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VOL. 42 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 30, 2018

Scooter invasion

The good, the bad and the ugly of the first 100+ days of Lime, Bird

By Tom Wood

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Forget politics, religion, sports or movies. If you want to start an argument in Nashville these days, bring up “shared urban mobility devices” – aka scooters.

Everyone has an opinion on their future in Music City and their role in Nashville’s burgeoning transportation problems.

Fans love riding scooters, and foes hate dodging them, but we’re all dealing with them. The dockless, electric vehicles reach speeds up to 15-18 mph, and can be ridden or parked anywhere – including sidewalks, parks, loading zones outside businesses.

Scooter operators Bird and Lime each boast 1,000-unit fleets here, which some see as part of the problem, not the solution.

“I can tell you that (among people who live/work downtown) there is a constant grumbling,” says attorney Gary Blackburn, who recently spoke at a public hearing about the fate of SUMDs in Nashville.

“When you get to work, somebody will say, ‘Did you see those damn scooters?’ That’s the first thing. Usually, that adjective is attached to the word scooter when you hear somebody talking about it.”

District 26 Councilman Jeremy Elrod, who co-sponsored Metro legislation to put scooters on the streets, knows there are problems but sees upsides: They’re a cheap way to get around downtown, could help cut down on carbon emissions and relieve traffic congestion.

“We have to be welcoming to every transportation option and try to figure out how they fit into the city as they get rolled out,” Elrod adds. “I think we’re still going through some of those growing pains … so we’re figuring it out as we go.”

The Transportation Licensing Commission, which oversees scooter operations, meets again on Dec. 13 to further discuss legislative, enforcement and medical issues – a wild West End version of “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.’’

The Good: Council rides herd on scooter companies

Numbers from the first three months of operation – more than 400,000 rentals in a little more than 100 days – show Bird and Lime scooters are popular in and around downtown Nashville.

But who’s driving the scooter push?

It depends on who you ask.

Metro Council members say the pilot program scooter legislation the Council enacted after Bird’s controversial, unannounced arrival in May is “one of the most stringent scooter ordinances in the country. It’s kind of a carrot and stick approach,” says Elrod, who co-sponsored the bill with District 18 Councilwoman Burkley Allen.

“If a scooter company wants to get their product on the street, we at Metro need to make sure they are trying to do everything they can to get their riders off the sidewalks and obeying all the other rules and regulations that Metro has.”

Mayor David Briley signed the legislation on Aug. 29, Lime put its first scooters on the roads within days and Bird returned.

By mid-November, those two companies had reached imposed caps of 1,000 scooters each and reported more than a half-million rides combined, averaging 4.7 rides daily per scooter to the Transportation Licensing Commission, which oversees shared urban mobility devices, including docked bicycles.

Lyft is now entering the Nashville scooter market, and others might follow.

No helmet? No problem. They aren’t required for scooter riders in Tennessee. But VUMC doctors have already treated traumatic brain injuries from scooter accidents.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

The scooter pilot program runs through June and basically puts the companies on good-behavior notice, explains Billy Fields, director of the Transportation Licensing Commission.

“At the end of the pilot period, they actually have to reapply – not a renewal process, they’ll have to reapply – and the Transportation and Licensing Commission will make a ruling whether the scooters can continue operating in Nashville or they should not operate in Nashville,” Fields adds.

“And if they should, then (the commissioners) have the authority to establish additional rules to deal with it up to and including the number of vehicles on the street, the locations they can operate, things like that.”

Fields says that in order to operate here, companies will annually pay a $500 application fee and $35 per scooter, or $35,000 at the current 1,000 max. The Commission sets and reviews those thresholds for the number of scooters on the roads, compliance (companies have two hours to address reported issues), addressing violations, tracking daily ridership, among other things.

Allen says the Council and the scooter companies want the same thing for Nashville – urban mobility solutions, less traffic congestion, fewer carbon emissions – but warned that the companies have to follow the rules.

“I do absolutely believe that scooters are absolutely part of our mobility solution. They clearly have added to the ease of getting around at lunchtime without having to get into the car and try to find a parking place,” Allen points out.

“I had hoped that the expansions (from 500) to 750 and 1,000 would wait until this threshold had been established, so I’m a little surprised to discover that the expansion has already happened.”

District 15 Councilman Jeff Syracuse says the pilot program was enacted because of safety concerns after Bird “first literally descended on Nashville – pun intended – they did so and were not really regulated.

“So, Metro really put their foot down to say, whoa, wait a second. … But what I like about this legislation is that it allows them the ability to function to a certain point and then allows us to monitor how many are on the road, if they’re doing well managing those, and so before they can expand, they have to show very clearly that they’re able to manage the number that they’ve got allowed under the legislation.”

Nashville native Sam Reed, Bird’s local director of government partnerships, and his Lime counterpart, Sam Sadle, both say scooter companies intend to follow the rules set by Metro so that everybody’s a winner – the city, the riders and the companies.

Birds of Nashville

After 109 days of operation in Nashville:

-- Number of rides taken: 253,491

-- Daily rides per Bird: 4.7

-- Average ride: 1.3 miles

-- Total miles traveled: 328,874

-- CO2 emissions avoided: 292,918 lbs. (had the same trips been made by the average car)

For every 1,000 Birds in Nashville:

-- $2.5 million annual earnings by chargers (Bird has hired a Charge team that gets paid daily. https://chargers.bird.co/join. They charge the scooters overnight, put them out at designated locations around the city at 7 a.m., and pick them up at 9 p.m.)

-- 300 employment opportunities for contract workers
Bird watchers are employees who are dedicated to:

-- Removing Birds out of the public right of way

-- Making adjustments to their location by placing them in safer areas

-- Engaging with Bird riders to educate them on safe riding practices

-- Removing damaged Birds

Source: Bird

“What we’ve seen in terms of numbers over the past few months has been pretty staggering,” Reed points out. “We really see ourselves as partners with cities, providing affordable transit. It really is cheap to operate, $1 to start and 15 cents a minute thereafter. In a little bit more than three and a half months of operation, you see that staggering number of rides that have been taken (253,491 for an average of 1.3 miles, a total of 328,874 miles traveled).

Sadle adds Lime’s impact on Nashville has been equally impressive but downplays the number of violations reported.

“In the last few months, we’ve had more than 180,000 rides, and with 180,000 rides, our teams have seen a total of 94 complaints – which we find to be a very impressive number from our end,” he says. “All of them have been met within the two-hour time (window) and, in fact, our response time has been 38 minutes. This we feel is a very strong testament to our operations.’’

But Reed also admits the goal is to get even more SUMDs on the roads.

“Caps, I know that’s what a lot of you all’s domain is, we obviously use what we call smart scaling, so we’re not just going to flood the market. We will make sure that Birds are being ridden,” Reed says.

There’s no doubt that they’re being ridden. Tourists use them to go from one destination to the next. Document deliveries, lunch pickups, Vanderbilt students shuttling across campus – those are just several uses observed.

Thomas

Tinu Thomas, 42, of Brentwood was riding a Lime on a recent Sunday at Centennial Park. An avid mountain bike cyclist, he rode his first scooter several months ago while on vacation in Portland, Oregon.

“What I like most about them is you can adjust the speed so much that you can sort of keep up at a walking speed with most folks,” he explains. “Just sort of hanging out with the rest of your crew walking, and maybe somebody’s got a bum knee or a bum leg, and wants a little help or is a little tired, and you can do this and not have to leave the crew.

“And then, of course, you can have a lot of fun. It’s a lot of recreational fun, a lot of practical sort of fun.”

The Bad: Police say rider education will ease enforcement issues

Scooters are everywhere in Nashville – and that’s a real concern for police.

They are on being ridden on sidewalks instead of the street or bike lanes. They can be parked anywhere, and are dropped off where they sometimes block doorways, loading zones or right of ways. Underage riders (age 18 minimum) are often reported. At speeds of 15-18 mph, they can threaten pedestrian or personal safety.

“I would say 90 percent of riders are not in compliance with the law. They are supposed to be riding in accordance with the bike laws, and most of them are not,” says Sgt. John Bourque, the special events coordinator for the Metro Nashville Police Department.

“Wrong-way traffic is consistent; scooters on the sidewalk in the business district are probably upwards of 80 percent plus of the riders; they are constantly on the sidewalks inside the downtown area … often riding at speeds not safe for the other pedestrians around them.”

Several enforcement issues have arisen as the future of scooters in Nashville is being debated by Metro Council and during public hearings with the Transportation Licensing Commission.

“We do not have the time or the resources to write the number of tickets it would take. And it would be in the thousands already if we were going to write up every violation that we see,” Bourque says. “Often, it’s just verbal correction – get off the sidewalk, get in the bike lane, you’re riding in the wrong direction in traffic, it’s a lot.”

One enforcement problem for the police is that in Tennessee, tickets are handwritten.

“Our ticket-writing process is pretty archaic. We’re still writing paper tickets. I think California has had electronic tickets for about 40 years,” Bourque explains. “So that’s like saying we’re about 40 years behind in our technology as far as writing tickets.”

Representatives for Bird and Lime say they’re working hard through several initiatives to get riders to obey the rules of the road. Bird’s “community mode” feature on its app was created for just that purpose.

“This is all about addressing bad parking and ultimately bad riding,” acknowledges Bird’s Reed. “You can report one that is badly parked or damaged. Anybody … rider or not … can walk up with the app, scan it immediately and we will get immediate notification that it is badly parked or damaged and we will take immediate action.

“We’ve agreed with the city that we will go and pick up any Bird and move it within a two-hour period. Community Mode is really going to help us do that. … We have a large area of lower Broadway and to the south of lower Broadway today that is a no-parking zone. We have also worked with the state of Tennessee on Bicentennial Park, making that a no-parking zone, as well.”

The problem is being addressed by the companies, but it’s a matter of getting riders to follow those rules. Washington Post opinion columnist Catherine Rampell recently compared scooters to Q-Tips, saying that while the makers warn consumers to not stick them in their ears “even though everyone knows that’s precisely the way pretty much every customer will use them” – which is Nashville’s dilemma in a nutshell.

“I understand Sgt. Bourque’s concerns, and I don’t want the police dealing with it any more than anybody else does,” says Sadle of Lime. “But the people using it are essentially drivers. And at the end of the day we need to do a better job of educating our riders – or drivers – that they need to stick to the laws as they are written. And I think we’re doing that.

“We’re building new programs, new initiatives. … It’s going to take a culture change. We are shifting 50 years of automobile culture and trying to create a new system. And so, that takes time.”

Nora Kern, executive director of Walk Bike Nashville and a member of the Metro Traffic and Parking Commission, urges adding bike lanes to downtown streets so scooter riders would stay off the sidewalks.

Kern

“There’s almost no bike lanes within the 440 loop with the exception of Demonbreun,” she points out. “So, I think we need to be looking at not only what the companies can do, but we’re talking to our city to make sure there is available infrastructure.”

In the meantime, what’s to be done? Complaints – far and above what the scooter companies are hearing – continue to pour in.

“We get lots of (complaints) on the street, just people walking up to us,” Sgt. Bourque says. “The quickest way to get thanked downtown is to tell someone on a scooter what they’re doing wrong. And you’ll have a motorist or a pedestrian or someone say, ‘hey, I appreciate you telling them what to do, because they’re always doing this sort of thing down here.’”

Transportation Licensing Commissioners heard plenty of complaints at a recent public hearing. The next one is scheduled for Dec. 13.

Lance Thomas was almost hit by a scooter in the 12South district in early November.

“My wife did not record this event, emphasizing that the events like this are happening but not recorded. Simply put, Lime and Bird are not complying with current regulations. They encourage, but they don’t enforce,” he adds.

“Past experience would indicate that these problems won’t get better without some sort of pushback from Metro. Finally, it should not be the responsibility of the community to police the scooters with an app. Rather, the companies should enforce their own rules. I would encourage the Commission to not allow an expansion until these companies can demonstrate they are able to comply with regulations and manage the scooters already littering our sidewalks.”

Fields says some riders treat scooters like toys and don’t understand the rules of the road apply.

“I think it’s better, but you still have some riders who are not following the rules,” Fields adds. “From a company standpoint, I think the companies are working hard to abide by the rules. But once the vehicles are rented, once the ride is procured through the iPhone or through their telephone, they can operate … they’re on the streets.

“We’ve had some reports and I’ve seen some people under 18 riding the scooters. So, the companies are working on issues like that, and they’re working with Special Events to make sure there’s not going to be a big gathering of vehicles that don’t need to be there.”

The Ugly: Scooter injuries can change lives

Cuts, scrapes and bruises can damage a scooter rider’s pride.

A cracked rib, a fractured arm or a broken leg will cost a scooter rider weeks of recovery and rehabilitation.

Guillamondegui

But a traumatic brain injury? That can change a life forever, says Vanderbilt trauma surgeon Dr. Oscar Guillamondegui, who wants people to understand the potential danger of riding a scooter without a helmet.

“You can never predict how bad the injury is going to be,” says Guillamondegui, the medical director of the VUMC Trauma ICU.

“In the first weeks of the scooters being in Nashville, we had a couple of healthy young individuals who were hit by a car that was pulling out of an intersection, and both of those individuals ended up with severe traumatic brain injuries that led to – now seven or eight months later – they’re still not back to baseline, even with extensive rehab and support through brain injury rehabilitation programs.

“And we’re seeing that now, probably monthly, with that severity of injury and weekly with lesser injuries that make it to the level of trauma center activation.

“So, we went from zero to something in the course of six months, and although the majority of these injuries are going to be minor, are going to be something you’ll get up from or walk away from, traumatic brain injury is something you don’t just get up and walk away from.”

In Tennessee, the wearing of helmets on scooters is encouraged but not legally required. Helmet use was a hot topic at a recent Tennessee Licensing Commission public meeting.

“I’m opposed to helmet requirements for biking as well as for scootering,” says Kern of Walk Bike Nashville. “I think we should definitely encourage helmets for all non-car modes … particularly with scooters, where people often scoot spur of the moment.”

Sgt. Bourque says he’s seen scooter injuries “quite frequently” since they arrived in Nashville.

“We had one guy, he rode it out of the park, bunny-hopped off the curve, came down First (Avenue), bunny-hopped back into Riverfront Park, crashed and burned and broke the scooter,” Bourque recalls. “So, we see a lot of that stuff going on. There’s a lot of play on that. They try to get swervey on them, you know, and they go down.”

Councilwoman Allen, representing the Vanderbilt-Belmont area, says she’s discussed scooter injuries with VUMC emergency room officials.

“They said they are seeing several moderate to minor injuries a week in their emergency room,” adds Allen, who co-sponsored the pilot program bill on scooter use in Nashville.

“The safety issues are real. I think they’re tied to improper user behavior, and I believe that can be dealt with. I think it’s really important that it be dealt with, and I think the best motivation is … I think the best people to deal with it are the operators.”

Representatives for Lime and Bird say they have handed out hundreds of helmets to riders, conducted educational meetings and taken other measures to improve rider safety. For example, they will pull scooters from the streets when weather is bad this winter.

“Safety is always paramount, but there will be days when we don’t put scooters out on the road; there will be days when we’ll pull them early,” Reed points out.

“We’re encouraging helmet use as much as we can while recognizing that we cannot physically put a helmet on somebody’s head.”

Reed adds getting scooter riders to wear helmets is just a matter of time

“I’m a snow skier, right? Twenty-five years ago, when I learned to snow ski, nobody wore a helmet. There are no laws that have been implemented,” he explains. “But if you go snow skiing today, everybody wears a helmet, right? So, we’ve got to build that culture, the two companies.

“I’ve done personally five helmet giveaways here, I think we’ve done at least 10 – several on Vanderbilt’s campus, several downtown. We’d love to work with this commission to do more. We’ve given out at least 1,000 helmets, literally handing them to people here in Nashville. Anyone who downloads the app is eligible for a free helmet.”

Guillamondegui says helmet-wearing can’t happen fast enough to avert the current “perfect storm” for traumatic brain injuries.

“It’s new across the country. Interestingly, what I think happens in most situations like this, is you take a technology that is exciting and fun, put in front of people who are disinhibited by the situation and unaware of the situational status around them and you’re brewing up a perfect chemistry for failure,” adds Guillamondegui, an advocate for motorcycle helmet safety.

“So, what I mean by that is these scooters are placed in strategic positions where they’re going to have high-traffic areas where people who are willing to attempt something they may not do at home or in the more familiar setting.

“They’re here on vacation, they’re here to have fun, and they jump on the scooter and take off at 12 to 15 miles per hour unaware of how fast that really is, and how it can affect what I would say is a traumatic event.

“None of us are experts on scooters, so you take a grown adult who thinks they’re seven or eight again, and their center of gravity is higher, their muscle mass is less, their reaction times are slower – and then if you add liquid courage, as I like to call inebriation – then you’re putting yourself in a perfect storm.

“And much like motorcycle crashes, many times scooter crashes are not caused by the individual on the scooter, but the circumstances they’re put in – meaning cars pull out in front of them, they can’t stop fast enough, they hit the car, fly over the hood and then end up hitting their head or their upper extremities, causing injuries to their face and hands or arms.”

Who pays when these injuries occur? Good question. The companies are required to carry sizable insurance policies, and the city is protected from liability, according to several councilmen. Scooter riders have to sign a waiver before they take off, and may or may not be covered by their own auto insurance.

These are the kinds of questions that riders and legislators don’t want to think about, but must. The safety of Nashvillians demands closer scrutiny.

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