Column: Are Bird scooters distracting us from bigger transit problems?

Column: Are Bird scooters distracting us from bigger transit problems?
Posted at 1:53 PM, Sep 04, 2018

CINCINNATI -- I hope this is the last story about rentable scooters I ever have to write.

(I know that's just wishful thinking.)

It's hardly been a month since Cincinnati became one of now nearly 70 cities across the country -- and counting -- to welcome the latest transportation trend.

Is "welcome" the right word? Grapple with? Endure? Suffer? Maybe the proper verbiage eventually will be "grow into."

It's neither secret nor surprise that local reaction to the scooters was immediately mixed when they arrived in late July. It's evident from just a short walk through Downtown or Over-the-Rhine. Lots of people are using them, but lots are also using them improperly -- mostly by riding them on the sidewalk or the wrong way in the street.

Most of the cheers revolve around their convenience: they're cheap, easy to use if you have a mobile phone and credit card. They also address the "last mile" dilemma many people using other modes of transportation face. That is, theoretically, they can get you that last stretch home from the bus stop or Red Bike station (if there's one available nearby, and it's not after dark).

The jeers almost entirely revolve around safety. Many pedestrians living or working in and around the Central Business District have already become outspoken that they have to dodge the scooters while walking on the sidewalk -- some even writing letters to the city.

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My concern extends beyond safety.

I'm concerned because all the discussion and debate around these "micro-mobility" vehicles -- as they've come to be called -- might be distracting us from bigger transportation issues -- like, say, Cincinnati Metro's $184 million budget crisis.

It's the same concern columnist Petula Dvorak expressed in an Aug. 27 piece for the Washington Post. The nation's capital also saw the arrival of rentable scooters this year. She wrote:

Here's my problem: The variety of devices on our streets -- combined with the epic and enduring bike-versus-pedestrians saga -- will keep sucking the air out of a transportation conversation that has to become more urgent.

For some context -- much like Cincinnati Metro -- D.C.'s own Metro subway system has faced funding and service problems for years with slow progress.

Dvorak goes on:

(T)he way it looks from the road, they [rental scooters] are primarily being used by mobile, agile young folks who can no longer be bothered with Metro or bus schedules or walking. They're not taking a car off the road, they're taking a rider out of public transportation.

The scooters might be too new to the Tri-State to know if Dvorak's second point really applies here at home, but her first point -- about "sucking the air out of a transportation conversation" -- certainly was a punch in the gut for a region that, for the past three years if not longer, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority has balked on even putting a county-wide sales tax levy on the ballot to support better bus service.

There's some irony here: Leaders say more conversation is necessary to get a truly passable measure on the ballot -- one everyone at the table is happy with -- but one can't help wondering when and where these conversations are taking place. Most recently, the day SORTA's board of trustees was set to discuss putting a measure on the ballot, the issue instead was tabled.

Poetically, it was only a few days later that the Bird scooters arrived and stole the show.

During a trails summit last Friday, I asked SORTA board member and chief operating officer for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber how we can make sure new technologies like scooters don't distract from bigger issues like those surrounding Metro.

"I can tell you that we are not distracted," he said. "(Buses are) the core. That is a transit system that has worked for generations, and it needs to work again.

"If we've talked too much about new forms of transportation, what I want to leave you with is that all of that is great and important and has to be part of this conversation, but I want to underscore again -- if we do not fix our core transit... we will have not accomplished what we need to accomplish to grow this region."

Zach Huhn, CEO and co-founder of Over-the-Rhine-based Venture Smarter, also responded to the question, but in a different way.

"We have to think differently about how we're planning for transit. We cannot afford not to," he said. "Quite literally, we cannot afford not to. We can't get distracted by technology. We need to focus on the strategies and policies that will create a robust transit system that will work for everybody.

"We're not going to be able to solve it using antiquated strategies and policies and technologies that have gotten us to where we are right now."

To me, this is a more satisfactory answer than Cull's because it takes the focus off technology, but the focus also needs to remain on putting a new funding model in place for Cincinnati Metro.

Anything else, right now, is in danger of becoming a distraction from the bigger picture.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO.