Most campuses in the California State University system ban skateboarding, a policy that dates back to the late 1980s when a professor was struck and injured by a bicyclist. While many CSU campuses banned skateboarding in response, many did not similarly ban bicycling. Several of the campuses have re-legalized skateboarding over the last few years, but not without running into the same negative perceptions seen in cities. At San Diego State University, the university police chief likened skateboarding to a gateway drug, telling the student newspaper that “riding a skateboard is a low priority crime, but it escalates.”
How serious are safety concerns?
Are regulations that restrict skateboarding in the interest of safety justified? Many perceive recreational skateboarding as an “extreme sport” and thus dangerous. California’s healthy and safety code even defines skateboarding as a “hazardous recreational activity,” although this counterintuitively enables recreational skateboarding by limiting civil liability in public skateparks.
Fears that skateboard travelers engage in dangerous tricks that could injure bystanders appear to be unfounded. Our observations found that skateboard travelers almost always move forward in simple straight lines while they travel. Most ride “longboards” or other variants designed for cruising, which makes tricks difficult if not impossible. Only about one-quarter of skateboarders we observed on the UC Davis campus ride the same type of skateboards used in recreational trick riding. Even those riding trick skateboards often make modifications, such as installing larger and softer wheels, that facilitate cruising at the expense of performing tricks.
At least 147 skateboarders were killed in the United States between 2011 and 2015. Only one fatality occurred at a skate park; virtually all the rest were on transportation facilities, and three-quarters involved motor vehicle collisions. While we were not always able to ascertain the purpose of these fatal trips, in those where the purpose was clear, almost two-thirds of victims were traveling rather than recreating.
While these fatalities are certainly tragic, on the whole, skateboard travel does not appear to be unusually dangerous. In California in 2012, people on all modes experienced 1.4 fatalities per 10 million trips. Skateboarders and scooter riders (similarly classified and not separable in data) experienced 1.6 fatalities per 10 million trips, just below bicyclists at 1.7 fatalities. Per distance traveled, non-motorized travelers experienced 22.6 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled. Skateboarders and scooter riders experienced between 20.9 and 23.0 fatalities.
Table 1. Fatality rates from motor vehicle collisions in California
Sources: California Department of Transportation (2012), Federal Highway Administration (2012)
Skateboarders and planning
Regulations that prohibit skateboard travel because of negative perceptions of recreational skateboarding, or that hold skateboarders to higher standards than other travelers, raise fundamental questions of fairness. How can cities respect skateboarders’ freedom of choice while balancing other facility management concerns?
In some states like California, skateboarders fit under the state vehicle code definition of a pedestrian, which includes people on human-powered devices other than bicycles. That gives skateboarders at least a default legal standing. For example, drivers should yield to skateboarders in crosswalks since they are pedestrians, too. However, it also means that a skateboarder traveling along a road can be cited as a pedestrian outside a crosswalk, as happened to one person we interviewed. Other states, such as Oregon, define pedestrians more narrowly as people who are “afoot.” This definition makes the relationship between skateboarders and other users much murkier.
A starting point may be to ask, where should skateboarders ride? Given that skateboarders travel in a similar range of speeds as bicyclists, bike facilities seem like a reasonable choice, and our surveys of skateboarders find that they are very comfortable in such facilities. Since skateboarders are slower than bicyclists on average, bicyclists may not be that enthused about sharing space with slower travelers. But efforts to increase rates of bicycling often seek to encourage new, less-skilled, or less confident bicyclists to ride more, and these groups are likely slower than current bicyclists, too. Adding skateboarders to bike paths might not be all that different than adding new bicyclists. And on shared-use paths, skateboarders are at least as compatible with pedestrians as bicyclists given their comparable speeds.
In the majority of locations without bicycle facilities, human-powered travel is primarily limited to roads and sidewalks. Quiet neighborhood streets with little vehicle traffic would present few conflicts for skateboarders. In city centers, skateboarders might share roads with more vehicle traffic, but flowing at low speeds. Sidewalks in those same city centers may be problematic given limited room to maneuver and the possibility of conflicts with numerous slower pedestrians. However, most parts of the United States are dominated by low density, auto-oriented landscapes where there are few pedestrians, and sidewalks, if they exist, are usually empty. In these areas, skateboarders could take advantage of underutilized sidewalks that connect destinations too far apart for walking.
As roads and sidewalks shift between more and less conducive to skateboarding in different situations, picking facilities where skateboarders should always or never ride is probably the wrong approach. Instead, policymakers should ask, how should skateboarders ride? How should skateboarders act around others? How should others act around skateboarders? A few universities use these questions to shape skateboard policy. San Jose State University’s “Common Courtesy” rules and a package of rules at UC Riverside specify when skateboarders should yield or slow down around pedestrians, and restrict skateboarding on places like railings and benches where tricks rather than travel are likely to occur.
While skateboarding is probably not on its way to becoming a dominant mode of travel, skateboard travelers are out there, enjoying the unique combination of benefits that skateboarding provides and demonstrating that not every innovation in transportation requires new technology. Legality is a roadblock in many places, reinforced by perceptions of recreational skateboarding and policies inconsistent with how other modes are treated. For cities following the complete streets framework of accommodating all users, such unequal treatment is problematic.
Planners and regulators must always grapple with the question of how to incorporate new modes, and skateboards might just be the leading edge of a wave of emerging micro-mobility devices that attempt to fill in a niche between walking and bicycling. As new individual transportation options such as electric skateboards, electric scooters, e-unicycles, and hoverboards roll onto the scene, the future of multimodal transportation is only becoming more complex, and will require fair consideration for all travelers.