As a college student, Kevin Fang wasn’t allowed to skateboard on campus. Skateboarding was banned at Cal Poly State University and outright illegal in the nearby town of San Luis Obispo. The first offense? A warning. But the second offense? A $180 fine or forced enrollment in a “diversion class” designed to teach you the error of your ways.
That didn’t stop every student, many of whom hopped on a board on a dark night or on the edges of campus. But when Fang arrived at the University of California, Davis, for his Ph.D., he found he no longer had to hide his love of skateboarding. After all, nobody else did.
“I was like, ‘Oh, people are skateboarding to class — hundreds of them,’” he tells Inverse. Not only was it a favorite form of recreation, skateboarding at UC Davis was a mode of transportation.
Fang, a transportation researcher, has made skateboarding a focus of his studies. In his latest paper, published Monday in the journal Transportation, Fang shows how non-motorized transit like skateboards, rollerblades, and old fashioned scooters are already moving large numbers of people — and have the power to do a whole lot more.
When interviewing members of the skater community at UC Davis, he found that skateboards filled a big gap in transportation, smack dab between walking and biking. Basically, skateboards can go almost as fast as a bike on certain terrains. But they’re easier than a bike to store on a jam-packed commuter bus or while at work or school during the day.
That portability makes them an ideal remedy for what urban planners call the the “last-mile problem.” Since people are unwilling to use public transportation if it means they have to walk a mile to and from the main hubs, other forms of transportation need to be there to cover that final mile more quickly. That could mean biking, hopping on a streetcar, or skateboarding.
But that doesn’t mean skateboarding is popular with police or urban planners.
Most cities in the U.S. ban skateboards because they don’t like recreational skaters and aren’t even aware skateboarding commuters exist, Fang says. As a result, American skateboarders carry a lot of cultural baggage.
For starters, skateboarding is typically seen as a kid’s activity. While adults see the built environment as something to preserve, teens see sidewalks, park benches, and front stoops as the raw materials for epic stunts. “In most cases, [cities] don’t come out and say why there’s skateboarding regulations,” Fang says. “[But] they talk about property damage or safety … [And] then you get some that are generalizations of skateboarders themselves.” In some cities, Fang says, policy makers have even advocated for skateboard regulations because boarders were reportedly rude to senior citizens — an unusual motivation for urban planning.
Though skateboarding certainly has its roots in recreation, statistics suggest it’s grown beyond its original purpose. Of the 300 combined billion miles people travel in California each year, Fang’s study reports 48 million of them involved non-motorized vehicles, like skateboards. That’s an extremely small piece of an overwhelming pie, but it’s still a ton of miles traveled.
And it’s not just limited to the Golden State; Portland, Oregon, is the biggest city in the United States to embrace skating as part of daily life. The city is rife with bona fide skateboarding commuters and dedicated “skate routes” weaving through downtown.
While it may sound like another Portlandia joke — the perfect anecdote from a city where “young people go to retire” — Fang says more communities should get on board with this eco-friendly mode of transit.
“Skateboarding provides a unique level of convenience that you don’t get with walking or bicycling,” he says. It allows people to go faster than walking, with none of the inconvenience of storing a bike while on the train or at work for the day.
For all its charms, convincing commuters to rely on skateboards won’t be easy. Many people continue to look down on skateboarders, and cities’ policy banning boards get in the way. Plus, in many cities where skateboard travel isn’t well-integrated into urban design, gliding down a street dominated by cars can be dangerous.
But Fang isn’t discouraged. “It probably won’t become as popular as conventional modes of travel,” he says, “but I could see it growing a bit from where it is now.” He sees particular opportunities in places with lots of flat terrain, plenty of bike lanes, and areas with good transit service, where people can use skateboards to go that last little bit of the way home. As cities continue to transform in the 21st century, they should open up a lot more places like that, setting the stage for a skateboarding renaissance.
And besides, Fang says, skateboarding is just really fun — even if one’s skateboarding chops aren’t exactly up to snuff, a category Fang says he falls into. “[I skate] a little bit and poorly,” he says. “When I was still at my old school, skateboarding was prohibited, so I did it under the cover of darkness.”
If Fang is right, skateboarding might soon be ready to step out of that darkness and into the limelight.