Proper parking and effective right-of-way management are the biggest hindrances to the large-scale and long term success of dockless shared micromobility. With the popularity of these programs across the globe, the parking of these free-floating vehicles remains the biggest challenge and is a source of palpable friction between the various stakeholders in cities — including operators, regulatory authorities, elected officials and community advocacy groups. There are solutions, however, but it’s helpful to first understand some baseline facts.
Fact: Right-of-way Management is Mandatory
The notion that the public right-of-way should be kept clear and accessible is not just wishful thinking. The obligation to regulate streets and sidewalks is mandated for all cities at the local level, with parking enforcement and public works usually responsible for issuing citations and correcting violations. In the absence of any local regulations, parking on pedestrian infrastructure is regulated federally by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — the longstanding foundation that requires a pedestrian right-of-way remain unencumbered in US cities. Since its passage in 1990, some version of the ADA (which celebrates its anniversary this week) has been adopted by 181 countries, making it one of America’s most successful exports.
Fact: Dockless Micromobility is More Popular than Dock-Based
Without wading into the nuances of the topic, data and reporting demonstrate that dockless electric micromobility has been adopted more quickly than its station-based counterparts, both in terms of ridership and geographic expansion. However polarizing they may be, e-scooters and e-bikes are popular, with the convenience of going ‘door-to-door’ efficiently.
Image: Scooter usage shows broader adoption. Among station-based bikeshares, six cities dominate. NACTO
Fact: GPS Technology has Shortcomings
GPS technology has been, and continues to evolve into an incredible technology that enables tracking and management of deployed assets across myriad industries and applications. However, in micromobility operations, the typical GPS chipsets used simply do not have the level of accuracy required to implement very finite geofencing which is inherently needed for things like precise parking management. To make things worse, GPS technology struggles even more mightily where it matters most — dense urban areas with tall buildings where high pedestrian activity is typical. Tall buildings clustered in downtown settings wreak havoc on GPS signals, and result in location inaccuracies of 30–100 feet, and sometimes more.
Fact: Dockless Parking Rules Exist — in Most Cases
To accommodate these new modes of transportation, cities have crafted regulations and designated specific areas where these light electric vehicles are to be parked when not in use. , Typically the dos and don’ts look something like this:
- DO NOT block the right-of-way
- Examples: middle of sidewalk, in the street, blocking curb ramps, in front of business entries, in a bus stop, etc…
- DO park in the ‘furniture & landscape zone’ of the sidewalk (typically within ~2ft of the edge of the curb)
- DO park near existing biking infrastructure (bike racks)
- In some cities, DO use the lock-to cable to secure the scooter to a bike rack
- If available, DO park in designated marked ‘scooter corrals’
How it’s Going…
Operators and regulators have attempted to manage the confusion through rider education and user behavior management. As I alluded to in a previous piece, humans don’t always know the rules or follow them even if they do. The sad truth is that behavior management is staggeringly ineffective when done either preemptively (before riders engage in unwanted user behavior) or reactively (in response to the same unwanted behavior). So, educational flyers, in-app messages and user quizzes that cities and operators provide to control or mitigate the bad behavior yield very poor results, and the user experience suffers. Operators are also required to engage the rider’s cooperation at the completion of their rides by asking them to take and submit a photo of a ‘properly parked’ scooter taken with their phone. As a former operator, our team at grüv by CLEVR Mobility realized a paltry percentage of riders actually submit an actionable photo of a parked scooter. We received more selfies, pictures of feet, the sky and photos of less savory things than we did “properly parked” vehicles.
Some cities deploy docking stations like those made by Swiftmile or Kuhmute. These certainly play a part in keeping order but do not always provide sufficient capacity — and often struggle with the same challenges as do other station-based systems. Instead of docking stations, San Francisco and Chicago require that scooters are equipped with lock-to cables and secured to bike racks at the end of rides. This approach is effective in managing the right-of-way, but also has limitations.
Another method of management involves the use of designated scooter corrals marked with paint or decals strategically located throughout cities — where users are offered monetary incentives to park. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of GPS tech currently used to validate parking in these corrals, well-meaning operators that offer to compliant riders these incentives (add link) face one of two unsatisfactory outcomes:
- A good citizen rider attempts to park their scooter in the corral, but GPS does not recognize that they are in fact in the corral and the monetary reward is not distributed — leaving the customer disappointed and unlikely to try to comply again.
- A rider ends their ride 40 feet away across the street from a marked scooter corral, perhaps unaware of said corral. GPS mistakenly ‘locates’ the scooter in the corral and triggers the monetary reward — resulting in wasted operator dollars, and an undesired outcome.
Cities also reserve the right to fine operators for improperly parked scooters that are reported as such and left unresolved for a specified amount of time. These fines are increasing and result in wasted time and revenue. In true capitalist form, parking and right-of-way woes have given rise to a cottage industry of ‘scooter cleanup’, where companies field property owner reports of poorly parked vehicles, impound them and then charge the operators a hefty fee to get them out of hock.
The good news is that attempts at solving these problems are emerging. Tier, one of the largest scooter operators in Europe, has partnered with a company called Fantasmo who uses a Camera Positioning System and their parking SDK to ensure better parking. This solution requires time-consuming high definition visual ‘mapping’ of the target environment and still relies on rider compliance to be effective. This approach also introduces a totally new (and somewhat more complex) user experience at the end of the ride: rather than taking the customary photo of the scooter itself, the rider must stand right next to the scooter and use their camera phone to ‘scan’ their surroundings so the system can position itself in relation to the visual map database. While more accurate than existing methods, this new process is not rapidly scalable in new environments and will likely cause confusion for both cities and riders. .
The current way of doing things is not working great for the different stakeholders. Cities don’t have the resources or bandwidth to deal with reactive enforcement, operators lose money and credibility, riders endure a cumbersome user experience, and other stakeholders (pedestrians, persons with disabilities, private property owners) are left holding the bag.
How it Could be Going…
There is a better way — and Drover has the solution. Through the use of a camera, sensor fusion and machine learning, Drover’s PathPilot technology enables real-time parking validation for its partners. In addition, when the PathPilot registers a vehicle speed below 2 MPH, its AI algorithm transitions from riding functionality (sidewalk detection, etc) to parking functionality.
Out of the box, PathPilot looks for 3 ‘valid’ parking outcomes:
1) within ~2ft of the edge of the sidewalk,
2) within ~2ft of bike racks, and
3) within a clearly marked designated scooter corral.
Anything outside is deemed ‘invalid’ with certain selectable ‘extra invalid’ outcomes such as blocking a curb ramp, or placement in the middle of the street. These higher prioritizations will result in prioritizing responses.
The nuances of dockless parking rules and variations between city infrastructure are endless. The task of ‘validating’ parking is less about highly accurate results (unlike our sidewalk detection where high accuracy is of utmost importance) and more about drastically improving the experiences for everyone involved. By guaranteeing actionable information at the end of each and every ride, Drover offers the ability for operators to proactively comply with regulations while simultaneously improving the user experience and removing much of the friction surrounding free-floating parking.
PathPilot validating parking within a scooter corral in Miami. Red oval = invalid; green oval = valid.
Drover’s Pathpilot provides advantages that include:
- No longer needing to burden riders with the responsibility of taking and submitting photos at the completion of rides. PathPilot’s camera ensures a smoother end of ride experience while also guaranteeing a relevant photo that will inform any necessary actions.
- Using PathPilot’s inferencing of parking, operators can nudge riders into better parking outcomes by surfacing real-time in-app alerts that increases the likelihood of good parking behavior — even where rules are not clear to the rider.
- Dedicated parking corrals will become more effective because the PathPilot visually recognizes that a ride is being ended within a corral — eliminating the type of GPS related mistakes referenced above.
- More accurate and granular information associated with dockless parking which helps paint a clearer picture for operators and cities. Enabling operators to be proactive about undesirable parking outcomes will reduce or avoid costly fines and cities will not be burdened with as much reactive enforcement.
- Disability and community advocates will finally have their right-of-way concerns addressed and be more likely to embrace these forms of sustainable transportation without reservation.
As I said at the beginning of this article, PathPilot is not a technology in need of new regulations to accommodate it. Drover’s objective is to help operators comply with existing laws which are currently grossly flouted.
As a human and father of two young children, I am deeply concerned about the future of the planet. I am committed to leveraging the technology Drover has pioneered in support of the long term safety and viability of shared (and consumer) micromobility as part of sustainable urban transportation. I am convinced that by eliminating the industry’s biggest barriers like illegal sidewalk riding and improper parking, cities can embrace these new forms of transportation as complements to public transit instead of continuing with the automobile status quo of congestion and pollution.