Electric scooters could hit downtown streets in the spring if a proposal passes in the City Council Thursday. Credit: Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.

CHICAGO — Shareable electric scooters would be permitted to glide through Downtown for the first time next year under a plan that would greenlight thousands of scooters for city streets — but not sidewalks.

The proposal allows up to three companies, such as Bird and Lime, to obtain a two-year license to operate in the city. It comes on the heels of two pilot programs the city held to test-drive the e-scooters on a limited basis while restricting access to the Loop and other parts of the city. 

Each company that obtains a license would pay $1 per scooter per day for up to 2,000 scooters initially. The city expects the scooter licenses to bring in $4.5 million in upfront revenue. Tax revenue would also flow into city coffers from residents through a .09 cent lease tax for every dollar in ride expenses.

The city’s transportation commissioner will have the discretion to increase the number of scooters available through the licenses if the demand is there, up to a total of 12,500 scooters citywide.

While the e-scooters would still be blocked from the lakefront, they would not be automatically blocked from other portions of the city, like Downtown, city officials told the Committee on Transportation and the Public Way on Wednesday. The committee approved the ordinance, with only Ald. David Moore (17th) casting a “no” vote.

If approved during Thursday’s City Council meeting, residents could expect the scooters to pop up throughout their neighborhoods next spring, officials said. 

JUMP offered scooters during the pilot program. Credit: JUMP Scooters

Guidelines on where the scooters must be parked and new technology to slow them to a halt if they are ridden on sidewalks appear to have averted a collision course between alderpeople who expressed frustration with e-scooters at a summer hearing and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, which supports the scooters becoming a permanent fixture of the city’s transportation options for residents.

Scooters will be available to ride from 5 a.m. to midnight and must be locked to a physical structure when parked, such as a bike rack or light pole, according to the proposal. The companies must also ensure their scooters are relocated each morning to locations throughout the city, including a certain percentage of their fleet, determined by the city, in areas on the city’s South and West sides. 

Each scooter must include “geo-fencing technology” that can detect when a rider is on the sidewalk, triggering an alarm to alert the rider and pedestrians that the scooter is not to be on the sidewalk. Officials with scooter companies Bird and Lime said Tuesday they have that technology and can slow the scooters to a halt if they are on sidewalks.

“We believe that the e-scooters offer an affordable, convenient and environmentally friendly way for Chicagoans to get around the city,” said Kevin O’Malley, deputy commissioner of the Department of Transportation.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said he initially had “reservations” about the scooter program, but “the virtual fencing to keep folks off sidewalks” and ability to lock them to a physical structure brought him around. 

“Recognizing really the need for having multimodal transportation as a way that supports, not only our environmental goals, but also really helps our small business districts by bringing in different traffic that’s not just through vehicles allows more productive sustainable businesses,” he said.

Even Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), who in June said, “I don’t want them in 34, period,” didn’t vote against the proposal. On Tuesday, Austin asked that the scooters be located near libraries and exercise trails in her Far South Side ward.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) did not cast a “no” vote but pressed transportation officials to block scooters from certain areas in his Far North Side ward, saying, “Candidly, I don’t trust their ability to keep them off sidewalks.”

Osterman said he has “a lot of elderly folks that get run down” by bicyclists on the sidewalks along Sheridan Road, and he “doesn’t want to add to the chaos.”

Osterman was told if he wrote a letter to Gia Biagi, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, to identify where in the ward he wanted to block scooters, it would be “the start of that conversation.” Biagi has the authority to block scooters from certain areas if they present a safety risk.

“We would follow the ordinance, and if it’s safety, if it’s convenience … we would follow that and see if it’s in the right interest of the program,” O’Malley said. 

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