Commuting is terrible, and not only in the ordinary sense of frustrating and annoying. The problem has reached the level of a public health crisis. It wastes an “astonishing” amount of “human potential,” claims The Washington Post, drains our energy, and imperils well-being. “Longer commutes are linked with increased rates of obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, back and neck pain, divorce, depression and death,” The Post reported in 2016. The social and environmental effects are just as bad. What to do?
Obviously, micromobility companies like Unagi believe there’s a solution—or several that include riding personal electric vehicles whenever possible, changing infrastructure to accommodate more foot, bike, and scooter traffic, and reducing the number of car trips significantly. For the foreseeable future, COVID-19 may be accelerating these developments in places where the virus remains uncontained, but so much remains uncertain and the commuting crisis long preceded the pandemic.
In the U.S., commutes increased from an average of 21.7 minutes to 25.8 (one way) between 1980 and 2013. This may not seem like a huge increase, but the national averages hide other shifts. The number of solo drivers, for example, increased from 64.4% to 76.4%, while carpooling went down over 10%, which means many more cars on already overstressed highways. Moreover, while commutes in low-density, rural areas remained relatively short, they shot up in major cities as housing moved further away from urban centers and cities become increasingly densely populated.
Average U.S. commutes hit a record high in 2018, growing to 27.1 minutes. Data from that year showed that Los Angeles had “the most stressful commute,” with drivers spending over 100 hours a year in traffic. The previous year, the top 10 U.S. cities—including San Francisco, San Bernardino, L.A., and Atlanta—all had commutes of over 30 minutes. These numbers only hint at the toll longer commutes have taken, with car traffic making up the worst of it. Cities around the world with robust mass transit systems, like Moscow, London, and New York, fared little better.
It’s in everyone’s interest to find faster, more efficient ways to get to work. What that will look like depends on the length of a commute, access to public transportation, and physical ability. It will also depend on the risks of spreading or contracting COVID-19 while traveling. Some of the most popular alternatives to owning and driving a car to work have become less appealing in 2020, while other forms of transportation—like electric scooters—have proven to be the perfect vehicle for social distancing.
Are Rideshares Faster Than Driving?
During the current COVID-19 crisis, ridesharing has become a much less attractive option for those who can’t work from home or who are returning to work after lockdowns. Uber’s business has been buoyed by food delivery, but it has seen demand for ride-hailing trips “only marginally recovered from pandemic rock-bottom,” Reuters reports, while Lyft has shifted some of its focus to a grocery and supply delivery service. This is understandable as commuters take steps to protect themselves and others. But the question remains—outside of these real concerns, are rideshare services an improvement on driving yourself to work?
Rideshares certainly solve the parking problem and catching a rideshare can often be faster than waiting for a bus or subway, though it can also be over double the price. If you’re concerned about the environmental impact of your ride, it’s important to recognize how ridesharing services have impacted public transportation systems by replacing, rather than enhancing, them. In one University of California Transportation Center study, for example, “nearly half of respondents said that if a ridesharing service hadn’t been available, they would have taken a bus, train, bike, or simply walked.”
The comfort and convenience of ridesharing may offset the costs for many commuters, but it can still be a costly option in terms of the sedentary time one spends on the way to and from work: time that could be much better spent. Rideshares are plentiful and it’s tempting to hop in a car to take you where you need to go. On the way there, however, you’ll still contend with the same traffic snarls as all the other drivers on the road.
Subway and Other Forms Public Transit
Cities around the world have responded quickly to the COVID crisis by updating or adapting their public transportation systems to meet the needs of essential workers and healthcare and food delivery services. Early studies suggest that the transmission risks of traveling by bus or train are lower for short commutes, provided passengers wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines. Nonetheless, the safety of a ride depends on everyone following these guidelines, something individual riders cannot easily control.
Even in the best of times, riders cannot control the schedule or the speed of public transportation. As anyone who has ever waited for a late train or bus (or sat helplessly in a stalled subway as the minutes tick away) can attest, that lack of control can present serious problems. A twenty-minute commute can end up taking twice as long when things don’t go as planned. This is not the only problem with taking public transportation when it comes to reducing the time spent commuting.
Riding subways and buses hugely reduces pollution from car traffic, and the more people ride public transit, the better services become as agencies are able to recoup expenses and afford upgrades. Additionally, like ridesharing, public transit eliminates the need for parking, which can add time and expense to an urban commute. But not everyone lives conveniently close to a subway or bus station. The walk to and from the station or stop and the need to make transfers along the way can majorly extend a short trip.
Census data shows that the average commute for bus riders is 45 minutes, while the average subway rider spends an average of 47 minutes traveling to work. Riders of commuter rail services spend upwards of 71.9 minutes commuting to work and back. In most of these cases, traveling by private car or rideshare might be faster, but the financial and environmental costs can be prohibitive.
Scooter: The Fastest Way to Commute?
Out of all the commuting options available, traveling by electric scooter may be the fastest way to get around. Of course, some conditions apply. Commuters who have to travel long distances at high speeds to reach their destination may not find that a scooter is a workable option, though it can solve “last mile” issues to and from a train or bus station. But those who live in cities and do not have far to to will get there much faster on a high-quality scooter like the Unagi Model One than they will traveling by private car, rideshare, subway, or bus.
As an Elektrek reviewer found, scooters can weave in and out of traffic easily and they prove faster than other personal electric vehicles like e-skateboards and e-bikes. They can also make use of bike lanes and paths and take shortcuts through paved trails in parks and through alleyways and other places cars can’t go. Riders who own their own scooter are not bound by anyone’s schedule but their own and do not have to worry about parking.
A lightweight, folding electric scooter is also easy to combine with other forms of transportation if one has to make a longer trip or the weather stops cooperating. This makes traveling by scooter the most flexible choice, and one that enhances public transportation systems rather than replacing them as rideshares aim to do. Indeed, for commuters who can take an electric scooter to work, the option solves most of the problems associated with ridesharing and public transportation alone.
Commuters are discovering the benefits of taking e-scooters to work as they also ride them to safeguard their health. A new study from Lime shows that taking scooter shares or owning a scooter poses significantly less risk of transmission than other forms of commuting. In the post-COVID world, more people are trying e-scooters for the first time and taking them on longer trips. As ride hailing decreases and bike lanes open up around in cities around the world, this trend is likely to continue. At least one positive outcome from the current crisis may be that getting to work could soon become a lot less terrible.