Meet the Pro-Scooter Feed “Chicago Scooters Are Fine”

A photo of orderly scooter parking posted by the new pro-scooter (and tie-die-friendly) Twitter feed Chicago Scooters Are Fine.
A photo of orderly scooter parking posted by the new pro-scooter (and tie-die-friendly) Twitter feed Chicago Scooters Are Fine.

Today’s the sixth day of Chicago’s four-month dockless electric scooter pilot, and so far it seems to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, some residents are annoyed to see these venture-capital-funded gadgets being used to monetize, and occasionally block, the public way, and irritated about having to share the already-crowded Bloomingdale Trail with them, when it’s not even legal to ride scooters there.

On the other hand, these gadgets offer a fun, effortless, sweat-free ride that seems to be highly appealing to many Chicagoans. Block Club reported that last weekend 11,000 trips were taken on the 2,500 scooters, which comes to 4.4 trips per vehicle. That’s impressive for a brand-new transportation system featuring a mode few residents have used before.

On the other, other hand, so far the safety record for these gizmos is… not great. Based on a WBBM news report and a few calls I made to local hospital this morning, there have already been many injuries since the pilot launched on Saturday, with at least two of them requiring surgery.

  • Rush Medical Center (Near West Side): 2 injuries requiring surgery
  • AMITA Health (Wicker Park): “About half a dozen” scooter-related ER visits
  • Mount Sinai Hospital (North Lawndale): 2 scooted-related ER visits
  • Northwestern Hospital (Streeterville): No scooter injuries since the launch, 1 private scooter ER visit last week

So, if we make a ballpark estimate for how many scooter trips have been taken since Saturday by doubling the trips taken over the weekend (it’s been a rainy week), that puts us somewhere in the neighborhood of one hospital visit per 2,200 rides. That’s not reassuring, especially since there are plenty of other hospitals within the West and Northwest side pilot area that I didn’t contact. (Northwestern Hospital is located about 1.5 miles from the test zone.)

“The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection is working closely with the Chicago Department of Public Health to track injuries and evaluate the impact of scooters on the safety of Chicago residents,” said BACP spokesman Isaac Reichman via email. “CDPH has asked hospitals to report the injuries associated with scooters, allowing CDPH to evaluate injury trends and patterns.” BACP plans to release new scooter ridership numbers early next week, so hopefully we’ll get a better sense of the injury rate in the near future.

But enough gloom and doom. Earlier this week Streetsblog Chicago checked in with the humorous scooter-skeptic Twitter feed Chicago Scooter Fails (@ChicagoFails), which has racked up 2,508 followers in the past week. So it’s only fair that we give some digital ink to the pro-scooter feed Chicago Scooters Are Fine (@Chicago Scooters),  launched around the same time with roughly the same number of tweets issued, but only 106 followers. That may reflect the fact that positivity usually isn’t as funny as negativity. But, hey, we’re going to do our best to level the playing field,  (or should that be the car-free, protected shared-mobility lane?)

Like John, the IT  salesman who runs Chicago Scooter Fails, the woman who runs Chicago Scooters Are Fine asked not to have her full name published. She does PR and communications for a living.

“I launched the account because my experience walking past the scooters in my neighborhood was not nearly so dramatic as @ChicagoFails would have the Internet believe,” she said in an email. “I understand that pictures of scooters balancing on top of garbage cans are amusing, but I didn’t want people’s perceptions of the scooters to be entirely negative if their only experience with them was scrolling through Twitter. I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Settle down, people, you’re fine.’ I thought it would be funny to emphasize the non-issue of it all by only posting content of scooters being where they belong–out of the way and operated safely.”

The woman told me she had never ridden a scooter before the Chicago pilot launched. “I rode along The 606 with a friend, then down Milwaukee (in the bike lane!)” she wrote. “I felt like a kid; I couldn’t believe how much fun I had on it. I’ve ridden a couple times more since then, mostly just for pleasure since my commute to work is outside the pilot area.”

Although the woman said Chicago Scooters Are Fine is intended to be a “scooter stan [fandom] account,” she added that she personally has a more balanced view of the scooter trend. She acknowledged the downsides. “People are more likely to get hurt on scooters than on bikes, even when cars aren’t involved,” she said. “The scooters aren’t owned and operated by the city (they should be). The scooters are dockless (they shouldn’t be).”

However, she argued that those drawbacks of scooters are outweighed by the perks. “They’re a sustainable way to get around, especially for folks with limited options,” she said. “They contribute to solving the ‘last-mile’ problem that so often results in people calling an Uber or Lyft and skipping the CTA altogether. You don’t get as sweaty on them as you do on a bicycle. And, perhaps most importantly, I really believe that over time if these things catch on, a culture and community will form around them in the same way it’s formed around biking in Chicago.”

“Already when I scoot around town for fun, and I pass by other folks on their scooters, we ring our bells at each other, smile, wave,” the woman said. “It sounds cheesy, but these things are bringing joy and building connections. I think this aspect is unfortunately undersold. You just don’t get that warm, fuzzy feeling in a Lyft.”

  • Frank

    Honestly, so many of these objections against scooters are silly. Why exactly is it so terrible that scooters are manufactured by a private companies? How is making space on them on sidewalks any different, with respect to giving public assets to private companies, than providing sidewalk amenities (pumps, bike lock racks etc.) for people with privately manufactured bicycles–much less opening streets to say, cars?? And why are urban “sustainability” advocates–who ,when bikes hit the road at.a decade ago, were blaming cars, not bikes, for accidents–now preciously handwringing about vehicle “safety” concerns? Where is the sustainability community’s obsessive concerns about cyclists riding the wrong way down one way streets and riding on sidewalks (conduct that is, btw, super-pervasive). It starts to seem like the pro- “sustainability” community is just here for protecting the incumbent self-interest of cycle bros. (And, the slanted nature of coverage on this blog–really, you are calling around to hospitals to get dirt on scooters??– also makes me wonder if it should be renamed BikeBroBlog.)

  • Kevin M

    You wrote, “because I think getting people out of cars is good.”

    I agree. Now, prove to us that dockless scooter rentals are contributing to this goal we share.

  • Frank

    “Now, prove to use that dockless scooter rentals are contributing.”

    Like, prove it to you, right now, before we let them on the streets? Is this the burden you put on bike advocates ten years ago? I doubt it.

    My suspicion is it’s going to take a number of years to find out the results micromobility, because it takes time to change norms. How about let’s go all in on the experiment, even if its a little uncomfortable, and run it for as long as it needs, which is probably a decade +.

    But I dunno: seems kinda intuitive to me that the more mobility options that are out there, and the easier it is to access them, the greater the chance people are to opt out of cars. Plus, the bigger constituency you get for other transport options, the more political mojo you have for better infrastructure.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’ll try to respond to more of you points when I have time, but here’s an obvious one. “Why are urban ‘sustainability’ advocates — who, when [bike-share] hit the road in cities a decade ago, were blaming cars, not bikes, for [crashes] — now preciously handwringing about scooters’ ‘safety’ problems?”

    Because, according to a recent study, less than 1/6 of scooter injuries involve cars. From a Streetsblog USA article on the study of scooter injuries in Austin, TX:

    “Cars didn’t seem to be the big culprit here. Researchers from the Austin Public Health Department interviewed many of the injured riders, and determined that a car was involved in about 16 percent of the cases. But only in 10 percent of cases was there an actual collision with a car. And about a third of riders said the fall or crash occurred while they were riding on the sidewalk.”

    Meanwhile bike-share has a better safety track record than private bikes, with only two U.S. fatalities in the last 10 years. There were 10 U.S. scooter deaths in 2018 alone, according to a Consumer Reports study — that’s 20 times the fatality rate of bike-share.

  • personalized1

    It’s not a fair comparison. Bikeshare attracts a very particular type of person who already spent hours learning how to ride a bike. Scootershare attracts everyone because there is no barrier to entry.

    Basically scootershare would be just like bikeshare if you made everyone go through hours of training first: a lot safer but also a lot less popular.

    At the end of the day I’m for anything that builds more grassroots support for more bike lanes, because it’s pretty obvious bikeshare hasn’t been enough.

  • personalized1

    Ten seconds of googling: 50% car replacement for scooters 34-48% car replacement for scooters

    Compare to bikeshare: 2% car replacement in London and 7% in DC …

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The links to those car replacement for scooter numbers are non-functional. Anyway, it’s *highly* doubtful that every other scooter rider you survey would tell you that if they weren’t on a scooter they’d be in a car.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sure, if everyone already had lots of miles of e-scooting under their belt before checking out a public scooter, that would be helpful. But the learning curve for scooting isn’t anywhere near as steep as learning how to ride a bike.

    The main reasons why bike-share is so much safer than scooters are pretty simple. Bike-share cycles are heavy, stable, slow (it takes a lot of effort to go much faster than 10 mph); they’re large, usually brightly colored bikes that are easy for motorists to spot, especially from the side; and they have large wheels and fat tires that handle potholes well.

    In contrast, typical scooters give the rider a high center of gravity, making it easy to go over the handlebars. It takes no effort to go 15 mph. A rider standing on a scooter has a narrow profile, making them much harder for motorists to see, especially from the side. And scooters have small wheels that don’t handle potholes and sidewalk cracks well (not that you’re supposed to scoot on the sidewalk, but many people do.) That explains why 5/6 of scooter injury crashes don’t involve cars.

  • Guy Ross

    Totally disagree about bikeshare attraction. Especially in the Loop and Near North the tourists from all over the world who jump on these are very inexperienced. This is not a bad thing as they love it and really aren’t a major danger to anyone.

    The point about scooters from John is accurate. The little aluminum jobbers buck kids off all the time, even after hundreds of hours on them. Again, not against them, just pointing this out….

  • Frank

    The Austin study shows 20 injuries per 100,000 trips, or a .02% injury rate, and a significant share of these injuries occurred on of the first ride (in other words seemed to be a function of the newness of the thing), right?

    Putting aside the good point above transition costs (which suggest the rates will decline over time), that rate is, in absolute terms, very small–much smaller than a host of risks we regularly assume without a societal panic (and, indeed, are allowed to assume by regulators) on a daily basis.

    Moreover, we have to compare the risk of scooters to the risks/socials costs that follow if people who can’t take a scooter substitute cars, instead of bike share.

    At best the study makes a case for an education campaign–nudge people to wear helmets, sign up for free tutorials.

  • Guy Ross

    How about we watch this pilot and then look at the numbers spun off from it so we know how it went?

  • Frank

    Moreover, its not clear what percentage of the (again very low) injury rate is attributable to transportation design. Would there be fewer injuries if people were navigating in a less car-centric urban infrastructure? The fact some critics–who are quick to frame the causal effect of cars broadly in other contexts, as a prelude to pointing out that we should not take risks of car-centric designs and associated risks as an environmental given in transportation policy–ignore this possibility here is . . . more evidence that some people are f(or difficult to understand reasons) assessing these things with a different measuring stick than they have applied to previous micromobility options.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Usage numbers aren’t going to help answer that question, as you won’t know what mode of travel people using scooters would otherwise have been using. Unless CDOT can tell us how many cars were used before/during the pilot study. I cannot even fathom how they would begin to track that, when they can’t seem to handle much, much simpler calculations, such as say, coordinating needed street repairs with the water main project. And yes, I’m just annoyed AF my street has resembled an Okie dust bowl for several months now.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Here are some more responses to your points.

    “Why exactly is it so terrible that scooters are [owned] by private companies?” The problem with venture-capital-backed micro-mobility is that when it turns out to be unprofitable, as it often does, the company can cut and run. We’ve seen that in many cities, such as nearby Rockford, IL, that had privately owned dockless bike-share systems, and when the companies pulled up stakes after just a few months, the cities were left with no bike-share. In Chicago, there’s the risk that for-profit micro-mobility could cannibalize the successful, publicly-owned Divvy system, similar to how ride-hailing is hurting public transit ridership.

    “How is making space on them on sidewalks any different, with respect to giving public assets to private companies, than providing sidewalk amenities (pumps, bike lock racks etc.) for people with privately manufactured bicycles–much less opening streets to say, cars?” Obviously, the public way is going to be available to residents for transportation, although how we allocate that space is key. Certainly protected, car-free bike / scooter / e-gizmo lanes could be a more efficient use of the public way than having so many lanes for drivers. But there’s a big difference between making the public way available to citizens to use for for travel or parking (bike or, yes, problematically, car parking) and letting private companies make money off it. Private scooter share is more analogous to selling restaurants permits for sidewalk cafes — it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can have drawbacks, such as blockage for pedestrians and wheelchairs users.

    And I’d say that have thousands of not-so-heavy, unsecured objects left on the public way, an uncommon phenomenon, presents some unique issues in terms of sidewalk blockage and the potential for misuse, in terms of vandalism, and even violence. Introducing “lock-to” scooters that could be secured to bike racks and poles would help address those issues, although it could cut down on bike parking spaces. That in turn could be addressed by having the scooter companies pay on on-street parking corrals.

    So I supposed I’d feel more positively about publicly owned scooter systems with lock-to scooters, especially if they used safer designs such as seated scooters (e-mopeds, if you prefer.)

  • The Dude

    what if there were scooter docks and you could either leave your scooter on the sidewalk as you would with any of these systems OR dock and receive a $0.50 credit back to your account? If you want you can use the scooters to go curbside to your destination, but it’ll cost you slightly more. Plus you could recharge the scooters at the dock to eliminate the need for all these scooter catchers who have to find and charge the things.

  • Frank

    Thanks! Appreciate the response.

  • Kevin M

    My intuition says people who drive around Chicago are generally not going to suddenly drop their keys and pick up an e-scooter because people often use their car for the following reasons:
    1) to travel distances farther than most people ride scooters
    2) because they are not comfortable being exposed in traffic on a bike–and definitely not a scooter
    3) because being inside their car helps them feel safer from crime

    4) because they need to transport goods
    5) because they think it will get them fastest (whether or not that is true)

    All five of these are reasons why scooters are not going to get current private-car owners to switch over to scooters. However, I do see a chance that scooters will eat in to public transit usage.

    Lastly, bicycles consume no carbon energy once they are built. These 30-day-lifespan electric-scooter-gadgets are simply displacing their carbon usage to some other part of the planet. There is no comparison from an environmental point of view.

  • Kevin M

    and 6) Chicago car-owners will drive whenever the weather is wet or cold (which applies to a majority of days in our local climate’s calendar year.

  • skelter weeks

    The only way scooters could replace car trips is if they were allowed downtown, River North, Lincoln Park, all those places people call Uber for short trips. People would use e-scooters for transportation if they were available at the Metra stations, etc. Since they’re not, most of the people using scooters are joyriders. Very few use them for transportation. It’s induced demand. The scooters exist, so people use them. ‘Induced demand’ is a large part of the economy (people buying things they don’t need). It’s not just cars clogging up new freeways. The 606 is a prime example of induced demand. People use it because it’s there. A minority use it for transportation.

  • SloMo2020

    The bad news is that legally restricting scooters to the bike lanes is pretty much the end of bike lanes in Chicago. What do you think bikers are going to do when they get buzzed by too many 20 MPH, powered vehicles? The good news is that the Ponzi-like business model of mobility companies is unsustainable,

    If Uber could somehow convert the $14-plus billion that it lost in the last four years to sustainable, growing profits, it would be one the biggest corporate turnarounds in history. Conversely, if Uber fails to find the billions of dollars in operating efficiencies that it couldn’t find over the past nine years, it will have a devastating impact on the urban car service industry, and the hundreds of cities that depend on taxis. As it struggles to reduce losses, it will be free to cut service and gouge the customers and drivers who are no longer protected by either regulations or meaningful competition.

  • what_eva

    so the problem with the quote you’ve cited is that there is competition (Lyft and others) and the barrier to entry is low.

  • SloMo2020

    Whatevs … read the rest of the article (couldn’t quote the whole thing!), then feel free to comment.

  • Frank

    One last thought: Politics has increasingly become a game of in-group/out-group signaling, in which policy positions are adopted against the background of a narrative that delineates the good guys from the bad guys, and in which arguments using evidence are less about appraising the evidence than manipulating the evidence to support arguments that reinforce the background narrative (and position the arguer as a member of the in-group in that narrative).

    Until recently, I thought this kind of stuff was mostly the purview of the right, but I worry it is seeping into the edges of the progressive community. And maybe I’m being uncharitable, but I see hints of it in the scooter wars.

    In the narrative, tech companies are the greedy neoliberal bad guys, bicyclists and public transportation advocates are the gritty good guys sweating it out on the streets for the public good. And therefore the key is to take position against scooters (and by extension scooter riders and advocates, who are implicitly treated as either unwitting dupes or evil and/or corrupt collaborators)–and then evidence is selected and interpreted accordingly.

    Is the recent attack on a scooter user by a cyclist reported on the above-linked twitter account consistent with this? Quite possibly.

    I’m all for cycling (I cycle, on a reconstructed bike); I support public transportation, including expansion of dedicated bus lanes.

    And, there are definitely and very sadly areas of modern public life where the narrative of good guys and bad guys holds.

    But there also many where this Manichean worldview doesn’t hold–where there is a lot of empirical uncertainty about the best policy, and therefore ample room for experiment, and for lots of reasonable good faith disagreement, and even possibilities for policy convergence that cuts across traditional ideological lines. Transportation policy, including the debate over scooters, is one such area!

  • Carter O’Brien

    And your 10 seconds of googling betrays your lack of understanding of the scientific method and why we got into the mess we did with TODs.

    What they did in Portland, NYC or London is fine as a way to do some background research.

    But assuming results in other cities will automatically be seen here is kind of the height of delusion. The pertinent question is, *how* will we know if they are replacing car trips, which would require measurement, data collection and transparency. Without that – pfffffffft. Just more fuzzy math.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I agree. Just read the comment sections, the “fun” aspect is a constant. We didn’t spend 4 decades advocating and organizing for bike infrastructure just so yuppies and hipsters can turn our bike lanes into clown college.

  • According to a Block Club news item, a scooter rider weaving in and out of traffic hit a bicyclist head-on in Wicker Park, badly injuring the bicyclist. The scooter rider, apparently riding without insurance, jumped-up and left the scene.

    But look on the bright side though. In Portland, Oregon a new use for e-scooters has been found. Apparently they work OK as artificial reefs!

  • Apple_jack

    So you’ve read from a blog site that one scooter rider hit a cyclist and then committed a crime?? Egads!!!! Kill them all!!!

    (You’re supposed to shake your fist and scream ‘get off of my lawn” when you type these)