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Torpy at Large: The (bumpy) road to reining in electric scooters

Kevin Green recently gazed out his window at the corner of 10th and Peachtree streets in Atlanta and counted 27 electric scooters.

Green, president of the Midtown Alliance, sits at ground zero of the Invasion of the E-Scooters, the infernal but fun and useful contraptions that have been taking over the streets of Atlanta.

Midtown has been the city’s prime experimental zone, the petri dish for the new rage of “last-mile” transportation.

“We’ve certainly seen what works and what doesn’t,” said Green, who calls this moment “the awkward toddler phase of micro-mobility.”

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“It’s amazing how everyone has an opinion about them,” he said. “They’ve only been here seven months and have caught on. … I don’t think the things are going away.”

Right now, scooters have caught on like crazy, with the ubiquitous Birds and Lime models cluttering up sidewalks all over. And on Wednesday, Uber dropped its offering into the fray — the JUMP.

I understand another company was to hit the streets on Friday as a free-for-all ensues for market saturation and domination.

The business model of scooter companies has been to quietly drop them off overnight at sidewalks and corners where hipsters and the young-at-heart can be found. One morning in May, pedestrians found hundreds of the black and white Birds perched along sidewalks. The next month, it was the green Limes. And now it’s the red JUMPs.

The strategy across the country has been to dump ‘em out into circulation and get people to use them and like them, to build ridership constituencies in the population before local governments react and try to limit or regulate them.

Sure, people have also grown to despise them, as scooters are scattered all over and pedestrians are running scared on the sidewalks. But the companies are wagering that residents who like scooters will support them more than opponents will dislike them.

The city of Atlanta has held several hearings and will vote next month on an ordinance to regulate them, looking at such things as:

» permits that cap fleet size, which companies hate because it curbs their libertarian spirit. (A service called RideReport determined there are about 5,000 scooters on Atlanta streets, roughly 2-1 Birds.)

» “equity zones” so the devices won’t only clutter sidewalks in well-to-do areas.

» parking regulations and who is responsible for such infractions.

» and sharing information such as the number of devices, riders, incorrect parking violations and collisions.

The ordinance will also seek to keep scooters off the sidewalks, where they now mostly roll.

It appears there is overall support in official circles. City Councilman Matt Westmoreland said, “I think they are a net positive. Anything that helps people get around, and do it without a car, is a good thing.”

Uber has joined the scrum of companies fighting for Atlanta's electric scooter market. Its scooters are called "JUMP by Uber." The Uber app lets customers unlock a scooter for $1 and pay $0.10 per minute of use. Uber joins Bird and Lime, which launched scooters in Atlanta earlier this year.

City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane uses e-scooters to buzz around, as does Midtown’s Green, who said the city should have “a competition for who can be the most responsible scooter vendor, and only those companies should be allowed to operate in the city.”

Green broke his shoulder a few months ago after being thrown from a motorized, one-wheeled device.

When Green was getting fixed up at the hospital, the ER doc asked if he’d been on a scooter.

There was good reason for that question. Dr. Hany Atallah, who heads up Grady Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, figures that each month, his facility’s ER sees at least 30 scooter riders after they’ve eaten pavement. That number is increasing, as is the frequency of pedestrians being run over.

I asked the doctor if he’s ridden one. “I’ve resisted the temptation because I’ve seen too much,” he said. “People have got to use common sense. But that seems to be lacking here.”

Atallah said helmets should be mandatory, although that might be hard to force people to do. Bicyclists make a conscious decision to ride each day and are equipped and knowledgeable about their mode of transportation.

But most scooter trips seem to be spontaneous, and people don’t usually walk around carrying helmets. Also, scooters seem like a toy or even a lark, and I imagine many people who step atop them shouldn’t.

The doctor acknowledges that the ordinance will try to push scooters off the sidewalk and into the street, but he added, “No way I’d ride in a busy road.”

Both Keane and Green say they usually ride in the streets, although Green was nearly flattened by an F-150 pickup.

One of the Torpy youths (Liam) ponders the thoughtlessness of another scooter user in downtown Atlanta.  (Bill Torpy / AJC)

This week I spent several hours riding scooters on Atlanta’s streets with my 21-year-old twin sons who are home from college. We traveled the streets and sidewalks of downtown, as well as Midtown.

I tried to ride in the streets as much as possible but discovered that motorists seem to dislike scooters more than they do bicycles — I got the horn a few times while hugging the curb. The devices have some git-up (15 mph with the Bird and a bit more with the Lime) but the small wheels mean they can be unstable when hitting curbs, pot holes, random bumps, sewer grates or patches of leaves.

Note to city: If you’re going to force people on scooters to hit the streets, the roads have got to be smoother or riders really will hit the streets. (But then cars would just go faster, so …)

Amish Patel, an architect, rides a Bird electric scooter just about every day in downtown and Midtown Atlanta. He was spotted boldly occupying a left lane of Peachtree Street in rush-hour traffic.  (Bill Torpy / AJC)

In Midtown, I saw a man in a longish dress coat bravely riding in the left lane of Peachtree Street and then take a left turn like he has done it dozens of times.

The man was an architect named Amish Patel, a resident of downtown’s Castleberry Hills and who works in Midtown. He rides a Bird every day.

“Atlanta is the perfect city for it,” said Patel, who doesn’t own a car. “I ride to MARTA, from MARTA, to the bank, to the grocery store.”

Most riders I spoke with prefer the sidewalk and say they try to respect the rights of pedestrians. (Of course they do.)

Austin Fischer, a young freight manager who works in Midtown, had just gotten off work and was firing up a scooter to head out to happy hour.

I forgot to ask whether he intended to ride back on one.

Fischer said he usually sticks to the sidewalk. “As fast as these go (which is not real fast) and as little attention as people pay while driving, I don’t feel safe in the street,” he said.

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