They lean against bike racks, block entrances, crowd street corners and tip onto their sides, turning a convenient form of transportation into a sidewalk hazard that is particularly dangerous for the elderly and disabled.
Now a California startup is pitching cities on a possible solution for reigning in the chaos unleashed by electric scooters in cities around the country.
That company, known as Swiftmile, has unveiled unattended charging stations for e-scooters that are designed to serve as a place where riders can dock the devices between rides. The company’s founder, Colin Roche, 47, said the solar-powered charging stations — which can accommodate any brand of e-scooter — are ideal for the kind of pedestrian-congested areas where the devices are often discarded, such as bus and subway stations.
Though he declined to name specific cities, Roche said his company is already in talks with three major metropolitan markets with large fleets of scooters on their streets.
“We bring order to the chaos,” Roche said. “We are the peacemaker between cities and scooter operators.”
As the weather warms and ridership increases, that struggle is expected to intensify. On one side of the debate, experts say, are cities whose leaders want to reduce traffic and encourage alternative, environmentally-friendly modes of transportation to combat climate change and promote innovation. Some local officials also fear that cracking down on scooter companies will cast cities in an outdated light, discouraging technology companies from doing business there in the future.
On the other side of the debate are critics who have railed against e-scooter companies for blocking walkways and selling a product whose use has led to thousands of injuries among riders and pedestrians, many of them severe. For the harshest critics, the idea that local officials would kowtow to faraway companies after those companies dumped their products on their streets without permission is indefensible.
Pat Burt, a former Palo Alto mayor who is currently advising Swiftmile, said the future of e-scooters could depend heavily on what happens in 2019. Cities have identified the benefits of e-scooters as well as the drawbacks, which could become existential for the companies.
“If the safety and other problems aren’t addressed, I think cities will restrict them even more,” he said. “But there’s a good chance scooters will be adopted universally if these problems get solved. But cities have to solve these problems or this business model isn’t going to be as strong as we thought it was.”
“Cities are already seeing a backlash,” he added. “There’s scooter litter everywhere right now.”
Roche maintains the docking stations will save e-scooter companies money because they won’t have to pay gig economy workers to take scooters home at night and charge them. The process of picking e-scooters up off the street, throwing them into the back of a truck and transporting them somewhere to be charged damages the devices and makes them more dangerous for riders, he said.
The average lifespan of a scooter is 45 days, Roche said, though it can be as low as 18 days in some locations due to harsher weather. Though estimates vary, the Information reported last year that Bird scooters cost the company between $500 and $600 per vehicle, though that number could’ve dropped as the design improved.
“Scooter companies spend 50 percent of their operating costs on charging these things,” Roche said. “If they make about $15 on average a day on a scooter, they’re spending about $7 or $8 a day to have someone pick it up and charge it.”
“Once a scooter goes dead, it’s not making money,” he added.
Without a system for managing scooters, doctors and city officials said they expect pedestrian injuries to continue.
Dr. Jim Sallis — a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health and the University of California San Diego — said pedestrians may not realize they’ve been losing territory to technology for more than 100 years. The losses began in the 1920s, he said, when the automobile industry coined the term “jaywalker” to criminalize foot traffic on public streets, which until then had been dominated by pedestrians.
Fast forward nearly a century, Sallis said, and what remains of pedestrians territory is under assault.
“The sidewalks are no longer a sanctuary for a pedestrians where you don’t have to worry about getting run over,” Sallis said. “If sidewalks are not a sanctuary for pedestrians, what is?”
For pedestrians injured by misplaced scooters, recovery can be painstakingly slow. After dropping her elderly mother off in front of a Santa Monica college, Paula Green said she found her 87-year-old mother lying in the street dazed and bleeding, unable to stand up and move.
Dolly Green had tripped over a Lyft scooter crowding the sidewalk and fallen off a curb, sustaining five pelvic fractures, a deep elbow wound and a swollen knee, her daughter said.
Months later, Green has moved in with her daughter, but has yet to regain her mobility or her active schedule of painting classes and tennis. Stuck inside her daughter’s home on pain medication, Green’s battle is as much emotional as it is physical, her daughter, Paula Green, said.
A photo — snapped as her mother lay helpless in the street — is still hard to look at, Paula Green said, noting her mother may sue Lyft.
“This has totally destroyed her," Green added, referring to her mother. “She’s very upset and rattled. She rarely leaves the house and look what happened when she did.”