LORINC: When e-scooters hit Toronto’s streets

When city council this summer passed new and moderately more stringent training regulations for Uber and Lyft drivers, no one could have been shocked by the reason for the additional regulatory burden. After a succession of tragic accidents involving distracted or inexperienced drivers, the City realized it had to re-assert its traditional role as custodian of public safety – a duty too easily jettisoned in the name of technology, efficiency, or some other free market shibboleth.

So here’s a thought: let’s not make this same mistake twice with the looming approval of e-scooters.

Of course, the nature of the risk is different – no hired drivers, obviously – but there’s plenty of emerging evidence that e-scooters, in cities where they’re permitted, have increased the incidence of injuries, especially to those using these devices without a suitable understanding of how to operate them at high speeds.

I hope the City adopts a more proactive approach,  although I fear we will do exactly the opposite, just like we did with the ride hailing services.

Just to re-cap: the Ontario government earlier in August announced it would be conducting a pilot project in Toronto’s Distillery District as part of an ongoing review of regulations that currently ban such devices from operating on city streets.

As a Ministry of Transportation spokesperson told CBC, “MTO is aware that there are companies that offer environmentally-friendly e-scooters; however, safety is a top priority and the safe integration of new vehicle types with pedestrians and other vehicles is a key consideration before any new vehicle type will be allowed on Ontario roads…Municipalities are currently able to set policies for the use of e-scooters on their sidewalks and pathways through municipal bylaws.”

The article cites the case of a man killed in Nashville in June when he was struck by a car; he was operating the e-scooter while impaired. Local officials promptly suspended its own e-scooter pilot project and soon after imposed strict conditions on their use and proliferation in response to complaints from pedestrians worried about encountering them on sidewalks.

Given the burgeoning demand for personal mobility technologies, firms like Bird and Lime have been lobbying hard to gain entry to the Toronto market, arguing that such devices, with their simplicity and speed, can solve the so-called last-mile problem, thereby easing congestion and potentially reducing emissions.

But the market is huge and lucrative, and the e-scooter firms are clearly drawing their inspiration from the rapid roll out of ride-sharing.

It’s interesting to note that the e-scooter companies are keen to depict themselves as safety conscious: their web presence and iconography all depict stylish coconut protectors. “Always follow helmet laws,” Lime’s how-to page begins. In the CBC article linked above, the spokespeople for both firms are photographed with or in helmets.

The user truth is very different. A January 2019, study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed all the e-scooter injuries recorded in two Los Angeles emergency departments over the course of one year (Sept. 1, 2017 to August 31, 2018). The study, considered the first of its kind, identified 249 individuals admitted with skull fractures, brain bleeds, major abdominal injuries, cracked spines, and other collision-related traumas. Two ended up in intensive care; none died. Some people were admitted because an e-scooter had run into them.

As for protective gear: “Only 10 riders were documented as wearing a helmet, constituting 4.4% of all riders or 11.9% of riders whose helmet use status was documented,” the authors noted, pointing out that California law requires helmets for e-scooter users. “Twelve patients (4.8%) had physician-documented intoxication or a blood alcohol level greater than 0.05%.”

Even more noteworthy, as the Washington Post observed, was the fact that the number of e-scooter-related injuries significantly exceeded cyclist and pedestrian injuries in both emergency departments over the same period.

A few thoughts here….

First, a pilot in the Distillery District proves nothing. It’s kind of like testing an aging-related drug on 25-year-olds. We may end up with a wonderful outcome, as I’m sure the e-scooter companies will be eager to demonstrate. But will regulators have a clearer understanding of how they are used in the wild? No.

Second, the very debate about e-scooters and helmets is a reminder that many cyclists don’t wear helmets, and we’ve generally resisted mandatory helmet use, for good or ill. What’s more, the City’s own BikeShare network allows people to use rental bikes without helmets. I’m sure somewhere in the service agreement there’s a line absolving the City from liability in the case of injury. But still, the more or less explicit message is that if you use the device, you take responsibility for your own safety. Why, then, should the rules be different for e-scooters?

Maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe we go with the caveat emptor approach.

Yet the proliferation of fast-moving e-scooters, with their obvious appeal to occasional users (e.g., tourists), should give us all pause to consider the health impact of these alluringly convenient devices. The city’s busiest bike lanes are already over-subscribed, and the congestion amplifies conflicts between different modes (bike, e-bike, motorized skateboards, electric wheelchairs, etc.), especially when they’re all operating at variable speeds in narrow rights-of-way.

Mostly, the arrival of the e-scooters, and whatever technologies follow on their heels, should serve as a reminder that the demand for these mobility devices is not only concocted by a handful of tech companies with aggressive growth strategies, but also reflects the inadequacy of Toronto’s existing mobility systems.

I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite, but maybe we need to get the cycling infrastructure in proper shape before moving on to the next big thing.

photo by Mack Male

6 comments

  1. The solution to “the tiny number of bike lanes are too congested” is clearly to rebalance the amount of space devoted to mobility options that effectively take up no space compared to cars. Scooters, bicycles, and e-bikes often replace rides in cars. This is a beneficial shift! Helmets on bikes or scooters also decrease use, and push people toward objectively more dangerous modes of transit.

    It is luddite to oppose new technology because it is new. Cities should be neutral to new technology unless there are large, provable externalities. This does not exist for scooters – a technology which Toronto is one of the few major cities worldwide currently banning. They will cause conflicts after introduced – it is the city’s job to mediate those conflicts by appropriately balancing the amount of space given to different forms of transport. A good rule of thumb when considering “are the externalities large enough” is to hypothesize a world where existing, legal, technology doesn’t exist, but it about to be introduced. Would the rules proposed above for scooters permit bicycles? Surely not! Skateboards? Cars? Buses (loud and noisy in our neighborhoods!)? All would have been banned by the proposed logic here.

  2. These e-scooters will be nothing but trouble with a capital T.

    Furthermore, five years is NOT a pilot! Ridiculous. A pilot is a few months or so. Maximum 1 year.

    32 kph is too fast. Side streets are 30 kph for vehicles. Max. should be about half that for e-scooters.

    They MUST be licensed to properly i.d. the rider if they injure someone. Otherwise, you will be SOL. (Sxxt Out of Luck). Same goes for all the e-bikes.

  3. We currently own two, and we love them. We treat them just like bikes, staying off the sidewalks, using the bikelanes, and we always wear helmets. They 100% replace the single person car trip under 5k, which is ALOT.

    The advantage that ownership has is that no one is driving around to collect them at night, they’re not cluttering the sidewalks, and we can fold them up and take them into the office, or on to the subway, etc.

    Ours don’t go above 30k, so we don’t consider ourselves a new menace on the roads. The scooter-share companies should be able to fairly easily mount a helmet holder and cable that the user could wear and keep on the scooter (or at least that’s what i think they should be capable of).

    Cities are starting to create scooter parking spaces for the scooters which takes the heat off of the sidewalk storage issue. Used properly, they’re great for residents and tourists looking to cut down on emissions. With Lime, i think part of the strategy behind the ‘juicers’ is that they eliminate the van driving around to round them up….

  4. Any attempt to cut down on cars is welcome, but my concern is that e-scooters will be allowed to operate on sidewalks. Toronto is already badly in need of wider sidewalks just to accommodate pedestrians. And don’t get me started on those giant garbage cans that often totally block the sidewalk, as well as vehicles that routinely use them as a parking lot. If we’re serious about making the city more livable, we need to take the space away from cars to encourage the use of transportation that is better for the environment and residents’ health.

  5. What appears to be missing from this discussion is a dose of reality as sidewalks are usually the default position if these scooters are not allowed on the street. Let’s look at the real world instead of our biases.

    At 32kph (19.9mph), these scooters travel 8.9 meters per second (29.2 feet per second). Pedestrians walk between 1/1.2 meters per second (3.3/3.9 feet per second) – elderly pedestrians much less. Even if the scooter riders cut their travel speed in half, they would still travel 4.4 meters per second (14.6 feet per second) while pedestrian walking speed remains constant.

    These travel speed differences highlight the inherent dangers of mixing these two very different modes of travel; unless of course. as a courtesy to pedestrians, scooter riders are prepared to travel at walking speed or walk their scooters IF allowed on the sidewalks. Alternatively, would regulations and vigorous enforcement be necessary?

    W.E. (Bill) Brown

  6. E-scooter sharing has some issues to overcome to be more widely welcomed as a legit new mobility solution. Such as some basic consumer requirements like: not bursting into flames (batteries combusting), not braking suddenly so you fly over the handlebars (faulty locking wheels), and being able to handle changes in surfaces that are travelled on (potholes, bumps or rail tracks) which is questionable given the small wheel size and tippy high center of gravity.
    it’s annoying e-scooter sharing companies call kick-style e-scooters “scooters”… seems like they’re just a step in the direction of motor-cycle type scooters once seats are added to the platform, bigger wheels, a more powerful battery… and it becomes smaller motorcycles with less safety (no license, no helmet, no training), so is it really going to be less motor vehicles on the road? Not likely. Any better than more walking, cycling and public transit? Dubious. Any benefit for the vibrancy of cities and towns and their shops, restaurants, and people living, sleeping, working or getting some respite on their neighbourhood streets? No, worse in terms of nuisance and worse in terms of well-being and tax payer burdens.
    It is alarming to hear from emergency room doctors about their observations of the severe injuries resulting from e-scooter riders and those not using them but injured by e-scooter users. It’s not a good response from companies that cars injure people so why call out e-scooters for also injuring people. Instead of name-calling Councillors for not being cool headed or calling Spacing a luddite… wonder why these companies don’t actually make a decent product that’s safe for consumers and actually environmentally-friendly? Doing so might actually sustain their billion dollar valuations.

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