Now that cities have finally acknowledged bikes as viable commuter options, why stop there?
For most of the 20th century, “bicycle planning” was not a thing. Now we have city planners and consultants who specialize in making bikes a part of the transportation conversation. The fact that cyclists are a minority among commuters is not, thankfully, a reason to dismiss bicycles as a transportation priority. Federal, state, and local governments have worked to improve conditions for cyclists, making it safer and easier for people to get out of their cars and onto their bikes—a healthier way to commute in both personal and environmental terms.
Observing the ascendance of the bicycle in transportation planning has made me wonder about other “minority modes.” At one point, I was using a skateboard to get to and from the commuter train I rode to work. The train station was a mile from the office: a 20-minute walk or a 7-minute ride on the board. One day I walked into the elevator of my workplace, a transportation agency, skateboard in tow, and an upper-level manager asked if I had actually ridden it to work. I explained that it was my “last-mile solution” from the train. He chuckled, saying “I guess we don’t have a transportation model for that!”
He was right. Skateboards and other simple transportation solutions are often excluded from formal studies and plans. It’s understandable, as most Americans drive cars, some take transit, but even fewer bike or walk. However, when I started skateboarding, I realized how many other folks were doing the same. I learned which street designs were helpful or harmful to people getting around on wheels, and that includes wheelchairs.
That’s why every transportation planner should ride a skateboard, at least once, because people are using these unusual modes of transportation, though at a more infrequent rate, and our streets should be safe for those commuters, too. Someday, like the bicycle, they might play a bigger role in our attempt to conserve fossil fuels, decrease emissions, and end our chronic dependency on the automobile. Here are a few other as-yet neglected minority modes to consider:
The Razor Scooter
I will never forget the time I saw a professional, tweed skirt-clad woman with gray hair and Versace purse gliding past me on a Razor scooter in New York City. I was a kid when Razor scooters made their debut as the “it” Christmas present, but they also have significant utility. These non-motorized devices are light, packable, and easy to ride. Along with skateboards and skates, Razors are great ways to access nearby transit, a fact that was explored in a 2004 study out of University of California at Berkley.
I’m not sure how the United States missed the boat on mopeds. Most of the world gets it. For example, motorcycles/mopeds make up 85 percent of vehicles on the road in Ho Chi Minh City. They provide motorized mobility for a fraction of the sticker price, fuel consumption, road space, and parking space of a car. In September, The Guardian discussed the benefits of urban mopeds in Australia and cited a study conducted in Brussels, which found that if one in 10 auto commuters switched to motorcycles or mopeds, congestion would decrease 40 percent. Yes, please.
Human-powered conveyances have been around since ancient Egypt and oddly enough they are still here, operating in many cities in the form of pedicabs or non-motorized rickshaws. This pedal-powered taxi is best suited for densely populated areas and is perfect for accessing places that cannot be reached by “fixed” transit networks. As a bonus, the drivers are often equipped with an ample store of local knowledge. Most research on the pedicab focuses outside the U.S., but this year an engineering professor at City College of New York published a monograph about the challenges and benefits of pedicabs in the U.S., particularly in the face of city regulations.
Slate recently unearthed an article about CIA officials commuting by canoe to headquarters on the Potomac River, which coincided with a New Yorker story that briefly mentioned a man who used his canoe to travel from Manhattan to his workplace on Roosevelt Island. It turns out that quite a few people get to work by paddling across bodies of water, since many cities are situated on rivers or bays. Research on canoe-as-commute is limited, though there is this gem, titled “Canoeing as a Counter-Hegemonic Practice: I Can, Can You?” I wish I could.
To be fair, not everyone can realistically skate or scoot or paddle to work. The underlying point is that there are many options for getting around apart from large, expensive automobiles. However, in a car-dominated street environment, those options are harder and more dangerous to use. As planners and involved citizens, we can fix this by building dense, amenity-rich neighborhoods, limiting the abundance of automobile parking, and designing safe, complete streets. In this way, we are literally paving the way for people to navigate cities in whichever fun, effective, and economical way they choose.