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This scooter madness must end
OLD friends of ours like to tell the story of the time they looked out their front window and saw a grown man propelling himself down their street on a child's push scooter. Peeking over his shoulder was a baby in a backpack, squealing with glee.
It was my baby.
When they rolled up to our duplex a little while later, both the pink-cheeked baby and his father were exultant. I was not exultant. I was very, very far from exultant.
In the unspoken division of parenting labour in our family, I was the cautious parent, the restrained parent, the consult-the-American-Academy-of-Pediatrics parent. My husband was the fun parent, the adventurous parent, the parent who sees a broken scooter, free for the taking, fixes it up and then takes it for a joy ride down a suburban commuter corridor with a baby strapped to his back.
That baby is currently 27 years old and backpacking around Europe on his summer break from teaching. I'm glad he grew up with a daring parent. I'm glad he also grew up with a vigilant parent who insisted on helmets and kneepads and safety goggles and sunscreen.
I hadn't thought about that little green push scooter in years, but the tension between adventure and safety is playing out on the streets of Nashville - and many other cities across the United States and Europe - on a grand scale these days. Since May of last year, more than 4,000 electric scooters have appeared on the streets of Nashville, and they have been wreaking havoc ever since.
Yes, there are good arguments for these vehicles. They're convenient, easy to use, and affordable. They don't contribute to urban heat or pollution. Finding a parking space is not a problem. And apparently they're hellacious fun - in Nashville, they've already racked up nearly one million rides.
Nevertheless, the arguments in favour of electric scooters are nothing compared to the problems they cause. Let's start with the least noxious: people abandon them in the middle of pavements, in doorways, at street corners where pedestrians are trying to cross. In a city dense with tourists, many of them drunk out of their minds, the introduction of more than 4,000 tripping hazards is not a civic boon.
In cities like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, according to the Los Angeles Times, fed-up residents "are taking matters into their own hands and waging a guerrilla war against the devices - setting them on fire, throwing them from balconies and burying them at sea".
The dangers to pedestrians pale in comparison with the dangers to riders. In a study conducted in Austin, Texas, nearly half the people injured on an electric scooter sustained head injuries, and 15 per cent of those head injuries were classified as "traumatic". Less than one per cent of the injured riders were wearing helmets.
In the year since electric scooters arrived here, the city has passed increasingly stringent rules for using them, but injuries continue to rise. Last month, the inevitable happened: Brady Gaulke, a 26-year-old Nashville man, was killed in a collision with an SUV while riding a scooter. His grieving parents have launched a petition to ban the devices in Nashville. "(E)-scooters are unsafe at any speed, and we are calling on Mayor David Briley and the Metro Council to ban them from the streets immediately," the petition reads, arguing that Mr Gaulke should be "the last victim of an epidemic that the e-scooter companies and local government both refuse to acknowledge".
Rented scooters are now in more than 100 cities in the US and Europe, and similar stories are playing out nearly everywhere. Last week, a man was killed by a car in Paris while riding a scooter. The week before that, a man was killed in Hälsingborg, Sweden, the day after the scooters were introduced. Less catastrophic injuries are common, and they range from broken bones and lacerations to traumatic brain injury. "Right now, a stunning number of e-scooter users are getting seriously hurt," said William Wallace, a senior policy analyst for Consumer Report.
Lack of protective gear
It's not hard to identify the problems. In many places, it's against the law to ride an electric scooter on the pavement, and neophyte scooter riders, unlike veteran cyclists, aren't trained in the safest ways to share the road with cars. All over Nashville, scooters snake between moving lanes of traffic, run red lights and stop signs, turn against the light and generally break every traffic law we have. And they're doing it all without wearing protective gear: These scooters are available almost everywhere now, and the decision to ride one is often impulsive. Tourists don't tend to travel with bicycle helmets in tow.
Despite the dangers, scooters continue to grow in popularity, part of what is being hailed as the "micro-mobility revolution". Startup companies like Bird and Lime are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in investment capital, and ride-sharing veterans Uber and Lyft have entered the skyrocketing market. Cities, meanwhile, are often caught off-guard when these vehicles appear on their streets overnight. They can scramble to regulate the industry with new laws, but they may not have the law-enforcement resources to give those regulations teeth.
And while there is no question that the US needs a micromobility revolution, it takes years to build the kind of infrastructure that would make it safer for people to ride scooters on city streets: dedicated lanes protected by medians don't magically appear with an emergency city council vote. And people aren't going to make a habit of bringing helmets with them everywhere until such vehicles cease to be a novelty and become part of a concerted plan to reduce a city's carbon footprint.
Electric scooters are fun, and joy should never be discounted, but a city needs to be the municipal equivalent of the sober parent, the safety-conscious parent, and either ban the devices altogether or commit the resources to make them safer. Nashville's Mayor Briley, who is running for re-election, has asked for draft legislation that would ban the scooters outright if companies don't respond adequately to a list of safety concerns. The seven scooter companies currently operating in Nashville have until June 22 to respond. NYTIMES
- Margaret Renkl is an NYT contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the forthcoming book Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.