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Health, Science & Environment

Scooters present unique challenges as a fairly new cog in the Columbus transit network

Electric scooters scattered on the sidewalk at Ohio State University.
Renee Fox

Electric scooter rentals zoomed into towns across the world a few years ago, bringing in new transportation opportunities and leaving challenges in their wake.

It’s been about four years since they landed in Columbus and while city regulations continue to evolve, critics argue officials and police are not doing enough to enforce safety rules.

Scooters from Bird, Lime, Link and Spin are a common sight on city streets and sidewalks, and about 3 million trips— mostly on Lime and Bird scooters, have been logged in the city since 2018 with a peak of more than 1 million rides in 2021.

The scooters are meant to serve as a link in the transportation network by providing another mobility option for residents, said Robert Ferrin, assistant director of parking services with the city of Columbus.

“I think we all hear and talk a lot about first and last mile solutions, making sure people have options, other than a single occupancy vehicle to get around town. Whether you're using transit, or you're walking or biking, having those other mobility options is really important to the city,” Ferrin said.

Ferrin works monthly with companies that operate or would like to operate within the city. Together they address complaints, ask for changes to the apps that activate the devices and tweak the rules that guide how and where the devices can be ridden and parked.

Using GPS geofencing, the scooters can be blocked from certain areas – the devices slow down and come to a stop in areas they’re barred from. Speed limits can be set and parking requirements implemented.

Even with adjustments, the city has received about 250 complaints involving the devices since 2020. But that’s only about one complaint for every 6,800 rides given during the time period.

Most of the complaints are tied to where people park the scooters. A sampling shows residents or business owners are unhappy when they are dumped by their door.

But some complaints go deeper than just nuisance; safety is a worry.

Many complain that scooters block sidewalks and access ramps for wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

Some like Dee Debenport, the block watch coordinator for several areas, including German Village and Merion Village, say the rules aren't enforced, which could lead to serious injuries or death.

Still, she said the scooters have their place in the city.

“I really understand that they do have purpose,” Debenport said. “And that, theoretically, they're a great addition to particularly urban transportation where it's high density, low parking, lots of businesses. That's all great.”

Debenport's concern is that the scooters are often used for joyriding when they are in more residential neighborhoods. She said it disrupts the neighborhoods and puts a burden on local residents who have to deal with a rowdy crowd brought in by the scooters or dodge the devices on the sidewalks the next day when they’re left askew.

Debenport said despite numerous city rules meant to place limits on the use of the devices, improper use persists and little is done to enforce the rules.

“They originally set up all these rules for scooters, like you must be a certain age, you must ride with a helmet, you can't ride on sidewalks. None of this has ever been enforced. Never. We have seen kids on a scooter [with] three riders on one scooter,” she said.

City regulations prohibit the use of the scooters on sidewalks, limiting them to shared bike paths and roads, but riders appear just as likely to ride on the road as they do on sidewalks.

Rules require riders to be 16 or older, with only one person on each unit and to wear a helmet if under 18. The companies recommend all users wear helmets, but it’s exceedingly rare to see anyone use them.

When riding the scooters on the road, some users don’t follow traffic laws, making it more difficult for other drivers Debenport said.

"Time has sort of revealed a lot of negativity, at least in this neighborhood with scooters,” she said.

Despite several requests, Columbus police did not make someone available for an interview or respond to a request for information regarding the number of scooter-related citations or charges.

Debenport said she’s been raising the issue for years, but not enough has been done to reign in the practices.

“Everybody looks the other way,” she said.

Debenport worries about deaths and injuries, and about the crime the scooters can enable. People have been killed while riding them or injured by the people riding them. A Columbus girl, 16, fell into a coma last year after being struck by a vehicle in a hit and run while she was riding a scooter.

Consumer Reports found at least eight have diedand 1,500 have been injured on the devices in the last few years.

Vaugh Roland, senior manager of government partnerships at Bird said injuries per ride in Columbus occur at a rate lower than 1%. But, he said there is always room for improvement and that is why the company works closely with Ferrin’s office on tweaks.

“Oftentimes there's like an education piece, and a lot of these markets that you go into, because it is still a new sort of industry, you have to sort of educate folks on how to use the vehicles safely,” he said.

He said that the apps and online materials explain to users the rules in their market and the things they should know.

Different cities have different approaches, so companies like Bird adjust as they go, too, he said.

The city decided to ban the devices from certain parks and place other restraints on their use in certain areas to curb complaints, so companies adjusted their geofencing, Ferrin said.

The city also requires the companies to ensure a percentage of their devices are placed in 'opportunity neighborhoods' or in areas with populations that have lower incomes. They also set limits on how many of the devices can be in the downtown area.

Ferrin said that’s “to make sure that these scooters are not just congregating in one spot of the city, that folks can have access to it throughout the city.”

“They naturally migrate to certain areas. But we want to make sure that there's access in as many neighborhoods as possible. So that's one key component of making sure that the operators are adhering to the rules and regulations,” he said.

Ferrin said his office is constantly working to make adjustments like that to the program.

“It's making sure that people are compliant with all the rules, you know, making sure that these scooters are parked in a way that keeps sidewalks clear and maintains ADA access for folks, making sure that they're being ridden in the street and not on the sidewalk, which is a challenge,” he said.

Roland said Bird is rolling out new solutions to the parking conundrum, like having users post pictures of the scooter parked in an upright position, out of the right-of-way in an appropriate area. They’re working with Google on setting designated parking areas and other features. People who don’t follow these rules can get banned from the app.

Debenport said she believes police should step up enforcement to ensure riders are following traffic laws, age restrictions and helmet rules. She said all scooter companies should provide parking docks where the devices must be left and that the city should restrict the use of the devices overnight.

Cincinnati started doing that recently, in an effort to reduce crimes connected to the use of the scooters.

"It's a quality of life issue for everybody. It really, really is. We should not have to, nobody should have to be dodging scooters,” she said.

The program in Columbus has generated about $100,000 in fees paid by the scooter rental companies.

The companies each paid a $500 application for the lease to use the sidewalk right-of-way – which has generated $13,500 since 2018, according to the department of public service. A right-of-way occupancy permit of $75 per device and a $100 application fee has generated $85,800 since the beginning of the program. That money goes into the city's mobility enterprise fund.

It helps “fund oversight of the shared mobility device program and other parking and mobility efforts and operations,” according to the spokesperson for the city’s department of public service.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.