Let’s Have a Sober Conversation About Scooters on Denver’s Streets

Uninvited, yes, but electric scooters are popular and seem to align with the city's goals. They could work well if properly regulated.

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

Hot takes abounded after Lime (and later Bird) brazenly launched a fleet of for-rent electric scooters on Denver streets without the city’s blessing.

Some thought the scooters, deployed at the beginning of the Memorial Day Weekend, were a fun and cheap way to traverse the city. Others liked the idea of the scooter-share service but worried — rightfully so — that they’d block the paths of pedestrians and wheelchair users.

Then there were the less sober takes. 9News, for example, was quick to tribalize people who use them as drunks and “bros” or something. And while other disruptive transportation services like Uber and Lyft, which add traffic and pollution while clogging bike lanes, get a pass, some Denverites lashed out at the comparably tiny, slow, smog-free, and inexpensive tools because they didn’t like looking at them.

Emotions being what they are, there are also some facts to consider.

There’s demand for the scooters

It’s easy to see, especially during rush hour and on the weekends, that people want to ride them. Lime claims 16,000 trips in its first week of operation, though there’s no way to verify it because the company’s data is proprietary.

Despite a brand new form of transportation showing up overnight, the sky remains intact above and hell has not broken loose — unless your idea of hell is a family of Tennessee tourists who used the scooters to explore Denver on a sunny spring day.

People perceive e-scooters to be innately dangerous. But there hasn’t been one scooter crash since they appeared on May 25, according to the Denver Police Department. Since then, drivers have killed four people — three of them walking — and Denver PD has responded to more than 600 car crashes.

Like bikes, Denver’s streets aren’t designed for Scooters…

At a top speed of 15 miles per hour, scooters don’t belong on sidewalks, but they’re technically legal there.

“That’s way too fast for sidewalks,” said Jaime Lewis, a community liaison with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. “If they turn into you, there’s no time for you to start or to react.”

Lewis, who uses a wheelchair, wants to see the scooters succeed. They might even be okay on sidewalks, he said, if there’s ample parking to avoid obstructing the path, and if they operate at a much lower speed. (Bikes are allowed on Denver sidewalks if they’re traveling at 6 mph or slower and the rider is within a block of her destination, or if the sidewalk is part of an official bike route.)

“I think it needs to be worked out,” he said. “I have to look at the big picture — transportation options for people, whether you’re disabled or not disabled. And I think it’s gonna be a great program whether you’re disabled or not disabled.”

…But that doesn’t damn an entire mode of transport

Scooters currently are not allowed on roadways, in bike lanes, on trails, or in parks, according to the Hancock administration’s interpretation of the law. So where do they go?

City Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman wants to see policies that welcome the new tool, not policies that stifle it. Denver may have to change the rules to allow scooters on roadways, especially in bike lanes, Susman said. She’d also like to see ubiquitous parking for bikes and scooters, and an agreement from Lime and Bird to share ridership data with the city.

Otherwise, she said, the city won’t be doing what’s necessary to meet its goal of reducing solo driving to half of all citywide trips.

“We’ve left so much space for cars and not enough space for people, or other ways of getting around, and it may just be another one of the reasons why we need to expand the space for people and other modes of travel,” Susman said. “We need bigger wider sidewalks — we’ve known that for a while. Now we have to think about bigger, wider bike lanes.”

WalkDenver Executive Director Jill Locantore advocates for pedestrians, not people on scooters. But she sees them as compatible with walking. Integrating them into our streets starts with repurposing space dedicated to the biggest hogs of all: cars.

“The problem is that we are devoting so much space for cars, which are the least space efficient, least environmentally healthy, least safe way to get around, so all these other forms of transportation that are preferable to driving alone in your car have to fight over space at the edge of the roadways,” Locantore said. “And ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you’re riding a hovercraft or a skateboard or a scooter or a bike — if you’re going generally about 15 miles per hour and you’re using a minimal amount of space, it seems reasonable that the city should dedicate more and more space to that form of transportation.”

Denver Public Works can and will regulate the companies

Lime and Bird did not have permission to launch on Denver’s streets, and DPW ordered the companies to remove their scooters (they haven’t) while the streets department comes up with a framework to regulate them.

That’s exactly what happened in San Francisco, where the city created a permit program that ensures the companies are held accountable for operating in the public right of way. Reports the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Cabanatuan:

As part of their permit applications, companies must show how they will keep the sidewalks clear of scooters, provide insurance, offer plans for low-income riders, provide trip data to the SFMTA, and protect the privacy of scooter renters and their mobile phone data.

As private companies, Lime and Bird are driven by their bottom lines, not altruism, and DPW can demand concessions in return for operating on public streets — like access to trip data to inform the city’s larger plans. Perhaps DPW could charge a permit fee that covers the cost of painting dedicated parking all over the city.

The question is whether Hancock’s public works department will create an environment that lets the companies integrate into the transportation system, like it did with ride-sharing companies earlier in the decade, or if the new rules will make operating in Denver unattractive for the venture capital-backed companies.

“They may be an unstoppable force,” Susman said. “We’ll probably have to make some rules about where they can park. But Uber didn’t have to ask for forgiveness. We just said, ‘We just have to change things so it becomes possible.’ And I think that that might be the same case with the scooters.”

An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the scooters are not allowed on sidewalks. They are allowed, according to the existing ordinance.

  • Philicious5280

    E-scooters are not “smog-free, and inexpensive tools.” At $9/hour/15 miles they are significantly less affordable than other already available transit options. Motorized electric vehicles actually increase emissions in the poorer neighborhoods where electricity is generated, most often with fossil fuels, and have terrible outcomes for the communities where the metals used to make the batteries are mined. While I am sure that some of the trips are “transportation” many are just for the fun of riding a motorized toy. The city should impose the highest possible cost on for profit companies that not only have repeatedly lied about their results but have bald faced lied about having city approval in an effort to play the “harmless fun service provider.” Let’s not forget that Uber created a fake app to dupe city officials trying to monitor “car sharing.” Companies that use tactics such as these are not ones that should receive any breaks from the city in the way of fees, permits, and licensing.

    • Todd Bradley

      Scooters aren’t really a “transit option” in the same sense as a bus or car or bicycle. Nobody is going to ride one 15 miles. People use them to go 6 or 8 blocks, faster than walking, and cheaper than Lyft.

      • TakeFive

        Exactly! I could see riding one to Coors Field to catch a game or from upper downtown to the new Milk Market or out along Blake street etc.

      • Philicious5280

        Yep, the scooters seem to be used for fun, replacing walking, or car share trips.

      • tvandp

        I think they’d be incredibly useful for 2-3 mile trips. I could see taking it from LoDo to north Highlands, for instance. Gonna try it first, though. I imagine a 20-25mph maximum speed would make it better for mid-range trips, but there’d need to be actual infrastructure for that, and god knows that’ll never happen

      • Guy Ross

        You are oversimplifying ‘transit’. Very few people take transit from door to door, is usually involves multiple systems. These things appear to cover ‘the last mile’ conundrum better than almost anything, and I say this as a bike zealot!

        • Todd Bradley

          I think you meant to reply at the top level, not to my comment, since I’m agreeing with you wholeheartedly.

    • lumelind

      Seriously? You think that emissions to produce electricity to push 20 pound scooter with a person is anywhere comparable to emissions for same person to take 4000 pound car instead?

      These scooters and bikes are a potential solution for the last mile problem, that prevents most commuters to take public transportation instead of driving.

      Emissions in poor neighborhoods is a totally separate problem that of course needs solving. And best solution is to promote wind, solar, and safe nuclear energy , increase energy efficiency of houses, street lighting, etc. Charging these scooters is a drop in the overall electricity usage and will not solve problem for these neighborhoods.

      These startups have hard enough time to get enough customers to stay solvent, but as the usage increases I’m sure prices will come down and they will start benefiting low income population as well. Think how cell phones used to be only for rich people.

      For those who complain about space that these scooters take on sidewalks, imagine instead a car parked at that spot and see how much that would be improvement.

      Sure there will be issues initially with irresponsible users, but these can be sorted out without throwing baby out with bathwater.

      • Philicious5280

        Scooters are replacing walking trips and car share trips not personal SOV trips so their effect on overall mode share is negative to minimal. Your assertion that the price will go down is so naive as to be comical. A for profit VC firm that uses low paid contract labor and the public right of way to make money deserves no help from the city. Also, the idea that the sccoters will provide a “last mile” solution is unrealistic as there is no re-balancing effort in place to move the scooters to areas of need.

        • lumelind

          I don’t know what SOV is. Maybe it’s naive, but I cannot think of any technology that has NOT become more affordable as it has matured and gained acceptance. Most technological innovations are initially only available to rich people, but become affordable to most after few decades of competition. Laptop computers, air travel, microwave ovens, GPS navigation, cell phones… it’s all relatively affordable now.

          Regarding re-balancing, people tend to do some of it on their own as they usually end up going back to the same area, where they came from.

          I do admit that there are scenarios, where people might pile scooters in one area and starve some other areas. So if the owning company wants them to be utilized well to maximize their profit they will need to come up with some kind re-balancing operation. Maybe custom built transport truck that can easily pick up dozens of scooters and drive them to starved areas. In any case it’s in best interest of managing company to solve that problem.

          I’m sure that contract labor these companies use, will be paid according to job market. Nobody is forced to work for them for free. I don’t see how labor argument is different for any other company working in city limits regardless of business they are in.

          As regards to public right of way, not sure how it’s different from private scooters that people can legally own and drive in a city. But in any case cities can negotiate a tax agreement with these companies as they choose. That is not a reason to ban these companies.

          • Philicious5280

            I agree its not a reason to ban the companies but the belief that a for profit industry that has a history of lying both about the approval of their operation to exist in a city and their results should be held to the highest possible standard if they are to use the public ROW for business purposes. They have repeatedly demonstrated that they are not trustworthy so the cost of that oversight will fall on the taxpayer which is not OK if the “service” is actually not helping to solve the issue it purports to address. It is very different that private scooters parked in the ROW. Those scooters are there not do business but to simply be parked. Once a business starts to use public land to make a profit the onus of all monitoring, enforcement, and oversight must fall on that business operator of be fully compensated to the cityin the way of fees/taxes/licenses…which will keep the price of the service high. SOV=Single occupant vehicle

          • lumelind

            Sure. Public interests need to be balanced with business interests and I don ‘t see a reason, why we should not have a discussion of how to tax, and regulate these new companies.

            I do think though that we should start these discussions in good faith instead of accusing entire industry of lying, because of some unrelated transport company has done so in the past.

          • Philicious5280

            When it comes to the PUBLIC ROW private business interests should not be balanced with public interest they should be subservient. It’s not an “unrelated transport company” that lied about their result…it was Lime.

            https://denver.streetsblog.org/2017/12/15/correction-aurora-dockless-bike-share-not-even-close-to-out-performing-denver-b-cycle/

          • lumelind

            I agree most transport companies are there to serve public (subservient), but they must be able to make some profit to sustain themselves. This is what I mean by balance.

            I read your link about lying. It seems some Aurora official was confused about bike share usage numbers, and it had to do with wrong number provided by one of the three companies (ofo not Lime). In the end correct data was published.

            I don’t see how it merits hostility against all bike share companies from get go.

  • Brian Schroder

    So people are having fun on them and using them to get around short distances while not using a car. Sounds amazing. It sounds like a great idea. Will people misuse them? Maybe? Let’s welcome them. Let’s be a freindly city that welcomes new ideas, technologies and people. I wish DPW didn’t have to be so draconian about the whole thing. Also what’s with the vandalism, theft and destruction of private property? Isn’t that what is illegal and what shouldn’t be tolerated?

    • tvandp

      Agreed. I understand the knee-jerk opposition to tech, but this seems like a clear harm-reduction option (reducing the harm of cars by switching many rides to drastically-lower-harm scooters) for transportation.

      Their misuse will be nothing like the misuse of cars, where people drive distracted every single day. I imagine it would be nigh impossible to scooter while distracted, considering you need your hands on the bar to stay balanced

  • An important distinction to make is that there are the scooters AND there are shared scooters. The same scooters that Bird and Lime have been passing out like candy are also available to buy by individuals, so the laws need to be clarified so that anyone riding their personal scooter is not unfairly targeted by law enforcement over using it.

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