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Torpy at Large: How scooters have Atlanta falling hard to regulate ’em

For the past six months, the city of Atlanta has witnessed a libertarian free-for-all in the field of micro-transportation: The onslaught of electric scooters.

In May, Bird scooters popped up on Intown sidewalks much like mushrooms in a cow field after a rain. A month later, that company’s hated competitor, Lime, rolled out hundreds of their own contraptions.

The devices are now ubiquitous and most everyone owns an opinion. Either they ride the suckers and love them as an easy and quick “last-mile” transportation option, or they dislike them because they almost got run over or must step around scooters plopped down on city sidewalks.

Atlanta city government is now playing catch-up with the technological phenomenon and is moving to regulate it.

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The city will soon set up rules for parking, speed limits and safety guidelines. It also wants to have the companies share data about how many devices are out there, where they are and how they are ridden. It wants to try to create some sort of “equity” because the devices crowd areas where people are younger and more affluent.

Lime says more than 300,000 rides have been taken in the past six months. The top destinations are Georgia Tech, Midtown, Piedmont Park and MARTA transit stations.

There is also talk by city officials about capping the number of devices, although the manufacturers are pushing back, contending it will curb their “organic” growth and the public’s need.

City Council members largely seem to like them — or at least the idea of them — as an individualized transportation mode that frees up people and takes cars off the street. But they have been bombarded by complaints about cluttered sidewalks and near misses with pedestrians.

At a recent work session, Councilwoman Cleta Winslow noted that kids are told to pick up their toys to keep people from tripping over them. “So why do we tell our children to do one thing but allow adults to do something opposite?” she asked.

The company, Bird, brought the electronic scooters to town over the summer.

Councilwoman Marci Overstreet suggested the city hold some scooters “hostage” until the companies force their customers to behave.

Councilman Amir Farokhi mused, “Are we getting appropriate compensation for the use of public space being used for profit?”

And Councilman Dustin Hillis said, “It’s now like the Wild West. There’s absolutely no regulation or protection.”

“They fall into an unregulated state,” agreed Amber Robinson, a city attorney. “We are left with the most permissive system because there’s nothing on the books right now.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Bill Torpy tries his hand at an electric scooter to learn what all the excitement is about.  (Joanne Lerner)

Neither Lime nor Bird would provide figures on how many scooters are in Atlanta. (They’d have to tell the city once the ordinance comes into effect.) But Todd O’Boyle, a Lime exec, told me, “As people rely on us for short trips, demand increases. And demand is strong.”

Scooters have many supporters who tend to be younger and more fit or adventuresome.

Emily C. Ward, an attorney, is a fan of scooters. She told the council, “Now I can find a scooter wherever I want, and I probably eliminate 20 percent of my discretionary trips around town.”

Later, I talked with the city’s planning director, Tim Keane, who’s no spring chicken but appears to be in shape. He says he often rides scooters to meetings around town. “I’m one of the few who rides in the streets,” he said. “It’s not bad on the streets.”

He noted that the new ordinance would ban scooters from sidewalks. I drove around a bit on a drizzly, cold Monday and counted 13 riders on sidewalks and just two in the street in a protected bike lane. Helmets? Are you kidding?

George Chidi, who works in downtown Atlanta, addresses a City Council committee in December 2018 concerning the safety of scooters. “I misjudged a curb and ate pavement,” he told the council, waving his cast.  City of Atlanta video

George Chidi, who is not as young as attorney Ward or as trim as planner Keane, works downtown and likes the convenience of scooters. He uses them often. Or used them often. He came to a recent council committee meeting to display his broken arm.

“I misjudged a curb and ate pavement,” he told the council, waving his cast. “I’ll have a plate put in it next week.”

Chidi said a nurse at Grady Memorial Hospital told him scooter crash victims are coming in with alarming frequency, although no official numbers are readily apparent. He said there is an untold cost coming from scootermania, and it’s not being discussed.

People overestimate their riding skills, he said, making scooters inherently dangerous because they seem easy to ride — until something goes wrong.

I rented one Monday in Midtown near the High Museum, an environment with wider sidewalks and fewer pedestrians. The Bird scooter I rode has a steady acceleration, and I found myself quickly hitting the 15 mph limit. I did not feel unsafe until my wheels skidded under my feet because of wet leaves.

I largely stayed on the sidewalks because I felt like a deer on I-75 when I ventured into Peachtree Street.

Chidi likens them to skateboards. I see them as motorized Razor scooters. Either way, the small wheels dictate that there’s little room for error. If you ride enough, pulling a “Chidi” seems inevitable.

You’ll find scooters “parked” at the darnedest places in Atlanta, such as this one at a crosswalk next to City Hall.  (Bill Torpy / AJC)

Asked about overconfidence and rash decisions on such devices, Keane told me, “We can’t pass a law to make people smarter.”

While riding, I saw a cop and asked if there were rules concerning scooters. “Yeah,” he said with a shrug. “Don’t fall.”

Any liability seems to land on the rider. There was a long rules and liability statement (5,700 words!) that I had to agree to before riding. It largely stated that if I were to go all crash test dummy on the thing, it would be my bad.

I’ve read that plaintiffs’ attorneys are drooling at the potential of a new revenue source. The city was quick indemnify itself in its proposed ordinance, which most likely will not go before the full City Council for a vote until early 2019.

A representative for Lime told the council, “If I do anything wrong in my car, that doesn’t go back to the manufacturer, it goes to me.”

So, have fun on the streets of Atlanta. (I’ll risk police intervention and stick to the sidewalks.) It’s all good — until a pothole jumps into your path.

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