June 29, 2019 Elizabeth Ward

The Not-So-Great Scooter Debate

There is an imbalance in the way we prioritize streets. This imbalance stands squarely between us and a better future for our city.

Can you believe it? Some opaque industry polluted the public spaces of our city with dangerous vehicles and we are all complicit in allowing them to get away with it! These devices are endangering our children, congesting our streets, and ruining our quality of life. Oh…, wait, you thought we were talking about scooters, those safe, environmentally friendly alternatives to the true culprit – your hideous and lethal automobile? You need to get some perspective, my friend, and share it with your state and city legislators.

Cities around Georgia, and now the State of Georgia, are implementing laws to regulate the use of e-scooters and e-bicycles, citing ‘safety’ as the number one concern. Communities are outraged at the proliferation of scooters that are “littering sidewalks” and “speeding” past pedestrians. Many municipalities have banned scooters, and the City of Atlanta has gone so far as to implement a speed limit on the Beltline, one of our only car-free pieces of infrastructure. We need to take a step back, and ask ourselves, are scooters really the problem? Or, are they one somewhat pesky solution to a much larger issue?

Et Tu, Atlanta?

Dear Atlanta, is it possible that if there were adequately dedicated space for people to ride bikes or scooters, moving at speeds that are ideal for the short one-to-three mile trips that characterize so much of our lives, that maybe there wouldn’t be such a safety issue with the Beltline and our sidewalks? Pity the Grady High School students who have to keep reminding us how we can’t get off the dime to provide even minor improvements to provide safer routes to schools. On one hand, we hear Atlantans express outrage at fast scooters and bikes on the Beltline, while others are worked up about about placing LIT (lite individual transportation) lanes on the very streets that could provide alternative paths for non-vehicular travel.

Where are the people who aren’t in cars or on foot supposed to go? What space is there for us? Roads don’t want us because we might be too slow for cars. The Beltline doesn’t want us because we might be too fast for pedestrians. It’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk, but sometimes it’s the only place we can feel safe. E-scooters are a window into our mobility future.

Embrace and evolve looks smarter than reject and congest.

Let’s talk about safety.

There is an important perspective on safety we haven’t heard yet in the great scooter debate. In the state of Georgia, an average of 1,500 people die every year in over 350,000 motor vehicle crashes. In Fulton County, there were 115 traffic fatalities in 2017, with nearly 60,000 crashes. The same year, Georgia ranked 4th in the country for traffic fatalities. While there isn’t hard data on scooter injuries, estimates project 1,500 injuries nationwide since 2017, and 8 total confirmed fatalities. Nearly 40,000 people die nationwide from cars each year. The numbers are staggering. Atlanta’s one scooter fatality was the result of a collision with a car. We need safe spaces that keep humans who are making good transportation choices out of the way of the lethal momentum of a 4,000 lb speeding hunk of metal.

A second important perspective on safety: a car traveling at 30 MPH is 9 times more likely to kill a pedestrian or cyclist than a car traveling at 20 MPH. At 40 MPH, death is 19 times more likely. Keep that in mind while plowing down Monroe Drive by Grady High School on your way to work. The City of Atlanta recently issued a video on how to ‘scoot smart,’ complete with our Commissioner of Planning endearingly telling us to not be “a knucklehead.” While the risk of a broken bone or a chipped tooth is real on a scooter (we all have that friend), death is the most real reality that we don’t discuss about our streets. And 99.9999% of the time, the killer isn’t a scooter, it’s a car.

Tim, please urge the drivers of Atlanta to drive smart. Or, obey speed limits and share the road. Maybe we could even lower some speed limits? Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to do the right thing and convert our public rights-of-way to accommodate safer, more efficient modes of transportation, so that everyone has a place on our streets. Don’t be a knucklehead.

In addition to the Beltline speed limit, Atlanta has passed legislation allowing fines of up to $1000 for illegal scooter parking, and fines of $100 for cars parking in bike lanes. Why is it 10 times more offensive to illegally park a scooter than to illegally park a car, when the parked car is almost certainly more obtrusive and dangerous?

Not so fast, Georgia. 

Georgia, you have yet to adopt a statewide climate change action plan. You have yet to seriously address our state-wide affordable housing crisis, and you continually vote down state-wide multi-modal transportation efforts. And yet, you have a task force on scooters. Help us see your priorities?

Zoom out, Georgia. Beyond using billions in public dollars to enable 1,500 deaths in our state each year, the fixation with moving cars efficiently in greater and greater numbers erodes our public realm, decimates our Main Streets, supplants walkability, pollutes our air, weakens our health, precipitates climate change, bankrupts our small towns, and increases our reliance on foreign oil. People need safer mobility options, there is no doubt. But instead of regulating the one new option into oblivion, we ask that you reconsider the status quo to provide legitimate solutions to a systematic problem.

We need some perspective.

This isn’t just a Georgia problem. This week, the Mayor of Nashville, David Briley, was on Closer Look with Rose Scott talking about banning scooters in his city. He said that while some people use scooters to commute in his city, which grossly lacks real transportation options, that the loss of life (one person recently died from a scooter accident in Nashville) far outweighed any benefits the scooters can provide. We did the research, last year alone 78 people died in car crashes in Davidson County. Briley didn’t mention banning cars. The logic applied to mobility follows the spotty application of otherwise well-intentioned values.

We’re not saying that scooters are a perfect solution or that they are well organized on our sidewalks. We are not saying that inconsiderate scooter riders should be absolved of their sins. We are asking people, particularly our city and state leaders, to think about the bigger picture. The conversation needs to shift from a perceived scooter crisis to the real crisis – that our streets are dangerous by design and that they serve no one well. Maybe the piles of scooters scattered along our sidewalks don’t prove how inconsiderate scooter riders are, but rather how hungry Atlantans are for better ways to move through this city, and how ready we are for the leadership that will take us there.

This post was co-authored with Jeff Williams.

Let's Make Our Cities Better Places


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