Scoot­ers start­ing to zip our way

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY CAITLIN JOHN­STON Times staff writer

Tampa is launch­ing a pilot pro­gram, while St. Peters­burg waits for state to set rules.

TAMPA — Tampa Bay so far has dodged one of the big­gest crazes to sweep the na­tion in the past year. But it won’t be long be­fore elec­tric scoot­ers are here, too, zip­ping peo­ple across town and po­ten­tially chang­ing how they think about trans­porta­tion.

Elec­tric, dock­less scoot­ers in­vaded dozens of cities in 2018 — some­times overnight and with lit­tle-to-no warn­ing.

They quickly elicited strong re­ac­tions. Some praised the sharable scoot­ers as the per­fect op­tion for trips that are too far to com­fort­ably walk, but too short to merit driv­ing. Oth­ers deemed them a fad, a nui­sance at best and a safety threat at worst.

But while other cities have spent much of 2018 de­ter­min­ing if and how to al­low scoot­ers into their down­towns, much of Florida has stayed out of the mix. That’s be­cause many lo­cal gov­ern­ments in­ter­preted cur­rent Florida law as pro­hibit­ing com­pa­nies like Lime and Bird from en­ter­ing their mar­kets un­less an or­di­nance ex­ists.

Fort Laud­erdale is the only Florida city to fully em­brace scoot­ers so far. A pilot pro­gram is un­der­way in Co­ral Gables and Mi­ami is plan­ning one.

Tampa Bay could see its first elec­tric scoot­ers in April when Tampa launches its pilot pro­gram. The city will dis­patch as many as 1,800 scoot­ers in a 12-square-mile area around down­town and south of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Hills­bor­ough County is re­search­ing a po­ten­tial pilot, but

staff has not re­leased any de­tails. Mean­while, St. Peters­burg is wait­ing to see what statewide reg­u­la­tions might pass this year, though Mayor Rick Krise­man has spo­ken pos­i­tively about the im­pact scoot­ers could have.

“In terms of pro­vid­ing our cit­i­zens and vis­i­tors more op­tions, it’s some­thing we should em­brace,” St. Peters­burg Trans­porta­tion Di­rec­tor Evan Mory said. “But the prac­ti­cal con­cerns about how they mix with all the other modes and what de­ci­sions the state will make be­comes a lit­tle chal­leng­ing.”

While politi­cians de­bate when and how to bring scoot­ers to the Sun­shine State, much can be learned from what other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have done.

“It all hap­pened so fast,” said Chris Spencer, with the Greens­boro, N.C., Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. “If you can get out in front of it, that’s def­i­nitely the way to go.”

•••

The con­cept of sharable, elec­tric scoot­ers that peo­ple can rent us­ing their smart phone de­buted in many cities last year.

Bird and Lime, along with smaller busi­nesses, spread rapidly through places like San Fran­cisco, Washington D.C., Oak­land, Calif., Portland, Ore., Austin, Seat­tle, Nashville, In­di­anapo­lis, At­lanta and Cincin­nati.

The com­pa­nies all use the same con­cept: pro­vide dock­less scoot­ers that travel 8-15 mph — no faster than the av­er­age speed of a bi­cy­cle — and al­low peo­ple to rent them us­ing a smart­phone app. The scoot­ers are im­mo­bile un­til then and will cut power if the user tries to ride them out of their op­er­at­ing zones.

Per­haps the big­gest ap­peal — and draw­back — is that peo­ple can pick them up and de­posit them wher­ever they choose. This makes rid­ing to work or a restau­rant more con­ve­nient than a shared bike that has to be re­turned to a des­ig­nated rack. Sim­ply ride the scooter to your lo­ca­tion and park it on the side­walk out front.

But along with that con­ve­nience comes a prob­lem: Peo­ple have been reck­less about where they park. Some refuse to use the kick­stand and drop the scoot­ers when they’re done, block­ing side­walks, dis­abil­ity ac­cess ramps and park­ing garage en­trances.

But by many mea­sures, the con­cept has proven to be a suc­cess.

Bird and Lime are val­ued at more than $1 bil­lion each. Lime now op­er­ates on five con­ti­nents. The com­pany, which also in­cludes bike and car shares, topped more than 26 mil­lion trips world­wide. About 20 mil­lion of those rides oc­curred be­tween July and De­cem­ber 2018.

Greens­boro, a city of about 280,000 peo­ple, logged about 40,000 rides on Lime and Bird scoot­ers in just a few months.

Other cities mea­sured num­bers of Lime riders — more than 85,000 in At­lanta in the sec­ond half of 2018, for ex­am­ple. Austin counted 275,000 riders last year and Los An­ge­les 435,000.

The com­pany says the av­er­age age of its scooter users is 32.

Google Maps now in­cludes scoot­ers as an op­tion when us­ing the app to plan a trip. Want to go from one side of a city to the other? Google might sug­gest you take a bus for the first few miles, then pick up a scooter for the last stretch be­tween the tran­sit sta­tion and a nearby restau­rant or work place.

“It’s putting a fo­cus on the qual­ity of streets for peo­ple … and how we need fa­cil­i­ties de­signed for bikes and scoot­ers and peo­ple and less for fast-mov­ing cars,” At­lanta plan­ning com­mis­sioner Tim Keane said. “It’s a very pos­i­tive phe­nom­e­non.”

•••

It’s not all quick trips and easy rides, though.

Scoot­ers drew sharp crit­i­cism al­most im­me­di­ately, with riders zip­ping into traf­fic, nearly top­pling pedes­tri­ans, park­ing hap­haz­ardly, block­ing side­walks and right of ways.

In­juries have ranged from skinned knees to bro­ken wrists, and of­ten re­quire hospi­tal vis­its. The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion is launch­ing a study to in­ves­ti­gate scooter­re­lated crashes and how they could be pre­vented.

The craze has also in­spired van­dal­ism. The in­ter­net is full of pic­tures and videos of peo­ple tak­ing out their anger on scoot­ers, snap­ping them in half, light­ing them on fire, throw­ing them off of build­ings.

On Bird Grave­yard, an In­sta­gram ac­count, nearly 78,000 fol­low­ers scroll through 259 posts de­pict­ing bro­ken and burn­ing scoot­ers. One video shows a scooter crowd sur­fac­ing through a mosh pit at a metal con­cert be­fore its im­plied demise.

But Florida Sen. Jeff Bran­des, R-St. Peters­burg, who filed leg­is­la­tion to open the state up to scoot­ers, said new trans­porta­tion modes al­ways face crit­i­cism.

“The pub­lic hated the au­to­mo­bile when it first came out, too,” Bran­des said. “They cursed air­planes upon their early adop­tion. Cities had huge con­cerns with Uber and Lyft. But ul­ti­mately we come to re­al­ize they play an im­por­tant role in mo­bil­ity and we ac­cept that.”

•••

Cities are learn­ing from each other as they com­pose guide­lines for the new trans­porta­tion trend.

Af­ter the com­pa­nies crashed onto main streets with­out warn­ing, many lo­cal gov­ern­ments put tem­po­rary bans in place while they drafted reg­u­la­tions. A per­mit struc­ture seems the most pop­u­lar ap­proach to in­still­ing some or­der, though fees and re­stric­tions vary wildly be­tween ju­ris­dic­tions.

In Greens­boro, for ex­am­ple, each com­pany must pay $500 to op­er­ate lo­cally, and dish out an ex­tra $50 per scooter it de­ploys. At­lanta re­quires $12,000 for a com­pany to op­er­ate its first 500 scoot­ers, and $50 for ev­ery one af­ter that.

For Tampa’s pro­posed pilot, the city is ask­ing com­pa­nies to pay $20,000 to de­ploy up to 600 scoot­ers. Each of those scoot­ers is charged $1 a day, or $365 for the year.

While no data is yet avail­able on the sub­ject, trans­porta­tion ex­perts spec­u­late that scoot­ers could lead to higher tran­sit use.

Be­cause bus and train stops are of­ten spaced rel­a­tively far apart, tran­sit has strug­gled with the “first-mile, last-mile prob­lem” of how to get peo­ple from their stop to their des­ti­na­tion ef­fi­ciently and af­ford­ably.

“They’re not just for fun, they’re ac­tu­ally func­tional,” Lime Florida spokes­woman Vi­vian Myrte­tus said. “Peo­ple are getting out of their cars and us­ing (scoot­ers) for an ac­tual mode of trans­porta­tion. It’s not just a toy.”

A woman picks up a scooter near her rail stop and rides it to a work meet­ing a dozen blocks away for about $5. Friends take tran­sit to a con­cert or sport­ing event, know­ing they can use scoot­ers to jump around town after­ward.

Uses like that open tran­sit sys­tems to “choice riders” — peo­ple who have cars but de­cide to use pub­lic trans­porta­tion in­stead. “It gives the tran­sit a broader reach for a lot of peo­ple,” Keane said. “It’s re­ally ex­pand­ing tran­sit ar­eas and has huge po­ten­tial there.”

•••

But state leg­is­la­tion or a lo­cal or­di­nance first needs to pass be­fore any of this — good, bad and un­known — can hap­pen in Tampa Bay.

Cur­rently, scoot­ers can op­er­ate in the Sun­shine State only where a city or county passes an or­di­nance. An even then, they are al­lowed only on side­walks, not in streets or bike paths.

Bran­des and State Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, have filed bills to open up the state to scoot­ers.

“We want to clar­ify that these de­vices are al­lowed to be used on bike paths, side­walks and any­where typ­i­cally where a bike can be rid­den,” Bran­des said.

Reg­u­la­tion would be “ex­clu­sively con­trolled by state and fed­eral law,” un­der the leg­is­la­tion. Cities and coun­ties could pass their own or­di­nances, but they could not be in con­flict with state law and could not be more re­stric­tive than lo­cal rules for bi­cy­cles.

That means a city like St. Peters­burg could not ban scoot­ers from op­er­at­ing on its busy side­walks un­less it also ex­tended that rule to bikes.

Scooter riders also would have the same rights as cy­clists un­der the pro­posed law. No driver’s li­cense would be re­quired, though the com­pa­nies would have to main­tain com­mer­cial li­a­bil­ity in­sur­ance.

Peo­ple would have to park their scoot­ers in a way “that does not up­end the nor­mal move­ment of pedes­trian traf­fic.”

In ad­di­tion, the law would ex­tend to sim­i­lar shared modes of trans­porta­tion that could arise in the fu­ture.

“We’re try­ing to be broad in the definitions be­cause this is a very quickly evolv­ing land­scape,” Bran­des said. “It’s a sim­ple, straight­for­ward reg­u­la­tory struc­ture that is easy for cities to un­der­stand.” Se­nior re­searcher Caryn Baird con­trib­uted to this re­port. Con­tact Caitlin John­ston at cjohn­[email protected] tam­pabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Fol­low @cljohnst.

As­so­ci­ated Press

Tampa of­fi­cials are work­ing on a pilot pro­gram for mo­tor­ized scoot­ers like this one be­ing rid­den in San Fran­cisco.

As­so­ci­ated Press

A man parks his rented, mo­tor­ized dock­less scooter out­side a restau­rant in At­lanta. Cities across the U.S. are grap­pling with how to reg­u­late the ones that have be­gun ap­pear­ing on side­walks.

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