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Could Scooters Become A Permanent Fixture In Chicago? Aldermen Push Back After Latest Pilot Test

A 2020 pilot saw fewer complaints about e-scooters than the 2019 one — but aldermen said they still aren't sold amid safety concerns.

A person rides a Lime scooter in the Bronzeville neighborhood on August 15, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Some aldermen pushed back on a proposal to make shareable electric scooters a permanent transportation fixture of Chicago during a joint committee meeting Thursday.

The city held a scooter pilot in 2019, and amid mixed results, held another pilot with fewer companies in 2020. A recent city report on that pilot showed riders and the city learned lessons from the first pilot, with complaints down and the companies doing a better job distributing scooters equitably across the neighborhoods. 

But aldermen still aren’t sold on the scooters.

While some said they would support adding scooters to the city’s transportation future, aldermen representing wards from across the city lambasted the two-wheelers, saying they are unsafe and lead to too many angry calls to their ward offices.

One issue arose above the rest: The scooters need to stay off sidewalks, aldermen said. Riding on the sidewalk is already prohibited, but aldermen said the rule wasn’t followed during the pilots.

“Communities like mine that are very dense, there are streets where it’s just not safe for these scooters to be on sidewalks,” said Ald. Harry Osterman (48th). “Relying on education alone to tell people not to ride a scooter on a sidewalk won’t work. There has to be geofencing or these measures that physically won’t allow these scooters to ride on those streets.”

Officials for the three companies that participated in the 2020 pilot — Bird, Lime and Spin — said they have ever-improving technology to detect and limit sidewalk use, but they did not use it last year. Each said if they were allowed to permanently operate in the city they would have better data on the city’s grid and could implement the technology.

Officials were frustrated the companies didn’t use the technology during the pilot, said Gia Biagi, commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said the technology improvements are “welcome” but he needs a “lot more reassurance before approving a program that we haven’t seen proven up, yet.”

“We’re not even enforcing bicycles on the sidewalk. So let’s be realistic, we’re not going to be enforcing e-scooters on sidewalks, either,” he said. “In the meantime, I don’t want pedestrians getting hurt or killed … .”

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who represents Lincoln Park, home to the most scooter trips in the city in 2020, said she’s “not so sure” the benefits of the scooters outweigh the safety and financial risks to the city stemming from potential lawsuits if riders are injured on streets.

“This is a lot of exposure for serious injuries from people that don’t wear helmets,” she said. 

Smith also questioned whether the scooters would fulfill the city’s goal of solving the “last mile” gap in connecting residents to existing transportation and their jobs or homes.

“It’s just more fun, so it’s another fun thing for young professionals to do, and if that’s cool, OK. But I have to say, it comes at a high cost,” she said.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) wanted to ensure scooters would be “racked like Divvy bikes.”

“If you’re not going to rack them in 34, then I’m going to tell you now, I don’t want them in 34 period,” she said, referring to her Far South Side ward.

Biagi agreed, saying it’s “really important” scooters are either stationed at racks or placed in designated areas in between uses. 

Ald. David Moore (17th) said his office spent too much time fielding complaints about scooters from angry residents.

“I don’t want to continue to deal with it,” he said. “This is not working in our community.”

Biagi cautioned against drawing “too many conclusions” from the study on how riders interacted with public transit because overall transit ridership was down during the pandemic.

During the second pilot, which ran mid-August to mid-December, an estimated 540,035 trips were taken, with the average ride costing $8, lasting 18.5 minutes and traveling 2.1 miles, according to the study. A daily average of 7,415 scooters were available to riders.

Riders were excluded from riding along the Lakefront Trail, The 606 and Downtown, but the 2020 pilot’s coverage area expanded to the entire city.

The 2020 pilot also required scooters to be locked to a fixed object, such as a bike rack, to end a trip so they wouldn’t clog sidewalks.

The city’s 311 system logged 337 scooter-related complaints during the study, 75 percent lower than the daily average of the 2019 study, according to the report. The most common complaints were for scooters locked to private property, while 29 complaints stemmed from scooters blocking the public way.

The report concluded there were 171 “probable emergency department visits due to e-scooter incidents” from mid-August to mid-December with 5 percent of visits caused by pedestrians injured by an e-scooter. Ninety-eight percent of ER patients were released with “non-serious” injuries.

Although the rules stipulated riders must be 18 or older to operate a scooter, there were 22 reported injuries to minors during the pilot.

The report also detailed how one company, Bird, failed to meet the equity goals the city built into the pilot program. The company received 96 percent of the 258 citations issued to the three companies participating in the program, with 144 citations for failing to redistribute its fleet to the city’s 20 “priority sub areas” and 40 citations for not rebalancing its fleet in equity areas. 

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chair of the Transportation Committee, said there are “some kinks that need to be worked out” and committed to having another subject matter hearing before the City Council is asked to approve a permanent scooter program.

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