The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Since their introduction on the beaches of Santa Monica and the streets of San Diego, electric scooters, or e-scooters, have divided opinion along lines of generation, class and access to transportation.
They will hit Tucson streets by early September. Where in the city the e-scooters will operate is the subject of a meeting with vendors and city staff on Monday.
When the Tucson City Council banned the devices last year, it was in response to speculation companies like Lime, Bird and Razor had the city in their sights. But in March of this year, the council reversed course and voted 5-2 to approve a six-month pilot program.
So, what changed? What does the city stand to gain from allowing the e-scooters – devices some call a fad, a nuisance, blight or worse – on our streets?
How e-scooters work
Companies may drop off the e-scooters in areas with high population density and close to public modes of transportation. The concept is simple: You want to ride a scooter? You find one, log into the app that contains your credit card information, scan a code on the e-scooter and zoom away, at speeds up to 15 mph.
When you get where you’re going, you stop, get off, end the ride on the app (which charges your credit card based on ride distance and duration) and you leave the e-scooter upright on a sidewalk, so the next rider can use it.
The system is convenient for the rider, but not so convenient for pedestrians or businesses trying to keep their entryways clear.
The companies hire people to pick up all the scooters every evening, take them to charging stations and then drop them off again in the morning.
Tucson’s decision to start with a pilot program to distribute e-scooters, coupled with the City Council’s decision to ban the devices from its rights-of-way until companies had secured the necessary licensing, stands in stark contrast to cities like Tempe that didn’t foresee companies setting up shop.
In Tempe, it all started back in December 2017 with e-bikes.
“All of a sudden, we start seeing bicycles,” said TaiAnna Yee, public information officer for Tempe’s Transportation Department. “We had a bunch of companies all come, and they just started showing up. They weren’t calling Tempe and saying, ‘Hey we’re dropping off these bikes.’ They just showed up out of nowhere.”
People and businesses complained, said Yee. Tempe formed a work group to address use of the city’s rights-of-way and license e-bike companies, then e-scooters arrived in May 2018 and torpedoed the whole process.
Another work group was formed to help address concerns about e-scooters and potential other new forms of transport. “We finally came around and finalized our licensing agreement in January of this year,” for all e-devices, Yee said.
Since then, Tempe has been in a game of legislative catch-up involving licensing multiple e-scooter and bike vendors, impounding devices and coming up with regulations that anticipate any new entries into the evolving transportation market.
According to Tucson City Councilman Paul Durham, Tucson’s pilot program avoids the genie-out-of-the-bottle scenario Tempe faced. First, it limits the number of vendors to two, avoiding the chaos of new vendors coming in seemingly overnight.
Second, it limits the number of e-scooters vendors can deploy to 1,000 total at first (500 per company), with the option to release 500 more (250 per company) if certain ridership goals set by the city are reached. This way, there isn’t a glut of unused e-scooters taking up sidewalk space.
Most importantly, it gives the city the ability to shut the program down at any point, without having to resort to threats of impound in hopes the companies aren’t willing to pay fines for their devices.
“The cities that have managed e-scooters well have done exactly what Tucson has done,” Durham said, citing Portland and Seattle. The city council “passed an initial ban then gave us time to develop a pilot program. Tucson has done it right.”
However, Durham’s fellow councilman Steve Kozachik, disagreed. He opposes the pilot for myriad reasons and contends the city’s control ends with regulating the companies operating the scooters. Once they end up in individual hands, all bets are off.
“People do not come up to these little things with helmet in hand, ready to ride responsibly in a bike lane” he said. “We see reports all over of students getting on drunk, riding on sidewalks and riding in traffic.”
Riders abandoning them where they shouldn’t be is a danger, too.
“I got a picture from Portland, a photograph of a blind guy sitting at a bus stop with a cane and a scooter sitting about 3 feet away from him that he doesn’t even know is there,” he said.
Although Tucson’s coordinator for Bicycle and Pedestrian Program, Andrew Bemis, said that parking and moving violations involving e-scooters will be treated similar to bike violations, Kozachik said the time spent by city police and Park Tucson staff dealing with e-scooter problems would be better spent elsewhere.
Keeping the e-scooters within an approved, finite area — for example, downtown — will be difficult if not impossible, even with technology that geographically limits where they will work, Kozachik said.
The University of Arizona has also banned use of the devices on campus, a move Kozachik found unsurprising.
“The university is banning the things and just looking to the city as a beta tester,” he said.
Fred Ronstadt, executive director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association, and a former Tucson City Council member, said vendors and business owners have serious concerns about the introduction of e-scooters.
He pointed to other cities, like San Diego, where complaints have ranged from devices cluttering up the sidewalk to physical collisions between pedestrians and riders.
“The thing is, we’re an entertainment district and we’re concerned that people, after having a good time at one of their favorite establishments, they might try to get on a scooter and have some fun and hurt someone,” Ronstadt said. “One of those ‘hold my beer moments.’”
Last week, city officials announced that Razor and Bird won bids to operate the devices during the pilot program. Under the pilot, companies can begin to deploy the devices 30 days after receiving their business license. Tucsonans should expect to see e-scooters on streets near the end of August or beginning of September, according to Kozachik.
In order to acquire that license, the two companies must pay a $15,000 annual permit fee, and a $4,000 application fee. In addition, a 20-cents- per-ride fee will be assessed and sent back to city coffers.
If 1,000 e-scooters are used to the level the city anticipates, they could generate $132,114 during the six-month pilot, according to official city estimates. That number jumps to $186,744 with 1,500 devices.
According to Durham, if you project the anticipated ridership numbers out over 12 months, the city’s take would be somewhere between $264,000 to $373,000, depending on the number of e-scooters.
“That is designed to contribute to improvements in the rights-of-way, IT infrastructure improvement, maintenance of IT,” Durham said. “In the short term would require an outside vendor at a cost of $5,000 to $30,000 a year – then if we keep the program, a one-time cost to purchase new servers and database licensing,” Durham said.
However, there are skeptics of the city’s plan. For one, Kozachik said the city’s estimate is off.
“I think it’s phony,” he said, contending the estimate did not account for opportunity costs such as potential traffic, safety and enforcement concerns as well as added hassles for businesses and first responders.
“To me this is not about dollars and cents. These things are going to Fourth Avenue, they’re going downtown, the two least attractive sites for something like this in the entire city,” he said.
Kozachik said that while he didn’t support the program because of safety issues anyway, the city should have asked for a higher permit fee, citing San Francisco’s $25,000 fee. A higher registration fee likely would have meant no bids.
Another element to consider is the effect on the city’s bike-share program, Tugo. Initiated in November 2017, the 330 docked yellow bicycles are available at 36 stations centered around Tucson’s metro core and are available at a rate of $4 for one ride, or $8 for a day pass.
In April 2018, the Daily Star found the Tugo system averages about 100 rides a day, or about 0.3 rides per bike; revenue data was unavailable. Durham believes potential e-scooter riders and bike-share customers exist in two different markets.
“Generally, the Tugo bike share program serves people who want to go a longer distance. The e-scooters are used for shorter distances,” he said.
Kozachik disagreed, saying he was concerned about the potential poaching of business, and that Durham’s characterization of riders falling into different categories was misguided.
E-scooters have made national news lately due to high-profile accidents and fatalities. There have been eight deaths attributed to e-scooters since 2017, according to a Consumer Reports study.
It’s not only the number of injuries, but their nature.
A report released by the CDC in April found that head injuries made up 45% of e-scooter related accident reports, followed by 27% for upper-body extremity fractures.
Tucson mandates anyone younger than 18 must wear a helmet when riding a bike — but you have to be 18 to use an e-scooter, no helmet required. Anyone older than 18 is exempt. In city documents detailing the pilot program, helmets are mentioned once in the city’s indemnification waiver and again in safety regulations.
“Helmets shall be offered both periodically and upon request to users,” it reads.
Both supporters and detractors recognize that isn’t practical. However, Coordinator Bemis said that his department and Bird and Razor will be out in the community before and shortly after launch to help educate riders about safety issues and potential hazards.
“People will have the opportunity at demo riding a scooter,” Bemis said. “People can come to a safe environment in a parking lot and try out a scooter with a helmet provided and not have to deal with traffic and learn how to ride them in a safe environment.”
Tucson will also partner with University-Banner Medical Center and rely on city services to report accident data. Police and fire officials will report any e-scooter-related crash and injury data, Bemis noted, and both companies will also be obligated to disclose any info regarding safety.
Bemis said the crash data will help the city better understand how safe travel by e-scooter is, compared to other modes of transport.
Since e-scooters are constantly tracked, Bemis believes data gleaned about their use will be substantial and important to making any needed adjustments.
“We’ll have much better information for scooters than from the other modes,” he said. “For the other modes we don’t have that exposure, so we don’t know how many bike miles are traveled, how many pedestrian miles are traveled.”
High density areas including Fourth Avenue, Main Gate Square and downtown are home to multiple restaurants, bars and establishments for people to meet up and have a good time. During busy evenings, the sidewalks are filled with pedestrians as cars look for parking and the streetcar whizzes by.
Part of the appeal of e-scooters is that they don’t need to be returned to a specific rack. In areas of high density and traffic congestion, like those described above, they can provide for quick and easy access to areas traditionally only reachable by foot. However, what makes e-scooters attractive also makes them a potential hazard in Tucson.
Considering the Tucson traffic and pedestrian ecosystem e-scooters will join, and that nearly half of reported e-scooter injuries involve head trauma, deploying e-scooters seems to be a literal accident waiting to happen.
Putting aside injury concerns, the idea of the devices piling up on street corners or on sidewalks gives pause to business owners who depend on foot traffic and a clean aesthetic. Injuries and accidents can be easily counted, but loss of commerce can be even more insidious.
Yet, e-scooters are coming. And while there are legitimate public health concerns, there are questions with answers that can only be determined by finding out how e-scooters are received.
All things considered, the city of Tucson should be praised for its even-handed approach to a hot-button national topic.
The city has guarded against abuse of its rights-of-way, so as not to be overrun by a disruptive technology. At the same time, Tucson also played a game of wait-and-see to evaluate how other jurisdictions dealt with something that could be a new tool in transportation.
Time will tell if Tucson’s pilot program for e-scooters will succeed. It’s possible the devices become a part of people’s lives both here and internationally for years to come.
But it’s just as likely the program lands on its head.