Last summer, just as e-scooters were about to hit the streets of Portland, OR, I talked with a Wired reporter doing a story about e-scooters reaching a broader audience than bikeshare and other new mobility options – not just for “tech bros” was the headline. A survey of 10 cities had come out from Populus that showed more positive opinions of e-scooters among women compared to men. Since I’ve done work on the gender gap in cycling, the reporter thought I might have something to add to the conversation. Here’s what ended up in the Wired story:
Jennifer Dill, who studies transportation decision-making at Portland State University, has another theory, based on her and others’ research into what has kept more women from becoming cyclists. She speculates that women are comfortable riding these scooters on the sidewalks, safely separated from cars. “The biggest barrier to riding bicycles for women is concerns about traffic safety,” she says. “This idea of riding something on the sidewalk—women might feel more comfortable with that.”
As the reporter (Aarian Marshall) got correct, I was speculating. Aside from the Populus survey, which was a survey of people’s perceptions of, not use of e-scooters, there were not any data out there. I will confess that at the time I did not know that it was against Oregon law (and many other states’ and cities’ laws) to ride e-scooters on public sidewalks. But, I will further speculate that most of the people in that survey did not the laws about sidewalk riding either.
Fast forward to today and now I can do more than speculate. There is a gender gap in e-scooter riding, and it is not that much different from bicycling.
Portland’s E-Scooter Pilot
From July 23 to November 20, 2018, the City of Portland permitted three e-scooter companies to operate in Portland. This pilot project was aimed at learning more about the safety and operations of e-scooters, in anticipation of needing to make a longer-term decision on whether and how to allow e-scooter companies to operate in the city. You can read more about their evaluation and next steps here.
As part of the City’s evaluation, they sent a survey in late September to nearly 75,000 e-scooter customers who had provided an email address to the e-scooter company they signed up for (Bird Rides Inc., Lime, and Skip Transport Inc.). The City received 4,532 on-line responses. My analysis here is based on those survey data. There are obviously some limitations with survey data. It is impossible to know whether this sample, as large as it is, is representative of all e-scooter users in Portland, and Portland users may be different from users in other cities. But, the data do reveal some interesting patterns. The analysis below focuses on the respondents who live or work in Portland (n=3,366). Over 1,000 respondents were visitors to Portland.
Men are using e-scooters more than women.
Of the respondents who answered the demographic questions, 64% identified as a man, 34% as a woman, and 2% as transgender or non-binary.* This male-female gender gap is similar to what we see for bicycling.
Portland women are also not riding as frequently as men. About one in four women (24%) had only ridden once at the time of the survey, compared to 15% of men. In contrast, 15% of men rode three or more times a week, compared to 7% of women.
Moreover, women do not think they will use e-scooters as much as men in the future if the program continued. Of the Portland (non-visitor) respondents, 31% of women said they would use them less than once a week in the future, compared to 24% of men citing that low frequency. At the other end, 28% of men thought they would ride e-scooters three or more times a week in the future, compared to 19% of women.
Women recommend e-scooters, but may not find that they meet their transportation needs.
Consistent with the Populus survey, and despite the difference in frequency of use, Portland men and women are equally positive about e-scooters, with 65% of women and 62% of men “extremely likely” to recommend them to a friend.
For some women, it appears that they are trying them out for fun, but that interest may not transfer to using them for transportation. Fun and recreation was the top trip type for 35% of Portland women, as compared to Portland men at only 25%. In addition, 18% of women listed social/entertainment trips are their top trip type, compared to 13% of men. In contrast, 22% of men listed trips to work as their top trip type, compared to 15% of women.
When asked generally what motivated them to use e-scooters, men and women gave slightly different reasons. Of the Portland respondents, 69% of men said they used and e-scooter because they could get around more easily, faster, compared to 58% of women giving that reason. Women were a little more likely to say that they used one because “it looked like fun/curious to try it” – 87% of women vs. 84% of men. Similarly, for the most recent e-scooter trip, 55% of Portland men said it was the fastest and most reliable option, compared to 43% of women. In nearly identical contrast, 54% of women said “it was just for fun” compared to 43% of men which correlates with the how the scooters are used.
As with bicycling, infrastructure makes a difference
When asked what would get them to use e-scooters more, 54% of women indicated that having more safe places to ride would increase their use, compared to 46% of men. This desire for safe places to ride is consistent with where women are riding.
The majority of both Portland men and women indicate that they ride “most of the time” or “always” in bike lanes on the street, with no differences. However, women demonstrate some preference for riding in other places that minimize their interactions with motor vehicles. For example, 56% of men never ride on the sidewalk compared 51% of women. This is only a five percentage-point difference, but it is statistically significant. On the other hand, 26% of men are riding in a shared travel lane with cars “most of the time” compared to only 19% of women. Trails and paths were used by 6% of women “most of the time,” compared to 4% of men. (Note that e-scooters are not allowed in City of Portland parks, where some of our nicest trails and paths are located.)
The desire to ride in places separate from cars is also revealed when the riders ranked where they prefer to ride. Both men and women chose bike lanes on the street as their first choice, though more so for men, 69% and 61%, respectively. The second choice for men to ride was a travel lane shared with cars; 38% of men chose this answer as their 2nd choice, compared with 30% of women. A large share of women (37%) chose the shared lane as their last choice. Only 25% of men picked that as their last choice. Women showed a greater preference for trails or paths for riding, with 23% choosing that as their first choice.
A few more tidbits
The survey asked about things that might make people use e-scooters more. As noted above, safer places to ride was important for women. Women were also more interested in better battery life (42% vs. 36%). Both men and women wanted more scooters, though a slightly higher share of men (67% vs. 64%). Both men and women were tepid about the option of e-scooters with seats (10%) or different designs, for example to make them more stable (20%).
A lot has been written about e-scooter safety. These data do not answer many safety-related questions. However, women and men equally admit that they do not wear helmets while riding e-scooters, with nearly half of both sexes saying they never wear one. Helmets are required for e-scooter use under current Oregon law.
What might this all mean?
Of course we need more research before we can make stronger conclusions. But, this early evidence indicates that if we want e-scooters to be a mobility option for everyone, we need to be thinking about providing safe and comfortable places to ride. Others have written about how e-scooters may help to push cities to provide more and better infrastructure for bicycles, e-scooters, and other micromobility options, from CityLab, Bicycling magazine, and Streetsblog.
I should also note that, as with many things in transportation, e-scooters are not as new as we might think. There is a great piece by Chris Wild (Suffragette on a scooter) that shows Lady Florence Norman riding an “autoped” in 1916 that looks a lot like today’s e-scooters.
Respondents who indicated that they had never ridden an e-scooter, either in the frequency question or comment section were excluded from this analysis (n=80). Therefore, these numbers may differ from those reported by the City of Portland.
* Because of the small number of transgender and non-binary respondents (n=69), that group is not included in this analysis.