E-scooter abandonment issues have cities scrambling to get problem under control

'The scooters cluttering the streets, some of them getting destroyed, this is part of a disruption that we’re kind of as a sector, as an industry, trying to sort out'

A Lime e-scooter left on the sidewalk in Old Montreal. Christinne Muschi/National Post

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When a fleet of nearly 200 electric scooters debuted in Montreal in mid-August, riders kicked up the kickstands and kicked off a week of complaints. The scooters were also introduced in Calgary and Edmonton this summer, and the top nuisance has been the abandonment of scooters in places that scooters do not belong — in a canal, in obstruction of storefronts, in the wading pool of the Alberta legislature.

“We all need to be patient,” says Alex Bigazzi, an assistant professor of civil engineering and planning at the University of British Columbia. “The scooters cluttering the streets, some of them getting destroyed, this is part of a disruption that we’re kind of as a sector, as an industry, trying to sort out and deal with.”

E-scooters have come to Canada this summer, following their introductions in Paris, California and other hubs over the past two years. They are expected to enter Toronto in the coming weeks, sticking to a private district while a city council committee begins addressing how to regulate the vehicles on public roads.

The vehicles occupy an ambiguous place between bike lanes, sidewalks and roads, and some riders are choosing not to wear helmets and injuring pedestrians and themselves. The most common complaint is wayward scooters. In Paris, scooters have been thrown over bridges, and hundreds of them have been dumped in the water off the coast of Marseilles, according to the French news network France 24. When the vehicles first appeared in California, where Lime is based, riders were also dumping them en masse.

A man loads e-scooters onto an inflatable boat as volunteer divers recover them from the sea off the coast of Marseille, France. Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

“There were these graveyards of scooters, and yet the scooters kept coming,” says Sarah Catz, a researcher at Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Irvine. “It was just the arrogance of, the scooters are going to be wherever we want to be.”

The two e-scooter companies operating in Canada, Lime and Bird, do not offer financial incentives to return the scooter to designated parking spots, but Catz says they could help solve the parking mayhem by offering a dollar, say, in return for parking a scooter in a designated zone.

“They need something to motivate them,” Catz says. “Otherwise people are in a rush, and they don’t want to take the time, and they don’t care.”

She says e-scooter companies hold the potential to help solve the problem of the “last mile,” whereby commuters get off public transportation and need to get to their exact destination.

“I truly believe, if they’re used properly, and if the city has worked out ways so that the scooters can be left in designated zones, and that there’s a barrier between cars, I think scooters are definitely part of the (traffic) solution.”

A Lime e-scooter left on the sidewalk in Old Montreal. Christinne Muschi/National Post

Bigazzi, the assistant professor at UBC, says there needs to be strong licensing requirements and research about where the vehicles belong, whether it be in traffic, bike lanes or sidewalks. Currently, some cities permit the scooters in bike lanes and on roads with speed limits below 50 km/h but prohibit them from sidewalks. One idea among planners is to redesign streets to create a continuum of vehicles, from pedestrians to motor vehicles, Bigazzi says.

“Just because there are some issues doesn’t mean we have to completely abandon the idea of these e-scooters because it’s a much much lighter form of transportation,” Bigazzi says. “There’s a lot of potential here, so we don’t want to abandon it for these clutter issues.”

Lime has hired 30 people in Montreal, called the “Tidy Squad,” whose duties include rounding up scooters and reminding riders how to behave, and Montreal has introduced a bylaw that mandates the company remedy incidents of unlawfully parked scooters within two hours on weekdays. With the right regulations, riders and researchers expect e-scooters will not create a downtrodden downtown.

“People get sort of irrationally angry about all new things in the transport system,” says Jonas Eliasson, a professor of transport systems at Linköping University in Sweden. “Right now people are complaining about the e-scooters driving recklessly, parking where they shouldn’t park. Yeah, sure, I can agree with that, but many people are too angry compared to the real size of the problem.”

The two e-scooter companies operating in Canada do not offer financial incentives for customers to return scooters to designated parking spots. Christinne Muschi/National Post

The problem is also safety. During the first two weeks of e-scooters in Calgary, there were 60 injuries reported to the city’s urgent care centres and emergency rooms. In California, nearly 250 people went to the emergency room with injuries endured while riding an e-scooter in one year beginning in September 2017, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Lime first piloted its e-scooters in Canada in the fall of 2018 in Waterloo, Ont. The company worked with the municipality to pilot the vehicles on a path nearly six kilometres long, as Ontario does not permit the scooters on roads. For the same reason, in Toronto, Bird is expected to launch its e-scooters in the Distillery District, which is privately owned. Competing with Bird, Lime has gotten permits approved to deploy 1,500 scooters in Edmonton, 1,000 in Calgary and 500 in Montreal, although it has not yet reached those numbers, says Christopher Schafer, director of strategic development for Lime Canada.

“Lime takes its responsibility as an operator in any city, Montreal or otherwise, seriously,” says Schafer. He says the company requires riders to go through a tutorial before using a scooter, and that it plans to add plastic tags to the handles, reminding people to park in designated parking areas and wear a helmet. It also contracts people to collect the scooters, charge them at home and redeploy them at designated locations. These contractors are called “juicers.”

Cities are trying to prevent future mess. Montreal’s bylaw requires e-scooter companies to have an operating licence and label each scooter with a unique identification number, a toll-free number and an e-mail address or website to report unlawfully-parked vehicles. The law requires the scooters to be parked upright, against the curb of a sidewalk, with no more than four scooters parked in a single designated zone.

In Toronto, riders see potential for e-scooters and other electric vehicles to transform transportation. Diego Carvallo, a 23-year-old man in Toronto, uses his e-scooter to carry groceries, pick up his partner and reduce his time on public transit, even though the vehicles are not legally permitted on the roads.

“It was absolutely, life-changingly freeing,” says Carvallo, who now runs a repair business for electric vehicles.

This vocation led him to befriend Jack Hsu, 25, another electric vehicle rider in Toronto. He says he has never been ticketed by police. He owns an e-scooter, but his preferred ride is his electric unicycle.

“It’s the most complete of all electric vehicles, once you know how to ride it,” he says, describing a vehicle with lights and speakers. “They are not ‘last mile’ for us. They are almost every single mile.”

By the Numbers

Number of Canadian cities with an e-scooter rideshare service: 3

Number of people permitted on an e-scooter at a time: 1

Cost to unlock an e-scooter in Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton: about $1

Price per minute: 15 to 30 cents

Maximum speed set for Lime e-scooters in Montreal: 20 km/h

Cost of an e-scooter at Walmart with a maximum speed of 12 km/h: $140

Age limit to rent an e-scooter in Calgary, Montreal and Edmonton: 18

Age of youngest patient injured by an e-scooter incident in a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: 8

Age of oldest injured patient in the study: 89

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