Should Electric Scooters Be Banned?

It is prohibited in Toronto and the city is missing a big opportunity to promote low-carbon micromobility.

Older person on scooter in paris
A "kid" on a scooter in Paris. Contrary to stereotypes, people of all ages enjoy e-scooters.

Lloyd Alter

The city of Toronto is so progressive. It aims to reduce greenhouse gases by 65% by 2030. Their TransformTO goal is that "by 2050, 100 percent of vehicles in Toronto will use low-carbon energy; 75 percent of trips under 5 km will be walked or cycled." It is committed (sort of) to Vision Zero — an initiative trying to decrease traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries.

Enter e-scooters: an urban mode of transport that is wonderful for those distances that are a bit too far to walk, while being much smaller and lighter than a bicycle. They are already used by many people in Toronto, the largest city in Canada and the province of Ontario. In pre-pandemic times, the city suffered from pollution and congestion, and in 2019, there were 42 deaths and hundreds of injuries caused by drivers of cars.

E-scooters are a relatively new technology and not regulated yet, which is why the province of Ontario is in charge of this. It started a five-year pilot project to figure out what to do about them. In a time when so many cities are trying not to return to the way things were before the pandemic, Toronto is staying true to form: The Canadian capital decided not to opt into the pilot project and e-scooters, privately owned or rented, remain banned in the city.

In a report, key concerns cited by Toronto include "safety and accessibility" concerns. The report states: "In particular for people living with no vision/low vision and seniors, when encountering 1) e-scooters illegally operating on sidewalks and 2) trip hazards or obstructions from poorly parked e-scooters or numerous rental-scooters on sidewalks."

Now, I might complain here about the number of times I was almost mowed down by seniors in mobility scooters or the way they blocked the sidewalk in front of the seedy bar around the corner from where we live — they are not immune from behaving badly. Fortunately, the bar has closed so they are not terrorizing the neighborhood anymore.

Sidewalk in Toronto
Toronto cares about sidewalks. Lloyd Alter

What really grates is the way "challenges for seniors, persons living with disabilities and their caregivers who use sidewalks as a necessity and not for recreation" are trotted out as a concern. This is a city that refuses to clear the sidewalks in winter so seniors can actually walk at all and puts up meaningless "senior safety zone" signs but won't make streets safe to cross, where those poor seniors are being killed on a regular basis. Given its track record of caring about seniors on sidewalks, this reasoning is hard to take seriously.

BMW on sidewalk
How to park a BMW. Lloyd Alter

Treehugger previously reported on studies looking at what causes problems for seniors in cities that allowed scooters and found e-scooters were way down the list. A University of Oregon study, published last year in the journal Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, concluded: "We find that improper parking is infrequent among bicycles and scooters and more common among motor vehicles."

Toronto's second point of concern, which takes up 3/4 of the report, is carelessly parked scooters. This relates to the problems of rental scooters, which are a completely different issue that I will return to. The report states there is a "lack of city resources for enforcement and major challenges enforcing moving violations on sidewalks, parking obstructions and vandalism."

This is in a city where the police admitted, in a report released after a senior cyclist was killed by a driver, they hadn't done enforcement for years. As The Star reported last year: "Treating traffic enforcement so casually makes no sense given its deadly consequences. Pedestrian deaths in Toronto are now about on par with shooting deaths."

If a lack of resources to enforce violations on the sidewalk is relevant, then why do we allow cars on the road?

The bulk of the report is devoted to the problems with rental scooter programs, with their many inexperienced users. Its safety and injury data don't separate rental scooter users from those who ride their own.

I reached out to the city of Toronto for a comment about this question of conflating the problems of rental e-scooters with privately-owned scooters. The response from Eric Holmes, Toronto's communications officer, in its entirety, reads:

"The report is based on extensive research and feedback from multiple stakeholders including industry and those from the accessibility community. The report explains that significant accessibility barriers, safety concerns and insurance issues remain unresolved for both privately owned e-scooters as well as rental e-scooters. The report notes that there is still a lack of protection for privately owned e-scooter riders with inadequate device safety standards and lack of available insurance (whereas insurance products are available for privately owned pedal-assisted e-bikes). The report explains that the risk profile of e-scooters is not the same as those of bicycles based on the design differences and safety research. Staff have also identified a lack of available resources for enforcement and the major challenges of enforcing moving violations on sidewalks with privately owned e-scooters as well as rental e-scooters. While the parking-related issues are specific to rental e-scooters, the other risks and concerns apply to both privately owned and rental e-scooters.
The report states that City staff are recommending that Toronto not opt-into the province’s e-scooter pilot because there are not adequate protections for all e-scooter riders and non-riders."
Tweet re scooters
Screen capture/twitter

One might point out, as my daughter does, that this is as effective as closing the barn door after the horse has bolted since e-scooters are already common in Toronto and have just all been criminalized.

But the bigger issue that remains is e-scooters are very good at what they do, which is low-carbon transportation. The city has an electric vehicle strategy that "focuses on personal passenger vehicle electrification," namely big cars with lots of embodied carbon, but refuses to accommodate new innovations like e-scooters.

Melinda Hanson, the head of sustainability for Bird Scooter and currently co-founder of Electric Avenue, told Treehugger last year that "lightweighting" significantly reduces carbon emissions of EVs. "Making a Tesla puts out about 30 tons of upfront carbon emissions in its manufacture, and you don't need that to go a mile or two," said Hanson.

Last January, I reported in a Treehugger piece, about rethinking street space and the importance of "green lanes":

One of the most important issues we discussed was how to make our cities safer for all forms of micro-mobility, be it bikes, scooters or mobility aids. Hanson says we have to rethink our streetspace, creating what I have called micromobility lanes and she calls, much more aptly, 'green lanes'. If you look at the bulk of the injuries to scooter users, they come from being hit by cars. If you look at the biggest sources of complaints about scooters, it's that they are being used on sidewalks. Hanson says we have to rethink our streetspace and reclaim our streets: "We need safe, protected connected spaces for people to take more sustainable modes."

Or, as Hanson told Streetsblog in 2019, the problem is not in e-scooters but rather, the streets: "Scooters are not dangerous. Our streets are dangerous. The fact that we’ve built our streets just for cars, and only to prioritize car movement above all else – is really what the challenge is."

The City of Toronto didn't look at this option. They just chose to continue banning scooters.

More kids on scooters in Paris
Two more "kids" on a scooter in Paris. Lloyd Alter

Now I admit a bias here: I happen to be a senior citizen under the Canadian definition and I have used e-scooters in cities in Europe and the United States. Sometimes seniors like a little assist going longer distances — I was not alone.

Toronto is also not alone in resisting scooters. But then it is no different than any other city that takes the windshield view and refuses to look at alternatives to hopping into a car, instead of adapting to a new world of micro-mobility. Then again, the city is spending billions to fix elevated highways and bury transit in concrete because it might slow down drivers, so I should not be surprised.

View Article Sources
  1. "TransformTO, Net Zero Strategy, and GHG Inventories." Toronto.

  2. "E-scooters - Accessibility and Insurance Issues." Toronto.

  3. Brown, Anne, et al. "Impeding Access: the Frequency and Characteristics of Improper Scooter, Bike, and Car Parking." Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, vol. 4, 2020, p. 100099., doi:10.1016/j.trip.2020.100099

  4. "Toronto police need to spend more time enforcing traffic laws." The Star, 2020.

  5. "Electric Vehicles." Toronto.

  6. Linton, Joe. "Interview with Melinda Hanson, Bird’s Sustainability Chief." StreetsBlogLA, 2019.