E-scooters to hit the streets again despite safety concerns

·3 min read
Michel Aspirot/CBC
Michel Aspirot/CBC

Ottawa's e-scooter pilot project that started last year will keep rolling into 2021, despite deep concerns among accessibility advocates that the machines pose a barrier — and even a danger — to those with limited mobility or sight.

City council's transportation committee voted unanimously Thursday to bring the battery-powered scooters back from April until October. The city plans to launch a competitive process to sign up companies that would provide a combined total of up to 1,500 e-scooters, nearly triple the number that were on city streets last summer.

The program could also be expanded geographically, with as many as 300 scooters available in the city's suburbs as an experiment.

You can imagine, as a person who is blind, that is an incredibly dangerous situation, and it compromises our safety and independence. - Kathleen Forestell

The pilot project has so far been popular among users, councillors heard Thursday, with more than 72,000 people taking 238,000 rides between July 16 and Oct. 31, 2020. Three companies, all using a similar GPS-enabled app that allows users to unlock the machines with their mobile devices, took part last year: Bird Canada and Lime, each with 260 scooters, and Roll, which provided 80 scooters.

But there were also 250 complaints to the city about e-scooters being operated on sidewalks — they're supposed to be used only where bicycles are allowed — and parked improperly, often impeding pedestrians.

Phillip Turcotte, chair of the city's accessibility advisory committee, said members were "especially disappointed" by the city staff report recommending the program be extended another year.

"I want to be clear that improperly used scooters create accessibility barriers, and … even properly used ones create safety barriers for some in our community," he said.

Bells, horns 'not enough'

This is especially true for the city's 54,000 visually impaired residents, who are asking that e-scooters emit a constant noise.

"Bells, horns and other options are not enough," said Turcotte. "Blind and visually impaired members of our community … shouldn't expect their safety to be dependent on the proper [conduct] of other members of the community."

Improperly parked scooters were another common source of complaint. Linda Williams told councillors the bulky machines were often left "higgledy-piggledy all over the place generally, right at intersections" in her downtown neighbourhood.

Kathleen Forestell of CNIB Ontario East, who uses a guide dog or white cane to navigate city sidewalks, said she was frustrated by "the number of carelessly discarded scooters" she encountered in the downtown last summer and fall. She noted the scooters were sometimes parked against poles where audible pedestrian signal buttons are located, and were often ridden on sidewalks.

"You can imagine, as a person who is blind, that is an incredibly dangerous situation, and it compromises our safety and independence," Forestell told councillors.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

City demands improvements

This year, the winning providers will have to monitor their operating areas and move incorrectly parked scooters. They'll also have to include a complaints feature on their app, rather than simply providing a customer service number. Residents with visual impairments will still be able to call in complaints to 311.

City staff will also be looking at additional areas where e-scooters can be safely parked. Currently, users are encouraged to leave them in the "furniture zone" of a sidewalk — the area closest to the road where lamp posts, benches and bike racks are often located.

But many neighbourhood sidewalks aren't wide enough to accommodate the machines. In such cases, users will be asked to either leave them on the main street closest to their destination, or in a special drop-off zone in areas of the city where sidewalks are too narrow.

City council will consider the e-scooter plan next week.