As Electric Scooters Proliferate, So Do Minor Injuries And Blocked Sidewalks

Originally published on April 6, 2019 12:09 pm

Dockless electric scooters are available for rent in dozens of U.S. cities. While the companies behind them are quick to extol their benefits, some health and safety experts are starting to see the challenges that come along for the ride. Scooter companies and city officials say they are aware of the issues, but solutions aren't coming anytime soon.

Stand-up electric scooters have been around since the 1980s. But the latest trend in micromobility — dockless electric scooters — launched in 2017. They arrived in the District of Columbia in 2018, and now, just over a year later, thousands of scooters are on the streets.

"They sort of just popped up out of nowhere," says Matthew Lachance, who works in fundraising for an international AIDS relief nonprofit in D.C. Lachance says he rents scooters often, even throughout the winter, because they're fun and convenient.

Lachance says he rents scooters often, even throughout the winter, because they're fun and convenient.
Noah Fortson / NPR

But not all rides are quite so fun. Some end in injuries.

Fractures and head injuries most common

Scooter-related injuries are a common sight at the George Washington University Hospital, says Dr. Kate Douglass. "Almost during every shift, you'll see somebody come in with an extremity injury or a head injury or a laceration or something along those lines," she says. Douglass says that's partly to do with how riders actually use them. With riders in the streets, in the bike lanes and on the sidewalks, there's a greater potential for injury.

Dr. Joann Elmore sees the same things in emergency rooms in Los Angeles. Elmore was the principal investigator on a team from the University of California, Los Angeles that looked at scooter injuries over their first year as a ride-share offering in L.A. In their study, published in January, they observed the most common injuries to be fractures and head injuries — about 30 percent and 40 percent, respectively. They also discovered that, of the scooter users they observed, fewer than 5 percent were wearing helmets.

[Scooters are] immensely easy to use and ... given this ease, many of us underestimate the potential for public health and trauma-related issues. - Dr. Joann Elmore, University of California, Los Angeles

"It is immensely easy to use and ... given this ease, many of us underestimate the potential for public health and trauma-related issues," she says.

But even though injuries can be common, Douglass at George Washington says the injuries she's seeing are relatively minor — broken wrists and bruised knees. Severe injuries and even fatal injuries are far less common. And most injuries are preventable.

Scooter companies part of the solution

Injury prevention is also on the minds of micromobility companies. They are working to educate their users on how to ride safely through city streets. They're also working to educate users on where to leave scooters when they're no longer needed.

Juliette Rizzo is a disability rights activist and pedestrian advocate who leads what are called "walking audits." The goal of the audits is to assess pedestrian access. In other words, what challenges stand in the way of safely navigating a city?

During a recent walking audit in downtown D.C., Rizzo brought attention to a scooter found blocking the sidewalk. This prompted a conversation with Beaudry Kock, who was along for the audit. He works for Spin, one of the five companies with licenses to operate scooters in Washington.

Kock voiced his frustration about scooter placement. "There's no excuse. There's really no reason," he said. Kock said the responsibility of scooter placement is just as much on the companies as it is on the users.

A Bird electric scooter found parked on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C. Pedestrian advocates are concerned about scooters blocking sidewalks.
Eric Baradat / AFP/Getty Images

Ultimately, most of these companies feel that the best way to address all safety concerns is to push for long-term solutions — solutions like redesigning city streets and improving traffic flow for all vehicles, including bikes and scooters.

The District Department of Transportation agrees. Jonathan Rogers, a policy analyst at DDOT, says that infrastructure and building safe streets are the foundation of tackling scooter-related issues. But improving infrastructure and building safer streets make for a slow and expensive process. The same could be said for building safer sidewalks.

While temporary measures like flex posts and paint can help in the short term, most of the solutions are still months, if not years, away.

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Dockless electric scooters now available for rent in dozens of U.S. cities. These are old-style, stand-up scooters that have been updated with electric motors. Riders use mobile apps to track them down and to turn them on and zip along as they hum tunes from BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. But as NPR's Henry Zimmerman reports, these scooters have been creating challenges for cities, including Washington, D.C.

HENRY ZIMMERMAN, BYLINE: Stand-up electric scooters have been around since the 1980s. But as the latest trend in transportation, dockless electric scooters first launched in 2017. Then they arrived in the District of Columbia in 2018. And now, just over a year later, there are thousands of scooters in the streets.

Enter Juliette Rizzo. She's a pedestrian advocate and leads what are called walking audits. The goal is to find what challenges stand in the way of safely navigating a city. Juliette recently conducted an audit in D.C. From her motorized wheelchair, she calls out to the group behind her like a nature documentary narrator.

JULIETTE RIZZO: As we're moving forward, we notice that there's something in our path.

ZIMMERMAN: That something is a discarded electric scooter. It prompted a conversation about scooter placement with Beaudry Kock, who was along for the audit. He works for Spin - one of the five companies licensed to operate scooters in D.C.

BEAUDRY KOCK: So there's no - no excuse. There's really no reason.

RIZZO: So - but it's up to the individual user to drop it somewhere, right?

KOCK: To some extent, but we also have responsibility to educate these users. We have a responsibility to improve enforcement. We have...

ZIMMERMAN: Juliette support shared responsibility of sidewalks when it comes to scooter placement, but that's just one issue surrounding electric scooters.

KATE DOUGLASS: People ride them on the road, on the sidewalk, in the bike lane. It's kind of a free for all.

ZIMMERMAN: That's Dr. Kate Douglass. She teaches medicine at George Washington University and spends a lot of time at the hospital's emergency room.

DOUGLASS: Almost during every shift, you'll see somebody come in with an extremity injury or a head injury or a laceration or something along those lines.

ZIMMERMAN: Matthew Lachance, a 25-year-old D.C. resident, says he's avoided injuries like that despite using scooters often.

MATTHEW LACHANCE: I think the scooters can be very safe.

ZIMMERMAN: And fun, he says. The fun is what drives demand for electric scooter rentals. Plus, they're convenient and quick, too. And even though he uses them often, Matthew acknowledges that there are problems.

LACHANCE: I totally get why people have negative opinions. I have negative opinions of most their users as well because they're riding them on the sidewalks and they're danger - endangering pedestrians.

ZIMMERMAN: Scooter companies like Lyft, Lime and Spin are all working to educate their users how to ride safely and where they should place the scooters when they're done. But most of these companies feel the best way to address safety concerns is to push for long-term solutions - solutions like redesigning city streets and improving traffic flow for all vehicles, including bikes and scooters.

JONATHAN ROGERS: The infrastructure and building the safe streets, I kind of think, is the foundation of all of it and really solves a lot of those problems.

ZIMMERMAN: Jonathan Rogers is a policy analyst at D.C.'s Department of Transportation. He says improving infrastructure and building safer streets is a slow and expensive process, same with safer sidewalks. So for now in D.C., scooter safety and responsibility is mostly in the hands of those riding the scooters.

Henry Zimmerman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.