XXVII.3 May - June 2020
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Unmasking invisibility

Jonathan Bean, Kristina Currans, Nicole Iroz-Elardo

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The technological intervention of shared electric scooter (e-scooter) programs into cities, from companies such as Bird, Lyft, and Razor, carries much more than the promise of increased mobility with fewer carbon emissions. New technologies, such as e-scooters, have an uncanny ability to unmask existing gaps—known and unknown—in infrastructure that have long been concealed by conventional expectations and ways of doing things. The challenge is that the newly exposed problems are not always recognized as infrastructure gaps. Instead, they are too often understood to be fundamental problems with the technology itself—or worse, the type of user attracted to that technology. For example, in many cities, a common complaint is that e-scooters are parked improperly and obstruct sidewalks, creating a safety hazard, particularly for those with disabilities [1]. But is it right to blame the user? What if the issue is not lazy users who are bad at parking, but rather the dearth of adequate sidewalk or public space allocated to non-automobile users—especially those who rely on sidewalks as their primary mode of transportation? Even that framing of the problem is troublesome, especially in the U.S. context, where the vast majority of investment continues to favor automobile-oriented infrastructure.

The ways in which these new or so-called disruptive technologies impact communities mark them as vectors of change for cities. Ride-hailing services like Lyft, Uber, and Grab have changed how people travel. These shifts paved the way for new modes of food delivery, which in turn have transformed the restaurant industry, leading some popular restaurants to open so-called ghost kitchens to deal with the increased demand. Similarly, a new expectation for rapid delivery has forced cities, ready or not, to think differently about managing curb space to accommodate shifts toward urban freight (in many cases, now delivered in unmarked, personal vehicles).

Implicit in the way that these technologies are designed and implemented is the idea of latent demand or unmet needs—that somewhere there's a granny without a way to get to the doctor, a student in need of pad thai, or a young professional with a primal need for a marmalade cookbook delivered that very same day. From an economic perspective, these new technological forms have let the genie out of the bottle. But it is important not to think about the results of these shifts as inevitable, or even simply as expressions of unmet needs. Instead, new technologies enable novel (re) configurations of cultural arrangements. In turn, these new arrangements open up pathways for future technological development. They may even create needs not yet in anyone's consciousness.

The co-constructed nature of culture and technology is a core tenet of science and technology studies, a field of academic knowledge with longstanding ties to a way of understanding called actor-network theory, or ANT. An influential paper published in the journal Public Understanding of Science laid out a method to use ANT to understand "controversies"—a term with special meaning in ANT that indicates a novel sociocultural arrangement that is still in formation. E-scooters are a particularly illustrative case. Controversial in the conventional sense of the word, e-scooters also highlight the first characteristic of controversy, as used in the context of ANT. Controversies involve "not only human beings and human groups, but also natural and biological elements, industrial and artistic products, economic and other institutions, scientific and technical artifacts, and so on and so forth" [2]. The methodological perspective does not require one to think of different actors as equals in terms of their ability to act or in moral terms. But it does highlight that, in the case of e-scooters, there are many different forces at play beyond e-scooters and their users. One is sidewalks: their quality, quantity, continuity, or even their absence. A second is governmental transportation policy and the priorities for investment directed toward automobile facilities in urban areas, instead of relatively cheaper alternatives such as protected bike lanes that could be shared with e-scooters. And a third is the lithium-ion battery, the technological force powering everything from e-scooters to AirPods, and the ecosystems that it acidifies [3]. This cursory analysis indicates how structures—physical ones such as sidewalks, social ones such as policy, and combinations of the two such as battery supply chains—play a role in the trajectories of technologies like e-scooters.

In the case of e-scooters, it's easy to observe the presence of scooters and the behavior of users, and one can use the tools of ANT to better understand the technology's entanglements. But studying absence is another question. Before shared e-scooter programs existed, where were scooters not being ridden? Where they are being ridden, are they replacing trips that users would be taking on foot, on a bicycle, on public transportation, or in a car—or are they adding trips that would not be taken at all? Who was not taking these trips? Was prior behavior driven by a tightly constrained household budget? What are the equity implications of less-expensive mobility when e-scooters are located in some neighborhoods but not others? When it comes to infrastructure, what's missing? When disasters occur (pandemics, earthquakes, fires), do the transportation options that exist provide redundant means to meet essential needs? Many public streets have space dedicated for the use of public transportation, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. One could make an entirely reasonable case that streets are missing dedicated space for e-scooters. But how should one account for something that is absent? How does one unmask what is invisible?

In transportation facility design, many of the engineering manuals and guidance used in transportation planning—a discipline with deep roots in midcentury highway and freeway design—has long prioritized one mode of travel: the automobile. One result for many U.S. cities is a disconnected and low-quality network of sidewalks, which forces many non-automobile travelers into a fierce competition for space. The infrastructure and the norms within the discipline reinforce each other, creating mounting barriers for those who depend on quality sidewalks for everyday requirements and needs.

But let's consider framing the public's complaints about poorly parked e-scooters not just in terms of successes and failures in program management. Instead, think about how some actors in our existing system have historically dominated the conversation, how other actors have operated behind the scenes and outside of public view, and how still other actors have been boxed out of the conversation until after new arrangements emerged. It's only recently, for example, that cities have begun to consider how to deal with a potential future of increased aerial mobility, including drone deliveries and autonomous air taxis. Here we see the controversies around e-scooters revealing previously invisible artifacts of how our transportation systems were originally designed. This, in turn, brings into clear focus the gaps in opportunity fueled by the places you can and can't get to and the costs of vehicle ownership—for those relying on modes of transportation other than personal cars.


Engineering, whether structural, mechanical, electrical, or computational, has long had a problem-solving ethos. It's been said that "designers define the box and engineers solve it." In the case of transportation engineering, however, these new technologies appear to take the role of both defining the box and solving it. As cities are increasingly flooded with new transportation technologies yet to be envisioned, perhaps designers, engineers, and urban planners alike might reflect back to an often unquestioned tenet of design: that design is supposed to get out of the way and just let the user do what they want to do. But when infrastructure is designed using existing patterns of action (e.g., we see that drivers are driving faster, so we increase speed limits), new technologies are more likely to continue to mask unmet needs than they are to solve ingrained problems. To make it clear, the lives of people living in unsafe neighborhoods underserved by sidewalks are not going to be transformed by the introduction of e-scooters. Nor are e-scooters likely to be the final technological transformation on the way to a carbon-neutral transportation system. But paying close attention to the controversies that emerge when new technologies are introduced would help engineers, planners, policymakers, and designers understand the ways in which we might start to rework infrastructure in the pursuit of equity.

back to top  References

1. Mazoch, J. Scoot over: How electric scooters violate the ADA and what cities can do to maintain Title II compliance. SMU Law Review 72, 4 (2019), 871–894;

2. Venturini, T. Diving in magma: How to explore controversies with actor-network theory. Public Understanding of Science 19, 3 (2010), 258–273.

3. Hollingsworth, J., Copeland, B., and Johnson, J.X. Are e-scooters polluters? The environmental impacts of shared dockless electric scooters. Environmental Research Letters 14, 8 (2019);

back to top  Authors

Jonathan Bean is assistant professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona. He studies taste, technology, and market transformation. [email protected]

Kristina Currans is an assistant professor in urban planning at the University of Arizona with a background in civil engineering. She studies the intersection between travel behavior and land use development. [email protected]

Nicole Iroz-Elardo is an assistant research professor of planning at the University of Arizona. She studies how changes in the built environment impact public health. [email protected]

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