Ready or Not, Dockless Scooters Have Arrived in Chicago

Lime scooters debuted in Lincoln Park last weekend and they'll be available for test rides at festivals

Test-riding Lime scooters in Lincoln Park last weekend. Photo: Lime
Test-riding Lime scooters in Lincoln Park last weekend. Photo: Lime

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Last month I reported that dockless electric scooter companies were jockeying to enter the Chicago market, including lobbying for Illinois legislation that would have made it legal to ride the gadgets on sidewalks and in bike lanes. A Freedom of Information Act request showed that both city officials and the Active Transportation Alliance are wary of the new technology. In other cities there have been complaints about scooters strewn across sidewalks and riders clogging bikeways, zooming down sidewalks, and occasionally crashing into people on foot. Still, Active Trans director Ron Burke argued that, if properly regulated, the tech could be part of the solution to reducing car dependence.

Last weekend dockless scooters made their first large-scale debut in Chicago as Lime, which is participating in the South Side dockless bike-share pilot, deployed 40 vehicles in Lincoln Park in conjunction with the Sheffield Music Fest and Garden Walk, according to spokeswoman Becky Carrol. She said she was told the Chicago Department of Transportation was informed of the “pop-up demo.”

CDOT officials did not respond to my request for comment on the pop-up. According to a Tribune report, the department recently stated, “Chicago is always exploring the latest technology to see how it (can) better serve the needs of our residents. We are developing policies appropriate for Chicago and are continuing to explore the impact of e-scooters on city streets.”

Carrol says the demo was a success. “Despite the rain and grey skies, festival-goers were out in full force and were big fans of the scooters as all were utilized throughout the weekend,” she said. “Lime will continue to do scooter pop-ups throughout the summer on weekends in partnership with various neighborhood festivals across the city. Fans of our scooters can check out our app on Friday, Saturdays and Sundays to find out where our pop-up demos will be located, but our goal is to primarily give festival-goers an opportunity for this unique experience. Locations will be made available weekend to weekend.”

Not everyone was pleased with the Lincoln Park pop-up however. This Twitter user reported that sidewalk clutter was an issue.

Like dockless bike-share, dockless scooters systems allow users to locate and check out a vehicle by using a smartphone app. Lime charges $1 to check out a scooter, plus 15 cents per minute.

Bike advocate Lowell Nelson reported that he had trouble using the technology when he spotted some of Lime’s scooters in Lincoln Park last weekend. “I had heard about dockless electric scooters in the Bay Area, so wasn’t completely surprised to see a few scooting in Chicago,” he said. “A couple hours later I saw one parked on a sidewalk so I thought I’d try it. Downloaded the app, but the scooter I was standing next to didn’t appear, but there was one a few blocks away so I walked . to try that one. The second scooter was either indoors on not properly located.”

Did any Streetsblog readers try out the scooters last weekend? If so, please share your thoughts on the technology in the comments section.

  • Robert Kania

    We should get some REAL scooters, like in San Francisco.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Who actually rides these things? My suspicion as to their popularity
    is because they appeal to the fat and unfit who are completely uninterested in
    bicycling. I can with some degree of anger tolerate a little street clutter from
    dockless bikes because they offer exercise to an obese public. I don’t believe
    scooters offer this public health benefit and have diminished community value
    as a result.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    One argument for scooters is that they offer a sweat-free way to travel with a relatively low carbon footprint, useful for office workers traveling across the CBD to meetings, lunch, etc, who are concerned about looking presentable when they arrive.

  • planetshwoop

    My thought is that there is a much bigger trend happening that we’re not really reporting: electrification. Increasingly, mobility is switching from gasoline to battery powered devices, and this allows them to shrink and change form from the more traditional gas-cars and bicycles. We tend to report on dockless, but I think there’s a different trend around where the energy comes from.

    We see this with ebikes, “hoverboards”, and it won’t be long (I think) that there will be smaller bike-cars that have bike frames but 4 wheels like cars (and thus take up more space).

    I was previously a critic of dockless (but love Divvy), as I was too worried about “clutter”. I’m still not a fan of private companies profiting from public space without adequately paying for it. But there’s going to be a continued explosion of ways to get around, and it really comes into conflict with cars before anything else. I don’t want to be a bike-lane elitist and say only bikes can come in bike lanes — I want to argue that MORE space needs to be given to these alternative methods and less to cars in busy places. We can make cities more pleasant by changing the design, not by being heavy handed with regulations.

    Last point — one reason these things are contentious, I think, is that we can’t park them where we park cars. If Lime took up space on the street — like Divvy sometimes does — it would hurt their revenue model (bc they’d have to pay) but it would help equate other modes to cars and help everyone see the world as more complex and better allowing cars to share the streets.

  • Roo_Beav

    If trips on electric scooters are replacing those that would otherwise be taken by car/taxi/rideshare, it’s likely a net positive regardless of the people using them.

    If it’s pulling from bike/walk/transit, there’s still the added safety benefit for all non-vehicle road users due to safety in numbers.

    I see electric scooters help fill that middle ground of people who aren’t motivated enough to walk/bike, but motivated enough to get somewhere where taking a vehicle/transit would take too long or cost too much.

  • rohmen

    There’s a lot of scooter riders in the loop that seem to use them to get from the train stations to other locations. The riders seem to me to generally be younger, and fit (with even older riders still falling in the “fit” category). We’ll see what largely accessibility does, but “unfit” people I think are still going to just wait for the private shuttles, etc.

  • Deni

    That’s a really good point. I think there could be a lot of people who like the IDEA of jumping on a bike share to go to a meeting on the other side of the loop but don’t want to how up sweaty (I’m a biker and I start sweating quick) so take a taxi/Uber instead. This could be a great option for them.

  • Austin Busch

    Well I for one embrace our new velomobile-sharing overlords:

    But yes, I would prefer these ride in “car” lanes. I do like the smaller profile and less-than-deadly weight class, not to mention emissions and health benefits.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think you’re onto something by noting the increase in electrification in transport options, which calls to mind two questions.

    One, where are we in terms of solving the battery problem? How far can we scale up before we start having to worry about lithium scarcity? Different people will say different things, and a lot of that depends on how much a person has invested in Tesla, but do we have a firm grasp on the real situation?

    Two, is electrification really getting us off fossil fuels? I last did this math some time ago, so I’m using 2014 numbers from the DOE, but on the surface, things look good. Illinois increased the electrical generation sourced from renewables (mostly wind) from squat in 2001 to 5% in 2014. At the same time, the percentage of Illinois power produced by coal and natural gas dropped from 47.1% in 2001 to 45.8% in 2014. But electricity demand increased 12.8% over the same period, and when you look at the actual amount of coal used by Illinois power companies, you see consumption actually increased 9.5%. So while we have significantly increased the portion of the market using renewables (mainly just wind in Illinois), that increase only makes up for about half the increase in total demand. Additionally, this is a little skewed in Illinois because we get a little more than half of our power from nuclear plants. In other places where I’ve done this math, things come out much worse in terms of increased demand from fossil fuels.

    Now, I do think that even a scooter running on coal is far more efficient than an Uber, but I often worry that we’re thinking we’re solving a problem that’s really just changing form.

  • Greg

    Not eager to share bike lanes with electric vehicles of any type. Tough enough to stay safe as it is.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The lithium question has a lot to do with what kind of electric vehicles become common. Scooters, ebikes, and other light weight vehicles are energy efficient and therefore don’t require large batteries. Electric cars spend a lot of energy moving around the weight of the car, and therefore require very large batteries. The efficiency also factors into whether energy usage is reduced or just switched to a new source. If someone switches from a car to a scooter they use far less energy to reach their destination because they didn’t move 2 tons of metal with them.

    Additionally, even when charged from coal heavy power grids, electric cars have lower emissions than ICE cars. Electric cars use regenerative braking to recover kinetic energy that is normally turned into heat by the brake pads. Also ICEs are very inherently inefficient. A good ICE only manages to convert approximately 30% of the chemical energy in fuel to useful work. The rest is rejected to the atmosphere as heat. Power plants are closer to 50% efficient.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The problem is all of these new ways of getting around are battling everything else instead of cars. There’s been an explosion of new ways to get around, which in many ways is a good thing. The problem is that every option that isn’t a car has been confined to a narrow strip at the side of the road and that little strip is getting crowded.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Done right they have to potential to be good for last mile connectivity.

  • Electric anything on the sidewalk is just a bad and disrespectful proposal.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Except for mobility devices for people with disabilities, of course.

  • Austin Busch

    Disregarding the overall greenhouse gas issue, which is a larger concern, electric vehicles moving the emission source point away from the city is a good thing. The health benefits of an emission-free city thoroughfare is reason enough to make an attempt at it.

    The issues with efficiency will most likely come down to how efficiently the energy gets distributed, as a certain amount will always get lost in the power lines. Also, if more cars are charged overnight, less renewable sources can be used, so peak energy demand will hopefully follow peak sunlight.

  • planetshwoop

    This reminds me of the switch from steam to diesel power for trains. Steam is 6-7% efficient vs more like 50% for diesel trains.

    Electrification — through transporting much smaller vehicles for some trips, or by being more efficient vs ICE vehicles, seems promising.

  • Yes of course.

  • Jake J. Phineas

    Just because something is electric doesn’t mean there isn’t negative environmental impacts to it. The battery is full of toxic chemicals, and to produce electricity it takes resources. Why are we encouraging people to not walk?

  • Izaster

    Good point, but and EV scooter will most certainly be more sustainable than a gas-powered one which not only uses gas extracted by carbon-heavy means, but also directly pollutes. If these were push scooters (RIP Razor), then it would be much a whole different story.

  • Michael

    About 2/3 of electricity in America is generated by either gas or coal. So essentially, about 65% of the power used to run the scooters is carbon based, global warming fossil fuels. Of course, these things are probably getting eMPG of well over 100. For those interested, there is a great Washington Post piece that is regularly updated showing how our electricity is sourced in America…

  • Guy Ross

    Valid point but Americans aren’t walking because walking in America is a miserable experience. Although not without faults, these devices can be a bridge to reach a goal the american cityscape has been unable to accomplish to now.

  • Guy Ross

    Your comment about four-wheel bikes is prescient

  • Guy Ross

    I ride a bike a lot and own a few. That said, I use bike share when visiting other metro areas on business. If these scooters were thrown into the rental mix I would use them. Not because I am lazy but for the same reason I use bike share: it offers the best options for certain routes.

  • Guy Ross

    Yup. This applies to me directly. Take London as an example. I’m there with multiple meetings to get to. Boris bikes are the best choice for most of my needs but these would also be a great option. I think cyclists (myself included) have become so defensive and insulated that we can’t see a benefit to our needs if it exists outside our ideology.

    Simply put: ANYTHING which removes cars from urban areas is good for everyone.