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After a pandemic-induced dip, scooter ridership is on the rise again, rekindling concerns about safety and other issues.
Electric scooters are a means of transportation in about 100 U.S. cities and counties. Although ridership dipped in some places early in the pandemic, their popularity has soared in recent years—along with injuries to riders and pedestrians. This has led some local governments to establish much more stringent rules surrounding e-scooters in the last year.
Many governments have taken a proactive approach to permitting scooters and establishing safety rules but others have no regulations in place. Guidance varies across state and city lines but is subject to change as transportation departments adjust to increasing scooter use, according to Smart Cities Dive.
Dockless e-scooter systems started expanding across the U.S. in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of June, there were 214 e-scooter systems (not counting systems limited to college or employer campuses) in the U.S. and many firms serve the same city, BLS says.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials says total e-scooter rides surged 130% to 88.5 million in 2019 from 38.5 million in 2018. And some cities saw scooter ridership rise during the past year.
Dockless e-scooters systems serve 92 cities, up from 2020 but down from 2019 levels due to the pandemic, BLS reports. Systems in use declined from 239 in 2019 to 183 in December 2020. (Details on system suspensions and closures in 2020 can be found on this BLS page: Docked and Dockless and E-scooter System Changes 2020.)
But some cities saw scooter ridership rise during the past year. For example, Seattle’s scooter program grew to 1.4 million rides in one year, and in Portland, Oregon, rides nearly doubled to 762,812 this year through September from 385,422 rides for the same period in 2020, according to The New York Times.
While the mobility devices are popular with people of all ages, e-scooters pose issues for both riders and governments. A study done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that among e-scooter riders who sustained injuries, nearly three out of five sustained them while riding on the sidewalk—and about a third of these riders got those injuries in places where sidewalk riding is prohibited. The study also found that 40% of the riders injured were new to riding e-scooters.
“The sidewalk is a more challenging area to navigate when it comes to little things like cracks, signs, pedestrians and things like that,” said Joseph Young, director of media relations at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “I think a lot more research needs to be done to really zero in on the risk of where these scooters are riding.”
Young added that injuries are less likely to occur when riders had a trail available that separates vehicles and pedestrians.
“If multi-use facilities exist, making sure that those are designed or have adequate signage to ensure that everyone knows that e-scooters can and should ride there to keep them off the sidewalk is important,” said Young. “We saw in our study that not very many of the injuries that did occur occurred on those types of paths, so it may be that those are safer places for e-scooter riders to ride.”
Significant Challenges for Urban Areas
The e-mobility boom has brought significant safety challenges to urban areas' congested streets. For example, in New York City, at least 17 people have been killed while riding electric mobility vehicles this year, The New York Times reported.
Washington, D.C. is one place calling for stricter regulations on scooters. Late last year the D.C. council approved a bill making locking e-scooters on racks a requirement and instructed the local Department of Transportation to build at least 200 racks a year until 2025 for parking (though WAMU reported funding is unavailable).
Pittsburgh is another city that’s enacted stiffer e-scooter safety rules. The Pittsburgh City Council recently approved an ordinance capping their speed at 15 miles per hour. It also restricts e-scooters to streets with designated lanes or streets where the speed limit is 25 mph or less.
Councilmember Bruce Kraus said at a council debate last month he has “reservations” about safety. However, he said, he “didn’t want to be an obstructionist for what is ultimately proving to be a necessary addition to alternative means of mobility, especially for young people,” thus he backed the ordinance, according to Smart Cities Dive.
Alex Engel, spokesman for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, said having a strong relationship with a shared micro-mobility provider is essential to get the desired safety outcomes. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, some e-scooter companies pulled out of markets. However, other companies stepped up, he said.
According to Engel, when e-scooters were first introduced to cities in 2017, it was a free for all. Scooters were lying all around cities, parking was an issue, and there were multiple companies supplying scooters. But there have been regulatory frameworks implemented in some cities to create an experience that works better for everyone.
“One of the things that we're seeing more now in cities is selecting to work with a few companies rather than regulating any company that wants to come in, which will provide the best benefits for the city,” Engel added. “By working with a few companies you're more easily able to come to agreements and outcomes that work best for the city, users and companies.”
Late last year New York City passed a law allowing riders to use their own e-scooters across the city, according to The New York Times, and more rules were put into place to ensure rider safety. For example, in order to operate an electric scooter in the city, riders must wear a helmet if they are under 18.
"It couldn’t come at a better time during this Covid era,” Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, who sponsored the measure, said in a recent interview. “The world is recognizing that we have a new, alternative mode of transportation. For essential workers especially, they’re going to feel more comfortable now.”
Regulating Safety or 'Fearmongering'
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, an ordinance was approved recently allowing broader use of e-scooters, including granting permission for scooters to be ridden on sidewalks without imposing speed limits. Councilmember Ali Ramlawi expressed safety concerns, stating “the speeds are too much,” according to MLive.
Another councilmember, Julie Grand, called the concerns “fearmongering,” stating that scooters are far less dangerous and more accessible than cars. Council Member Elizabeth Nelson said she’s sympathetic to Ramlawi’s concerns, but is optimistic the ordinance includes opportunities for implementing restrictions needed for pedestrian safety in busy areas like downtown.
Engel added cities will continue to chart their own paths for rules that work with their infrastructure and user base. "This is a new industry, the model is new, we're seeing cities learn from each other as they figure out what works," he told Smart Cities Dive.
Andre Claudio is an assistant editor at Route Fifty.