Philly Puts the Brakes on Electric Scooter Rollout

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While no doubt preferable to cars from an environmental standpoint, e-scooters have sparked controversy in the cities where they've be introduced. A plan to unveil them in Philadelphia has now been halted for the time being. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

In August, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about how dockless electric scooters have sowed "chaos and outrage" in the dozens of cities where they've been introduced sometimes with no warning as a fun, faddish, emissions-free way to get around.

Proponents of e-scooters view them as a viable solution to the "last mile" issue that has vexed cities for some time. Even in cities like Philadelphia, which has an extensive subway system, public transportation options can still be geographically inconvenient, leading some to ditch trains and buses altogether and commute by car. Like bike share programs, e-scooters are viewed as a bridge of sorts a means of completing the final leg to and from work that would otherwise be begrudgingly made on foot or via a car-share service like Lyft.

Calling e-scooters a "two-wheeled invasive species," the Inquirer wondered if Philadelphia would be the next major city to be besieged or blessed, depending on your opinion with them.

Based on reactions from city officials talking about how e-scooters have gone over in other cities (not well, mostly, despite considerable enthusiasm from users), the Inquirer concluded the answer to be a big, fat "maybe."

Now, weeks later, that "maybe" has evolved into a hard "no" with news that motorized scooters are not street legal per Pennsylvania law.

The revelation comes with Philadelphia officials prepped and readied for an inevitable e-scooter rollout that may not come. In recent months, city officials have worked to introduce rules that they hoped would help mitigate the drama and frustration that has ensued in other cities where e-scooters have materialized before regulations could be formalized.

"I think we've been pretty on the ball," Aaron Ritz, the city's manager of bicycle and pedestrian planning projects, tells the Inquirer of Philadelphia's proactive approach. Ritz notes, however, that a 2017 fact sheet published by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation makes it explicitly clear that electric scooters "cannot be operated on Pennsylvania roadways or sidewalks."

It's this fact sheet that prompted Philadelphia to change course in September and, for the time being, halt any future rollout plans. Just two months earlier, the city had passed an ordinance that regulates fleets of dockless two-wheeled vehicles, which includes bike share programs and, theoretically, dockless e-scooters.

But for e-scooters to be recognized as a street-legal mode of transport in Philadelphia (or any city in the Keystone State), there'd need to be an overhaul in state vehicle codes. And to enact a change in vehicle codes, legislation needs to be introduced. This is something transit officials in Philly appear not eager to pursue.

"The city is not taking an active role in that," Ritz explains to Yahoo! Finance. "What we are very nervous about is what's been seen elsewhere in major cities, overnight."

Bird riders in Santa Monica
Popular scooter-share schemes have faced considerable backlash in cities like Santa Monica. Critics believe the scooters present a public safety hazard and put pedestrians in danger. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

A good, emissions-reducing idea — on paper

The bad news for Pennsylvanian e-scooter enthusiasts was announced just as scooter startups and their executives descended on Philadelphia for the SmartTransit conference. With the conference in town, an e-scooter rollout didn't seem inevitable — more like imminent. And many Philadelphians were thrilled.

Dave Estrada, director of global public policy for Santa Monica, California-based startup Bird, was among those in town scoping out the lay of the land, specifically in Philadelphia's Center City where the company hopes to one day roll out 1,000 dockless scooters and potentially more if demand calls for it.

"First off, it's perfectly flat. The streets are wide. There's good bike-lane infrastructure," Estrada tells the Inquirer of Center City. Good bike lane infrastructure is key. Without protected lanes for 2-wheeled vehicles, users of e-scooters, which can travel at up to 15 miles per hour, have taken to sidewalks where they annoy and, in some cases, imperil pedestrians.

Earlier this fall, Philadelphia experienced an e-scooter false alarm when Lime, one of Bird's key competitors, was thought to have launched in the city. As it turns out, the psych-out availability of scooters on the Lime app was due to employees test-driving new models near an East Coast scooter storage warehouse located in northeast Philadelphia. The glitch prompted at least one news outlet to announce that Lime had officially launched in Philly and disclose the location of the two yes, just two scooters that had erroneously shown up on the app.

Those waiting with baited breath for e-scooters to hit Philly were sorely disappointed. News that it was a false alarm likely came as a relief to others, namely city officials.

E-scooters litter sidewalk in San Diego
Dockless electric scooters can be discarded almost anywhere. Subsequent users locate and 'unlock' available scooters with a smartphone app. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This all being said, there's something to like about scooter sharing schemes, issues of state-specific legality aside. Per Estrada, e-scooters can help alleviate vehicle traffic in gridlock-ridden cities, reduce emissions and provide a solution to the aforementioned "last mile" quandary. What's more, many cycling advocates view e-scooter users not as an annoyance but as allies working toward a common good:

Writes Peter Flax for Bicycling magazine:

Rather than tussle over slivers of pavement, cyclists and scooter riders (and pedestrians) should work together to create more shared, safe streets in every American community. Many of our city streets seem fundamentally broken — unnecessarily dangerous, clogged with soul-crushing traffic, designed more like miniature freeways than public spaces for everyone.

Yet due to a barrage of bad press and safety concerns, transport officials like Ritz have assumed a largely wary view of the frequently sidewalk-cluttering scooters. This is despite the fact that a 7,000-person survey conducted in 10 different cities found that the public holds a generally positive view of the trendy two-wheeled transport alternatives. The survey also found that a diverse range of people notably those with lower incomes and women are receptive to e-scooter sharing schemes, shattering the stereotype that Bird, Lime and similar startups are exclusively popular amongst wealthy Bay Area "tech bros."

Lawsuits, battery fires and rampant vandalism

So, how substantial are the safety concerns over e-scooter sharing startups? Let's just say the headlines haven't been great.

In September, the first three known fatalities involving e-scooters occurred in Washington, D.C., Cleveland and Dallas, sparking greater scrutiny of the apps.

Non-fatal accidents, injuries and mishaps have also garnered national attention. In October, a class-action lawsuit against Bird and Lime was filed in California by a group of nine plaintiffs who have been maimed by e-scooters, accusing the startups of "gross negligence." Bird fired back to news of the suit with a statement saying that "class-action attorneys with a real interest in improving transportation safety should be focused on reducing the 40,000 deaths caused by cars every year in the U.S."

What's more, cities that had once allowed e-scooters have begun temporarily yanking them while other cities, including a slew of cities in California including Davis and Ventura, have proactively banned them altogether.

And then there's San Francisco. It only took the city so often a test bed for new technologies whether residents like it or not a few short weeks to declare e-scooters a public nuisance and outlaw them. The initial rollout by not one but three business permit-lacking scooter startups was marked with widespread uproar from residents and well-documented cases of scooter rage-fueled vandalism. (They've since returned as part of a more regulated pilot program.) A similar story played out in Bird's hometown of Santa Monica.

In late October, e-scooters made troubling headlines again when Lime pulled 2,000 scooters from three California markets San Diego, Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe due to a manufacturing defect that has resulted in battery smoldering and fire. While instances of Lime scooters catching fire has been extremely limited, the company recalled such a high number of units out of an abundance of caution.

"Scooters are a new mode of transportation and Lime, together with the micro-mobility industry, remains committed to ensuring everyone knows how to ride safely," wrote the company in a statement.

In addition to American cities, Silicon Valley-headquartered Lime, which also offers dockless bike sharing, operates in numerous cities in countries such as Germany, France, Spain and Mexico. In New Zealand, where the company launched e-bikes in Auckland and Christchurch earlier this year, the country's largest newspaper recently ran an article with a headline that offers a grim assessment of how things are going back home in the U.S.: "Banned, burning and bruising: Lime scooters overseas."

Bird e-scooter in San Francisco
Officials sent cease-and-desist letters to three rival startups just a few weeks after an influx of e-scooters appeared on the streets of San Francisco. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A leap from personal use to widespread public ubiquity

Outside of California, it's just as daunting to keep track of where e-scooters have been prohibited, where they've been permitted, where they've launched and then been banned a short time later (sometimes only to return again) and where they've been trialed with fuzzy plans to return.

One city where the scooters can (still) be found is Atlanta, where Bird officially launched in August. Atlanta Magazine has called the scooters "fun, dangerous, exciting, annoying and unstoppable." (This is the story of e-scooters' rapid ascent in a nutshell.) Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Boise, and Baltimore are also among the cities that also got ‘em while New York City, Seattle, Chicago and Boston currently don't (and perhaps never will).

In Salt Lake City, e-scooters are a common sight around town although a recent Bloomberg article re-published by the Salt Lake Tribune titled "The bloody consequences of the electric scooter revolution" doesn't paint this "polarizing tech trend" in the, umm, safest of lights:

Since e-scooters zoomed into the U.S. last September with the arrival of Bird, hundreds of riders and pedestrians have landed in the hospital with injuries ranging from severe gravel rash to knocked-out teeth, ripped-out toenails and detached biceps, according to doctors and victims.

Back in Philadelphia, Aaron Ritz believes the danger associated with motorized scooters-for-hire comes from the notion that at the end of the day, they're still largely big kid toys meant for personal use.

"These are products that really weren't designed for public use, that were designed for a consumer market, that have been repurposed," he tells the Inquirer, noting that the bikes available through the city's Indego bike share program are specifically designed for rough-and-tumble urban environments. "It's reasonable to expect to need to beef things up for a public-use product." (To its credit, Bird has recently introduced more rugged scooters in some markets including Baltimore and Atlanta.)

Despite the clear no-go from the city based on Pennsylvania vehicle code, Bird's Estrada still hopes that the scooters $1 to rent, plus 15 cents per minute will debut in Center City sooner rather than later. He emphasizes that Philadelphia's fleet will incorporate new technologies geared to prevent accidents, discourage illegal parking and correct other issues that have arisen in cities where e-scooters have been previously introduced.

"We want to work with the city to understand what the rationale would be for waiting and how we can help allay those concerns," he says.

Ritz argues that the issue is ultimately up to state officials and that Estrada and his peers should bring their case to them instead of focusing on persuading city officials.

No matter how Philadelphians and other city-dwellers may feel about electric scooters love them, tolerate them or hate them with a fiery passion there's no denying that car-eschewing tech startups like Bird and Lime can help to lower emissions in cities. But to achieve this, startups and cities need to work in concert. Cities need to be more aggressive in improving street and sidewalk infrastructure so that pedestrians, bikes and other green transport options can exist safely and in harmony with (ideally minimized) vehicular traffic. Scooter sharing startups need to slow down, learn from past mistakes and stop arriving, as was the case in numerous cities, literally overnight without so much as a business permit.

There's also no denying the cultural impact that electronic scooter rentals have had on American culture. After all, how many newfangled modes of urban transportation get the "South Park" treatment for Halloween?