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Opinion: Scooters are Fun Distraction From Real Transit Issues

Walker Evans Walker Evans Opinion: Scooters are Fun Distraction From Real Transit IssuesPhoto by Walker Evans.
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The electric scooter revolution has arrived in Columbus. Multiple four-letter California-based companies (Bird, Lime … “Spin” hasn’t arrived just yet) have dumped out several truckloads of their vehicle fleets onto the sidewalks of Columbus during the month of July. While the vehicles may not technically be legal in the state of Ohio — more on that note in a few moments — they appear to be warmly received by riders, based solely on the anecdotal evidence of seeing them in use.

And while a joy ride on a warm summer day sounds like a fun excursion, there’s value in contemplating the limitations of these vehicles, as well as some other factors at play.

Transportation for Some, or Transportation for All?

It may feel like an obvious statement, but riding an electric scooter is not a mode of transportation designed for all people. They’re not for kids (must be 18 years or older to ride) which means they’re not for family transportation. They’re not for the elderly, they’re not for the disabled, and they’re not for anyone with any kind of larger baggage needs (suitcase, shopping bags, etc). Essentially, these vehicles are somewhat exclusively designed for young, able-bodied casual riders.

Additionally, you’re not allowed to ride these scooters past sunset, which currently is 8:42 p.m. In December, that timeframe drops to nearly 5 p.m. That’s a datapoint that may be moot anyway, as there’s likely little demand to ride a scooter in snow, sleet or even just colder temperatures — and there’s little information to be found online currently about how well these scooters’ batteries will hold a charge if they’re left sitting outside all day awaiting a rental.

Private Transportation or Greater Public Good?

Many people were upset — myself included — when car2go decided to pull their service out of Columbus with naught but a week’s notice. But that type of quick and drastic change is a natural factor that comes with the privatization of an amenity that most would traditionally consider more of a public service. It’s why bus routes don’t change without community feedback, but Uber can charge “surge pricing” if they feel there’s more money to be made when demand is highest. This shift to privatization can hurt our most vulnerable residents, as Brook Wojdynski summarized in an opinion piece on car2go:

“As a person who prides herself on not being a car owner, this announcement with only seven days notice before services end, is devastating and will impact my adoption decisions with other private companies. I loved the need car2go fulfilled, but now I see more than ever why public mass transit is so critical. COTA, our public mass transit authority, would have never been allowed to make such radical changes that impact residents with just seven days notice.”

But Is Anyone Really Going to Rely on Riding a Scooter to Work?

Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that that the buzz around electric scooters can’t cause an impact on traditional modes of public transportation. Let’s talk through a hypothetical scenario:

If enough young and able-bodied individuals divert their transportation budget away from options like bus passes and opt instead to spend it with private e-scooter companies, then organizations like COTA make less money at the fare box and see lower ridership numbers (private companies do not need to disclose their ridership data publicly). When an organization like COTA needs to go to the public to approve a tax levy renewal to continue to support their public service while ridership is down, then voters are more likely to feel like their public dollars are not worth devoting to that type of service. If a levy fails and COTA’s budget shrinks, then routes and hours of service may require cutbacks, meaning even fewer opportunities for the people who don’t have the luxury of other alternatives. The single mom taking her kids 10 miles to a doctor’s appointment in January isn’t going to pop her family on an electric scooter if the bus route goes away.

It may sound like a bit of a stretch to claim that electric scooters could disrupt bus networks in a negative way, but the privatization of transit has certainly had an impact on public models. Just a few days ago, The New York Times reported again on the loss of riders of the New York subway system, citing car sharing companies like Uber as having the biggest effect on a declining ridership.

If Public Transit Can’t Compete with the Free Market, then it’s Not Worth Subsidization, Right?

To put it simply, there’s no such thing as a free market when it comes to transportation.

We love to pretend that the American Dream™ is a system based on individual liberties, freedom of choice, and rooted strongly in the independence that personal car ownership affords — but five seconds of research can easily reveal how much our federal government has subsidized everything from highway construction to oil pipelines to car manufacturing over the past century, stacking the deck hard against public transportation.

And if you think that the private automotive subsidizations of the 20th century are a thing of the past, then it’s worth exploring how it’s actually alive and well in the 21st century as well. A great local example is the Smart Columbus program, which has been made possible by a $50 million grant from the US Department of Transportation, which is being used to fund both public sector and private sector transportation initiatives. As taxpayers, we’re still continuing to support the endeavors of private companies with new ideas, whether we got a chance to vote on it or not.

It’s worth keeping in mind that not all of these scrappy tech startups are really hurting for subsidizations from local governments. In June, Lime raised $250 million in venture capital funding, placing their company valuation at $1 billion. In the same month, Bird raised $300 million in funding, upping their valuation to $2 billion. Both companies were founded in 2017.

So How Exactly Are These Scooters Operating if They’re Illegal?

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” — Grace Hopper

That famous quote accurately summarizes the modus operandi of many Silicon Valley startups. Uber and Airbnb have both made waves in many cities around the world by thrusting themselves into a market without consideration of permitting, local legislation or variations in state law, and scooter companies are following suit. It’s often a great strategy for these companies, because if the leaders of municipalities are slow to act, the tech startups can build a fan base of early adopters, leaving government officials stuck in the role of “fun police” if they try to limit or cease operations after the fact.

In the State of Ohio, electric scooters of this variety don’t have specific designation, and they don’t quite fall under the categories of “motorized scooters” (ie: Vespas) or “motorized bicycles” (ie: mopeds). They’re not fully human-powered like bicycles, nor are they automobiles.

So legalities are currently a bit fuzzy. According to a recent Cleveland.com article, licensing would be required if they fall under either of the motorized scooter/bike categories, and titles or plates would also be required depending on one or the other designation.

Regardless, since both Bird and Lime scooters are vehicles with an electric motor, they’re not to be ridden on sidewalks. But, on-street operation of a motorized vehicle should technically require proper turn signals and brake lights, which they both lack. Helmets are not required in Ohio for motorized scooter or motorcycle operation, but protective eyewear is required to operate those vehicle types. Currently, Bird will mail a helmet to registered riders for free, while the Lime website instructs riders to always follow helmet laws. Neither mentions eyewear on their safety pages.

Whether or not any of these rules will be enforced by the Columbus Division of Police is yet to be determined. The City of Bexley confiscated all Bird scooters from city streets shortly after they were deployed, citing violations of both state and local laws. As of the time of publishing this article, both Bird and Lime scooters are available for use in Columbus.

Around the country, other cities have taken action to varying degrees of severity. The police department in Oklahoma City proclaimed recently that operating a Bird scooter is illegal but had yet to write any citations. The city of Newport Beach in California demanded the removal of all Bird scooters shortly after they were deployed. Bird scooters were also removed from the streets of St. Louis, but were able to return after obtaining proper permitting. City officials in Los Angeles are considering a temporary ban until legislation can be sorted out to regulate the service. And cities like Denver and San Francisco are taking a very proactive approach with a limiting permitting process that allows only a select number of permits to private operators and lists requirements to service lower income neighborhoods.

So… Should I Stop Riding Scooters in Columbus?

Of course not. If you find them to be fun to ride, have at it.

Just don’t get too attached if they disappear.

And don’t forget to utilize other forms of alternative transportation too.

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