E-scooters are fast, unregulated and all over Detroit. What could go wrong?

Scooters in Detroit

Detroit is one of 100-plus cities nationwide where rented electronic scooters have popped up in the past few years. The devices have appeared faster than rules to regulate them. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

DETROIT –  At 25 years old, Idrees Mutahr seems the epitome of the millennial professional, moving into the city from Dearborn earlier this year.  He has no car, relying instead on the city’s limited bus service, QLine trolley and, from time to time, Detroit’s new “micromobility” craze: dockless scooters. 

The scooters — essentially electric skateboards with handlebars that can cruise up to 15 mph at the touch of a button — have helped Mutahr stay on schedule, even when the bus runs late.

“What the scooter has done for me is filled in a lot of the gaps left by the transit system,” said Mutahr, who has a fellowship at the Detroit Regional Chamber and lives in the New Center neighborhood.

“I don’t have a car as a backup if I need to get somewhere quickly and don’t have 15 minutes to wait for a bus, especially for those neighborhood routes. It has quite quickly become just another option to get around the city.”

The speedy conveyances are rented by companies such as Bird, Lime, Spin and Boaz Bikes. They’re accessed by smartphone apps that allow users to locate a scooter and pay about 15 cents per minute to ride until parking it for the next user.  The scooters have become ubiquitous since they were introduced last year, as riders zip about on sidewalks and bike lanes or leave them parked outside bars, businesses and museums.

Rolled out in cities across Michigan and nationwide, the scooters are fun, fast and inexpensive for users like Mutahr.  They’re a source of anxiety and annoyance for pedestrians dodging them on sidewalks and some city officials puzzled by what laws govern them, provoking bans and impounds in Ann Arbor and East Lansing.

In a rapidly changing Detroit, the scooters have become something else: a symbol of tension about whether the city belongs to newcomers or longtime residents. In a city with chronic problems, the service that appeals mainly to young professionals was rolled out so quickly and with virtually no regulations that a City Council analyst last year wrote that Detroit was “inundated.” 

The results have often been confusion, annoyance, anger and broken bones as scooter users have shown up by the dozen at Detroit emergency rooms.

With everything going on in the world, why have I chosen to get so pissed off about scooters?”  
-- Kristin Palm, a Detroit resident and writer

“With everything going on in the world, why have I chosen to get so pissed off about scooters?” asked Kristin Palm, a Detroit resident and writer, who acknowledged she’s preoccupied with scooters.

After some consideration, she offered an answer.

“It’s the entitlement of the companies and the way they use our public space for profit and somehow get to forgo all the considerations the rest of us are rightly expected to observe, like keeping spaces clear for both aesthetic and safety reasons,” Palm told Bridge Magazine.

Mark de la Vergne, Detroit’s chief of mobility innovation, said Mayor Mike Duggan reached out to the scooter companies in spring 2018 and invited them to Detroit after seeing them in other cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

“Any time you bring change in, change can be hard, but what we tried to do is listen to folks, both on how they see scooters as another mobility option that can solve an issue and also some of the challenges with them,” de la Vergne said.

A bumpy ride

Scooters may be seemingly everywhere, but their rollout in more than 100 cities nationwide since 2017 hasn’t always been smooth, in part because they often appear without warning or input from residents and government officials.

“These new mobility options are causing significant upheaval,” Ron Brundidge, Detroit’s public works director, wrote in a memo last year that explored ways to deploy local ordinances to avoid the scooters being a “public nuisance.”

Public agencies, the memo warned, struggle “to get out ahead of venture capital-funded disruptive technologies for which existing regulations are either inapplicable, inadequate or inappropriate.”

The responses have[ been anything but uniform. Detroit and other city governments such as Chicago welcome the companies, but, this year, Chattanooga, Tennessee, issued a six-month ban  on them, while Nashville reduced scooter fleets and limited operation hours.

In Michigan, Ann Arbor last year threatened parking tickets and began impounding improperly parked Bird scooters, eventually ending their contract with the company. Birds still tool around Hamtramck, in contrast, even though the city has no contract with the company, said Kathy Angerer, city manager of the Detroit enclave.

Scooters in Detroit

One frequent source of complaints with scooters is that they are parked haphazardly, blocking entrances to restaurants and tourist attractions. Detroit officials say they’re working with the scooter companies on solutions. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

One big issue is electronic scooters exist in a foggy legal area between cars and bicycles. Officially regulated under the newly amended Michigan Vehicle Code as “electric skateboards with handlebars,” awareness of the laws is almost as nonexistent in Detroit as enforcement. 

Detroit officials weren’t even sure where in the road scooters belonged until an advocacy group, the Detroit Greenways Coalition, confirmed with state officials that they could be driven on bike lanes and sidewalks, so long as they don’t disturb pedestrians who have the right of way.

Rayman Mohamed, a Wayne State University professor of urban studies and planning, said the absence of accepted rules about scooters fuel tensions. 

“At least there are rules of the road that cars generally follow,” said Mohamed, who occasionally uses a scooter himself.  “And, for the most part, both pedestrians and drivers have a common understanding what those rules are. 

“I think with scooters we haven’t had time to come to a common understanding about those rules. Instead, the rules are ambiguous and that leaves lots of room for animosity between pedestrians and scooter users.”

Complaints about scooters whipping by pedestrians along the Detroit RiverWalk prompted the city this summer to ask the companies to institute a “geo-fence” along the riverfront.  That forces the Limes to slow to 5 mph at the park, while the Birds come to a stop.

Among other issues, scooters are “left abandoned in the middle of sidewalks” and “scooters left in front of building entrances and exits, and blocking handicap access ramps,” according to a memo last fall to the Detroit City Council. 

De la Vergne, the city’s mobility chief, said the companies are “really good partners” and “good at responding to issues we have.”

“This isn’t just a Detroit issue,” he said. “We’ve been trying to work with companies to improve technology so they are able to get the users to park the devices correctly.”

Bird allows users to report irresponsible behavior on its app, while Lime asks users to take photos of properly parked scooters after rides. Many downtown buildings, including the one de la Vergne works in, have designated scooter parking areas. The city also advises scooter users to leave them near bike racks, though they’re often in short supply. 

Scooters in Detroit

Detroit rolled out scooters –  which are popular with young people –  with few regulations and little citizen input. That’s one reason they are a source of tension and debate about whether changes in Detroit are for newcomers or longtime residents. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Megan Owens, a transportation advocate, supports the scooters as a small improvement to a region that has the nation’s worst mass transit system. Even so, she said she wishes the city had sought input from the public about “what’s working and what’s not.”

 “The public absolutely must have a voice in how public right of way is used,” said Owens, executive  director of Transportation Riders United, a Detroit nonprofit that advocates for public transit. 

“The scooters should be a part of that.” 

She said problems with abandoned scooters remain but have improved somewhat in the past year.  Like Owens, Todd Scott, director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, urged critics of scooters to keep them in perspective.

“We have issues with cars parking on the sidewalk, cars parking in the bike lane,” said Scott, whose group advocates for greenways and bike lanes and who serves on the city’s Electronic Scooter Task Force. The group, convened last year, has only met once.

“And we’re still dealing with bigger things that that: We have pedestrians dying in car crashes every year. We need to focus on the bigger safety issues.” 

A study this year by the National Complete Streets Coalition deemed Michigan the 19th most dangerous state for pedestrians, and Detroit-Warren-Dearborn the 18th most dangerous metro area. 

That said, scooters have significant issues in their own right, causing serious injuries in Detroit and nationwide. At least one Detroit hospital reports 10-20 injuries per month

A free-for-all

The swift introduction of scooters in Detroit contrasts with another micromobility effort: MoGo, Detroit’s nonprofit bike-sharing service, which launched in May 2017. 

MoGo Executive Director Lisa Nuszkowski said she started seeking intensive input into the service years before launching, a “high-level approach” that engaged residents, the business community, nonprofits, and every government that administers roads in Detroit, including Wayne County, regional planning groups, the state of Michigan, and the city itself.

“We went through the whole process,” Nuszkowski said. “Getting feedback from the people on the ground … that really helped us better understand what was going on and how to make this service help meet some of those needs.”

Scooters in Detroit

Scooters have rapidly been introduced throughout the United States, but some analysts are questioning their sustainability and costs. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Unlike civic-minded services like MoGo, the exuberant “micromobility revolution” isn’t driven by transportation geeks or cyclists but by venture capital-funded technology companies in a mad scramble for supremacy.  

“It’s not just scooters — it’s part of this whole mobility area,” said Scott, the greenways advocate. 

“We’ve got a lot of people coming in from the technology sector into micromobility arena, and they aren’t aware of the rules and regulations involved here. In the rush to do the next great thing, they’re ignoring the relationships with cities and understanding the laws.”

Then again, such partnerships will only last as long as the venture capital continues to flow into the endeavor. 

A new report from PitchBook Data shows that venture capital investment in micromobility is on track to slump to a three-year low, from a high of more than $4 billion in 2018 to only $1 billion in the first two quarters of 2019, causing one market analyst to describe a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the sector. 

A February market report from Ark Invest questioned the economics of scooters, writing “flooding the streets with scooters is a good short-term strategy to increase revenues and attract funding, but it is a poor strategy for the longer term.”

Scott said he suspects officials nationwide “may be hesitant to make any steps (toward regulating) scooters because it could all be gone tomorrow.”

“They may well disappear at any point just from a business standpoint,” Scott said. “It’s definitely a big question mark.”

About the author

Michael Jackman is a Detroit freelance writer.

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Comments

Jarrett Skorup
Mon, 09/16/2019 - 8:56am

You know what annoys a lot of people, causes a ton of injuries, are "fast and unregulated," and "inundates" cities? Bikes. Replace the references to e-scooters in this piece with bikes and you'll realize how silly it is.

Rick
Mon, 09/16/2019 - 2:56pm

Bikes were gradual; this was OVERNIGHT. And the owners of these scooter businesses acted like outlaws - going out of their way to ignore regulations, the citizens, public safety.
But I guess you're cool with it since it somehow benefits you.

George
Mon, 09/16/2019 - 9:56am

We've seen them around Traverse City. Not very many, but still enough to cause concern. I see the upside as being fun to use, quick short-run transportation, and providing revenue for rental owners and manufacturing companies. Downsides are potential problems if they are used on sidewalks, but even bigger problems when used on roadways. Until they have a designated lane, motorists will likely have a difficult time with them along with pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, and dogs. There will be quite a few collisions along with deaths, just as in cycling. Community leaders and scooter users have to reconcile the risks with the benefits and make a decision.

Joel Batterman
Mon, 09/16/2019 - 2:58pm

I agree scooters can cause some challenges, especially with pedestrian safety on sidewalks. (I think that in most cases, they should use the street or bike lane.) But I have to wonder, how many car crash victims does Detroit Receiving get every month? A lot more than 10-20, I figure - in fact, I imagine they get more than that every single *day,* and their injuries are often far more serious. Odd how there doesn't seem to be talk of banning cars.

I'm also not sure it's fair to paint this as a "New Detroit" or "downtown vs. neighborhoods" issue. Though the largest scooter concentration is indeed downtown, I also see lots of people on scooters in my neighborhood, out near Linwood and W. Grand Boulevard. It would be fascinating to see a map of their use throughout the city.

PLombard
Tue, 09/17/2019 - 8:38am

A scooter travels four to five times the average pedestrian speed. Imagine driving on the interstate and having cars zip by at 350 mph and with no median! Reminds me of energy equals mass times velocity squared.