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Scooters and the negative effect on disabled folks

A deep dive on the San Antonio experience.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

From the moment they appeared in cities across the country, the business model for electric scooters has depended on riders’ abandoning the machines wherever the ride ends. Users unlock scooters with a cell phone app, put $1 on their credit card plus 15 to 30 cents per minute to ride, and routinely ignore city rules against dumping the vehicles in the curb cuts that make sidewalk wheelchair use possible.

San Antonio’s new ban on riding scooters on sidewalks — if it’s enforced — will only partially restore a path to a freer life for disabled people. Scooters are still legal to park on the sidewalk itself, and the city’s “light touch” preference for warnings and education over police ticketing and confiscation leave the disabled skeptical that much will change.

Urban commentators might curse scooters as a metaphor for a hurried, narcissistic age, but disabled people generally see the glut of abandoned vehicles as a physical affront.

“We’ve spent 30 years making sidewalks accessible,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the Washington-based National Disability Rights Network, referring to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. “And then overnight we’re forced into asking cities, ‘Why have you allowed this to happen without thinking of their impact?’”

The problem is especially acute and visible in San Antonio, which U.S. Census figures show has the nation’s second highest rate of residents with “ambulatory difficulty” — 9.5 percent of San Antonians ages 35 to 64, or about 100,000 people. Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia had a higher rate.

Blind people feel especially harassed by the two-wheeled whippets, said Sandy Merrill, CEO of San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas, which trains service dogs for the vision-impaired.

“It’s difficult enough dealing with what’s in front of you,” Merrill said. “But now our dogs and people have to deal with something almost silent zipping behind them at 15 miles an hour. I wish young people would think about how they’re using them.”

[…]

John Jacks, director of San Antonio’s Center City Development and Operations Department and the city’s de facto scooter czar, sounds sympathetic to the complaints of disabled citizens, but is loath to criticize the scooter companies or call for aggressive policing of a breezy business culture more determined to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The city won’t create the rules designed to change that culture. It has asked the companies to do it themselves, by submitting detailed proposals for bringing order to the scooter scrum. By October, the city will cut the number of permitted scooter firms from six to three and reduce their fleets of dockless vehicles from a total of 16,000 to 5,000. Jacks said the city’s request-for-proposals process offers the reward of a city contract to the three companies with the best ideas for reducing clutter and rider misbehavior.

“Our number one concern is the ability of all people to navigate the sidewalks safely,” Jacks said. Correcting the problem, he added, will be done mostly by creating incentives “for good behavior versus bad. It’s putting the burden on the companies for addressing the problem.”

Jacks said he had consulted the disabled community about the scooter roll-out and its concerns will be “embedded” in the process by having Malone, a former president of the National Federation for the Blind, on the selection committee.

The city’s scooter ordinance, thrown together last year to govern a six-month tryout of the new technology, contains rules against parking within a certain distance of curb ramps and other structures, but Jacks conceded that few, if any, riders actually know that.

“This is all still evolving,” Jacks said. “If the Council still doesn’t think it’s working, we may have to have more restrictive regulations.”

San Antonio Police confirm that they haven’t impounded any scooters in 2019, choosing instead to alert the scooter companies, call 311 or tidy up the sidewalks themselves.

“Sometimes I’ll just move them off to the side on the curb,” said SAPD Capt. Chris Benavides, the department’s head of traffic and special events.

Officers have given out 438 warnings since August, he said, but have written only 80 citations for scooter riders since last August, a period in which renters took nearly two million rides, according to city records. This month, SAPD deployed three overtime officers per day, seven days a week, to focus on downtown scooter enforcement.

“I like the ‘soft touch’ to scooter enforcement, if that’s what you want to call it,” Benavides said. “Our biggest problem is just educating people, especially the tourists.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. As noted, San Antonio has now banned scooters from sidewalks, which I think will help keep riders from menacing pedestrians, but those scooters are still going to be left on the sidewalk after being used, and that’s still going to be a problem for people with mobility issues. There’s clearly value in these “micro-mobility” options, which should reduce the number of short-hop car trips people take and may help encourage transit use, but their business models leave these problems to the cities to solve. I sure hope Houston’s plan for scooters will address this. In the meantime, there are federal lawsuits filed by people with disabilities in other states like California that allege that Lime and Bird and other scooter companies are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting their ability to navigate their cities. That’s going to take a few years to work its way through the courts, and who knows what SCOTUS will do with it. In the meantime, cities and states need to figure it out.

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4 Comments

  1. RGW says:

    This is crazy, each scooter ride removes a multi ton vehicle which travels 3 times as fast from the road. How many disabled people are run over by cars every year vs killed by a scooter. That’s right, none have died from a scooter, but it can be a minor inconvenience. If there are areas where the sidewalk gets coated, devote 1 “gasp” parking spot as a scooter parking zone, you could 30 instead of 1 car. Scooters make the overall pedestrian realm much safer vs the cars they replace, including for the disabled. They’re just like bicycles, but slower and take up less parking space. Disability advocates fighting scooters is enormously counter productive is they actually care about the safety of the disabled on their streets, it’s mind blowing how reactionary people are.

  2. Michael Croft says:

    There’s a tech startup that AT&T is working with who has been helping blind people navigate. The tech is pretty simple: a google-glass style pair of glasses, a cell-phone, and a person watching the video who says “take about 3 steps to the right to avoid the scooter on the sidewalk”.

    Does not solve the problem for everyone, and not even cheap, but possibly interesting to some.

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyblankson/2018/05/31/a-vision-for-the-future-iot-solution-gives-sight-to-the-blind/#34ce73ed26c7

  3. Joel says:

    Not that mind-blowing when you examine your argument more closely:

    “each scooter ride removes a multi ton vehicle which travels three times as fast …”

    scooters don’t replace vehicles, they replace pedestrians (got any evidence otherwise?). with vehicles going five times as fast on the sidewalk as people can actually walk.

    “none have died from a scooter, but it can be a minor inconvenience …”

    in fact, several people have died *riding* scooters. and i am not so certain no scooter has run down and killed a pedestrian. are you?

    “they’re just like bicycles, but slower and take up less parking space”

    scooters are faster than most people ride their bikes. scooters are ridden on both street/bike path and sidewalk (seemingly wherever is more dangerous, and almost always without head protection), while people generally know better than to ride a bike on the sidewalk or ride one without a helmet, or at night without reflective wear, lights, etc). as for parking, whatever. either one adds parking requirements, not the opposite.

    it’s not “reactionary” to oppose poor public policy, any more than it is “progressive” to support something just because it involves an app on your phone.

  4. Joel says:

    that was directed at RGW.