As electric scooter use grows, some urge caution

Cristian Rubio, 23, and Cherlene Sousa, 22, both of Detroit wait at the corner on Bird scooters in Detroit last week. This was their first ride on the scooters and they said they were enjoying it. Bird scooters have been in Detroit for about one month.

Detroit — The eruption of electric scooters zipping around the city has divided a downtown adjusting to their presence, and now city officials want to firm up regulations regarding their usage.

It’s been a month since the first scooters were deployed in Detroit as part of a pilot program, and since that time, the dockless scooter system has expanded as a second provider has come online, increasing the number of riders speeding around Detroit’s streets and sidewalks at up to 15 mph.

“Any time you implement something new, it’s definitely important to have kind of a trial phase to see what works for Detroit,” said City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield.

“It’s exciting to have different mobility options for people to get around, and I think that it’s a great idea, but for me, it’s the hazard and safety issues that are concerning me."

Sheffield said the city must "customize it to fit what works here in Detroit as far as the number of scooters, how the program works and things of that sort.”

At the end of July, Bird Rides, an electric scooter-sharing service, began testing a fleet in downtown, Corktown, Eastern Market and Midtown. Lime, another dockless scooter company, moved into the area last week, placing the pay-per-use scooters in downtown and Midtown.

Bird declined to say how many scooters have been deployed in the area since the company first launched. The company adds scooters when each receives an average of three rides a day. Lime didn't respond to requests for comment.

Through the use of apps, scooter users can rent them from each company for $1 to start, and 15 cents for each minute after. The scooters can travel up to 15 miles per hour and are meant to travel distances too close to drive, but too far to walk.

Detroit does have some guidelines it put in place after three electric scooter companies expressed interest earlier this year, said Mark De LaVergne, chief of mobility innovation for the city.

“It goes over how scooters should be parked, the number of scooters,” said De LaVergne. “The guidelines are based on best practices on what other cities are doing. We’re not the first to have scooters. We were able to pull from the current best practices and put them together in our guidelines.”

Kellin Wirtz, 24, of Trenton who works downtown, takes a photo of the Bird scooter and then uses the app to lock it after he arrives at his destination in Detroit last week.

The guidelines, in the form of a memorandum issued by the city's Department of Public Works in mid-July, is an interpretation of existing city code and does not create any new law, officials say. 

According to the memorandum, scooters are to be kept in clean, working order and receive a maintenance check no less than once a month. The scooters should not be equipped to exceed 15 miles per hour and have front and rear lights visible from at least 500 feet under normal circumstances.

The document also states that scooters should be used primarily in bike lanes when present or in the rightmost lane of the roadway. Scooters can be used on the sidewalk, but only if it poses a low risk of disturbance to pedestrians. While on the sidewalk, pedestrians have the right of way.

As far as parking, the city advises that users should place scooters at least six feet away from crosswalks, fire hydrants, driveways, bicycle racks, disabled parking spaces and bus shelters. No more than 10 scooters should be parked as a group.

As of late August, De LaVergne said he was not aware of any accidents involving scooters.

Bird wouldn’t say if there have been issues of vandalism or theft in Detroit, but media reports have shown damage to some scooters.

“When Bird vehicles are vandalized or knocked over on the sidewalk, it's like breaking windows in our own neighborhood,” the company said. “We hope that when people see available Birds, they are mindful of our friends and neighbors who rely on our vehicles to get to work on time or make it to their next appointment.

"We encourage people in communities to report incidents of vandalism to Birds, and irresponsible behavior on Birds, to local authorities and to the company. Bird investigates all reports of vandalism and takes appropriate measures, including working with law enforcement and removing people from our platform.”

Many of the neighborhoods with high usage, including downtown, are within Sheffield’s district. She says that when the City Council returns from recess this month, she wants to discuss the scooters and address any safety concerns.

“I feel council needs to be intimately involved in process of getting any type of permanent program within the city of Detroit,” she said.

The scooters have been controversial in some cities. In Beverly Hills, California, both Bird and Lime were banned for six months in July as its council wanted to address safety concerns and a lack of advanced planning. The companies were also temporarily banned in Denver while officials created a set of rules about where users could ride and park the scooters.

In Beverly Hills, officials await cooperation from the vendors to ensure that they are used safely in the community, said Beverly Hills Mayor Julian A. Gold.  He said that companies, including Bird and Lime, were asked to come to the city to work out a  proposal for the scooters. But they have not responded to the city’s requests.

Gold said scooters first cropped up about five miles away along the beach in Santa Monica about six months ago. In Beverly Hills, they appeared about two months ago.

“For us, it was very sudden. We had no knowledge that the scooters were headed our way. They just kind of arrived one day,” he said. “It didn’t take long for them to become a nuisance.”

Gold said riders were discarding them in the street, middle of sidewalks and on people’s lawns. Some users have also sustained wrist, knee and head injuries. 

“These things do 15 miles per hour; they are silent,” said Gold, noting some people have been injured and others were frightened by the scooters whizzing by. “We have a very pedestrian-friendly city.”

The city has confiscated the scooters fsince the ban was imposed in July. So far, it’s been in the hundreds, he said.

Gold urged Detroit officials to lay out some ground rules early on.

“I would encourage them to be aggressive and get ahead of it to the extent that they can,” he said. “It’s much harder to try to play catch-up.”

Gold said educating the public is key as well as enforcing penalties for those who break the rules. Also, identifying designated areas for where the scooters can be picked up and dropped off is necessary but has been lacking so far.   

“(Detroit) should push for that,” he said. 

Officials for Bird say they have been in contact with Detroit officials “and are looking forward to helping Detroit to build a framework for 2019 that permits affordable transportation options.”

One recent day downtown, several people  were using scooters in and around Campus Martius.

Kellin Wirtz, 24, of Detroit said he uses the scooters to travel around the downtown area to take real estate photos for his job at Bedrock Detroit. He’s rented scooters six or seven times. He said it took about 10 minutes into his first ride to get comfortable with one.

“The thing I look out for is other people,” he said. "... I’ll go on the street if there’s not a lot of traffic, but it’s a mix of both. I’ll see a lot of people whizzing back and forth, too. I’m always on the lookout so I don’t hurt anybody.”

But not everyone is in favor of the dockless scooter system. 

Audrey Zarb of Detroit said she’s noticed in areas with designated bike lanes people use scooters more responsibly, “but in areas without designated bike lanes, riders seem to take more liberties with public space — even weaving around other pedestrians or doing tricks like twirling, spinning or ramping off small curbs, raised surfaces."

Zarb said the most common irresponsible use of the scooters is where they are left.

“I have found them abandoned in parking spots, in driveways, in walkways, in the middle of the bicycle lane, in front of handicap sidewalk entrances, and in front of my building front stoop,” she said.

Zarb said she feels as though the scooters should have docking bays or designated spaces where users can leave them.

“It feels rather outrageous that any resident would have to justify this position since it’s a very basic courtesy that most people learn as children: don’t leave your toys laying around for other people to trip and fall on,” she said.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN