Threats to Safety: Pedestrians

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SUMMARY

"Dockless" motorized scooters and other devices pose threats to the safety of pedestrians in two fundamental ways:

  • Parking threats: Scooters are staged by rental companies and parked by users in ways that cause obstacles to access and trip hazards. Both impact the disabled community badly.
  • Moving threats: Scooters are driven on sidewalks and other walkways, pedestrians are hit, injured and killed, while others are traumatized by near-misses that leave them afraid to go for a walk.

In San Diego the main users of rental scooters are joy-riding tourists who are often inexperienced and afraid to drive in the street and, because of constant turnover, as a group they are more difficult to educate than locals.

The pics below are just a few of the thousands illustrating "dockless" scooter problems. Parking problems are reported to the City of San Diego via its Get-It-Done app. The reports for "Shared Mobility Devices", which include photos can be viewed via the City's website.

PARKING THREATS: OBSTACLES AND HAZARDS

Unagi Foldable Kick Scooter

This threat is created by the scooter rental companies, not private owners. For years the number of privately owned scooters was tiny and owners generally wanted to avoid the risk of theft so would not park in public.  Often modern privately-owned scooters are foldable enabling owners to take them indoors for security and to transport them if needed.

Scooters staged on sidewalks by the rental companies or parked there by their users easily become obstructions to the mobility impaired and the elderly and create hazards for the vision impaired. They are heavy and awkward to move, with a heavy base that pivots at ankle height making moving them an additional hazard.

Thus the parking issue stems from the rental companies which use city sidewalks as places in which to offer scooters for rent.

For years now the rental companies have fostered a "you can leave them anywhere" attitude in users and that's exactly what they do, regardless of the simple fact that, legally, users may not leave them anywhere, and of the impact on pedestrians if they do.

Phil used to get around on his own. Now he needs to be accompanied by someone strong enough to move scooters out of his way. His independence has been diminished by scooter rental companies and their thoughtless drivers.

Nonetheless, users decided that that meant they could not only leave their vehicles on public sidewalks but also on private property, on private paths, in private car parks, in fire lanes and elsewhere. As a result San Diego became the birthplace of the most innovative impounding company in the world, Scoot Scoop.

Scoot Scoop was established by two enterprising San Diegans as a direct effect of the unfettered misbehavior of renters of motorized scooters. They remove and impound motorized scooters from private property and they provide this service both to residential and commercial property owners for free. They make their money by charging the rental companies a fee for the return of their vehicles and scooter rental companies like Bird, do not like them one, little, bit but lots of San Diegans love them!

The solution to this problem is simple: get scooters off sidewalks - require the "shared" scooter industry to stage in the street and users to park there, and make it clear to users that sidewalks are not to be used for parking.

Sharing

What is meant by a "shared mobility device"? "A share" as a noun and "to share" as a verb are related. The first means part ownership of something. The second means part use of something with others. The "shared economy" then refers to allowing someone else the utility derived from something one possesses.

  • Time share: I own either property in common with others or the right to use such property and time each of us may use it is divided between us. Examples galore at: Sell My Time Share Now.
  • Ride share: someone else may derive temporary use from the time I spend driving the car that I own. Examples: UberLyft. Waze Carpool.
  • Car share: someone else may drive my car for a period and then return it to me. Example: Zipcar.
  • Home share: someone else may use the facilities of my home for a temporary period. Examples: AirBnB. Vacation Rental By Owner.
  • Tool share: someone else may use a tool I own and then returns it to me. Example: Berkeley Tool Library.
  • Book share: likewise, someone borrows the use of a book of mine and returns it when finished. Example: Kindle. San Diego City Library.

These all have in common that ownership of property is held by one person and use of it is given, via a transfer of possession, to someone else. When they finish using it or deriving utility from it, possession reverts back to the owner.

Payment for the use may or may not occur and need not be in monetary terms. For example providing an object or service I own to a common pool may then earn me sufficient credit to make use of objects or services in the pool owned by others.

But isn't that the same as renting? How is "sharing" different from "renting"?

Hertz explains the difference between car renting and car sharing this way (emphasis added):

"There are several ways car sharing and car rental differ from one another. This includes how they operate, the service you receive from the company and the fleet of vehicles available. One big difference is that car sharing is considered separate to car rental, with different regulations. Here are just a few of the other main ways they differ.

Car Rental

  • Cars are rented to you by the rental company, from a standardized fleet of cars.
  • Vehicle is maintained by the car rental company, in accordance with state laws.
  • Locations are widely available statewide and globally, in cities, towns and airports.
  • Any vehicle rented can be delivered by the rental company or arranged for pick up.
  • Safety regulations are in place on young drivers, with minimum ages to rent in place.

Car Sharing

  • Vehicles are rented to you by a private car owner, through the car sharing company.
  • Maintenance of vehicles is usually the responsibility of the car owner.
  • Peer to peer car sharing is available across the country, but not in all territories.
  • Car share can be delivered by car owner or arranged for pick up.
  • P2P rental companies may place age limits on young drivers, this is dependent on the company."

To us some of the differences do not seem to be intrinsic to one versus the other. For example there's no necessary reason why a car share service cannot offer a standardized fleet of cars. Those that are intrinsic relate to differences in:

  1. Prices - car share is purported to be less expensive than car renting.
  2. Regulations.
  3. Maintenance risks.
  4. Safety restrictions, possibly.

The Hertz article then goes on to consider differences in insurance and says:

"As car sharing does not recognize itself as part of the car rental industry, they don’t always follow the same regulations. This can potentially leave you vulnerable in the event of an accident and could impact you financially if a claim needs to be made... it is common for most personal auto insurance plans to exclude liability coverage for peer to peer car sharing."

So we can add to the list a possible difference in:

5. Insurance coverage and liability.

Although there are some differences in that, to date there is no peer-to-peer sharing of privately owned devices  - all the SMD companies buy large fleets of the devices and "share" them much like a car rental company does - we think this distinction between car rental and car share is informative for the Shared Mobility Device industry as all five of the distinctions above apply to SMDs versus rental shops that rent out motorized scooters and electric bikes.

In many ways the distinction between shared and rented devices comes down to the newness of the industry and the lack of regulations covering it. A sense of this can be gained from currently proposed legislation governing SMDs in California.

Shared Scooters Make The Parking Problems Far Worse For Pedestrians

A "shared mobility device" is a motor vehicle that is rented, usually using an app on a phone, that is in the possession of the user only for as long as he or she uses it and for which the user is charged a fee, usually $1 to activate the device and then a per minute fee.

Unlike a rented car, where the user retains possession for the full rental period which may be days or weeks long and where the vehicle is his responsibility both when in use and, when parked, "shared" devices become someone else's problem and the rental companies responsibility as soon as the user stops using it. He ends the rental with the app and so ends the per minute fee charging. At that point possession of the "shared" vehicle reverts to the owner, namely the rental company, Bird, Lime etc. wherever the user leaves it and at that point the vehicle is made available for rent again by someone else.

The companies encourage their users to believe that a "shared" vehicle may be left "anywhere", a falsity further promulgated by many tech-enthralled writers. For example, in June 2019 a writer on the website Technology.org wrote:

"Residents of many major American cities have likely noticed a marked increase in the number of electric scooters on the streets and sidewalks. This latest transportation craze uses app-based payment to allow riders to easily rent a scooter for a short trip. GPS locators add to the convenience, allowing a rider to leave a scooter anywhere. Scooters are popular with tourists looking for a fun way to explore a city and with residents who would like to avoid using a car for a short trip. (Emphasis added).

Electric scooters are here – are they good for the environment? June 13, 2019.

This is then compounded by the need for the companies to distribute their devices throughout locations users might want to rent them and in large enough numbers to have sufficient coverage and availability. Compared with the private ownership of scooters, especially ones that are foldable which need not be left in the public domain, the "shared" scooter industry necessarily either scatters its devices throughout its service area, or has them scattered by its users. When a City allows the industry to use sidewalks and other walkways to do so, obstacles and hazards are inevitably created for pedestrians.

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Rental Scooters in San Diego Provide Fun Rides for Tourists

We explain in detail on this site that the economics of the industry mean that tourists are likely to be the mainstay market for scooter rentals.

Why Use Sidewalks?

  • They do what they see, not what they are told.
  • Fear of driving in the street due to:
    • Unsafe design of kick scooters.
    • Tourists don't wear helmets.
    • Few protected bike lanes.
  • No effective enforcement

The millions of tourists flocking to San Diego each year naturally assume that if a scooter is parked or staged on a sidewalk then it is legal to drive it on the sidewalk. Driving on sidewalks became self-reinforcing when people see scooters driven on sidewalks: "I see lots of other people driving them on sidewalks so it must be legal."

That belief was reinforced by the City's 2019 regulations, which legitimized the use of sidewalks for the companies to stage their products for rent and the rental industry's use of a phone app to activate the scooter where it stood, on the sidewalk; no user wanted to wheel the activated scooter into the street to start riding it, they just started driving it where it was, there, on the sidewalk.

Accentuating this problem further were three factors that make many inexperienced tourists afraid to drive in the street.

Unsafe Design: The first was the design of kick-scooters which forces the driver to stand, steering a very small wheel with a wide range of turning, driving a vehicle with a high center of gravity. These factors all increase its instability, make it more reactive to uneven roads and more likely to throw the user if it hits a pothole and San Diego streets have plenty of those.

No Helmets: The second is that, because the rental industry caters to tourists, none of their renters wear a helmet. Tourists don't pack helmets for their vacation, the companies don't provide helmets attached to the scooter for them to use and some people have an aversion to wearing a shared helmet.

Inadequate Infrastructure: The third is a lack of protected in-street lanes, meaning that the driver of a flimsy vehicle that's less stable than a bicycle and legally limited to a maximum speed of 15mph would have to drive unprotected in street traffic traveling faster than him. Not an appealing prospect, especially for first-time renters, which is why California prohibits the use of motorized scooters on roads faster than 25mph, (unless in a Class 2 or 4 bike lane).

So sidewalks often seem a safer alternative, but making that choice passes the risk of injury to pedestrians being hit by the scooter. That's why it's illegal.

Despite this the City of San Diego applies no effective enforcement against sidewalk driving and so anyone driving a scooter on a sidewalk can blithely know that nothing will happen to them, unless of course they hit and injure or kill someone.

Tourists Are More Difficult (and Expensive) to Educate

That tourists will increasingly be the main market for scooter renting creates a problem for anybody seeking to educate scooter renters of regulations, as tourists may only use a rented scooter a few times while visiting the city and they then leave, only to be replaced by a new person who is likely to be both ignorant of the rules and inexperienced in driving a motorized scooter. This makes both the use of sanctions, e.g. issuing citations for moving violations, less effective and education more expensive than if the main market was local residents. That does not mean that there should be no enforcement but rather that, as we suggest in our page estimating the costs the industry imposes on San Diego, there should be enough, along with sufficient publicity, to educate and have a deterrent effect.

MOVING THREATS: STABILITY AND CONTROL, INJURY, DEATH AND FEAR

Scooters driven on walkways pose a significant threat of injury to pedestrians, especially the elderly.

  • Motorized Vehicles And Pedestrians Do Not MIx. A mass of 200 lbs (91Kg), traveling at 15mph, (24kph), can impart a force great enough to break bones and knock someone down onto concrete - see the video below.
  • Stability And Control Problems:
    • The design of scooters is inherently unstable, much less stable than a bicycle, as explained by Duncan Stewart in Unsafe At Any Speed.
    • Many rented scooter drivers lack experience driving them and so lack control.
    • Scooters are used at night by drivers who are drunk and thus lack stability and control.
    • Children are often able to access rented scooters but lack a driver's license and any road experience.
    • Scooters are often driven with more than one person on the platform and are thus less stable and controlled.
  • Silent But Deadly. Scooters travel silently, so pedestrians are unaware of the danger they might be in if approached from behind and elderly pedestrians are less agile or able to dodge out of the way of one speeding towards them.

In California motorized scooters are limited to a maximum speed of 15mph, (24kph). In other states and other countries the maximum may be set higher or lower. However on average pedestrians walk at around 3-4mph regardless of country or state. Older people tend to walk slower than that and are more vulnerable to injury if hit by a moving vehicle. So, if a moving vehicle driven on a walkway hits someone, it is very likely to injure them either from the collision or when they hit the ground.

The Force of Being Hit By a Scooter and Falling onto Concrete

As pernicious, if not worse, is the fear that threat creates. The threat of injury or death by a motorized scooter and the often reckless way they are driven, with scooter drivers passing silently from behind at high speed very close to pedestrians, can be traumatic. Repeated "close calls" traumatize people and create fear of injury that induces pedestrians to change their routes. Essentially people, especially those who feel vulnerable to injury from a fall, are forced away from places they used to feel were safe to walk.

Both "shared" and privately-owned scooters can be responsible for moving threats to pedestrians but there is no effective enforcement by the City against moving violations so drivers can ignore that:

  • the legal speed limit for motorized scooters is 15mph,
  • they are limited to 25mph roads in California, and
  • there is a prohibition against driving them on sidewalks.

That may help explain the development of incredibly fast motorized scooters, some with a reported top speed of 80mph, and the widespread driving on  sidewalks - both of which can be seen on our Videos page.

Will Tech Save Us?

Rental companies operating in San Diego claim that they have developed or are developing technologies to detect when a scooter is being driven on a sidewalk and to take appropriate action when they do so but we have not yet seen any such tech demonstrated to be effective.