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Riding while drunk and other dangers of the electric scooter craze
[NEW YORK] A new state law may soon bring electric scooters to the streets of New York City. But a mile away in New Jersey, Hoboken already offers a test case of the promises and the perils of the electric vehicles, which have taken hold across the world.
Hoboken was the first city in New Jersey to allow riders to rent motorised, two-wheeled scooters, joining a long list of cities that have embraced them in the past few years, including San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, Sydney and Barcelona, Spain.
The scooters have been a big hit in many places because they offer an inexpensive alternative on congested streets and can be picked up and dropped off on almost any block.
But they have also drawn increasing criticism about the recklessness of some riders. And there have been complaints that the scooters are carelessly tossed aside on pavements, parks, plazas and even lawns.
In Hoboken, the problem has got so bad that the city has had to hire two officers whose job is to police unruly riders. Some riders have even been caught scootering while drunk.
"The rollout in some cities has been rocky," said Steven Pedigo, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. "We've had safety issues. We've had too many scooters in some cities."
But if managed well, he added, scooter-sharing programmes can reduce car traffic and help solve the "mobility crisis" that many cities are facing.
In Hoboken, the scooters are so coveted that commuters line up to claim them on weekday evenings. Residents returning from work in Manhattan simply point their smartphones at a scooter to unlock it, hop on and slip into street traffic at speeds of up to 18 miles per hour. Each ride costs US$1 plus 15 cents a minute.
But not all of the riders obey the rules. The scooters are intended to be parked out of the way of pedestrians and other traffic, but can be left practically anywhere. Some users break the rules by riding on pavements or after patronising the bars and clubs that make Hoboken a hot spot for nighttime revelers.
On a recent weekend, the Hoboken police charged a 34 year old woman from Jersey City with scootering while intoxicated. A few days before that, they arrested a 26 year old scooter rider after she collided with a car and fell to the ground. A breath test showed that her blood-alcohol content was twice the legal limit, police said.
That was the third time the Hoboken Police Department had arrested someone for riding a scooter while drunk, Chief Kenneth Ferrante said, adding that offenders "face the same penalties as if they were operating a car".
To take some of the burden off police, Hoboken hired two "micromobility code enforcement officers" who can ticket scooter riders for failing to obey traffic laws, said Ryan Sharp, the city's director of transportation and parking.
The money to pay the officers will come from a revenue-sharing deal the city struck this summer with Lime, the company operating the scooter system.
Hoboken authorised the scooters as a six-month pilot programme. The city has hired a consultant to assess the programme, which ends in late November.
"Over the next four weeks or so, we'll be figuring out how we want to proceed," Sharp said. "All options are on the table."
Hoboken is an ideal candidate for a scooter programme, Mr Sharp said, because 60 per cent of its residents commute to work, mostly by train or ferry from Hoboken Terminal. Practically all of them live within one and a half miles of the terminal.
But Janna Chernetz, the deputy director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, says many cities are suitable for scooters if their residents and elected officials see them as a legitimate form of transportation, not just vehicles for joy rides. "It's a cultural mind-set change that you need to share the road," Ms Chernetz said.
Lime, which has scooters in cities around the world, is the exclusive provider in Hoboken. The pilot programme started with a second provider, Ojo, but the city dropped it in September after a 13 year old boy crashed one of the company's scooters into a woman who was pushing her three month old son in a stroller on a pavement.
The woman, Kate Cohen, testified at a City Council meeting that neither she nor her baby was seriously injured. "I am so lucky that this wasn't more serious, but I am haunted by the potential risk that remains," she said.
Ms Cohen did not call for a ban on the scooters, but said the city needed to do more to enforce the rules, including a prohibition against riders under the age of 18.
At that meeting, the council voted to ban the scooters from parks and the Hudson River waterfront, limiting their use to roadways and bike lanes.
In some cities, the reaction to scooters has been more drastic. In June, Nashville's mayor abruptly ended a pilot programme that involved Lime and several other scooter providers, including the ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft, after a rider who had been drinking was killed in a collision with a car.
In an August letter to the Metropolitan Council, the legislative body for the consolidated city-county government in Nashville, Mayor David Briley, a Democrat, wrote that the safety of residents, workers and visitors "remains at risk with more than 2,000 scooters still zipping through our streets and littered across our sidewalks". But the council voted against banning scooters altogether, deciding instead to reduce each company's fleet by half.
In New York, lawmakers in Albany passed a bill this year that would legalise electric-powered bikes and scooters, with one notable exception. The bill singled out Manhattan as the only place in the state where scooters would not be legal. Governor Andrew Cuomo has not yet signed it into law, so New York City has not yet authorised their use in any of its other four boroughs.
Despite the accidents and arrests in Hoboken, the scooters have been firmly embraced. On a recent weeknight, commuters leaving the Path train station at the south end of the city waited impatiently as two young men unloaded 73 Lime scooters from a packed van. Within minutes, all but a few were gone.
Phil Jones, a senior director for government relations at Lime, said more than 30,000 users in Hoboken had taken a total of more than 500,000 rides in five months on the company's scooters. Lime started out with 250 scooters there in May and now has more than 300 in Hoboken, a compact city with about 50,000 residents.
Jones said Lime had cancelled the accounts of more than 500 people for violations of its rules, such as allowing children to ride or carrying passengers. Others have been warned or fined for lesser offenses, he said.
"We try to give everyone a chance to correct their behaviour," he said.