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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.

Yeah, scooters are going to come to Houston

The question is when, not if.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

[E]ven though there’s a growing interest in alternate forms of transportation, you still can’t rent a scooter in Houston.

Maria Irshad, assistant director of the City of Houston’s Parking Division, said Houston’s infrastructure has had a lot to do with the lack of scooters. But with the development of new on-street bike lanes that may be starting to change.

“One thing Houston is doing, we’re taking a really cautious and deliberate approach to developing a program,” said Irshad. “So we’re watching what other cities do because this is a rapidly evolving form of transportation.”

[…]

Joe Deshotel is Texas Community Affairs Director for Lime, one of the companies hoping to do business here in Houston. He said they’re also trying to make up for past mistakes.

“When you have two or three companies that are professional and have the proper scaled operations for the city, then you really get the kind of program that you want,” said Deshotel.

As for Houston’s timetable for allowing scooter companies to operate, Irshad said there will be more public engagement later this summer. City Council will then have to draft an ordinance regulating scooters, and Irshad estimates we could see them on the streets next year.

I’m a bit embarrassed to realize that there’s been a letter to the Mayor with dockless mobility recommendations since October. It’s a fairly high level outline of proposed requirements for private operators of bikes and scooters and whatever else, and there’s an impressive list of stakeholders that helped put it together. Really, I’m just glad we’re not following the Uber/Lyft model of invade first and ask questions later, which happened in some other cities with scooters as well.

I’ve expressed doubts about how scooters would work here in Houston, as they don’t fit on sidewalks and seem to be in peril from motor vehicles on the road. That dockless mobility recommendations document partially addresses this in that they state that scooter speeds should be capped at 15 MPH. That’s basically what a pedal-powered bike does, for those of us in the non-Tour de France division, and in that case they’d be fine on the off-road bike paths. That still seems limited to me, and it occurs to me that maybe I just think there’s more danger on the streets for a scooter than for a bike. I’m sure we don’t have enough data to assess that, but maybe one of these days there will be a decent study. In the meantime, I concede that I may be overreacting. I look forward to those engagement sessions and to see what decisions Houston makes about scooters.

Another look at scooter mayhem

From the Associated Press:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

As stand-up electric scooters have rolled into more than 100 cities worldwide, many of the people riding them are ending up in the emergency room with serious injuries. Others have been killed. There are no comprehensive statistics available but a rough count by The Associated Press of media reports turned up at least 11 electric scooter rider deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of 2018. Nine were on rented scooters and two on ones the victims owned.

With summer fast approaching, the numbers will undoubtedly grow as more riders take to the streets. Despite the risks, demand for the two-wheeled scooters continues to soar, popularized by companies like Lime and Bird. In the U.S. alone, riders took 38.5 million trips on rentable scooters in 2018, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

[..]

Data on injuries or fatalities linked to scooters is hard to come by because the industry is so new. In Austin, Texas, public health officials working with the Centers for Disease Control counted 192 scooter-related injuries in three months in 2018. Nearly half were head injuries, including 15% that were traumatic brain injuries like concussions and bleeding of the brain. Less than 1% of the injured riders wore a helmet.

Bird, one of the largest scooter-sharing companies, dropped its scooters on the streets of Santa Monica, California, in September 2017 and within a few months riders were showing up at the emergency room, according to Dr. Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room physician in Los Angeles and co-author of one of the first peer-reviewed studies of scooter injuries. The following year, Trivedi and his colleagues counted 249 scooter injuries, and more than 40% were head injuries. Just 4% were wearing a helmet.

“I don’t think our roads are ready for this,” Trivedi said.

Bird and Lime both recommend that riders wear helmets, and they’ve handed out tens of thousands for free. But last year, Bird successfully fought a California proposal that would have required helmets for adults, maintaining that scooters should follow the same laws as electric bikes that don’t require adult helmets.

Bird says helmet requirements are off-putting to riders and could lead to fewer scooters on the road. Almost counterintuitively, the company argues that it’s better to have more riders than less because it forces drivers to pay attention to them.

“There’s a safety in numbers effect, where the motorists know that there’s people out on the street, so they act accordingly,” said Paul Steely White, director of safety policy and advocacy for Bird.

Getting people to wear helmets is a challenge. Riders don’t want exposure to lice or germs that could be found in shared helmets, and many make a spontaneous decision to scoot while they’re already out and about.

You can add this to the Austin study, which is now beginning to paint a consistent picture. Here’s the problem as I see it: Scooters on sidewalks are a danger to pedestrians, while scooters on roads are a danger to themselves, with worse potential consequences. They’re all right on bike paths and bike trails, as long as those are not used by pedestrians, but there aren’t enough of them to support the scooter business model. I don’t know how they’re supposed to fit into an urban street system. There’s something to be said for the “safety in numbers” effect – the same is known to be true for bicycles – but how many scooters will there need to be to get to that effect, and how long might that take? I just hope that we can figure out some better strategies to minimize the damage until we get there.

(That definitely means making helmets mandatory. I mean, come on.)

The down side of scooters

Watch out for that tree. And that pedestrian, and that street light, and that strange bump in the sidewalk, and that abandoned scooter someone just left lying there…

Photo: Richard A. Marini, San Antonio Express-News

In September 2017, Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room doctor, and Catherine Lerer, a personal injury attorney, started seeing electric scooters everywhere. Santa Monica, California, where they live, was the first city where the scooter company Bird rolled out its rechargeable two-wheelers, which could be rented with a smartphone app and dropped off anywhere. Lime and other scooter companies soon followed. As riders zipped down the street, reaching speeds of 15 miles per hour without helmets, both Trivedi and Lerer thought of the inevitable injuries.

Soon enough, victims of e-scooter accidents, both riders and pedestrians, began to show up in the ER. “I started seeing patients who had significant injuries,” Trivedi recalls. Calls about scooter-related injures poured into Lerer’s office. She says she now gets at least one new call a day. “We recognized that this is a very important technological innovation that has a significant public health impact,” Trivedi says.

More than a year after the Birds landed, Trivedi and researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles have authored the first study to quantify the public health impact of e-scooters. Their peer-reviewed study, published in JAMA Network Open, details 365 days of scooter crashes, collisions, and wipeouts. Digging through records from two Los Angeles-area emergency rooms, the researchers found 249 patients with injuries serious enough to warrant a trip to the ER. In comparison, they found 195 bicyclists with injuries and 181 pedestrians with similar injuries during the same period.

The goal of the study was to characterize how people were getting hurt, as well as who was getting hurt. Of the 249 cases the study looked at, 228 were riders, most of whom were brought to the ER after falling, colliding with an object, or being hit by a moving vehicle. The other patients were injured after being hit by a rider, tripping over a scooter in the street, or getting hurt while attempting to move a parked scooter. About 31 percent of patients had fractures, and around 40 percent suffered from head injuries. Most were between the ages of 18 and 40; the youngest was eight and the oldest was 89. While many of the injuries were minor, severe and costly injuries like bleeding in the skull and spinal fractures were also documented. Fifteen people were admitted to the hospital.

Trivedi thinks that the actual number of scooter injuries was likely higher, since the study took a conservative approach to tallying up patients, focusing only on standing electric scooters and dropping many ambiguous cases. (It also eliminated instances where riding a scooter was not the cause of a scooter-related injury—such as assaults where a scooter was used as a weapon, or injuries during attempts to steal a scooter.)

That’s from California, and it’s a partial picture of what has been observed in Los Angeles, based on two emergency rooms. The authors didn’t extrapolate from there, but it’s clear there would be a lot more than just what they focused on. That’s the first study of its kind of scooter injuries, but we do have some anecdotal evidence from Texas cities where the scooters have invaded, including San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, where there has also been one reported fatality, though it is not clear if that person (the victim of a hit-and-run) had been using the scooter at the time of his death.

Let’s be clear, cars cause vastly more havoc every day than scooters do. The magnitude of injury and death resulting from our automobile-centric culture just dwarfs anything even an onslaught of electric scooters can do. In the long run, more scooters may lead to less vehicular damage, if it means more people rely on them in conjunction with transit to take fewer trips by car. That doesn’t mean we should ignore or minimize the potential for injury that scooters represent. It’s up to cities and states to figure out how to regulate these things in a way that maximizes their benefit and minimizes their risk. That means we need good data about the real-world effect of scooter usage, and we need to avoid being unduly influenced by the scooter companies and the venture capital behind them. Let’s pay attention to this stuff and be responsible about what we learn.

Scooters come to Galveston

Still not in Houston, but getting closer.

By the end of January, Galveston Island will be crawling with Crab…Scooters.

Ryan O’Neal of Galveston said he expects to officially launch his new business Crab Scooters come late January or early February. O’Neal said the scooters will provide visitors and residents with a low-cost, environmentally friendly form of transportation that hasn’t been offered to the island before.

“The issue that comes with scooters is dockless ride sharing [and] that is not a sustainable model,” O’Neal said.

The dockless ride sharing model other scooter companies like Bird and Lime use can create an eyesore for cities when riders leave the scooters on sidewalks and in streets, or vandalize them.

Scooter companies have fought with cities over ordinances to fix this problem in the past, but O’Neal said his company side sweeps the issue of dockless ride sharing with a new model he hopes to eventually bring to other markets.

“It’s basically an online service with local delivery,” O’Neal said. “What we are trying to do is just take a more responsible, controlled approach to integrating scooters into society and we don’t think it’s been done before.”

Similar to Uber or Lyft, Crab Scooters are delivered directly to the rider and then picked up once a rider is done travelling. Users must be 18 and up to ride and safety equipment and a 5 minute safety and traffic etiquette class are provided upon delivery.

I like the idea of keeping scooters from cluttering up the sidewalks, but I wonder how viable this model is. Maybe it’ll work, I don’t know – I’m not the scootering type, so I can’t judge by my own level of interest. I also don’t see Galveston as being all that amenable to scooters as a means of transportation. Most of where you want to go on the island involves the main roads, none of which I’d want to travel via scooter. But again, maybe I’m wrong. I wish them luck, and we’ll see how this works.

We’re already on the next generation of scooters

And of course, they’re coming to Austin.

Already home to thousands of electric scooters, many of them crowding downtown sidewalks, the Central Texas city will be the first to experience a new generation of shareable electric scooters from an Oxnard, California-based company called Ojo Electric. Unlike well-known scooter companies such as Bird and Lime, Ojo’s models are bulkier and include a seat.

Referred to as a “light electric vehicle,” the scooters can travel 50 miles on a single charge and have a top speed of 20 mph, in compliance with city regulations, the company said in a news release. The company says their vehicles are designed for bike lanes and streets.

On its website, the company says that riders can sit or stand, as well as play music or listen to podcasts over the vehicle’s built-in Bluetooth speakers. Ojo says those speakers will also allow the company to communicate traffic, construction zone and speed reduction alerts to riders.

The devices launch in Austin on Feb. 1 and cost $1.25 to start and 18 cents per minute of riding time.

“You can go a little bit faster than the kick scooters that we see on the street,” Elliott McFadden, executive director of Bike Share of Austin, which is working closely with Ojo, told NBC affiliate KXAN, noting that the scooters allow riders to carry things in a basket on the back.

[…]

Promising durability and regular checkups by company employees, Ojo is marketing itself as an alternative to companies such as Bird and Lime, which have been accused of placing unsafe vehicles on city streets, where they’re used by unsuspecting riders who are later injured.

While many Austinites have embraced the electric-scooter phenomenon, especially during the hot summer months, social media is filled with examples of infuriated locals ranting about the number of devices crowding city streets and weaving through traffic.

Basically, these are Vespas, not souped-up Razors. They might be fine for bike lanes, but if they were in Houston they’d be illegal on bike trails. As far as that goes, I’m honestly not sure if I’m relieved or a little insulted that none of these new companies promising mobility miracles have taken their chances in our fair city just yet. I suppose I’m glad to let other cities be the beta testers, but one way or another these things are going to get here, and they will be part of the transit landscape. Given the big Metro election this fall, I’d prefer we get some idea of how well they fit in and what we need to do to take optimal advantage of them before we plot that course. In the meantime, do let us know what you think of these things, Austin. Curbed and Culture Map have more.