NJSPL – Safely Accommodating Micromobility Innovations

April 30, 2024

From Lab to Streets: Safely Accommodating Micromobility Innovations

By Clinton J. Andrews, Leigh Ann von Hagen, Robert Noland, Hannah Younes, Wenwen Zhang, Jie Gong, Dimitris Metaxas, Desheng Zhang

Electric scooters have been widely visible on our streets only since 2018. They are part of a wave of “low-speed, electric” micromobility innovations including shared bicycles, individual electric bikes, hoverboards, and electric wheelchairs that are changing how we move around. Micromobility technologies augment older modes of travel, especially public transit, to provide a first and last mile linkage. They also help with efficient deliveries of goods and help people with physical limitations due to age, physical fitness levels, or disabilities.  They offer environmental benefits compared to driving. But the arrival of micromobility technologies on our streets and sidewalks has not gone smoothly. It has brought new safety concerns and aesthetic complaints. Our current systems, whether physical, administrative, or cultural, have been slow to adapt to these new arrivals. It has become an important and interesting policy problem.

The Micromobility 2.0 Summit at Rutgers on March 22, 2024 brought together 110 researchers, public officials, industry leaders, and activists to explore these problems and possible solutions. The event highlighted what has been learned from studying micromobility deployments in New Jersey and elsewhere, and showcased exciting new technological solutions that are emerging from university laboratories. Here is what we learned.

Recently the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) adopted a Safe System Approach that prioritizes efforts to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries on our roads. This approach aims to design systems that take into account both human mistakes and vulnerabilities. It pursues safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds, safer people, and post-crash care. This framework has application to micromobility.

Safer Roads and Speeds

Existing road and sidewalk infrastructure poorly accommodates the new micromobility technologies. E-scooters, e-bikes, and other micromobility technologies are too fast for our sidewalks and too vulnerable for many of our streets. More lane miles of dedicated and protected bike lanes are desperately needed. In some high-usage areas, multi-lane and wider bike lanes are needed to accommodate the relatively faster e-bikes alongside slower manual bikes and e-scooters.  Research at Rutgers has also shown that bike lanes can make the road safer for all users as they calm traffic and slow speeds.

Safer People

Appropriate rules of the road for micromobility users are not widely agreed and known. E-scooter users often use sidewalks even when a bike lane is available. The speed and maneuverability mismatches between pedestrians and e-scooters are significant, as are those between e-bikes and other bike lane users. Car and truck drivers are often not expecting to encounter micromobility users on the road. Creating more bike lanes is one way to mitigate these conflicts. Few e-scooter riders use helmets, even though head injuries are one of the most frequent types of serious injury resulting from e-scooter crashes. Some e-scooter companies have developed technology that requires users to have a helmet before checking out a shared e-scooter.

Safer Vehicles

Fires associated with improperly charging or using substandard lithium-ion batteries have claimed many lives in urban settings. Safe charging stations located away from residential settings, strictly enforced battery and charger quality standards, and education programs to help riders know what to do are all needed.

Post-Crash Care

Although U.S. DOT’s Safe System Approach defines post-crash care as access to emergency medical care, it should also include improving data collection, evaluation, and establishing performance measures.

Data Improvements Needed

Existing administrative and regulatory structures are just beginning to recognize and track micromobility safety and legal incidents. In 2023, the definitions in New Jersey’s police incident reports were updated to include low-speed electric vehicles, yet incidents that do not involve a motor vehicle are not reported in traffic crash reports. This leaves out data about individual incidents or crashes between low-speed electric and manual non-motorized vehicles and/or pedestrians.  Similarly, hospital emergency rooms only started collecting searchable data on e-scooter-related injuries after 2019, and in many locations no data are yet available. Early data from emergency rooms suggest that e-scooters are not more dangerous to ride than bicycles and e-bikes, but their prevalence means an increasing number of injuries, often falls.

Emerging Technological Solutions

Administrative systems lag behind current safety measurement needs, so emerging practices of using AI for automation of identifying objects and people in images and videos, aka computer vision tools, are providing relevant data. Rutgers researchers demonstrated a system that uses traffic cameras to identify various types of micromobility devices, perform 3D tracking of their speed and trajectories, and accurately predict near misses and other safety-related conflicts among road users. This allows collection of location-specific safety data for redesigning roadways and understanding systemwide safety performance.

Street and sidewalk conditions strongly affect rider safety on small-wheeled e-scooters and other micromobility devices. Mobile Lidar (light detection and ranging) technologies deployed by Rutgers researchers are documenting the streets and sidewalks of New Jersey. The resulting 3D point clouds provide detailed models of roadway geometries and conditions with millimeter-level precision. This data allows transportation engineers and planners to identify road segments in need of pavement and sidewalk improvements and to correlate surface conditions with the locations of crashes and near misses. It also supports rich visualizations of streetscapes.

A Virtual Reality simulator created at Rutgers allows users to experience what it is like to ride an e-scooter through the streets of a city while simultaneously measuring riders’ eye fixation and certain brain activities through eye tracking and electroencephalogram (EEG) devices. The simulator, calibrated for Asbury Park, NJ, is useful for rider training, streetscape design, public policy development, and tourism promotion.

Eye-tracking glasses, heart rate trackers, and galvanic skin response measurement devices deployed by Rutgers researchers are providing quantitative evidence of navigation behavior, mental workload, and perceived road safety. These studies offer the user’s-eye view of streets and sidewalks and support a better understanding of which safety issues are most concerning to pedestrians, bicyclists, e-scooter riders, and drivers.

Commercial vendors providing shared e-scooter and e-bike equipment rentals face challenges in rebalancing their fleets at the end of each day, to relocate equipment to locations where riders will want to use them. Rutgers and Lehigh University researchers have developed a superior machine learning algorithm for rebalancing e-scooters and e-bikes that specifically considers riders’ behaviors, such as energy consumption and e-scooter/bike pickup.

As vehicles of all types become smarter and more interconnected, it will become possible to provide better situational awareness to all road users, including pedestrians. As the first step, Rutgers researchers have demonstrated an interconnected mobile phone app that can monitor both the surrounding environment as well as riders’ attention. The app also supports automated communications to alert road users of impending conflicts and near misses. This advances the ongoing and currently haphazard movement toward road user experiences that become safer by automating more driver and rider functions.

Takeaways

The Rutgers Micromobility 2.0 workshop, funded by the National Science Foundation in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration, provided tantalizing glimpses of a better future that seamlessly incorporates micromobility alongside pedestrians, cars, and transit. In the near term, achieving that future depends on making serious commitments to improved roadway infrastructure, especially infrastructure that slows speeds and provides protection for vulnerable road users.

The Safe System Approach encourages multi-disciplinary partnerships to address preventing roadway deaths, calling on public and private sector actors, advocacy and community groups, researchers, and beyond to work together to make our streets safer. The NSF Micromobility Smart and Connected Communities Grant and our Rutgers Micromobility 2.0 Workshop demonstrate how an interdisciplinary partnership between researchers in urban planning, engineering, public informatics, and computer science expands the research, literature and science to broaden the understanding and implementation of micromobility solutions. This collaboration has allowed for an examination of factors influencing micromobility, including infrastructure design, user behavior, technology integration, and policy development. Through this collective effort, we have been able to develop innovative data collection and analysis strategies and recommendations that can transform urban mobility and enhance the safety, accessibility, and sustainability of our cities.

There is a desperate need to update administrative systems in policing and healthcare to better track geolocated data about adverse micromobility safety events. There are numerous behavioral issues associated with the deployment of these new technologies that warrant expansion of training, education and nuanced enforcement programs focused on micromobility ridership and battery management. Finally, in the longer term, there are many exciting technological innovations that are emerging from Rutgers laboratories that, when refined and deployed, can improve the future micromobility experience.

For more information go to https://bloustein.rutgers.edu/micromobility/.

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