ITHACA, N.Y. – The City of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee voted 4-1 on Wednesday to send a resolution authorizing an e-scooter sharing pilot program to Common Council, though committee members said they remain concerned about how the micro-mobility vehicles will impact the safety of riders, drivers and pedestrians.
The Lime transportation company began introducing electric scooters to U.S. markets in February 2018, and injury and complaint data from cities with early programs – covering scooters from Lime and other companies – is beginning to accrue. Studies from Portland, Austin and Los Angeles suggest that while e-scooters bring benefits to transportation systems, they bring some risk of injury to riders and can create hazards for pedestrians when improperly ridden and parked.
The city’s Mobility, Accessibility and Transportation Commission researched the safety and feasibility of e-scooters and ultimately recommended that the city launch a pilot program to study how they would work locally. After hearing from about a dozen members of the public, three representatives from MATCom, and Jeff Goodmark, Lime’s local operations manager, at Wednesday’s meeting, a majority of PEDC members said they want to continue discussing e-scooters with the full Common Council before deciding whether or not to support a pilot program.
Safety was top of mind for committee members at Wednesday’s meeting. Community members have pointed to injuries and complaints related to e-scooters in other cities to question whether they can be safely accommodated on Ithaca’s streets. Research suggests e-scooter programs do bring some risk of rider and pedestrian injury, with most injuries resulting from falls rather than collisions.
Studies in Portland and Austin found that about 2 – 2.5 people sought emergency medical attention for e-scooter related injuries per 10,000 rides.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation closely monitored a three-month pilot program that brought e-scooters from Lime, Bird and Skip to the city. Residents and visitors took about 700,000 e-scooter rides during the trial, and researchers identified 176 visits to area emergency rooms and urgent care clinics related to e-scooter rides. About 83% of reported injuries were due to falls, while about 14% were due to collisions with cars or trucks and 3% were due to collisions between scooters and pedestrians. The total number of e-scooter related injuries reported during the trial period was lower than the number of bicycle-related injuries, but it is unknown how many total bicycle rides were taken so rates can’t be compared.
In Austin, the Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked injuries reported to emergency rooms during the three-month roll-out of e-scooter sharing programs and found a similar rate of reported injuries. Researchers identified 192 injuries related to shared e-scooters reported to emergency rooms over 936,110 trips, including 190 rider injuries and two injuries to pedestrians. Nearly half the injured riders reported head injuries; only one of the 190 injured riders was wearing a helmet. About 10% of injuries involved collisions with motor vehicles, and more than a third of injured riders said excessive scooter speed was a factor.
A Southern California study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined injury types associated with e-scooters rather than estimating the prevalence of injuries. Researchers reviewed 249 cases of patients who reported e-scooter related injuries to emergency rooms over a one year period. About a third of injuries included bone fractures, and about 40% involved head injuries. About 10% of injuries were reported by riders younger than 18, below company age limits.
No fatalities were reported within the three studies.
Lime reported about 90,000 bike rides in the Finger Lakes over the eight months of decent weather in 2018. If regional riders rode e-scooters as often as they rode shared bikes last year, it would translate to about 18 to 22 emergency room visits over eight months at the rates seen in Portland and Austin. Goodmark previously told the Ithaca Voice he expects e-scooters to increase ridership five-fold over 2018’s bike usage. If that were the case, it would mean about 90 to 112 emergency medical visits in the region over eight months of e-scooter usage if injuries are in line with Portland and Austin.
For the sake of comparison, in Tompkins County there were 2,155 motor vehicle crashes resulting in 539 injuries or fatalities in 2017, the last year for which data is available from the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research.
MATCom’s recommendations attempt to address e-scooter safety concerns identified in other cities. For example, the commission suggests helmet giveaways and rider education programs to limit head injuries and curfews to limit low-visibility riding. They suggest limiting the number of e-scooters Lime can introduce at once and setting rules about where Lime is allowed to place the vehicles around the city. The commission also recommends imposing fees per ride and for e-scooters that are improperly parked, for example blocking access to sidewalk curb cuts or crosswalks.
Alderperson Steve Smith called for regulations beyond those MATCom recommended, including a speed limit of 10 miles per hour and a ban on e-scooters on the steep East Hill streets linking Collegetown to Downtown.
Goodmark, however, said Lime is not willing to set scooter speeds below the standard 15 mph cap because it would hurt the user experience and create an obstacle for faster moving bicycles in the street. He said it is not technologically possible to prevent e-scooter use on downhill stretches; while the company can remotely power down scooter motors, it cannot prevent riders from coasting downhill. During the pilot program, however, the city could limit e-scooter staging to the flats.
Whatever regulations are ultimately included in an agreement with Lime, committee members questioned the city’s capacity for enforcement. Committee chair Seph Murtagh said he was voting to advance the resolution “with the understanding that we are going to reach out and talk to the mayor, chief of staff and police chief about enforcement” before the resolution comes up at the next Common Council meeting in June.
Members of the public will have another chance to weigh in at the June meeting. If Common Council approves the resolution, it will authorize the mayor to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with Lime for a pilot program that could start as soon as next month.
Featured image: Lime e-scooters in Oakland, California. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)