For those companies, the hope is not only that the vehicles catch on in predictably tech-savvy and neighborhoods like Logan Square and the West Loop that are filled with Millennials, but also connect transit-deprived neighborhoods like Austin and Belmont Cragin with a new way to get around on two wheels.
“Chicago and other similar-sized cities who have more robust transit options have taken a more cautious approach,” Lime’s Midwest Director of Government Operations, Nico Probst said of Chicago’s slow adoption on The Daily Line’s Aldercast, but “the notion that these can change and replace car trips, the ability to provide new, equitable transportation options in areas where transit options might be more limited, those have been the sells we’ve been trying to press upon those cities.”
Probst said the number of scooters hitting streets here is relatively small.
“We’re operating in over 100 cities across the globe,” Probst said. “There are cities similar to Chicago’s size that are operating tens of thousands of scooters to meet the demand that they’re seeing. Of course we don’t think it’s enough, I’m sure every competitor in this space would say it’s not enough.”
CDOT Managing Deputy Commissioner Kevin O’Malley said the 10 vendors, Bird, Bolt, grüv, JUMP, Lime, Lyft, Sherpa, Spin, VeoRide and Wheels, “will be held to the highest standards of accountability in how effectively they manage impacts on the public right of way and how they promote the safety of both scooter riders and other people who are in the right of way.”
“It’s pretty clear they’re not any more dangerous than getting behind the wheel of a car,” Kyle Whitehead, the managing director of public affairs for the Active Transportation Alliance.
The city should consider temporary painted bike lanes in the pilot area to make scooter ridership safer, Whitehead said.
“Things can be done relatively cheaply with plastic posts and some paint,” he said.
A survey of Active Trans’ membership, which is predominantly bike riders, seemed intrigued by scooters, which Whitehead said surprised him.
If scooters are widely accepted by Chicagoans, it could spur the city to create more space for other transportation modes besides cars.
“All modes are not created equal, and they’re not having the same impact on the city in terms of safety, health, equity, [and] sustainability,” Whitehead said. “In particular, we are overly car dependent and that’s having all sorts of negative consequences on the city and region. How can we get people to drive less? Where do scooters fit into that mix? Our hope is they help people drive less and they make our streets safer.”
Audrey Wennink, the director of transportation at the Metropolitan Planning Council, said she was curious whether the scooters will “fill a niche that’s not being filled now by Divvy, by a personal bicycle?”
“We’ll also have to see how it works in terms of the space in our bike lanes,” Wennink said. I was riding down the Dearborn bike lane, it’s quite a traffic jam at 5, and I was scolded on the lakefront bike trail… We’ll have to see how these two modes intermingle.”
The pilot has many complicating factors — the size of the pilot zone; the number of competing companies and apps required to use each scooter; and public education about best practices like wearing a helmet, riding in bike lanes, signaling properly, and parking in the “furniture” area of the sidewalk.
Lime plans to deploy about 30 employees to collect scooters after 10 p.m., redistribute those left near pilot area boundary lines, and to hold outreach and training events.
One major concern is equity, and whether scooters will be embraced by communities that have eschewed Divvy. Probst said there have been promising diversity results in San Diego, and the company is planning specific outreach about reduced costs for those who qualify.
“I think it’s particularly stark given the segregation in our city and how communities are built,” Whitehead said. “We have majority communities of color on the South and West Sides that have suffered from decades of disinvestment… destinations are further apart, there’s lots of high speed car traffic… not good, welcoming environments for people to bike… It’s not just about dropping the infrastructure – whether it’s a Divvy station or a scooter – it’s about building the community to support those types of trips.”
If scooting does catch on, there is a risk tech companies – mostly venture-capital funded pick up and leave, Wennink said.
“I think we’re in a very interesting time in transportation in that we have all these really innovative modes, many of them backed by venture capital,” Wennink said. They’re not profitable. This goes for Lyft and Uber as well — I mean, any of these things could up and disappear, so to the extent we’re reshaping our entire transportation system around them, it is a risk, but it is the world that we live in now, and so we want to make the best of this and make them succeed as much as we can.”