Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Beyond Segways: We Should Care About Mobility Scooters

When the Segway was introduced some people claimed that it was going to revolutionize personal transportation. That hasn't really happened, not yet anyway, but perhaps Segway was simply too soon to market. As developed countries grapple with aging populations and the number of people who are mobility impaired increases mobility scooters will grow into a large market segment. This means that planners need to think about how to accommodate these vehicles. 

A couple of weeks ago the Guardian ran a story about the trouble that mobility scooters are causing in the UK. One takeaway from the article is that while the mobility scooter industry is booming no one knows anything about usage:

The steady rise in sales of these vehicles is evident in their inescapable presence in shopping centres, rural town centres, and high streets all over the country. Weirdly, there are no industry statistics that give an accurate sense of how the market is growing, but the Department for Transport offers estimates, suggesting that there are around 250,000 to 300,000 on the road across the UK, four times the total five years ago of around 70,000. Mobility scooter shops have opened up in most medium-sized towns in the past decade (also offering specially designed armchairs and beds for frail and older people).
None of the suppliers will reveal their sales figures, but around 60-70,000 scooters are thought to be sold here each year. No other country in Europe is selling as many (with the possible exception of Holland, where bicycle use is very high, and the mobility scooter is seen as a bike replacement for older cyclists).
There has been a marked change in the way people use them. A decade ago these were products used only by very frail people; now manufacturers are designing new models with bench seats capable of carrying people up to 40st. "It's a cultural issue. People are larger and, dare I say it, lazier," an industry spokesman says (before deciding that he doesn't dare say it, and asking for his name not to be put to the quote). "People are using them as a mode of transport rather than public transport or a car."
So far the design of Segways and scooters is sufficiently dorky or utilitarian so there likely aren't that many lazy people who choose to ride one everywhere. But since the market is expanding so rapidly I expect that new designs will emerge that capture the attention of people. For instance, check out this new Honda Uni-Cub:

The Uni-Cub doesn't help mobility impaired people much, if at all, because of the lack of a back and other things. But maybe a cool design like this inspires otherwise healthy people to buy them in droves. It happened with those Razor scooters, so I don't think it's far fetched to imagine it might happen.

A larger issue is what planners need to do about, if anything. Can motorized scooters co-exist with pedestrians, cyclists and cars? Will our penchant for new and dedicated infrastructure for all modes lead us to create special scooter lanes? That seems like a bad idea, but I suspect the growth in mobility scooters--by choice or condition--requires that planners start thinking about how to incorporate these modes into the built environment.

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