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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The debate about e-scooters on Toronto streets will speed up in 2024

After 100 years of regulating roads in Ontario, the coming discussion over e-scooter regulation shows there's still much to learn


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Ontario’s first attempts to keep pedestrians safe on our roads began a century ago in 1923 with the passage of the Highway Traffic Act. Back then, the focus of regulators was on a relatively new phenomenon — the automobile. Toronto’s roads were filling up with cars; paved roads and traffic lights were still a rarity. And the fast-growing car industry had yet to launch its infamous ‘jaywalking’ PR campaign to shift the blame for road accidents from motorists to pedestrians.

Today, policy makers are grappling with yet another transportation innovation: the e-scooter.

Since launching in the U.S. in 2014, the popularity of e-scooters increased dramatically when “dockless” e-scooters were introduced a few years later, quickly defining what transportation researchers refer to as “micro-mobility.” Made possible through advances in lithium-ion battery technology, e-scooters are admired by supporters of low-emission transportation who see e-scooters as an affordable alternative to cars. But they are also feared by traumatized pedestrians in cities across the globe.

In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo, initially a supporter of e-scooters, recently reversed course, citing the rising number of injuries and several deaths. The people of Paris voted overwhelmingly (but in small numbers) to ban rental e-scooters outright, while continuing to allow privately owned e-scooters. The new policy took effect last September.

Here in Ontario, managing urban mobility is a shared responsibility with the province, but it is municipal politicians who bear the brunt of the public’s complaints about traffic accidents. At present, Ontario allows municipalities to choose where and how e-scooters may be used. Some places, like Brampton, Mississauga and Ottawa, are allowing e-scooters on public roads on a pilot basis; Toronto is the only municipality to ban both e-scooters outright. Unsurprisingly, public opinion — and the response of politicians – is divided, with organizations like the AODA Alliance vociferously opposing any move to legalize them in Toronto.

City council is expected to debate a report on the feasibility of a pilot program early in 2024 but any move to legalize e-scooters could generate more questions than answers. One of the many challenges faced by City staff will be how to integrate any move to legalize e-scooters with the city’s Vision Zero program, a multi-pronged initiative to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

For example, should Toronto follow the example of Richmond Hill, whose newly approved transportation master plan establishes a “mobility hierarchy” where e-scooters are just one of many micro-mobility options? Alternatively, if Toronto prioritizes e-scooter regulation, how would new rules for e-scooters be enforced differently from those affecting e-bikes? Would allowing e-scooters in bike lanes undermine the City’s goals for continuing to expand the bike lane network?

City officials seeking to put restrictions on e-scooters must also be wary of blocking what is seen by many as a fun way to move through congested cities. A five-country study by European researchers found that e-scooters are “attractive among people aged between 26 and 35 years for short distances…usually representing first/last-mile trips,” with e-scooter trips replacing walking and public transit rather than trips by automobile.

The authors conclude that e-scooters on sidewalks pose a threat to pedestrians — particularly for vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly — so they believe restrictions are necessary in the interests of public safety.

A similar view was expressed in a recent Canadian Medical Association Journal article, which argued that policy-makers might want to rethink a laissez-faire approach. Citing U.S. statistics, the authors report that e-scooter usage there has mushroomed in recent years, in part because e-scooters are seen as environmentally benign and capable of reducing car trips. They note that in the U.S., the number of visits to emergency departments associated with e-scooter use jumped from 4,881 in 2014 to 29,628 in 2019.

Although riders suffer the worst head and spinal injuries, 59% of similar injuries to non-riders were caused when e-scooters struck pedestrians. Other less severe injuries were caused by people tripping over scooters abandoned on sidewalks — a problem largely associated with rentals. With e-scooters capable of speeds up to 70 k.p.h., low use of helmets and other protective gear, and a propensity for scooter drivers to ignore traffic rules, the authors call for “effective policies to mitigate injuries” caused by e-scooters.

As Toronto prepares to decide how to manage trade-offs between permitting low-emission e-scooters and concerns for the safety of pedestrians on the city’s sidewalks, critics will point out that cars are still the villain of the piece, and reducing their impact on public safety should be the priority. The question of enforcement will also inevitably be on the table. The city’s ban on e-scooters is already widely ignored. What are the chances riders will respect any new regulations handed down?

photo from Adobe Stock

Glenn Miller is a senior associate with the Canadian Urban Institute, where he used to organize educational seminars, including sessions on pedestrian safety and concepts like Vision Zero.