The Micromobility Safety Debate? Stats, Lies and Videotape…

Earlier this month, the Shlomo Shmeltzer Institute for Smart Transportation at the Tel Aviv University hosted an event focused on Micromobility.

The debate started around safety aspects, and the two opening sessions were delivered by Dr. Moran Bodes from the Israel National Center for Trauma & Emergency Medicine Research at the Gertner Institute for Epidemiology and Health Policy Research, and by Chief Inspector Inbal Katz Ovadia, from the R&D unit at the Transport Department of the Israeli Police.

Both speakers have presented alarming figures depicting the rise in micromobility related accidents. An increase of 230% in the number of victims hospitalized due to a micromobility related accident, a quarter of them occurred in Tel Aviv alone. Alongside the decrease in number of accidents involving electric bicycles, there is a rise in the number of accidents involving electric kickscooters.

There are quite a few challenges from the law enforcement perspective as well. Micromobility vehicles do not require license and registration according to Israeli law. Many of the accident victims hospitalized did not use a helmet. Many of the victims are younger than the minimum age required in order to ride such vehicles (16 years), although a 30% decrease in their numbers was registered in 2019.

The advantages of e-kickscooters and similar micromobility platforms are evident. Quoting from Chief Inspector Ovadia’s presentation, it’s quick and easy to use, reduces pollution and congestion, and contributes to local GDP as electricity is generated from locally produced natural gas. With the reduction in battery cost, the spike in the range these platforms can reach, and local conditions of a fairly flat city, with over 300 days of sunshine per year, “enjoying” the most congested roads in the OECD , it is obvious why Tel Aviv was the first city in Bird’s global expansion plan outside the US. Reports indicate that over 1.1 million shared e-kickscooter rides are done monthly in Tel Aviv, a city of less than 450,000 residents. It is hard to believe that the first “Bird” has landed in Tel Aviv only 18 months ago.

These sets of statistics represent both sides of the debate around micromobility and safety. The hike in usage numbers suggest that users of micromobility enjoy all the benefits mentioned above. On the other hand, non-users point out the risks associated with micromobility: pedestrians feel threatened by such vehicles, and drivers of heavier motorized vehicles, now must face much faster riders popping out of nowhere in a matter of seconds. No matter where they ride, there seems to be some friction that annoys someone.

However, the fact remains – there is not enough data to really understand the problem, and hence, figure out the right solutions.

When each party focuses on the available data to justify its claims, we find ourselves witnessing absurdities, such as including a case where a rider fell off an e-scooter due to a dog chasing him, in the statistics of accidents caused by micromobility, or people blaming e-scooters for the tragic death of a young man, who rode helmetless and under the influence, eventually hit by a car while crossing the road.

Collecting more data related to the characteristics of the reported accidents could be extremely helpful:

  1. Who was hurt? The rider or someone else?

  2. Was the accident between two riders? Between heavy vehicle and rider? Between rider and pedestrian? Or perhaps a self inflicted accident?

  3. Where did the accident take place exactly? On the road? On the sidewalk? On a bicycle lane?

There could also be so many different causes to accidents: vehicle not respecting the required distance from a rider ahead, bus drivers “cutting” riders when approaching the bus stop, pedestrians crossing a bicycle lane without looking, or just reckless riding or lousy infrastructure that caused the rider to fall and get hurt without implicating anyone else.

And perhaps the most significant piece of data missing in order for us to compare and better understand if micromobility increases or reduces overall safety, is number of accidents per mileage, broken down by modalities of transportation.

The 230% hike in number of hospitalized last year due to micromobility related accidents, could well get a different meaning, a much more positive one, if placed within a context of a 4-digit % increase in total km ridden. Or could be that in spite of the figures presented by Dr. Bodes and Chief Inspector Ovadia, micromobility might turn out to be much safer than cars, with much less accidents per km.

Also, if over 60 or 70% of riding is done in Tel Aviv, then we can probably be relieved by the fact that only 25% of the accidents occur in Tel Aviv, suggesting that the investment in dedicated riding infrastructure could be critical, or proving the “herd protection” concept here as well.

We might learn that most of the accidents are self inflicted and require more investment in infrastructure, or we could possibly find out that when riders are directed to sidewalks, they might tend to ride more prudently, therefore causing less accidents, or less severe ones, compared to the alternative of sharing the roads with much bigger and faster cars. Of course, we could also learn the complete opposite…

The data we’re missing also has the potential to indicate how regulation should look like. Where people should be allowed to ride? Under which restrictions? By which criteria? Does it make sense placing riders at 25kph on the same bike lane as 5 years’ old’s riding at 8kph just because both ride something called a “bicycle”? Does it matter if the bicycle is motorized or not when discussing the under 30kph range? All these questions are left with no answer.

Without proper data, the debate will remain as shallow as it is, with each side manipulating the limited available stats, showing a very partial take on reality to support the agenda, and decision making will be based on the personal gut feeling of decision makers.

PS: If you understand Hebrew, you should check out all the videos from the event. The second part was also quite interesting, with a great presentation by our very own Trailze CEO, Ronen Bitan.