How to get Americans out of cars and onto electric bikes and scooters

Canary talks to Melinda Hanson, co-founder of micromobility firm Electric Avenue.

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair and glasses is shown next to a street scene of people walking and riding bicycles
Melinda Hanson, co-founder of Electric Avenue
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Melinda Hanson is the co-founder of Electric Avenue, a public affairs and mobility strategy firm working to decarbonize and transform urban transport and promote micromobility,” or lightweight vehicles — especially electric ones like e-bikes and electric scooters. 

We caught up with Hanson to discuss her work and current projects, and what she hopes cities will look and feel like in the future. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Maria Virginia Olano: What does Electric Avenue do, and what prompted you to start it?

Melinda Hanson: We work with companies, nonprofits and city agencies to move car trips to electric two- and three-wheeled options. 

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I was working at Bird, a company that makes electric bikes and scooters, as the head of sustainability when the pandemic hit. There were layoffs, and the whole public policy team was let go, but a group of us recognized that what we were doing was really necessary — acting as a liaison between this private, innovative company and local city governments — and we saw a need for this more broadly. 

Often, the private sector and the government don’t play very well together, so what we are doing with Electric Avenue is facilitating those conversations to advance micromobility solutions. This is especially important now as new companies are emerging. There’s a lot on the horizon and a lot of uncertainty from a policy perspective. There’s a need for a government response to these companies to set up a policy structure that allows for innovation but also protects street space and road safety.

Olano: Why are micromobility solutions important?

Hanson: For the past 100 years, our cities have been shaped for cars. That shows up in the way streets are designed, the amount of space that cars are given, and everything else from the traffic signals to police enforcement. Anyone on two wheels is relegated to the curb. Currently, what we consider infrastructure” for two-wheeled vehicles is typically just paint, if anything at all. 

But any city that is at all serious about fighting climate change and creating a more sustainable transport system needs to be moving much more quickly to help more people to embrace other modes of transport that are not cars. Upward of 50% of all car trips in the U.S. are relatively short and are taken by a single person. Half of those trips are 5 miles or less. These very short trips account for about 25% of urban-transport-related carbon emissions. 

People sometimes think that electric, lightweight micromobility is a niche transportation option, but it can be a real solution to many of these shorter mobility needs, and that can have a huge impact. That’s the point that I always try to make: It’s not a matter of you needing to completely give up car-based transportation. Small changes can go a long way and make a big difference.

Olano: Policies determining how we share our roads and what is allowed on them vary widely across cities and municipalities. What is the role of policy in enabling or restricting these solutions?

Hanson: It’s pretty frustrating that a lot of cities are allowing our streets to be used as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles like Teslas, which are 4,000-pound vehicles being driven by robots, and yet there is a lot of regulation and pushback — and in some cases even approaching hysteria — over these lightweight electric vehicles, even though the actual impact that they could have on a city is significantly lower than that of some of these car-based technologies. And the sustainability and other benefits are significantly higher. 

Ideally, we would have more welcoming policies for the types of things that have fewer externalities and harsher restrictions for the things that have higher externalities. That’s the crux of what Electric Avenue is trying to advance.

Olano: What are some cities that are getting this right? 

Hanson: A lot of the examples continue to come from Europe. Two cities that are top of mind are Paris and London, both of which have good public transportation systems yet still chose to embrace cycling in order to encourage more sustainable and healthier modes of transportation. Both cities have built out their infrastructure networks pretty extensively over the past decade and massively increased the number of cyclists on their streets. I just read somewhere that one in 10 Parisians is now a cyclist, a number that was significantly smaller even just a few years ago. 

The thing with bicycle infrastructure and with connected and protected lanes is that if you build it, they will come. There are examples from all across the world that demonstrate this. It’s not that hard, it’s not that expensive, and it works.

Olano: Are there policy proposals aiming to do this in the U.S.? Are there any subsidies for bicycles like there are for EVs?

Hanson: Right now it is a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing, where city officials need to see more cyclists and more people on two wheels before they feel comfortable removing parking spaces, for example. But you won’t get too many people on the roads on bikes if they can’t afford them or won’t feel safe riding them. 

One of the initiatives that I’m involved in right now is called the Equitable Commute Project, which aims to advance transportation justice with funding from the state of New York. We’re finalists for a $7 million New York State Energy Research and Development Authority grant that would provide lower-income New Yorkers with a 50% subsidy toward the purchase of an e-bike. There have been some discussions at the federal and state level about introducing subsidies for e-bikes, but a lot of them would use a refundable tax-credit mechanism, which is not likely to move the needle in the same way as if you just give someone a discount on a product on the front end. What we’re trying to demonstrate with the Equitable Commute Project is that it is important to give the subsidy at the purchase point, but also to do community-engagement training in order to get more people from different backgrounds on bikes, and finally, to advocate for the type of infrastructure that’s needed to make sure they feel comfortable on every trip.

Olano: What’s been the community reception for this project?

Hanson: We’ve had an unbelievably positive response, and not just from potential recipients, but also from the local organizations and businesses helping us find the recipients, and from the bike manufacturers and bike shops. In New York City and elsewhere, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for using this as a way to make our cities better and also as a way to say thanks to people who have been frontline workers. It is important that we expand access to electric micromobility to all types of folks.

Olano: There has been a boom in new EV announcements from virtually every car manufacturer, including for the widely celebrated Ford F-150 truck and the electric Hummer. What do we miss when we focus exclusively on EVs?

Hanson: Of course, EVs are good for reducing carbon emissions. But even under the most ambitious, best-case scenario, we still need to reduce vehicle miles traveled by about 20% in less than a decade in order to reach our climate goals. Large EVs are addressing the fuel source and the pollution side, but there are so many other problems that exchanging the fuel source doesn’t address. Congestion is a big one — people with EVs are still going to be sitting in a lot of traffic. 

Another issue is the sustainability of manufacturing, particularly for these massive EVs, which require a lot of materials and are extremely heavy. I read that the battery of the electric Hummer weighs 3,000 pounds, which is the weight of a sedan. When you think about the minerals needed to make those batteries as well as the public infrastructure to support basically a tank driving around on our streets, plus the safety concerns of having much quieter, much heavier vehicles, it’s not ideal. We have so much to gain by reducing the number of trips people take in cars.

Olano: What are some other benefits of reimagining our cities away from car-based infrastructure? How could that change the way that we live in cities in the future?

Hanson: Road safety is an issue that has not gotten the amount of attention that it deserves. Nearly 40,000 Americans die in automobile crashes every year. Internationally the number is around 1.3 million people. And that’s not even including the people who are injured and have their lives forever changed by being involved in an accident. This is something that cities have really struggled to address. There’s not much interest in regulating cars, so I do think that when you build enthusiasm for more sustainable modes of transportation like, for example, e-bikes, that’s a really effective way to improve road safety. 

Reducing air pollution can also have important benefits for public health. We are increasingly learning about the harms of pollution. Noise pollution is also big — that’s something we noticed here in New York during the pandemic when the streets were empty and suddenly the city was so quiet. It really underscored the fact that it’s not the cities that are loud, it’s the cars. Reducing the number of cars driving throughout our cities every day would have a number of air-quality and noise-pollution-reducing benefits. 

There are also, of course, the public health benefits of exercise. If there were fewer cars and fewer cars moving quickly, we’d have more people interested in walking and biking longer distances, and getting the exercise that’s essential to support public health goals.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial and research associate at Canary Media.