Electric scooters have become a familiar sight throughout the country. Dotting street corners in tidy rows in the mornings, placed haphazardly outside office buildings after the lunch hour, and zipping down streets and sidewalks at all hours of the day, electric scooters are fast becoming a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape. The rapid expansion of electric scooters has drawn both support and criticism. By understanding the pros and cons of electric scooters and various regulatory considerations, landscape architects and urban planners can help cities make the most of this significant private investment in the public realm.
The potential benefits of incorporating electric scooters into a city’s transit infrastructure are substantial. Leading electric scooter companies, such as Bird and Lime, tout their products as an alternative non-vehicular means of transportation, a zero-emission people-moving mechanism that can reduce short distance single-occupant car trips. Commuters who use public transportation for the bulk of their commute and who cannot or do not wish to use a bike for the final distance to the office can avoid a taxi or ride share trip by hopping on a nearby electric scooter. As many scooter riders will tell you, electric scooters also have the benefit of being fun to ride. Tourists are a major subset of electric scooter riders, as they enjoy the ability to see a new city at a leisurely pace without breaking a sweat.
Renting an electric scooter for a ride isn’t quite as simple as hopping on and zipping off. Riders must first download each company’s app using a smartphone. The app shows locations of nearby scooters that are currently unoccupied and ready to be checked out. Typically, scooters are placed in neat rows in groups first thing in the morning, after being charged overnight. Later in the day, scooters may be distributed in more irregular groups as they are ridden and parked in various places by the riders. First-time users of an app also need to enter a credit card for payment (entered one time then used for all subsequent purchases, similar to the way the Uber and Lyft apps work), and a photo of a driver’s license to verify age.
Critics have noted these requirements limit use across the socioeconomic spectrum; Washington D.C. is hoping to develop a method for cash payment. Rides are priced by the minute, timed from check-in to check-out using the app. Some apps also require riders take a photo of the scooter where it is stopped at the end of the ride, in order to record potentially-illegal parking practices used by some riders. Riders can expect to pay a typical fee of $1 to unlock the scooter, plus $0.15 per minute.
Electric scooters may have launched in California, but 2018 saw the trend spread across the country and throughout the world. With such exponential growth, many cities have multiple competing brands of scooters within the same area. Austin, Texas, has had such high rates of usage that scooter providers have needed to schedule mid-day servicing of their fleets to charge scooters’ batteries. The usefulness of scooters in urban settings and the potential to replace short car trips has increased enormous investment to electric scooter companies. Ford recently purchased Spin for nearly $100 million, while Uber has partnered with Lime.
The first of many regulatory challenges comes with the way a scooter company might choose to launch a fleet in a new city. Several companies initially gained the industry the reputation of “begging for forgiveness rather than first asking for permission” after launching electric scooter fleets without consulting city officials. This prompted San Francisco to temporarily ban all electric scooters, eventually offering two permits to electric scooter companies Skip and Scoot. Other cities issue permits to a certain number of total electric scooters, split among different providers.
If an electric scooter company approaches a city first to request permission to operate locally, how might a city respond? Some jurisdictions might be glad for the private investment in public transit and permit operation without caveats. Others, hesitant of the demands electric scooters place upon the public right of way, may take a different approach — as did New York City, when, considering the density of sidewalks and bicycle lanes without scooters, issued a firm “thanks, but no thanks” to scooter companies.
State regulations may also play a role in whether electric scooters must operate on city streets, sidewalks, or not at all:
- California: State regulations prohibit riding an electric scooter on the sidewalk or on roadways with speed limits in excess of 35 miles per hour.
- Colorado: State and local regulations classify electric scooters as “toy vehicles” which must be ridden on the sidewalk and are prohibited from operating on the roadway or bike path.
- Wisconsin: A state regulation classifies electric scooters as motor vehicles, therefore requiring individual vehicle registration with the state.
To address safety concerns, electric scooter companies require all scooter riders wear helmets and meet a minimum age requirement. These requirements are frequently violated by users, as are regulations requiring scooters be ridden on the sidewalk, roadway, or in a bike lane. Conflicts between pedestrians, bicyclists, vehicles, and scooters are difficult to avoid without formally set and well-understood rules for where and how a scooter should operate. One particularly active period of reported scooter accidents in Austin, Texas, led the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to partner with Austin city government to study the most common source of incidents. This study is currently underway, but Austin is already planning to put a safe riding ordinance into effect in the spring of 2019.
Electric scooter companies are beginning to put money and effort toward improving the safety of scooter riders. Bird scooters recently announced plans to form a Global Safety Advisory Board, led by the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with the goal of improving electric scooter safety. Bird has also proposed a funding strategy whereby $1 daily per vehicle in a city’s fleet would be dedicated to a fund for improving bicycle lanes and infrastructure in that city. Bird scooters currently offers cities data on usage within that city, which can be a valuable data metric in understanding the flow of people through the city, scoping a site pre-development, or for post-occupancy analysis.
Electric scooters can replace much more vehicular use, particularly single-occupant, short-distance car trips, in congested urban environments. At the same time, city management and planning authorities must carefully weigh the risks to public safety before approving electric scooter programs.
With clear rules and robust public awareness campaigns to ensure all users understand the rules for legal operation, scooters may come to safely co-exist with existing users of the public right of way. Electric scooters are here to stay, and cities have the opportunity and challenge of establishing a safe framework in which citizens and visitors can enjoy the full benefits of this technology.
This guest post is by Alison Kennedy, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP ND, a landscape architect with O’Dell Engineering in Modesto, California. She is the co-chair of the ASLA Women in Landscape Architecture professional practice network (PPN) and chair of the ASLA Archives & Collections Committee.