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Will Columbus Ever Build More Protected Bike Lanes? Scooter Users May Have a Say

Brent Warren Brent Warren Will Columbus Ever Build More Protected Bike Lanes? Scooter Users May Have a SayUrban planner Jason Sudy riding Downtown on a scooter. Photo by Taijuan Moorman.
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Although there are no current plans to build more protected bike lanes in Columbus, planners and transit advocates point to a recent development that may help to build the case for them: the sudden appearance of hundreds of rentable electric scooters on the streets of Columbus.

Both of the companies operating here, Lime and Bird, discourage users from riding on sidewalks. The city also recently proposed legislation to enforce the no-sidewalk rule. In practice, though, if riders don’t feel comfortable on the street — and in Columbus, so far it looks like many of them don’t — the sidewalk is still where they end up.

That sets up the potential for conflict between pedestrians and scooters, which, at speeds of up to 20 mph, travel much faster than anything else on the sidewalk.

“We have to figure out ways to accommodate these types of uses, that are faster than walking but slower than cars,” said Jason Sudy, an urban planner at OHM Advisors and a member of the Italian Village Commission. “This is a great example of the different types of modes that will be popping up. None of us would have anticipated the speed and popularity of mini electric scooters, and it really underscores the importance of having these kind of medium-speed lanes, where you can have a safe experience (but also) not impede the overall traffic flow.”

In a recent CityLab article, Benjamin Schneider offered a comprehensive look at the impact and promise of electric scooters, electric bikes, and other variations on the theme that he groups under the category of “Little Vehicles.” Like Sudy, he argues that lanes that are separated from car traffic are a natural place for these types of vehicles, and even have the potential to move people more efficiently than cars on short trips.

“For many of these kinds of trips in cities, Little Vehicles would be faster than travel by car, especially during periods of heavy traffic,” he writes, citing a National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) statistic that estimates that in one hour, 7,500 bikes can pass through a single 10-foot lane, while less than 1,600 cars would make it through the same intersection.

Jarrett Walker, the transit consultant who has helped to redesign bus networks around the world (including COTA’s),  recently questioned whether a new name was needed for bike lanes. He suggested “narrow lanes” or “mid-speed lanes” to reflect the flood of potential new users riding something other than a bike.

Could those new users then join with cyclists to advocate for infrastructure improvements that would protect them from cars?

“In my observations in Cleveland,” wrote Angie Schmidt, of Streetsblog, “Bird scooters seem to have generated a whole new constituency supporting bike lanes almost overnight.”

In March, the CEO of Bird published an open letter, addressed to the company’s competitors, pledging to pay cities $1 per vehicle per day “so they can use this money to build more bike lanes, promote safe riding, and maintain our shared infrastructure.”

Although that may not add up to huge dollar amounts, it is a sign that some of these new companies — which have all raised huge amounts of venture capital dollars —  are thinking about how important improved infrastructure will be to the continued growth of the industry.

Columbus recently came out with an initial set of regulations for scooters and dockless bikes (its name for the category is “shared mobility device”) in which companies will be required to pay a $75 fee for each scooter, but can’t have more than 500 scooters deployed at once. Some have suggested that a future tweak to the rules could offer expanded fleet sizes in exchange for contributions to improved infrastructure to accommodate the vehicles.

Other Bike-Friendly Projects Moving Forward

Despite the lack of progress on high-quality, on-street bike facilities in recent years, off-street infrastructure projects are continuing to move forward.

In Columbus, the Department of Public Service is responsible for any on-street improvements, while the Recreation and Parks Department manages and plans the trails in coordination with Metro Parks, Franklin County and the many surrounding jurisdictions that the 180-mile Central Ohio Greenways system touches.

In speaking with cyclists, advocates and planners for this series, it became clear that there is a perception that most of the momentum for bike-friendly investments in the region lies in building out the trail system.

Although there have been some notable exceptions (on-street improvements like the Indianola road diet and new lanes planned for Arcadia Avenue), recent projects like proposed upgrades to the Olentangy Trail and a new trial in Franklinton have the potential to connect many more people to the the greenways system and make it easier for commuters and other non-recreational riders to use.

Those projects represent positive steps being taken to make it easier to get around on a bike, but the numbers still tell a story of a very car-dependent city. Census data for Franklin County shows the proportion of commuters driving alone to work fell half a percentage point from 2007 to 2016, but that figure still sits at over 81 percent.

Chipping away at that number, especially given projections that show the region adding as many as half a million residents by 2030, will be a challenge that requires a variety of strategies. Some advocates worry that the enthusiasm for on-street bike improvements that was seen in the days of Mayor Michael “Bikin’ Mike” Coleman has waned.

“I don’t think there’s a pause in bike infrastructure,” said Catherine Girves, from Yay Bikes!, when asked if she thought the city had lost some momentum on bike issues since the protected lane on Summit was installed in 2015. “I do think the city is paying attention to evaluations (of the Summit lane) and that we can be smarter when we install the next one…there are still conversations about protected bike lanes, so I don’t doubt there are more coming.”

She added that, beyond specific projects, real progress has been made in shifting the mindset of the engineers and city officials who are making decisions every day about street design; “we still have engineers riding on a regular basis, and they are still looking at it in a much better way.”

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a three-part series on biking in Columbus. The first piece looked at the city’s only protected bike lane, on Summit Street, and the second one examined the case for building more such lanes in Columbus.

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