but with no protected lanes for riders and speeds that topped out around 20 miles per hour, it didn’t take long for accidents and even fatalities to occur.
Atlanta, like many other cities, struggled to figure out how to regulate e-scooters. In 2019, the city began requiring scooter companies to file for permits and imposed a ban on using the devices on sidewalks or at night. Eventually, some companies began pulling their scooters out of Atlanta as competition increased.
Then the pandemic hit. The city initially ordered remaining scooter companies off the streets, deeming them a non-essential business amid the shelter-in-place order. Now that they’ve returned, says Deirdre Oakley, a professor in the Department of Sociology, “we’re starting to see some changes in rider habits. The big question is: How can micro-scale transportation options like scooters and e-bikes become more useful to more people?”
To answer that question, Georgia State’s Urban Studies Institute recently introduced the Micromobility Lab, the first of its kind in the U.S. An interdisciplinary research hub, the lab was created to inform micromobility transportation policies in metropolitan regions and provide technical assistance for partners, including the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, the Atlanta Regional Commission, MARTA, the Atlanta Department of Transportation and MARTA Army.
“The Georgia State campus is an ideal laboratory to study these things,” says Chris Wyczalkowski, MARTA’s manager of research and analysis and an affiliate faculty member with the Urban Studies Institute. “If you look at a map, we are surrounded by transportation amenities, including MARTA stations, bus stops, e-scooters, Georgia State shuttles and rideshares. It’s all here.”
Within the lab, experts from a number of fields are looking at the potential of micromobility through different lenses. One of the issues they want to address is known as the “first/last mile” problem.
“We’re talking about the distance between where you live, or wherever your journey begins, to the bus stop or rail, and from the final stop or station to your final destination. In some areas, the length could actually be two or three miles,” says Wyczalkowski. “We see equity issues in housing that are tied to transportation and we want to find out if micromobility can help shrink that gap.”
Another challenge has been the way e-scooters were rolled out in many cities, including Atlanta. Lawmakers had to scramble to deal with the new devices when they appeared seemingly overnight, grappling with questions like, where can they be parked safely, where should people be allowed to ride, how fast can they go and should helmets be required?
“When they arrived in 2018, e-scooters were extremely popular right away,” says Karen Johnston, associate director for the Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth in the College of Law. “But they were also considered a nuisance, frequently found scattered and tipped over on sidewalks, or dangerous, whizzing in and out of traffic.”
Instead of banning them, as some other cities did, Atlanta was among the first handful of cities to pass a micromobility ordinance and regulations that embraced micromobility.
“It was a learning experience, and several changes were made along the way,” Johnston says. “For example, a series of deaths in the summer of 2019 led to public protests, and quick, reactionary changes to the law, including the nighttime riding ban.”
Take a 360º E-Scooter Tour Through Georgia State’s Downtown Campus
Initially, the main driver for regulation was injury prevention, but the focus has now shifted to promoting equitable access. Experts say safely integrating micromobility into more neighborhoods will also mean reckoning with the legacy of structural racism.
“Systemic racism is built into the infrastructure of the city,” says Oakley. “If you go into Atlanta’s majority-Black neighborhoods, you see the history of Jim Crow in terms of the quality of the roads, lack of sidewalks and upkeep.”
Four companies with permitted fleets of e-scooters and e-bikes now operate in Atlanta: Bird, Helbiz, Spin and Veo. More recent models have sit-down options and larger wheels that have improved safety. The city also has its own popular RELAY bikeshare program.
“These companies are required to present their equity plans in order to put their devices around the city, but there’s still work to be done to provide equitable access,” says Wyczalkowski. “The question is: Can these things actually be useful as anything more than a toy, or to take a one-mile trip around the Beltline? Can we actually use them to close that first mile/last mile gap? Can they be a tool for transportation justice?”
Researchers in the Micromobility Lab are focused on getting to know the riders who rely on public transportation. For an ongoing project, “Equitable Mobility in the Pandemic Age,” faculty and students are working together to gauge the impact of COVID-19 on ridership, including behaviors, perceptions and the potential to integrate micromobility. Their findings are due out later this year.
“During the pandemic, we saw really drastic declines in transit use, including cars, e-scooters and public transportation. However, those declines haven’t been distributed equally across all methods of transportation. For example, rail ridership is down much more than bus ridership,” Wyczalkowski says. “It’s an interesting equity discussion about who uses public transportation and how those who need it most can be better served.”
The group is interviewing MARTA bus operators to get ideas about how micromobility could be better integrated with their routes. Oakley says learning more about the people who have continued to use public transit during the pandemic will also be key to the study.
“It is mostly essential workers who have continued to ride MARTA throughout the pandemic. Do they also utilize micromobility? Would they like to if it was easily accessible and better, safer infrastructure existed?” she says.
Another recent study from the lab examined how Atlanta compares to several other cities — Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. — in effectively integrating micromobility options.
“If you look at Atlanta versus Portland, we have hardly any bike lanes in comparison,” says Oakley. “Scooter and bike riders have fewer places to go where they are safe from vehicular traffic and don’t bother pedestrians.”
That could change eventually. Atlanta began implementing in 2019 a $50 million “Action Plan for Safer Streets,” which promises to triple the amount of bike lanes, adding more than 20 miles to the network by the end of 2021.
Experts say the pandemic has offered an opportunity for elected officials and residents to rethink the way people get around, and micromobility — including e-scooters, e-bikes and other hybrid technologies — are now looking more attractive. Pre-pandemic, the busiest month in Atlanta was July 2019, when roughly 19,600 trips were made on e-scooters each day with an average distance of one mile. Now that e-scooters are making a comeback, the average trip distance has nearly doubled.
“The COVID shutdown has changed how people move around cities, so the reset has already begun,” says Johnston. “Alternate forms of transportation will continue to gain traction and new technologies will continue to emerge. But it also means that cities need to focus on improving those experiences.”
Top Photo by Steven Thackston, Side Photo by Carolyn Richardson; Video by William Davis