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Progressive Voice: It’s Time to Embrace the Mobility Smorgasbord

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Lisa Nisenson

This year marked a breakthrough for transportation with a new regional deal for Metro funding. But transit options are only part of developing a mobility system to move people while reducing gridlock. Arlington should consider innovative options from other jurisdictions that would update the county’s longstanding “car-free diet” approach. As it so happens, some of the most exciting opportunities for mobility are rolling out, literally, on two wheels.

Perhaps you’ve seen, or even ridden, the new electric bikes and scooters in Washington. These new bike share systems are called dockless, or free floating. They don’t need to be parked at a station like Arlington’s Capital Bikeshare bikes. This is both a blessing (for riders) and a curse (chaotic sidewalks). Likewise, riders can pay by the trip rather than create a membership.

Some of the dockless bikes are also electric, pedal assist models. The power does not kick in unless the rider is pedaling. There are four companies operating electric scooters in Washington: Lime, Waybots, Bird and Skip. Both scooters and electric bike share are part of a pilot project for dockless systems in DC.

While not yet available in Arlington, the county is studying how Washington and other cities are managing systems to avoid “bike litter” (improperly parked or broken bikes and scooters).

These new systems represent something larger than a bike ride. Competition among providers like Uber and Lime to provide on-demand mobility means the rate of change is outpacing our traditional, deliberative processes. The technology companies’ “install now, study later” tactics reverse the usual process for transportation planning, which can take years. Cities are scrambling to adjust for one big reason: the electric scooters and bikes are wildly popular because they fill some of the most stubborn mobility gaps.

In Arlington, electric scooters and electric pedal assist bicycles can expand bike share to the hillier parts of the northern and southern parts of the county. These bikes and scooters can also expand access to Metro beyond our transit corridors.

We don’t have to wait to begin proper planning now. The key to success is incorporating electric bike and scooter share systems into our county transportation programs via a fast and nimble approach.

Testing ideas first: With new ideas and technology, demonstration and pilot projects let the community start small and experiment with design before making large investments. Demonstrations also let the community take a test drive (or ride) of new mobility and for new street designs. On June 28, for example, the Crystal City BID will host a demonstration of the new electric bike share options (JUMP and LimeBike) as part of Food Truck Thursday.

Nimble infrastructure: Many cities install temporary infrastructure like bike lanes to test demand and design. Others use portable amenities like bike parking to meet seasonal or event-based demand. Seattle used modular rails and planters to test a protected bike lane. Austin is painting designated parking areas for dockless bikes and scooters. Arlington needs to make sure it has access to the data to assess how people are using and parking scooters and bikes, and then use the data to target increased investment on routes with high demand.

Simpler permitting: Los Angeles’ People St program has streamlined permits for installing parklets and bike parking on streets and sidewalks. Making parking easy and accessible is one key to managing dockless systems.

Evolving support: One of the main challenges to the growth of dockless systems is charging the scooters and bikes. In fact, scooter companies pay “juicers” to charge and distribute their fleets in a designated area. Over the long term, integrated parking plus charging stations will become standard in buildings for all kinds of electric vehicles.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is going to be cultural. Car drivers and bike riders alike staunchly defend their mode. The new electric mobility models, though, will mean more options for more places that create more opportunities for Arlington residents to get out and about without adding to gridlock. Allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good with planning in this case wouldn’t be progress; it’d be shifting into reverse gear.

Lisa Nisenson leads Alta Planning + Design’s New Mobility groups and is founder of the award-winning start-up GreaterPlaces. She gave a 2015 TEDxArlington talk on building better transportation networks.

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