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Scooter sharing has finally come to NYC — is the city ready?

A lack of protected bike lanes and a sharp increase in cyclist injuries could hamper the Big Apple’s rollout of e-scooters

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Photo by Andrew Hawkins / The Verge

New York City is a scooter-free metropolis no longer.

On Tuesday, August 17th, three companies — Bird, Lime, and VeoRide — deposited 1,000 scooters each in the East Bronx, officially kicking off a pilot project to see how battery-powered two-wheelers fare on the mean streets of New York.

To be sure, New Yorkers have been riding personally owned electric scooters, as well as electric bikes and skateboards, in the city for years, in defiance of local rules prohibiting them. But this will be the first time that venture capital-backed scooter companies will be permitted to operate within the five boroughs. New York has been behind the curve while the rest of the world has already experienced the highs (they’re fun!) and lows (they block the sidewalk!) of scooter sharing. And now the city is about to finally catch up.

Unsurprisingly, the scooter companies are thrilled to finally have access to New York City’s 8.8 million residents — although the pilot means they’ll only initially be able to reach the 570,000 or so who live in the East Bronx. The city may authorize another 3,000 scooters next year and expand the service area. But that’s only if things go well.

“I am, frankly, just so excited to be in New York City”

“I am, frankly, just so excited to be in New York City,” Lime CEO Wayne Ting told The Verge. “Even if New York’s not the first city, over time, New York will be the biggest city for micromobility because it has all the ingredients to make micromobility work.”

In the months since their selection by DOT, the scooter companies have been scrambling to get prepared for launch, hiring on-the-ground operations staff (under the provisions of the pilot, the companies are required to use salaried employees, and not independent contractors, to rebalance and charge their scooters), leasing warehouse space, working with community groups, and unboxing and assembling their vehicles.

“New York is a very different beast,” Ting said. “And so we’re going to learn as we go.”

Photo by Andrew Hawkins / The Verge

But as to whether the city — and especially the East Bronx — is ready for the sudden influx of 3,000 motorized scooters is another question altogether. There is virtually no on-street protected bike infrastructure in the East Bronx, and the protected bike lanes that do exist (such as the Bronx River Parkway) specifically prohibit battery-powered vehicles like scooters.

I recently rode Lime’s Gen-4 electric scooter along the Bronx River Parkway (even though I was technically breaking the rule against e-scooters) and came away impressed by the company’s upgraded hardware but concerned about the safety of the hundreds of people who will soon also be riding scooters in the neighborhood’s many car-dominated streets.

Vehicle drivers injured 761 cyclists and killed seven in the Bronx in 2020, according to NYC Crash Mapper, which relies on statistics provided by the New York Police Department. That’s a 53 percent increase compared to 2019, in which 495 cyclists were injured and none were killed. There was a sharp increase in traffic crashes in New York City in 2020, in part because there were fewer cars on the road because of lockdown orders and more reckless drivers. There was also a spike in the number of people biking as many sought alternatives to public transportation.

Advocates and elected officials have been sounding a warning about the Bronx’s lack of protected infrastructure for years. “The Bronx is really lagging behind in protected bike lanes, the infrastructure is not there to safely ride a bike,” Bronx Council Member Andrew Cohen told Streetsblog last year.

Advocates and elected officials have been sounding a warning about the Bronx’s lack of protected infrastructure for years

Marco Conner DiAquoi, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, the city’s leading bike advocacy organization, said New York City as a whole has lagged behind other major urban centers in terms of building out protected lanes for cyclists and scooter riders.

“It is absolutely a concern that the city has been lacking so much in building out protected infrastructure,” DiAquoi said in an interview. “It’s so far behind the pace that we needed to see.”

During the last eight years under Mayor Bill de Blasio, city transportation officials have built more than 330 miles of bike lanes, 130 miles of which offer some separation from car traffic. That’s less than the total number — nearly 500 miles — installed during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Most of those bikes lanes are unprotected, though, which increases the risk of cyclists and scooter riders being injured or killed by drivers.

In the absence of protective infrastructure, DiAquoi said the hope is that scooter riders will find safety in their increased numbers. “The more micromobility usage you have, the safer it is for micromobility,” DiAquoi said. But there is a chicken-and-egg problem, in which many riders, especially women, will avoid scooters altogether if they don’t feel it’s safe enough to ride.

“The more micromobility usage you have, the safer it is for micromobility”

National surveys reveal that the majority of people who ride shared electric scooters are white men in higher income brackets. People of color, including Black and Latino people, are underrepresented — though that number is growing. Concerns about access and equity are what drove the city to locate its first scooter pilot in the East Bronx. The zone is an 18-square-mile area home to a “diverse population” of 570,000 residents, including 25,000 public housing residents, the city said in its press release.

In the lead-up to the launch of the pilot program, Lime held several outreach events in the Bronx to educate residents on proper scooter use and safety. Just five residents showed up to one event in July, according to Streetsblog. And DOT did nothing to help promote the events. But the city is requiring the scooter companies to include safety tutorials in their apps. Riders will have to complete an in-app safety training for the first three times they attempt to unlock a scooter.

“New York City is not going to be the first city where we don’t have sufficient protected bike lanes,” Lime’s Wayne Ting said. “And I think our riders over time will learn to find safe ways to move around the city.”

Vandalism is another concern for the scooter companies. Encouraged by social media, anti-scooter types have knocked them into the streets, thrown them off parking garages, or even doused them with lighter fluid and set them on fire. A few years ago, Oakland had to fish 60 electric scooters out of Lake Merritt, with environmentalists calling it a “crisis.”

The scooter companies are bracing themselves for similar treatment in New York City — although Ting says the intervening years have made them better prepared for what’s to come.

“You’re going to get some form of vandalism,” he said. But Lime’s scooters can’t be used if they’re not connected to the company’s cloud software. It can lock scooters remotely to prevent them from being stolen, and even if they are stolen, the scooters have “no resale value,” because they’re made in-house and can’t be broken into parts. “I feel confident that New York City over time is going to look like what we see elsewhere, which is relatively low levels of vandalism,” Ting added.

Lastly, the business of scooter sharing is notoriously unprofitable. Lime and Bird originally used consumer-grade hardware that wasn’t designed for the wear and tear of being left outside during inclement weather and ridden by a half-dozen different people on some days. In some cases the scooters lasted only for a few weeks or months.

Also, the initial investor hype that fueled Bird’s and Lime’s multibillion-dollar valuations has faded. Investment has slowed while costs have ballooned. Bird’s recent decision to go public via a reverse merger has shone a light on some of the complicated economics of scooter sharing. Things could improve — the scooters have evolved into more rugged, street-ready vehicles that could improve their unit economics — but it won’t be an easy road.

“You’re going to get some form of vandalism”

The scooter companies aren’t likely to see a huge boost in revenue from New York City, at least not initially, due to its limitations. Under the pilot, the companies are barred from offering scooter rides in any neighborhood where CitiBike, the city’s popular bike-share system that’s owned by Lyft, is available. And CitiBike is growing its footprint, which means it could eventually come into conflict with the scooter program. At that point, things could get messy for micromobility in New York.

“Longer term I can certainly see some potential conflict,” Transportation Alternative’s Marco Conner DiAquoi said. “But at the same time we don’t care whether one company is in conflict with another. That’s not really our main concern, which is what are the mobility options available for New Yorkers.”

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