Should Chicago keep e-scooter program going?
November 1, 2019

Photo courtesy Active Transportation Alliance
Active Transportation Alliance wants Chicago to create a permanent scooter program—but keep the scooters out of downtown.

By Eva Hofmann

Workers rounded up electric scooters for the last time on October 15, the final day of Chicago’s four-month dockless e-scooter pilot program. Community groups and scooter companies are asking to make the program permanent next year, but the jury is out on whether the new transportation mode has been good for the city.

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) administered the program. Ten companies—Bird, Lime, Lyft, Jump, Spin, Sherpa, Bolt, grüv, Wheels, and VeoRide—introduced 2,500 scooters to a 50-square-mile area bordered roughly by Irving Park Road on the North, the South Branch of the Chicago River on the south, Halsted Street on the east, and the city’s western border.

“Scooters have the potential to improve mobility options and reduce short vehicle trips, particularly for people in areas of the city with fewer transportation choices,” said BACP spokesperson Isaac Reichman.

To unlock an e-scooter, riders had to use the specific scooter vendor’s smartphone app. Ride prices varied among vendors, but typically cost $1 for access to a scooter and 15 cents per minute to ride.

“If targeted the right way, the scooters can serve to fill an important transportation gap, which is that of the first and last mile for specific transit trips,” said P. S. Sriraj, director of the Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.

The City launched the pilot to determine if scooters would improve transportation access, reduce car use, and provide a way to get to and from public transit.

Did it work?

“The pilot was a success in the sense that we believe we gained the information we need to do a full evaluation and determine what is next for scooters in Chicago,” said Reichman.

Nearly 800,000 rides taken dur-ing the four-month pilot program make clear Chicago has a demand for scooters.

“Total ridership is just one of the many factors we will be taking into account to evaluate the pilot, along with safety, the impact on residents (particularly individuals with disabilities), operator performance, and the impact on our transportation network,” said Kevin O’Malley, CDOT managing deputy commissioner.

The pilot included a dedicated email account, scooterfeedback@cityofchicago.org, to gather resident feedback. Chicagoans could report scooter problems by using the 311 website or mobile app; while each had a dedicated “e-scooter” category, the website and app encouraged users and non-users to contact the individual vendor to correct issues.

With concerns about safety, street clutter, and environmental impacts, many people complained about the scooters.

Common issues reported during the pilot include improper parking, illegal riding on the 606 trail, riders crossing the pilot’s geographical boundaries, and injuries from accidents. Both the City and scooter companies recommended helmet use, but patrons largely ignored the guideline, resulting in multiple reported injuries.

During the four-month period, the City collected real-time data to monitor each company’s rebalancing efforts, rules compliance, and other criteria. Consequences for failure to comply with the program’s requirements ranged from fines to permit revocation.

Photo by Christopher Valentino
One of the challenges during the E-scooter pilot program was that users could leave the scooters anywhere on city streets, on sidewalks, on private property, etc., as there are no docking stations for these devices.

Early feedback

The pilot saw 39 citations issued against nine companies. Citations carried a maximum fine of $1,000 and went to Bird, Bolt, grüv, JUMP, Sherpa, Spin, and Wheels for failure to meet several program terms, including ensuring that scooters remained within the pilot area, requiring post-ride pictures, responding to complaints promptly, and addressing the City’s equity requirements.

Lyft is the only company to complete the pilot without receiving a citation, while the City cited Lime only for failure to have a website listed on the vehicle—a minor violation. All other companies received at least two citations.

“Rules are in place, and an effort should be made to educate the public about them,” said Sriraj. “The education campaign should target both users and non-users of the scooters. Any rule is only as effective as the education and enforcement.”

In all, 13 community and advocacy groups, including the Active Transportation Alliance (Active Trans), the Equiticity Racial Equity Movement, and the Illinois Environmental Council, have signed a letter asking Mayor Lori Lightfoot to create a permanent scooter program quickly.

An October 14 report by Active Trans, however, says an e-scooter program should not include downtown Chicago. According to the report, “The City’s focus should be on reallocating street space from cars and making these modes safer and more convenient downtown—not introducing scooters to the mix.” Active Trans also maintains scooters are not as safe as walking, biking, and riding transit, and they do not do much to improve public health in terms of increasing physical activity.

In its report, Active Trans also advocates scooters be parked in docks or corrals or locked to fixed objects. In addition, the City’s scooter program should retain and expand priority zones in low-income, low-opportunity areas. The City’s priority zones on the West Side should remain in place, adding new priority zones on the South Side. The requirement for at least 50% of scooters to be in one of the priority zones at the start of the day should remain.

Active Trans also notes that rebalancing and charging scooters involves a significant amount of driving, and national studies have found that about two-thirds of scooter trips replace walking, biking, and transit journeys, which actually causes environmental harm. To make the technology more sustainable, Active Trans recommends charging scooters with renewable energy and rebalancing them with zero-emission or carbon-free vehicles.

The report also points out that building more protected car-free lanes for bikes and scooters could help reduce injuries. 

“One important aspect from the infrastructure perspective is that of the condition of the pavement,” said Sriraj. “E-scooters are more susceptible [due to the higher speeds] to crashes and spills if the pavement condition is not adequate.  The results of a spill from a scooter in mixed traffic can be disastrous in some cases. The other aspect is the seasonality of e-scooter use, especially in a city like Chicago.”

What now?

“The next course of action for the City should be to conduct an evaluation of the pilot program to understand the impacts of the program,” said Sriraj. “Were the programmatic goals and objectives met? If so, will they translate well when expanded to a larger area? If not, then how can the program be tweaked to meet the goals and objectives?”

As part of the evaluation process, BACP and CDOT launched the E-Scooter Pilot Program Survey, which ran from September 24 through October 27 on www.chicago.gov/scooters.

The process also takes into account community feedback, vendor compliance, ridership data, and injury reports. “The Chicago Department of Public Health has asked hospitals in Chicago to report injuries associated with e-scooters so that this data can be reviewed as part of an overall evaluation of the pilot program,” said Reichman.

The City will make this information available to the public following the evaluation process. Meanwhile, BACP and CDOT continue to work with the community and vendors to explore options for improvement.

For Active Trans, go to www.activeterans.org. For BACP, log on to https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/bacp.html. Log on to https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/cdot.html for CDOT. To contact Sriraj, email sriraj@uic.edu.