Matt Driscoll

There are reasons Tacoma embraced e-scooters but kicked e-bikes to the curb

The bad news — if you want to call it that — was somewhat buried.

Amidst reports that Lime recently secured a new permit, giving the company the go ahead to operate 500 scooters in Tacoma through Sept. 30, was news its fleet of 250 e-bikes was being taken off the streets.

As of Feb. 1, the bright green bikes became a thing of the past in Tacoma, like so many unmaterialized T-Town dreams before them.

So long, bikeshare. We hardly knew you.

According to the city’s active transportation coordinator, Meredith Soniat, it was a “business decision” by Lime, precipitated by lower than hoped for e-bike ridership. Over the course of the last month, Soniat said, each bike was ridden less than one time per day.

While there are a number of variables — including weather and time of year — that affect ridership, Gabriel Scheer, Lime’s director of strategic development, said the company typically considers ridership of 1.5 to 2 rides a day to be a success.

Safe to say Tacoma’s e-bike showing wasn’t great.

Delve a little deeper and more interesting questions — and potential lessons — emerge.

In reality, the story of e-bikes in Tacoma might not be as much about what went wrong with them as it is about what went unexpectedly right with scooters. They’ve been a hit, leaving e-bikes in their dust.

Meanwhile, e-bike and scooter usage patterns — and especially the geographical discrepancies between north and south — provide a clear indication of Tacoma’s transportation infrastructure shortcomings.

What this information reveals is important, illuminating the work that needs to be done if the city really hopes to increase transportation options from Point Defiance to Fern Hill.

“My gut reaction is I’m depressed about it. It makes me really sad,” said Downtown on the Go executive director Kristina Walker, whose organization champions transportation options beyond the automobile, including bicycles.

“I’m just bummed that we didn’t have enough people using them,” Walker said.

At the same time, Walker couldn’t help but express her surprise and delight with how well Lime’s scooters have been received.

Like many, Walker has been somewhat shocked by how popular they’ve been.

The numbers bear this out. According to usage numbers shared with the city by Lime and Bird, the other company currently providing scooters in Tacoma, Lime e-bikes had logged a total of 12,674 rides, while Lime and Bird scooters had tallied 91,873.

The contrast is glaring.

According to Walker, the big difference — which probably wasn’t as apparent as it should have been in the beginning — is that scooters have two things going for them that e-bikes don’t.

First, they’re accessible to a broad section of the population. Riding a bike can be intimidating, especially for beginners in traffic, while quickly hopping on a scooter feels easy. Clothing is less of a concern, and there’s less work involved for the rider.

While pedestrian safety — specific to sidewalk speed and valid concerns raised by the disabled — must still be addressed in a meaningful way, for a would-be scooter or e-bike rider, the choice between the two was often obvious.

“I think there is something for sure to be learned about the ease of access,” Walker said. “We’ve always said this, too. If the bus was the easiest way to get around, people would do it. Making things easy and accessible is going to help us meet our goals, and I think it reinforces that idea.”

Second, and not to be overlooked, the scooters are fun.

“The scooter just brings a level of fun, and I don’t think most of us really expect transportation to be fun anymore,” said Scheer. “We expect it to be kind of beastly, to be frank. It’s not something where you get off with a smile on your face.”

“The scooters just do that,” he said.

This brings us back to perhaps the more meaningful takeaway

Predictably, ridership numbers have been moderate to high in downtown, along Ruston Way and throughout North and Central Tacoma. They decline precipitously, often to near nonexistent levels, throughout most of the East Side and South Tacoma.

While some of this discrepancy can likely be attributed to too few e-bikes and scooters being available on the East Side and in South Tacoma — a reality Scheer acknowledged — the fact is that, thanks to years of car-centric planning, these parts of Tacoma are also far less friendly to other modes of transportation.

The e-bike and scooter usage data we now have provides further proof.

In short, people are less likely to use e-bikes or scooters in areas that don’t feel as safe.

According to Scheer, a number of factors are likely at play. When traffic gets faster, bus service gets less frequent and predictable and the distance between Point A and Point B gets longer and longer, it’s only natural that ridership will fall.

“With our service all over the place, it starts to expose where (transportation infrastructure is) stronger and where it’s weaker,” Scheer said. “You need all these things together to really make the system work.”

As Walker put it, it comes down to “really taking a hard look at our infrastructure, and where it feels like you can use bike or scooter share.”

“I would say the best thing that has come out of this is … elevating the conversation about the use of our streets,” she said.

“People aren’t going to ride when the infrastructure isn’t going to support it.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.