Last week’s Reader bike issue was (mostly) all about the joys of Chicago cycling, but there’s another two-wheeled transportation mode on the horizon that could potentially present a nuisance for cyclists and a hazard for pedestrians. E-mails I recently acquired from the Chicago Department of Transportation via a Freedom of Information Act request show that city officials and transportation advocates are wary of the potential negative effects that dockless electric scooter sharing could have on bikeways and sidewalks.
Dockless scooter technology is the latest craze in the burgeoning shared-mobility industry, which also includes the dockless bike-share cycles that were rolled out on Chicago’s far south side in May as part of a nine-month pilot. As is the case with dockless bike share, scooter customers use a smartphone app to locate and check out the vehicles. The battery-powered devices offer a fun, zippy, sweat-free way to get around that’s ideal for traveling between transit stations and destinations, and proponents say they can be part of the solution for reducing traffic jams and pollution in cities. Bird, a billion-dollar start-up that’s the current industry front-runner, charges $1 to check out a vehicle plus 15 cents a mile. The tech has already taken off in peer cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
However, partly due to some scooter entrepreneurs taking an Uber-style “It’s easier to be forgiven than ask permission” approach by scattering the vehicles around cities without obtaining permits first, there has been a major backlash to this Jetsons-esque travel mode. Residents have complained about scooters strewn across sidewalks and riders clogging bike lanes, zooming down sidewalks, and occasionally crashing into people on foot. San Francisco has impounded scores of unlicensed vehicles, and Santa Monica, where Bird first spread its wings, filed criminal charges against the company for operating without permits, which resulted in a $300,000 settlement last January. Both cities passed legislation regulating the technology earlier this month.
As reported by the Sun-Times last month, Chicago alderman Joe Moreno (First Ward), who previously advocated for bringing dockless bikes and point-to-point car sharing to our city, wants to get out front of the scooter trend before the gadgets start popping up on Loop streets. In May he introduced an ordinance to the City Council to govern their use. The legislation would limit speeds to 20 mph and charge companies a daily fee of $1 per vehicle. Scooters could only be parked in the “street furniture zone” near the curb, for example, by leaning them against bike racks. While riding on sidewalks would be prohibited, scooter customers would be allowed to use bike lanes and paths.
When I first visited Amsterdam in 2012, the fast gas-powered motor scooters allowed in the bike lanes were the main irritants in an otherwise-utopian cycling environment. (The city recently announced plans to ban motor scooters from bikeways.) Of course, dockless electric scooters are a different animal, but I’d still be annoyed if I were crossing the Loop in the narrow Washington Street protected bike lane at my usual ten mph cruising velocity and some tech bro buzzed past me at twice that speed without breaking a sweat, essentially flipping me the bird.
Conspicuously absent from the Sun-Times report were any comments from CDOT, which helps set transportation policy. That wasn’t surprising, since the department was similarly tight-lipped before they announced the dockless bike-share pilot. But through a FOIA request, in December I accessed e-mails from transportation staffers discussing the potential pitfalls of that technology, such as the massive dockless bike graveyards common in Chinese cities, and expressing annoyance with industry lobbyists.
That foreshadowed CDOT’s late-April announcement that Chicago’s dockless pilot would be the most conservative one in the country. The test involves a relatively small coverage area and number of bikes and, as a strategy to prevent sidewalk clutter, after July 1 vendors are required to use only bikes with built-in locks for securing them to racks and poles.
Likewise, the e-mails CDOT sent me this month regarding scooters shows that Chicago decision makers are highly skeptical of the scooters. In late April, assistant transportation commissioner Sean Wiedel shared a Guardian article with colleagues about San Francisco scooter mayhem, including crashes, tripping injuries, and a cease-and-desist order from the city. “I’m putting money on us impounding scooters in a couple of months,” responded Ranjani Prabhakar, a sustainability expert from the mayor’s office.
The e-mails also showed that Bird lobbied for Illinois legislation that in its original incarnation would have allowed people to ride dockless scooters on sidewalks as well as bikeways, at speeds of up to 20 mph, although it would have allowed local municipalities to impose their own rules. (People over 12 are not allowed to bike on the sidewalk in Chicago.)
“We have talked to Bird, the company running the bill, and have helped put the brakes on it,” Active Trans Alliance director Ron Burke wrote to Wiedel on April 25. “We see pros and cons but want to make sure it’s done right and don’t want too many scooters clogging sidewalks, trails or bike lanes.” Burke added that Active Trans would likely advocate for banning the vehicles on Illinois bikeways and sidewalks unless local governments allow them, although he conceded that allowing scooters on sidewalks might work in less dense municipalities.
Wiedel forwarded Burke’s message to city colleagues, and indicated that he shared Burke’s point of view. “We should also advocate for local governments to make determinations where they can and can’t be operated,” he wrote. “I would generally be concerned with them operating in bike lanes, trails and on sidewalks,” he said. Therefore, it seems likely that if and when the scooters roll out in Chicago, they’ll be on a tight leash.
The current version of the state scooter bill, reflecting the input of Active Trans and possibly the city of Chicago (a CDOT spokesman declined to comment on the issue), bans sidewalk riding unless it’s legalized by a local municipality.
Earlier this month Bird spokesman Ken Baer told me that the company actually believes scooters should not be ridden on sidewalks, and has messages on its app and printed on the vehicles telling customers not to do so. However, he argued that “scooters and bikes can coexist nicely in bikeways,” adding that Birds don’t go faster than 15 mph.
Burke recently told me he doesn’t have a problem with scooters sharing bike lanes and trails with cyclists as long as they’re capped at 15 mph, adding that the new technology can be part of the solution to reducing car dependency. “Scooters are another way to move people more efficiently and safely than 3,000-pound cars that carry one or two people when they’re moving, and then require a sea of pavement to be stored during the more than 90 percent of the time when they aren’t moving.”
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.