For the past 18 months, the streets and sidewalks of densely populated urban areas across the world have turned into the front lines in a revolution of mobility that has sometimes turned deadly.
Thousands of electric scooters appeared on sidewalks and street corners almost overnight. In clogged neighborhoods — including Atlanta’s downtown, Midtown and Buckhead — they offer a cheap alternative form of transport that can be faster and less frustrating than walking or driving.
Urban planners hail the devices as a potential solution to smog and gridlock, while some pedestrians deride them as a public nuisance.
How cities have responded to the sudden emergence of scooters has become a test of government creativity and competence. The results have been mixed, at best.
“I don’t think anybody in the nation has seen what a truly successful scooter program looks like,” said Jason Redfern, parking enterprise manager for Austin, Texas.
In Atlanta, a city known for streetscapes that cater to automobiles over all other forms of transportation, establishing appropriate guidelines for scooters is a task that continues vexing public officials.
“We have a lot to do,” said city planning commissioner Tim Keane. “Atlanta, arguably more than any city in America, because we have so phenomenally designed our streets for one thing — I mean every inch of our streets. Big streets. Little streets. It’s incredible.”
Three people have died in scooter accidents on Atlanta streets since May, and a fourth person was killed just outside the city limits in East Point. Metro Atlanta now leads the nation in scooter-related fatalities, according to available data.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has promised a new plan to help better integrate scooters into the city’s transportation system while the city council holds town hall meetings and debates new regulations.
But the ongoing experiment caused by scooters popping up in cities across the nation already provides plenty of ideas for what works. And what doesn’t.
There have been pilot programs and studies; technology to track scooter use; and mandates to deploy scooters in a way that supports public transit.
Whether cities embrace the technology or ban it seems to depend largely on population size and density.
Urban areas have become increasingly popular places to live, and their resurgence has come with a price — more cars, bottlenecked roads and air pollution.
Most expect those problems to get worse, which could force city planners to consider the potential of scooters to help end a reliance on cars.
Atlanta responds slowly to scooter deluge
Scooters are two-wheeled devices, rented for short periods of time from a smart phone application. They are generally used for short trips that are too long for a walk and too short for a drive.
Maximum speed varies, but is typically about 15 miles per hour.
In the spring of 2018, fleets of electric scooters appeared in major urban centers throughout the country. Atlanta officials can’t say with any degree of certainty exactly how many first appeared on Atlanta streets when Bird deployed the initial batch.
Within a couple of months, the fleet expanded when Lime parked their own models on Atlanta’s sidewalks.
It was the same story pretty much everywhere.
“They were dropped off in the dead of night,” said Redfern, of Austin.
City’s from Boston to San Francisco initially banned scooters, only to allow them back after establishing guidelines that severely restricted their numbers. Austin also instituted a temporary ban, but then established a permitting program that was more permissive in the number of scooters allowed to operate in the city.
Atlanta responded more slowly.
The City Council began discussing regulations in July 2018, just two months after the scooters first emerged. But those discussions dragged on for months. By the time the city council passed regulations in January, there were thousands of rentable scooters zipping through streets and littering sidewalks.
Atlanta eventually permitted nine companies to provide more than 12,000 scooters combined. The companies say only 5,500 are actually out on city streets. But Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore says she’s not sure that count is accurate because the information is self-reported monthly by the companies.
“Nobody has any way to actually count them,” Moore said.
Many large cities permit scooters on sidewalks
Austin took a different approach — requiring companies to obtain permits for individual scooters deployed, which allows the city to more closely track their numbers at any given time.
Denver also had companies supply a list of vehicle identification numbers for each scooter in their fleets, and mandated that they provide real time data and monthly reports on crashes, average trip distances, complaints and maintenance.
At least 15 large cities permit scooters on the sidewalks, including Chicago, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Detroit and St. Louis.
Denver’s guidelines define them as toys, and initially required that they be ridden on sidewalks. But Denver City Council this week voted to ban them from sidewalks unless they were traveling at 6 mph or slower.
In Oregon and California, the question had already been decided by state laws that ban them from pedestrian paths.
Atlanta’s ordinance also bans scooters from sidewalks, but that provision is largely ignored.
Police didn’t begin enforcing Atlanta’s sidewalk ban until June, shortly after the city saw its first scooter death. Two more people died the next month — most recently 37-year-old Amber Ford, a mother of two.
Ford’s husband, Justin, told the AJC that the couple was shooed off of sidewalks by pedestrians as they rode scooters earlier in the day.
“We were getting fussed at for being on the sidewalk, so we moved into the street,” Ford said.
The concern about having scooters on sidewalks stems from how quickly and quietly they pass by pedestrians.
With scooters moving at up to 15 mph, a pedestrian making an unexpected turn into a shop could result in a collision, said Sally Flocks, president and chief executive officer of PEDS, an Atlanta-based pedestrian advocacy group.
“You can’t mix pedestrians and scooters at the speed the scooters are moving,” Flocks said.
A police spokesman said the department hadn’t issued any official directive to stop enforcing the sidewalk ban in response to the deaths.
“The mode we’re in right now is educational, largely,” police spokesman Carlos Campos said.
Andre Dickens, chair of the city council’s Transportation Committee, said he isn’t sure how the sidewalk provision made it into the scooter ordinance. But Dickens said it may be time to consider reversing it.
After Ford’s death, Mayor Bottoms prohibited rentable scooter use between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.
`A perfect strike’
The sight of half a dozen scooters laying on their sides and littering sidewalks has become a everyday occurrence across the city.
The slightest bump can knock them over like dominoes, creating widespread tripping hazards.
John Plantaseed, who uses a wheelchair, told City Council that scooters have been violating the Americans With Disabilities Act “since Day 1.”
“Every time I go somewhere, there’s scooters blocking the sidewalks,” Plantaseed said. “Now I just run them over [in his wheelchair]. I made a perfect strike on Saturday. There was eight of them lined up on the sidewalk in Little Five Points. I took all eight of them out.”
Like Atlanta, San Francisco suddenly had hundreds of scooters plopped down on its streets. The city received countless complaints about blocked sidewalks.
As part of its scooter program, San Francisco made the companies equip their fleets with locks so that the devices can be secured to racks and kept upright when not in use.
City officials said the number of complaints dropped significantly afterward.
The locks have “proven to be one of the most successful aspects of our program,” said Erica Kato, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
In Denver, companies must paint designated parking zones and ensure scooters are parked at transit hubs during the day.
Study: crashes usually result in `serious’ injury
Scooters haven’t existed long enough to be subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny. But two early studies found that crashes usually result in serious injury, and that there isn’t sufficient evidence that the devices reduce traffic congestion.
In Austin, the city asked the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control to perform a first-of-its-kind study of scooter injuries just five months after the devices appeared on streets there.
Half of the injuries in Austin were classified as “severe,” defined as bone fractures, severe bleeding, organ injuries, a hospital stay of more than 48 hours and nerve, tendon or ligament damage. About half of those accidents involved head injuries and almost none of the riders wore helmets.
All of those statistics likely minimize the number of people hurt while riding, the study says.
“This study was limited to investigating only those injured riders and non-riders who sought care at a hospital emergency department or had care provided by emergency medical services,” the study says. “The number and characteristics of injured riders seeking medical care at an urgent care center or physician’s office were not determined.”
Often a single statistic is used to justify enthusiasm for scooters: one-third of all rides replace a car trip. But the statistic is based on a survey of only 4,500 people in Portland, Oregon.
That study also found other factors might offset scooters’ purported contribution to reducing congestion: Forty-two percent said their most recent scooter trips replaced lower emission transport such as walking or biking; and private contractors who collected the devices in their cars or trucks to charge them overnight added to traffic.
“The extent and overall impact to the transportation system and traffic congestion is unknown,” the study concluded.
Atlanta to create dedicated lanes
As Atlanta struggles to adopt a new form of mobility because of its potential to reduce traffic, several suburban communities are waiting to see how the issue plays out — or have already ruled out having the devices altogether.
Scooters are banned in Marietta, Norcross, Smyrna and Woodstock.
Tucker, Snellville and Lilburn have instituted temporary bans while they decide what to do.
Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon said he first saw scooters in action when he attended a conference in Denver this June. He said downtown Denver is well-equipped for the devices, with wide sidewalks and plenty of bike lanes. Still, Bacon said he saw them “weaving in and out of people.”
“I came out of the hotel one morning and two guys came by me, and I mean they were flying,” Bacon said. “They’re an eyesore if they’re not maintained, and you’ll continue to see lives lost because of them. I’d just as soon not deal with them.”
Atlanta has no intention of instituting a ban.
Mayor Bottoms has said she thinks scooters can be an important factor in the city reducing traffic congestion. While the Bottoms’ administration hasn’t yet unveiled its plan, officials have promised to erect temporary barriers to dedicate lanes to scooters, bikes and e-bikes.
That would be good news to Kimia Nezafat. The 23-year-old Woodstock resident took a recent ride on the Beltline from Ponce City Market to a nearby restaurant.
“I think it’s kind of scary that we can share a lane with a car,” Nezafat said. “It’s not OK.”
Reporter J.D. Capelouto contributed to this story.
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