Chicago exemplifies why scooter programs need work

This column published as "New System, Please" in August 2019 issue

Brian W. Budzynski / August 01, 2019
Brian W. Budzynski
Couched within the greater mobility issue is the concern over equity. Equity in planning, equity in execution, and, perhaps most importantly, equity in intention. 

In other words, equity being a fundamental tenet of any agency’s operating philosophy in working to create a forward-thinking, dynamic transportation network that gives all citizens what they need in proportion to that need.

What I see as a growing piece of the equity puzzle is the burgeoning prevalence of scooters. I travel quite a bit, and much of that travel involves major cities, in consequence of which I have seen these scooters firsthand. I admit now that I have never tried one, but not from lack of professional interest; I simply prefer to walk, to use my legs, my body, to some dynamic purpose. But I see the value of scooters and will also admit they do look kind of fun. But I also see a hodgepodge system nearly completely lacking in structure, oversight, and accountability.

The city of Chicago seems to see the same thing. The city has recently issued citations with a maximum fine of $1,000 to seven scooter companies for failing to meet the guidelines set forth in its scooter pilot. Among the penalized are Bird, Bolt, gruv, Jump, Sherpa, Spin, and Wheels. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, the companies have failed to ensure the scooters remained within a designated area, to promptly respond to complaints, or to address the city’s equity concerns and requirements.

This past June, companies introduced 2,500 scooters to a 50-sq-mile area roughly bordered by Irving Park Road on the north, the South Branch of the Chicago River on the south, the city’s western border, and Halsted Street—and rules were quickly thrown out the door. People were riding on sidewalks and against street traffic. Some users were riding two on a scooter. Young children even were observed on scooters.

I myself have observed, in multiple areas, scooters laying scattershot across pedestrian walkways, leaned up against buildings, and left tumbled in the curb/gutter in high-traffic areas. I wonder why management of these things is so difficult? Most bike rental programs are simpler: Bike gets checked out of a rack, bike gets checked back into a rack. If the user doesn’t do this, they get whacked with a fine. This should not apply to scooters why? I mean, they’ve got GPS (people are paid to round up and recharge them overnight). We know where they are at all times.

While I applaud the city of Chicago for being vigilant, a $1,000 fine is toothless; it might as well be a harshly worded letter. What’s needed is the requirement of systemic, controlled infrastructure to keep what seems to be a promising mode of equitable transport from creating a transport problem and a fracture of the social contract. When there are a few thousand scooters in cities of hundreds of thousands—or millions—of people, the scooters spend most of their time being scattered about, blocking the sidewalk, and making navigating the city more difficult than it had been before. With all due respect, the system does not work the way it should. Pilots need to pause until a better plan can be put into place if the promise of the system is going to be fulfilled.

About the Author

Budzynski is managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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