Is Rochester ready for e-scooters?

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The most recent innovation in “micromobility” is the e-scooter. These two-wheeled, battery-powered scooters have become ubiquitous in many major cities, nearly overnight. The two largest U.S. providers, Bird and Lime, report more than 10 million rides each, roughly a year after adoption.

Kent Gardner

I took at “test ride” during an October trip to Dallas (solely in the interest of science!). Courtesy of a friendly smart-phone app, I signed up for an account and was on my way in a matter of minutes. As in many cities, Dallas is served by both Bird and Lime, both “dockless” services. Most are found in small “flocks,” strategically scattered about the Dallas downtown. Aim your phone at the scooter’s QR code and the wheels unlock for use. When you’ve reached your destination, you simply “lock” the scooter with the app, take its picture in location, and walk away.

The charge is modest—$1 to unlock plus 15 cents per minute—thus a 10-minute ride costs $2.50. That would easily take me from my office to the Eastman Theatre. Uber X, by comparison, estimates the fare at $7.60. (Walking, of course, is free!)

I found the scooter easy to master. It needs a push from you to start. It doesn’t simply leap forward from a standing stop.

Speed tops out at 15 mph. Although I’m an experienced bike commuter and quite comfortable riding on the street at 15-20 mph, 15 mph felt fast on the scooter. An obstruction that is simply annoying when riding on 26-inch wheels—say a heaving sidewalk, a protruding tree root or trash—is much more disruptive on the small wheels of a scooter.

Experienced riders will be alert to possible obstructions; infrequent riders are more likely to suffer minor injuries. One death—in Dallas, in September—has been associated with the use of a scooter. The victim fell off the scooter, hurt his foot and called for a ride. When the Lyft driver arrived, the man was dead and the scooter in pieces. His family suspects a hit-and-run driver. A second death, also in September, is unambiguous: A Lime scooter rider was struck and killed by an SUV in Washington, D.C. Where there is injury, personal injury lawyers are not far behind: With eight initial plaintiffs claiming injury, a class-action suit alleging gross negligence was filed against the e-scooter firms and manufacturers Xiaomi USA and Segway in October.

Although Dallas technically prohibits scooters on downtown sidewalks, it hardly felt safe to be in the street. Like many other riders I observed, I stuck with the wide sidewalks. They were uncongested during my ride; I might have been a danger to myself and others at a busier hour.

Legal status in New York

Clearly illegal in New York City, the status of e-scooters upstate is murky. Legislation submitted to the state Legislature last year (but not passed) would address the situation. The bill memo asserts:

Currently, New York State’s Vehicle and Traffic Laws do not address the legal status of electric scooters, which causes them to fall under the umbrella category of “motor vehicle.” This has led to much confusion throughout New York. While motor vehicles are required to be registered with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the DMV explicitly states that “motorized scooters” cannot be registered. Therefore, in state law, electric scooters exist in a legal gray zone where they are not technically illegal and yet also cannot be registered. In New York City, meanwhile, motorized scooters are explicitly, prohibited (§ 19-176.2). Taken as a whole, this means that the state does not address electric scooters, the DMV addresses electric scooters but does not register them, and the city addresses and prohibits electric scooters. Assembly Bill A11230

The New York City Council will be taking up e-scooter legislation in the near future.

The legality of e-scooters may not be considered an obstacle to Bird and Lime. Consistent with the Silicon Valley “go fast and break things” mantra, we may wake some day in May or June to find flocks of e-scooters perched on Rochester sidewalks, an approach that these companies have adopted in other markets (e.g. Minneapolis). Then it will be up to City Council to address the matter.

The bike-share experience

Zagster introduced bike share to Rochester in 2017 and the trial was deemed a success by most. This year was a different story—Zagster switched from bikes that had to be docked in special bike racks to a “dockless” system (labeled “Pace”), similar to the e-scooter model. Insufficiently secured, the bikes began to disappear. Eventually, the city of Rochester’s Erik Frisch reports, usage popped back to 2017 levels when new (and better-secured) bikes were brought in and that the city has re-upped the contract with Zagster for the spring.

Do we want e-scooters in Rochester?

Unlike bike share, the scooters offer no public health benefit. For most of us, however, physical exertion brings perspiration, which can limit the utility of bike share during the work day. Swapping a scooter for your car is a big plus when attending a meeting that is only a mile or two away. That cuts traffic and demand for parking.

This “dockless” idea is convenient for users but also allows users to simply abandon the scooters, creating a nuisance for the rest of us. Nor has the business model been proven.

Fueled by speculative venture capital today, it isn’t clear that the current rates can support the purchase and maintenance of scooter fleets. These are battery-powered, remember: The company deploys crews to collect, re-charge and re-deploy the scooters every night. Theft and damage are common. Again, it isn’t clear that the current rate structure is viable.

Rochester’s weather is another obstacle. Zagster collects and stores its Pace bicycles over the winter; the e-scooter providers will also contend with a shorter season, which makes the entire enterprise more costly.

Will e-scooters be permitted on sidewalks or restricted to bike lanes and roadways? The bike-lane network in Rochester is better than it was a few years ago, but it isn’t remotely complete. We have enough trouble mixing bikes and cars; as the scooter is even less visible than bikes, adding e-scooters to the roadway will compound the transportation problem.

Convenient, efficient and fun to ride, e-scooters are probably in our future. It is easy to imagine students at Rochester Institute of Technology or the University of Rochester using e-scooters to whiz from class to class. Short trips within the Inner Loop would be cheap and easy with e-scooters. Public transit is more viable if there isn’t a convenient bus stop near your destination. On balance, the e-scooter revolution will improve quality of life in Rochester.

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