On eve of Council rental e-scooter vote, aldermen and reps push for permanent legalization

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Update 10/3/21, 2:30 PM: Per the Daily Line, the scooter ordinance was approved in committee today, starting out with roughly 6,000 scooters allowed citywide for starters, which will eventually be expanded to 12,500, and while scooters will still be banned on the lakefront, they’ll be permitted downtown.

Legalize it! That was the message on rental dockless electric scooter technology promoted this morning at a City Hall press conference by three aldermen and representatives from the scooter companies Bird, Lime, and Spin. An ordinance that would make the controversial micromobility devices a permanent part of Chicago’s transportation landscape heads to the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Public Way for a vote on Wednesday. If it passes in committee, the legislation will go before the Council for a full vote on Thursday.

For the last two years, Chicago has hosted scooter pilots, and the city released an evaluation of the 2020 pilot last May. An ordinance proposed by 21st Ward alderman and transportation committee chair Howard Brookins (who made national headlines after he was seriously injured when a squirrel jumped into the spokes of his bicycle) as of July 2021 would permanently legalize the tech in almost all parts of the city, save for downtown, the Lakefront Trail. The legislation would authorize licenses for three vendors to each deploy 2,500 scooters across the city, for a total of 7,500. That’s the same number of vendors that participated last year – Bird, Lime, and Spin – but fewer vehicles than the total of 10,000 that were allowed during the 2020 pilot.

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Above: The 2020 pilot map with Equity Priority Areas. Image: CDOT

The ordinance states that scooters must be “lock-to,” that is, equipped with built-in locks for securing them to bike racks or poles when not in use, as a strategy to help prevent sidewalk blockage and vandalism eyesores. Last year’s pilot introduced a lock-to requirement and according to the Chicago Department of Transportation, 311 complaints related to e-scooters decreased 75 percent from 2019 numbers. Nonetheless, several aldermen have expressed opposition to permanently allowing scooters in their wards, complaining that the vehicles were still a nuisance due to issues like sidewalk riding and right-of-way clutter.

The proposed ordinance requires that all scooters have geo-fencing technology to prevent riders from taking them into prohibited areas, which last year included downtown and the lakefront. Safe riding instruction, including learn-to-ride classes and in-app education would also be a requirement. Scooter use would be restricted to the hours of 5 a.m. and midnight.

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Above: LaSpata, Brookins, Burnett, and reps from Lime, Spin, and Bird.

At today’s presser, Brookins sounded confident that his ordinance will become law this week. “On Thursday the city will get a little greener… Traffic will get a little less congested, and the city will gain a tiny amount of revenue for allowing these scooters into our committees.

27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, chair of the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic safety was similarly bullish on the ordinance passing. “So many people enjoyed [the scooters]” during the previous pilots, he said. “We found out what the challenges were and the kinks, and I think we fixed all of the mistakes.”

1st Ward alderman Daniel LaSpata, one of the most outspoken bike advocates on the Council, admitted that he was initially a “scooter skeptic,” but now feels that “scooters can be, and arguably need to be, another efficient, affordable, sustainable form of transportation for Chicagoans.”

Despite those glowing endorsements, Lime spokesperson Jacob Tugendrajch assured me that his company has not made campaign contributions to these aldermen.

During the press event LeAaron Foley, Lime’s senior manager of government relations for the upper midwest, said that concerns about sidewalk riding can be addressed via the company’s sidewalk riding detection technology, which has already been piloted in Milwaukee.

Bird government relations rep Vaughn Roland promised that his company is learning “what needs to be done to ensure that our scooters are safe, they’re accessible, and that we address the issue of equity.”

The 2020 pilot required vendors to distribute half of their fleets in Equity Priority Areas on the South, West and Northwest sides, which together comprised 45 percent of the total pilot area. Despite relatively equal distribution, with 92 percent of equity areas within a 5-minute walk of a scooter, ridership remained concentrated on the North side, and just 23 percent of rides took place in equity areas.

Oboi Reed, head of the transportation equity nonprofit Equiticity, said his group is in full support of a permanent scooter program “as another tool to remove the severe transportation inequities having a dire, decades-long impact on Black and Brown communities.” He emphasized that the program must be one where “racial equity and mobility justice are operationalized and a core element in its implementation,” of else it will not live up to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recent promises, as outlined in the new Chicago Department of Transportation Strategic Plan.

This piece incorporates previous reporting by Streetsblog Chicago freelancer Sharon Hoyer.

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