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.