Scooting in a City Built for Cars

Rising gas prices and thickening traffic congestion make small, fuel-efficient scooters seem like a great way to get around. But on roads built mainly for speeding cars, scooting can be scary. Occasional scooter-rider Pam Diaz argues it shouldn't be.
Photo: Pam Diaz

I'm new to this "urban planning" concept. I'd never heard the term until I started working for a web development company that seems to deal with it somehow. Many of our clients are involved in planning, but I won't even bother to act like I know what they do. I'm a web developer, and now that I'm waiting for clients to respond before I can get back to my main work, I have time to sit and ponder my world. How can I, as a non-planner, take advantage of my newfound acquaintanceship with these urban-planners to nudge them in a direction that will enrich my daily life?

My immediate thought is that planners are probably in the best position to help me improve my relationship with my new scooter. I recently purchased a small gas-powered scooter as an alternative form of transportation. It was kind of an impulse buy. But because I live in Los Angeles and have the benefit of generally good weather most of the year, it seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. With gas prices getting higher, it's a purchase that seems smarter and smarter every day.

But as much as I love the thought of getting 100 miles per gallon and having an abundance of parking spaces available to me, I am afraid to ride my scooter. On the outside, I smile when I do ride it because I truly believe that's the image a scooter-rider should portray: young, happy, carefree. On the inside, though, I'm completely paranoid that I'll get squashed by L.A.'s unforgiving traffic. I continuously scan what's coming towards me from the front, from the sides, and check my mirrors to make sure the car behind me is not following too closely.

Photo: Author Pam Diaz in traffic on her scooter
One thing here is not like the others.

My scooter has a small engine, and when riding past people mowing their lawns, I can't help wonder whether or not the lawnmowers have more power than the machinery on which I'm sitting. My lack of horsepower apparently doesn't amuse car drivers as much as it does me. They tail me and pass me the first chance they get (usually only to sit longer at the red lights).

Los Angeles is no doubt a car-loving city. Despite the subway, the train, the buses, the bike lanes and even the sidewalks, despite the tree huggers and the environmentally conscious, and despite the fitness-minded and the health nuts, the majority of us still grab our car keys whenever we're headed past the mailbox. It's because above all the financial, environmental and health benefits of other modes of transportation, we're simply in a hurry. On the road, we'll tail, cut off, or maybe even clip or hit anything that putt-putts in our way or otherwise impedes our 50 mile-per-hour lifestyle. This puts those with small engines, or no engines at all, in near-constant danger.

But this should not be the case. I should be able to ride my scooter with little fear that I'll get flattened. I should be able to tell people I own a scooter and not have the first response inevitably be "Aren't you afraid to ride it?" I shouldn't have to always think "Yes, of course." I shouldn't have to put on a brave face and lie to keep up the young/happy/carefree façade.

This, however, is the reality faced by the scooter. As a result, my gas-guzzling sedan (well, it doesn't get bad gas mileage, but it does not sip as lightly as my scooter!) gets called to action more often than my scooter, even though there is also the added hassle of dealing with tandem parking in my apartment and the inevitable headache of finding parking in L.A.

My scooter spends most of its days chained to a pole in the garage. This is not the life I imagined it would have. It deserves more. I want it to romp around town without a genuine risk of being crumpled. Knowing that the quick pace of the city and thus drivers' attitudes are not likely to change, it is up to planners to make the roads more equitable and safe for my little scooter and other small or no engine vehicles that are on the road, too.

There need to be more options for transportation in our cities, especially in L.A. The fact that practically everyone in this city and many others see the car as the only realistic transportation option is really a crime of development. While rising gas prices are encouraging are people to seek out alternative forms of transportation, the lack of options is keeping many in the driver's seat. Demand will definitely respond to an increased supply. Cities just need to snap themselves out of their assumptions that it is too expensive to provide a transportation infrastructure that encourages multiple forms of getting around. I'm not holding my breath for that, but I think it will have to happen if our cities are going to be able to survive through the end of the 21st Century. Hopefully sometime before then I'll be able to ride with little fear, and my scooter will be put to use as often as it was intended.


Pam Diaz Pam is a web developer for Urban Insight, an Internet consulting and Web development firm based in Los Angeles. In addition to riding her scooter in traffic, Pam is also afraid of televangelists, telemarketers, and spontaneous combustion.

Comments

Comments

Needs a virtual force field

Pam,

As a web designer, you should know to request a virtual force field of protection for your scooter. Planners should be aware the technology is coming in any case. Makes sense to plan for it.

Combining Wii (accelerometers), GPS, and cellphone technology can inexpensively transform carpooling into super-convenient mass transit, prevent nearly all vehicle accidents, reduce traffic congestion, and improve parking efficiency. California could save on the order of $15 billion per year by rewarding government for reducing the cost of auto insurance.

Californians currently pay on the order of $50 billion per year for transportation insurance and endure the emotional suffering from 600,000 motor vehicle accidents and 4,000 deaths each year. Traffic congestion drains California’s economy, driving demand for a few $billion per year of new roads and buses.

By combining cellphones and Wii, California can earn a REWARD for saving lives by making cars super-polite faster than market forces. For example, California could remove hurdles and add incentives to reduce vehicle miles and reduce accidents. Both results also reduce the cost of insurance. Government’s REWARD is half whatever it saves. Less vehicle miles and half the accidents is half the auto insurance cost. In California, halving auto insurance cost generates a government REWARD of $12.5 billion per year. The economic boost from eliminating traffic congestion, and the reduced emotional suffering of accident survivors, are priceless.

Realize that market forces are producing zero-accident and zero-congestion cars in any case (stability control, navigation systems, self-parking, and General Motors’ car-2-car). These applications do not require fully autonomous vehicles. They are more like riding a horse or driving with current stability control systems. The rider or driver reads the map and provides the directions. The horse or computer avoids collisions or turns the wheels to avoid rollover. California’s REWARD is for life-saving, economy-boosting, quicker deployment of the technology.

MECapron

Keep on Putting

Pam, keep on putting. People will see you and then they'll buy a scooter, then there will be more scooters. More scooters!

Even riding a bicycle can be dangerous. I remember riding my bike to the metro station and from there to school. To my left were buses and cars driving forty miles per hour and to my right were cars pulling out of driveways.

What a worllddd...what a worrlldDDD!

Two-Wheeled Survival Guide

Pam,

I strongly encourage you (and other scooterists and motorcyclists) to read David Hough's "Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide to Riding Well" (ISBN 1933958359, Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Proficient-Motorcycling-Ultimate-Guide-Riding/dp/1...). This book can literally save your life. Using the techniques in the book, you will learn how to stay safe in LA traffic.

And Pam, you must get out and ride more. The paranoia only goes away with experience. Though one helpful step on the way is to practice Hough's techniques while you're driving your car. You'll learn to predict what the vehicles around you are likely to do and how to avoid the spaces they're going to move into.

Disclaimer: the only connection I have with David Hough and his books is that they've kept me accident-free as a motorcycle and scooter rider.

education, protection

Hi, Pam,

I'm a daily Los Angeles scooter rider. Los Angeles is actually probably one of the easiest and best urban areas in which to scooter thanks to our weather, the ability to get anywhere in the region on surface streets and the fact the most major roads are wide, straight and flat.

Your lack of confidence is pretty common among new riders, but I hope that you and others who have recently flocked to riding scooters don't give up too easily. Confidence comes with education, experience and taking proper precautions. Yes, scootering is more risky than driving a car. Regardless of benefits such as gas savings, ask most scooterists why they ride and you'll discover it's because we love it enough to accept those risks every time we ride.

A lot of experienced riders (myself included) are very concerned about the rush of new riders onto the streets, many of whom seem to not be aware of the risks involved in scootering and the ways to mitigate those risks (again: education, preparation and gear, experience). On one forum I belong to, we've had an upsurge of crash reports, most of which are from riders with less than a month experience and who have not taken a riding course. Most of these were preventable. Unfortunately, you (and others) may have to disavow yourself of some of your romantic notions of scootering and commit to becoming a safe and responsible rider.

You didn't mention any sort of training or education. Hough's books (referenced in another comment) are a good start. But to get a foundation in hands-on riding skills, you should take the MSF Basic Rider Course (http://www.msf-org). This teaches the basic skills needed to ride in traffic. Successful completion of the course earns you a waiver for the DMV Class M licensing riding test—you can get your M license without having to take the test. Riding in "real world" conditions takes experience. Don't rush out into traffic—learn to ride before putting yourself (and others) in dangerous situations.

If you're feeling particularly vulnerable out on the road, consider wearing more protective gear. I know a padded cordura jacket isn't very "Roman Holiday," but safety should override fashion concerns. I don't want to put more fear into you, just know that a crash on a scooter isn't any less painful than one on a motorcycle and that low-speed crashes can cause serious injury. I confess to not wearing full gear at all times, but at least wear a full-face helmet, gloves and boots.

Scooters don't get the same respect on the road as motorcycles. One way to change this is to go out looking we we take riding seriously and that we're not treating our scooters as toys. Shorts and flips flops aren't only an invitation for serious road rash, they project the wrong image. Many new riders somehow have it in their heads that riding a scooter is somehow safer than a motorcycle. This just isn't so.

Finally, consider reaching out to other riders and learning from their experiences. There are a number of scooter forums (http://www.urbanscootin.com has a Honda focus and is fairly friendly, http://www.scooterdivas.com is an all-female forum) where I'm sure members would be happy to provide advice and tips to a new rider.

Thoughts on your article

Hi Pam,

Congratulations on your scooter. I have a couple comments - while everything you say about how cars behave relative to scooters is true, there are some things as a scooter rider that you can do to minimize your risk and get more comfortable on your scooter. In addition to reading the book recommended in a previous comment, definitely sign up for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course. You will learn valuable lessons about how to stay alive on your scooter, and how to handle the challenging situations.

I would also suggest that your very cute Honda Metro scooter may not be up to the task. You will be safer if you are able to ride at the speed of the traffic. My guess is your Metro can't always keep up with the traffic around it. A 125 cc scooter would probably be more appropriate, and it would still get around 80 mpg. Your scooter should be able to match the speed of the traffic you typically ride with.

Best of luck, and keep at it. Riding a scooter is more work than driving a car, but more rewarding when done properly :)

Call for Exclusive Motorcycle Lanes (EML)

Pam - I feel your pain. I have been pondering these same questions for some time now. After a visit to London over 4 years ago where I was introduced to the concept of Exclusive Motorcycle Lanes (EML), I simply can not get the idea out of my mind. As a planner I work on transportation projects and try to inject EMLs into the alternatives analysis whenever possible. Unfortunately, thus far, no one seems to be taking it seriously. However, the one point that most everyone agrees on is that they would love to ride a scooter to work but simply feel that it is too dangerous. This shouldn't be the case - why do we have to get in to a 3,000 pound car to cart a 150lb body around town? Just doesn't make sense!

I believe this is a simple case of if we build it, they will come. Meaning, if we make it safe to ride scooters, bikes, or motorcycles - at least as a form of commuting - that MANY more people would choose these modes.

Please take a look at my EML blog below. As you will see, EMLs are a viable form of transportation infrastructure in many parts of the world. I hope to start a dialogue about EMLs here in the U.S.

Exclusive Motorcycle Lanes (EML)
http://exclusivemotorcyclelanes.blogspot.com/

Thanks,

Duane Verner

Maybe the answer is less infrastructure more education & mapping

Hi Duane,

I checked out your blog and its very interesting. Rather than infrastructure and paint, maybe the answer is more education and identification of appropriate routes. Check out 511.org. San Francisco has really led the way with multi-modal planning. Their bicycle map is incredible. While much of it rests on excellent bike lanes (though they like everywhere else could use more), a lot of the sophistication of the site rests on the ability to identify appropriate routes for cycle travel. The bicycle map considers bike lanes, traffic levels, even topography!

When my brother used to ride his motorcycle there were a lot of websites which identified scenic motorcycle routes. The same idea could be applied to motorcycle commuting in urban centers. Rather than alienate car drivers cyclists and motorcyclists need to start realizing that the best car routes don't always make the best two wheeled routes. Identifying what makes a good motorcycle commuting route is the first step, then working with traffic planners and engineers to prioritize signals and signage on those routes is a second step.

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