More Ontario cities are taking e-scooters out for a spin

COVID-19 is driving interest in new modes of transportation, e-scooters among them. But some argue they can be a nuisance — and even a hazard
By Josh Sherman - Published on Apr 07, 2021
Bird Canada runs scooter-sharing systems in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa. (Courtesy of Bird Canada)

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Christian Eschbach plans to add a whole new mode of transportation to his repertoire.

The avid cyclist — who also knows how to drive stick shift, owns a long board, and regularly rides public transit — wants to give e-scooters a spin: “It’s going to be a little bit of a novelty for myself,” says the Windsor resident. “I’m 42, so, you know, for me, I’m going to go out and have a little fun with it.”

Eschbach won’t need to buy his own. He intends to use one of the 500 battery-powered scooters that will soon be available for rent in Windsor as part of a one-year pilot project greenlit by council on March 29 and slated to launch in May. Experts suggest that the pandemic is leading to increased interest in the vehicle, as commuters continue to avoid crowded buses and trains — but some caution that e-scooters come with a new set of issues and challenges.

The southwestern Ontario city is just the latest in the province to test drive the technology (London council is set to vote next week on a similar pilot). To operate the fledgling program, which will also include a fleet of 100 e-bikes, Windsor has turned to Bird Canada, a company that is already running scooter-sharing systems in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa.

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E-scooters will be confined to an approximately 22.6-kilometre swath of the city. The area, home to 30 per cent of Windsor’s population, is “generally bound by the Riverfront Pathway to the north, Tecumseh Road to the south, Prince Road to the west and Drouillard Road to the east,” according to a city document. “If you take a scooter outside the operating area, it starts to slow down and beeps and then eventually stops and the motor seizes up and the breaks mean you can’t move it any farther,” Bird Canada CEO Stewart Lyons says of the system, which uses GPS tracking.

Unlike in cities such as Toronto, where the bike-share system requires users to deposit their bicycles at specified drop-off locations, or docks, at the end of trips, Windsor riders won’t have any fixed destinations. “The reason why it’s dockless is because it’s much more convenient,” Lyons says. “And that’s really what created the whole scooter phenomenon in the first place.”

Riders can locate scooters using the Bird Canada app and will be charged $1.15 at the beginning of their trip and an additional 35 cents per minute. “When you’re done, you park the scooter the same way you found it … and then you leave it there, and then the next person takes that scooter from the next place to wherever they’re going,” says Lyons. Through licensing and other fees paid by the company, Windsor estimates the program will bring in $110,400 annually for the city.

Some say, though, that stray scooters can be a nuisance — and even a hazard. “It’s like you’re living with a bunch of five-year-olds that left all their toys on the front lawn, you know?” says Mark Nickita, describing the e-scooters he sees strewn about near his office, in Detroit. Nonetheless, Nickita — whose firm, Archive Design Studio, drafted Detroit’s Non-Motorized Urban Transportation Masterplan — thinks e-scooters should remain: “In the end, I’d say it’s probably more of an asset than a liability and that we should work toward trying to solve the negatives and make it more of a viable option for people moving forward.”

Lyons is well aware of the challenges that dockless systems can pose (California-based Bird operates in Detroit and licenses its software to Bird Canada) but says there are solutions. “Calgary, for example, we actually fine people and ban them from the service if they don’t park properly after one or two infractions — so that’s at the extreme level,” he says, noting that the Bird app requires users to take a picture of their scooter once it’s parked and that AI then scans it to evaluate whether it was done correctly.

Bird will focus first on education in Windsor rather than on punishment, he adds. The app provides information, and “street teams” are going to offer guidance, including through education days when free helmets are given out. (Under city bylaws, users under 18 must wear a helmet, and riders can’t go over 24 kilometres per hour.) Bird employees will also be checking for scooters and regularly taking them to a central warehouse location for charging. “The parking complaints and the parking issues, although they get the most headlines, thankfully — touch wood — are a small minority of cases,” Lyons says, adding that in Ottawa last year there were about 240,000 scooter trips and 30 or so complaints.

The issue of safety also came up when Windsor considered the city-staff-recommended program. “Anytime you add users into the public-right-of-way system, we have to be really conscious of the public-safety concerns,” says Councillor Kieran McKenzie, who notes that the pilot project will give Windsor the opportunity to evaluate the program before committing to something more permanent. (Municipalities will be required to share data with the provincial government as part of its five-year pilot to allow e-scooters on public roads, a Ministry of Transportation spokesperson says.) “I think the main concern centres around the integration of the devices with the other users of the public rights of way where they will used,” he says in an email.

Lori Newton, executive director of local cycling-advocacy group Bike Windsor Essex, says e-scooters could get people into active transportation, which is a plus: “You’re introducing people to using streets in a different way.”  But she has concerns: “There’s a potential here for a lot of chaos, which of course we’ve seen across the world,” she says, referencing Copenhagen, which banned them in public spaces. In her view, Windsor just isn’t ready for them yet. “Detroit started with e-bikes and simultaneously was investing in infrastructure,” she says. “That was a good, phased-in, piloted approach.” In Detroit, she notes, the roads are wider and so allow more room for people, and the scooters were “a lot of fun.”

And some caution that, while e-scooters will be a viable option for some, they won’t benefit everyone. “Scooters and many of the other technologies, including bike lanes, have primarily focused in the downtown areas and have tended then to provide improved mobility in those areas which tend now to be wealthier,” says Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning and interim director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto. “Is this really helping to improve equity of mobility … or does this continue just to widen the gap between people who have access to all these different modes and those where … it’s inaccessible.”

Eschbach is just happy that the pilot could get people to leave their cars at home. “It’s going to be wonderful just to get people out and about,” he says. “We have an absolutely beautiful waterfront trail, and we’ve got a couple other really nicely done bike trails throughout the city that the e-scooters would be great on.”

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