Why Paul Steely White is joining the e-scooter revolution

Transportation Alternatives’ longtime leader Paul Steely White is shifting gears.

Paul Steely White

Paul Steely White Photo courtesy Transportation Alternatives

During his more than 14 years leading Transportation Alternatives, Paul Steely White was one of New York City’s most vocal champions of pedestrians, cyclists and public transit. But now he’s shifting gears. Next month he’ll be taking on a new role as director of safety policy and advocacy at Bird, an electric scooter rental company. City & State’s Prachi Bhardwaj spoke with White about how e-scooters fit in among New York City’s transportation options – and how they fit in with his longtime advocacy goals.

Are you taking any time off between leaving Transportation Alternatives and joining Bird?

I wish I could. My start date is going to be Nov. 12, so right after our Vision Zero conference up at Columbia (University).

Why did you decide to join Bird? Did they approach you or vice versa?

It was somewhat mutual, I think. I was ready for something new and then intrigued by the fast-growing small vehicle space, which really seems like an exciting new front line in the battle against the car.

I think too, I just feel so excited about being a meaningful contributor to how this is shaped. Some in the industry and the base are saying, “Well, we have to make sure that we don’t compromise the walking or the bicycle environment as it exists now,” and, “We have to be mindful of not infringing on pedestrian space or bicyclers’ space,” and I absolutely disagree with that. I think that it has to be something that enhances the biking and walking experience. Biking and walking will always be my first love, full stop.

What I think that means is making sure that e-scooters and the like aren’t just filling up sidewalk, but that we’re also forming new coalitions that ultimately recoup a lot of car space and turn it into people space.

Because if you look at the fact that something like half of all urban driving trips are like two miles or less in length, that’s right in the sweet spot for e-scooters and their cousins. So I think there’s a huge potential to switch car trips to more efficient means.

I think it’s really important for bicyclists to realize that this is a classic big-tent moment where – with this common cause that I think we now have with these new forms of small efficient human-scale mobility – there’s really an enormous opportunity to team up and win more protected space for all of us. That means wider protected bike lanes for all manner of small vehicles, and it means more connected cohesive networks of protected bike lane paths. And I think it also means lower vehicular speed limits, because sometimes the most effective way to improve safety for these small vehicles is not just to provide protective main space but to simply calm traffic across the board.

In what ways do you think your goal – “to make streets better for people” as you said in a statement recently – will change?

It remains to be seen, where I’ve never actually worked in the private sector so I may be in for some surprises. I’m sure I am. Because before joining Transportation Alternatives as executive director in 2004, for the previous seven years, I was working for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. So I’ve worked exclusively in the nonprofit space. So in some ways, I don’t know how it’ll be the same or different, but my hope is that in many ways the central thrust is really the same, which is to make these modes safer, to reclaim more urban space from the automobile, to give everyone – not just the intrepid – the option of leaving a car at home or not having one in the first place. So I think all my work to do what was done in New York City, all my work to usher in the Vision Zero age, I really hope to apply all of those tools to help grow – really not just e-scooter use – but I think all manner of small, efficient, nimble vehicles. I really do think it’s going to take not just competitors in that space working together, but certainly working in tandem with advocates, with health advocates, with sustainability advocates – because the challenges are real. I think there’s going to be some who will say, “Oh, well you know, these modes are inherently dangerous, let’s pass more draconian helmet laws,” or “Let’s really restrict or highly regulate their use,” or restrict them entirely, which we’ve seen happen to bicycling in some corners of America.

And so the opposite to that approach, of course, is saying “You know what, to solve all of these problems, from sustainability to livability to convenience and affordability, we as city users, as coalitions, are going to push to make these modes accommodated.” And so that’s really, I think, the central path before us – and before me – is to make sure that it’s fair. It’s really going to be an unfortunate turn of events if we’re holding these efficient small vehicles to a higher – or I should say, to a different – standard (than automobiles).

E-scooters are technically illegal in the state, right? Can you explain what makes them illegal?

I think there’s a lot of murkiness right now about the extent to which the city versus the state has the regulatory authority. Transportation Alternatives and some of the others are of the opinion that the city has the authority to regulate these vehicles without the state. Some at the state may beg to differ and certainly do, but – wearing my Transportation Alternatives hat – we’ve been working some time to pass a rational regulatory framework for pedal-assist bicycles, e-scooters, and really the whole landscape, and I think that starts with recognizing that they’re in a legal limbo right now and, in some cases, are explicitly prohibited. But the rational way to approach this is to have a comprehensive regulatory framework that governs all of them and really recognizing that speed is paramount. (Meaning) that how fast these vehicles can travel is really the most important aspect.

Over a certain speed, these vehicles absolutely do not belong in bike lanes or on greenways, and for pedal-assist bicycles, we’ve defined that at 20 miles per hour and for e-scooters we’re defining that at or around 15 (miles per hour). And so I think managing use to make sure that these modes are integrating within the existing context and ecosystem of New York City’s complex transportation ecosystem, I think, requires very careful consideration on speed in particular.

What are the barriers to preventing e-scooters from becoming legal?

Honestly, I don’t see any huge barriers. I think there’s pretty widespread acceptance and a view that – especially in light of our transit crisis, in light of our sustainability crisis, in light of the clear demand for more options … I haven’t encountered any – as an advocate – any real resistance or obstacles.

There’s definitely legitimate concerns, and those have to do with making sure that the primacy of the pedestrian is protected. Making sure that sidewalk clutter is not something that becomes an issue, and we’ve been working on that for some time at (Transportation Alternatives) and I think really the ultimate solution to that – or the smart solution to that – is to designate certain car parking spaces and flip those into two-wheel parking, not just for e-scooters, but really for all manner of small vehicles: shared mopeds, even motorcycles, should have copious on-street parking in recognition of their spatial footprint. So I think making sure that the pedestrian experience is enhanced and taken care of is really what I’ve been hearing most from people in terms of their concerns.

You mentioned creating things like speed, parking and lane requirements. Can you talk through some of the points being considered in the legislative proposal to make them legal?

I think those are the main ones. I think there’s also a very strong desire to make sure that the delivery cyclists and working cyclists who depend on e-bikes are also addressed and that they find a path to legitimacy through all this attention that’s now being focused on the sector. I think it’s incredibly important from a moral point of view, but also from a practical point of view, that cyclists are not left behind. So we’re talking to a network of stakeholders in this space, both from advocates and from the private sector to figure out how – as all of this gets addressed – working cyclists have an easy and affordable path to legitimate usage. So I think in practical terms, it’s going to mean a conversion program so that the higher speed forms of e-bikes that delivery workers often use are toned down a little bit to 20 (miles per hour) or below – which everyone seems to agree is the threshold.

An obvious potential threat to legitimizing e-scooters is infrastructure. Bird itself had an issue with this in a few cities on the West Coast. What makes New York more ready to take e-scooters on from an infrastructure standpoint?

I think that the viability of e-scooter sharing in the city has a lot to do with infrastructure, but of course that’s not the only factor. The extent to which a company is responding to concerns and partnering to solve common goals, I think that really is paramount. And you know, I think since the early days – and it sounds funny saying “the early days,” since this is just like a year ago that they came to be – my sense of the company is that it’s the company that’s rapidly evolving and learning from its mistakes.

I think there’s really a newfound sense of sensitivities to what really makes cities and city government tick and what their priorities are. So I think the extent to which they are or are not successful will have a lot to do with that.

I also just want to point that my role with the company will be global, and it will be much more outside of New York (than it is now). Even though I will be based here in New York, I will be minding more control of policy and operations elsewhere. But that said, I do think New York is in many ways very conducive to e-scooter use because of our density and the fact that destinations are so close together and there’s such a demand right now, particularly with the state of our transit system. So I think in many ways, things are very aligned in New York to make scooter use ubiquitous.

In terms of equity, what would you say to people who are concerned about the idea of privatizing transportation?

You have to realize that we already have a very pervasive privatized transportation system, in that the whole system is really geared toward automobiles and that sad fact is – even with New York City being such a transit town – the vast majority of public street space is still devoted to the motorcars. And making more room on our subways is not a bad thing. So even if some transit trips are being replaced, I see that actually as a positive. And it’s just getting more out of our surface network, is really the name of the game now, especially as long as Albany controls most of the subterranean transit system.

I think this is a situation where I think there’s a partnership between city government and private operators, and I think city government is getting more shrewd about negotiating the terms of engagement so that people benefit. I think that’s a very positive development and I think looking at the evolution of Uber and Lyft, a lot of cities are thinking, “We really should have gotten ahead of that and we should have figured out how to retain the right amount of control and how to negotiate these deals.”

I think that’s where we are today in terms of government being much smarter about negotiating the best terms for the riding public. That privatization is a ship that sailed a hundred years ago with the motorcar taking over our public space. So if our company goes there and they’re more efficient and they’re more affordable and they’re horning in on that action, I don’t see that as a bad development.

A concern is that e-scooters bring in one more transportation alternative, so there’s even less attention on public transportation. Will that make the quality of the subways go down?

Honestly, I think the way this is going to play out in New York is that it won’t be an either/or. It won’t be like, “Is it a scooter trip or a subway trip or a car trip.” I think it’ll more likely be more of a multimodal trip so that people are scootering to the train or to the bus. Or in the case of the L train, we’re going to see a lot of people hopefully using e-scooters as a strategy to get to that subway station that’s a little bit out of reach, so that they could take the J, the M or the Z more easily than they could otherwise. So it’s about how e-scooters and other new modes can contribute to a more multimodal, more resilient suite of transportation options.

One of the points in favor of e-scooters is that they are a greener alternative to cars. So where do e-scooters fall on the carbon footprint spectrum?

Clearly the greenest form of transportation is walking, and that will never change. But I think when looking at the environmental impact or benefit of transportation, it’s obviously, as you point out, important to look at sort of a direct carbon contribution and what’s the net carbon contribution when you factor in things like how the power is generated, how the power is being used, and all of that. In that respect, any scooter is a huge step up from a car and probably even better than a subway, which use a lot more energy than you think, per capita. But I think what’s the most important environmental benefit to focus on is livability, because let’s remember that New Yorkers generate only a third as much carbon as the average American, just by manner of living in New York. We share walls with our neighbors, so it doesn’t take as much to heat. We use cars much less, but the question is, how you get more people packed into cities in a sustainable, livable way, to leverage the inherent sustainability benefits of urban life. And that has everything to do with how we’re using our street space. So I think the real sustainability story with e-scooters is really a spatial efficiency. Even if e-scooters ran on fossil fuel – which they don’t – it would still be a huge environmental net positive because you’re just saving all of that public space that can be repurposed for linear parks, bus lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks. The problem with the motorcar isn’t what it runs on, it’s just this voracious spatial appetite that makes cities less desirable to live in in the first place. So really, I think when the returns are in, the environmental benefits of e-scooters will be 20 percent the direct carbon savings and 80 percent (making) these natural engines of sustainability – cities – more attractive.