Story By Arian Horbovetz. Arian is a Rochester resident and creator of The Urban Phoenix, a blog that discusses urban and community design and topics as our cities transition to a better future.
The mind conjures the 7-year-old’s awkward stride as her kid legs push vigorously against the ground to gain speed as she holds on to the handlebars for dear life. Or maybe it’s the formidable mustache of Kevin James in the movie “Paul Blart, Mall Cop” as he patrols his local shopping center on a Segway. The fact is, since the scooter was invented, it’s been viewed almost exclusively as a children’s toy, or a middle-aged man’s vehicle toward social isolation. Or rather, those were the only definitions until just a few years ago, when venture-capital startup giants with names like Lime and Bird began dropping electric scooters down in US cities, almost overnight. Now with over 60 cities sporting these new motorized transportation marvels, the former adult stigma of riding a scooter has turned into a national movement.
And if you haven’t heard, we’re next.
A few weeks ago, the first news stories began reporting that Rochester will see these two-wheeled machines hit our streets as soon as this year. As no surprise, this announcement has been met with equal parts optimism and skepticism, with some excited to see a new transportation option in our city, and others worried about what hazards they could bring. In any event, e-scooters are a very divisive and at times heated topic, so let’s take a look at what we really know about them.
What Is E-Scooter Share?
Just like our Pace bike share network in Rochester, e-scooter sharing is a smartphone app-based system whereby you can easily locate an e-scooter near you, activate it with your phone, pilot the machine to your destination and end the ride on your phone when you’re done. Just like bike share, you’ll be charged based on the amount of time you use the e-scooter.
E-scooters are far more robust than the small kick scooters you see children riding. Equipped with formidable electric motors, these machines have a top speed of 15mph, allowing you to zip around the city at a respectable speed without breaking a sweat. Literally. No kicking, no pedaling, just hit the throttle and go.
While e-scooter share systems started on the streets of San Francisco in 2012, the phenomenon really exploded in 2017-2018. Large venture capital-based companies with names like Lime and Bird began distributing e-scooters in western cities with no warning, almost overnight, and typically, without the blessing of local government. In fact, electric scooters weren’t even legal in many of these municipalities.
In spite of this, e-scooters become instantly popular, garnering use from the curious urban fun-seeker to the daily commuter alike. By the time cities began to question the legal, safety and community impact of these micro-mobility machines, people had become so attached to them that they fought vigorously for their continued existence. The e-scooter startups had created such a strong public demand in such a short period of time, it almost forced local governments to grant licensing, change laws and accommodate for their continued use.
In 2018, e-scooter share trips topped 38.5 million across the country. For the first time, scooter share trips exceeded bike share trips (36.5 million) in the U.S., even though bike share has been established in US cities far longer. Like it or not, e-scooters are booming, and the trend shows no sign of slowing.
As of now, e-scooters are not legal in New York State. This will likely change sooner rather than later. Support from Governor Cuomo, and more recently a bill introduced by State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Nily Rozic are putting the wheels in motion for municipalities to make their own laws regarding e-scooter operation. Cities and communities would be left to decide whether or not to allow e-scooters, as well as legal restrictions on their use.
What Are The Positives?
E-scooters can be tremendous “last mile” or short-to-medium distance transportation options for city residents and visitors. They can facilitate car-free travel without breaking a sweat, or be a fun activity on a warm summer night.
A national study by Qualtrics showed that 55% of Americans believe that e-scooters are a “lasting innovation.” This number was 72% for people that had already used an e-scooter share service. Seventy percent of commuters said they prefer e-scooter share to bike share. Two-thirds of all respondents said they believed that e-scooters had a “positive impact on the environment,” and were good for their city.
One of the most ambitious e-scooter share studies was conducted in Portland, Oregon as part of a year long pilot program. Through surveys, ridership data and community outreach, The City of Portland was able to build a robust understanding of of e-scooter impact on their community.
Surveys found that 62% of Portlanders viewed e-scooters positively. For respondents under 35 years of age, the support was 71%. Support from people of color was 74%, and support from residents with incomes below $30,000 was 66%. Seventy-one percent of Portland riders used scooters for transportation and 34% of residents and (as well as 48% of visitors) said they took an e-scooter instead of taking a car, using ride hailing services or taking a taxi.
In sum, the few studies that have been conducted on e-scooter use and community impact imply that a majority of people are in favor of their continued use. There is also evidence to show that residents and visitors use them in place of driving or using ride hailing services, which potentially decreases automobile congestion on city streets.
One of the biggest positives with regard to implementation in Rochester is the fact that Zagster, the trusted company that already operates our Pace bike share service, will be rolling out the new e-scooters. Unlike so many cities across the country in which tech startups have imposed scooter share programs without the blessing of local government, Zagster is working with the city to create a system that fits our needs and addresses major issues. Having an e-scooter operator that already has a positive working relationship with local government and the community is a tremendously positive first step toward a bright future for this service in Rochester.
It’s Not All Roses…
As you may have heard via countless news outlets, e-scooter programs have had their issues. Concerns over safety, “sidewalk litter” and pedestrian disruption are often very valid complaints with regard to these machines.
A safety study conducted by UCLA between September 1st 2017 and August 2018 tracked emergency room visits link to e-scooter share use in Los Angeles and Santa Monica hospitals. In all, e-scooters led to 249 emergency room visits, with no fatalities and two intensive care unit admissions. In the same time period, 195 ER visits for bicycle injuries and 181 visits for pedestrian injuries were reported, suggesting that e-scooters may be more dangerous than walking or biking.
A recent 87-day study conducted by the CDC in Austin, Texas showed similar concerns. The findings showed that, for every 100,000 rides, 20 injuries occurred, and 14% of these injuries led to hospitalization. Sixty percent of the reported injuries were suffered by riders who had used e-scooter share 9 times or less, suggesting a “learning curve” with regard to safe piloting of these machines.
Beyond safety, another concern with regard to these machines is that they tend to create “sidewalk clutter.” This occurs when riders reach their destination and finish their ride, lean the scooter against a tree or pole, only to have a slight wind or something else knock it over. The result is often the presence of e-scooters lying in sidewalks, obstructing pedestrians.
Lastly, while these machines are intended for use in the road, sidewalk riding is a frequent complaint. Since e-scooters can reach 15 miles per hour, the zipping by people on foot at these high speeds can be a nuisance, and potentially dangerous.
Let’s Take A Step Back
Scooters, like cars and bikes, are amazing tools for getting around. But they can potentially be a health risk, especially for new and inexperienced riders. While many people have ridden bikes, it’s safe to say that electric scooters are a very new riding experience for most Americans. There will no doubt be a learning curve when using these machines in our city, as speed, riding position, turning radius and the overall feel will be new to virtually every Rochestarian. With this in mind, it’s important for potential riders to “take it slow” and enjoy these machines carefully when learning how they respond and maneuver.
Let’s also put e-scooters into context. Forty-thousand Americans died and 2.5 million were seriously injured in car crashes last year alone, and most of those were due to operator error. Yet most Americans don’t hesitate to climb into their cars and SUV’s each morning and head off to work. The difference, of course, is that a misstep behind the wheel can cause tremendous harm to the driver and others around them while a bad decision on a bike or scooter will likely only result in the rider being injured. While it’s vital to consider safety for everyone, it’s also important to remember that these are 45 pound machines that can travel 15mph, not 3000 pound SUV’s capable of triple digit speeds. The potential for injury, damage and death that a poorly piloted e-scooter can cause is no match for carelessly driven automobile.
As for the issue of sidewalk litter, e-scooter companies are already searching for creative ways to encourage people to park their machine after using it. Skip, an e-scooter share company that has branded itself on being friendly and compliant, is working on a tethering system in which a rider would use a retractable bike-style lock to secure the scooter to a pole or bike rack after riding. Their scooters are already armed with a sensor that can detect when a scooter parked upright, and when it is simply left on its side as a potential tripping hazard.
Lime has rolled out an in-app feature called “Parked-Or-Not,” which encourages users to take a picture of their properly parked scooter after their ride. Lime and other companies are also testing and considering “points systems,” in which riders would be incentivized to park their machines responsibly with discounts and/or coupons for local establishments.
When cars first hit the streets of American cities, they were heralded as a nuisance and a serious safety hazard. But in a short time they became by far and away the most popular form of transportation in our country. Every mode of transportation has had its growing pains, but kinks are worked out with time, infrastructure gets built, and standards, both legal and societal, naturally evolve. For all intents and purposes, e-scooter share programs have only been on the radar for 2-3 years. Just like the automobile a century ago, there are certainly issues to be addressed, but with time, these troubles will likely diminish. When public demand for these machines are as high as they are, their parent companies will find solutions that make their use safer and more convenient for everyone.
What Is Reconnect Rochester Recommending?
As a leading advocate for smart, safe transportation and mobility in our city, Reconnect Rochester has made the following recommendations to City Council based on extensive research into e-scooter share data and media reports:
- Use the first year as a pilot program to collect data on scooter usage, impact and public perception to allow for more informed decisions about the e-scooter share in Rochester moving forward. This will allow for flexibility and innovation that is tailored to the Rochester experience. The City of Portland’s Shared Electric Scooter Pilot Program provides an excellent example of what might be carried out in the City of Rochester. Portland discovered so many challenges during its 2018 pilot that it decided to conduct a second pilot year in 2019.
- Consider capping the speed at 12mph to start. Beginning with a lower speed may give the inexperienced rider (and there will be a lot of them) time to adjust to this new mode of transportation and provide more reaction time for road hazards and traffic conditions. Given that most e-scooter trips are 1 to 1.5 miles, this lower speed won’t impact the trip time for the rider, but may help reduce the likelihood of injuries.
- Make education a top priority. Offer free classes and online information on how to ride, where to ride and how to operate a scooter safely. In partnership with community organizations and the e-scooter vender, provide frequent training sessions at R-Centers and throughout the City to help encourage safe operation and road sharing.
- Establish a set of best practices for e-scooter users and others who share the road to follow. This will help reduce tensions between the different modes of transportation as our community learns how e-scooters fit in. It will also help reduce the potential of crashes and injuries.
- Establish guidelines with vendor to help reduce clutter on sidewalks and public rights of way. For example, consider tethering/locking features and designated parking infrastructure.
The key to a positive e-scooter share service in Rochester is a blend between an open-minded approach, a well-structured set of standards and expectations, and a willingness to explore new ideas to make the service better for everyone.
My Personal Experience
As an avid fan of alternative transportation, I already own an electric scooter, despite the fact that they are not legal in our state.
My experience with my e-scooter has been nothing but positive. At a maximum speed of approximately 17mph and a range of about 15 miles, my machine allows me to leave the car and bike behind in favor of a vehicle that gets me where I need to go without breaking a sweat. After hundreds of miles of e-scooter use, I can confidently consider myself an expert rider, and have never had an crash or fallen from the device. It is easy to operate, as long as I am alert and aware of my surroundings.
I will qualify that my positive opinion and safe navigation is likely due to the fact that I have biked nearly 10,000 miles over the last 5-7 years. This experience of traversing busy streets on two wheels, with balance, quick reaction time and precision likely eliminates much of the learning curve it might have taken a new e-scooter rider. With that said, I personally believe e-scooters are powerful, environmentally conscious and fun machines, and I welcome the day when e-scooters are legal across New York State.
It’s not a matter of “if” electric scooters will hit the street of our city, it’s “when.” And when they do, there will likely be excitement and acceptance, mixed with growing pains and learning curves. These devices are environmentally friendly alternatives to short trips by car, as well as fun and interesting ways to see our great city. As Rochester continues to evolve, and young people continue to ask for more transportation options, our city is positioning itself to offer a greater network of mobility options. E-scooters are part of that vision, and while there will certainly be hurdles, there is tremendous potential for a positive result and a meaningful additive to Rochester’s ever-evolving fabric.