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Electric scooters go from pilot to permanent in Chicago — for two years, anyway

The ordinance approved by the City Council allows the city transportation department to issue up to three licenses to scooter-sharing companies. Each could deploy up to 2,000 scooters per day, from 5 a.m. to midnight.

Electric scooters from Bird and Lime were part of a news conference outside City Hall on Monday, where Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. urged his fellow City Council members to approve a permanent e-scooter rental program.
Electric scooters from Bird and Lime were part of a news conference outside City Hall on Monday, where Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. urged his fellow City Council members to approve a permanent e-scooter rental program. The ordinance establishing such a program was approved by a Council committee on Tuesday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Electric scooters will become a permanent part of Chicago’s transportation system — with “sidewalk detection” technology to protect pedestrians — under a two-year plan approved Thursday amid concern that City Council members will need to serve as “scooter police.”

The electric scooter experiment shifted from pilot to permanent after a brief debate that included some of the same old gripes about sidewalk clutter.

South Side Ald. David Moore (17th) renewed his concern about the absence of mandatory docking stations for electric scooters to prevent them from becoming, what he called an “eyesore and a problem.”

“It’s a resource drain on our ward office. I cannot in good conscience put that on my staff and residents having to constantly report another problem,” Moore said.

Moore was not appeased by the fact that the ordinance crafted by the Chicago Department of Transportation and championed by Transportation Committee Chairman Howard Brookins (21st) authorizes, but does not mandate CDOT to “explore docking stations” and “virtual corrals” along the public way — either at city or company expense.

“What I don’t want is for the taxpayers to be stuck paying for docking stations,” Moore said.

CDOT was further authorized to expand its Divvy bike-sharing contract to include docked scooter sharing co-located in the current docking station network.

Caroline Samponaro, vice president of Transit, Bike and Scooter Policy at Lyft, which operates Divvy, said it hopes to work with CDOT to “leverage the Divvy dock network to provide docking scooters uniquely capable of eliminating sidewalk clutter.”

The “integrated Divvy scooter and bike system would immediately become the largest combined bike and scooter program in the country,” she said.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) said Chicago’s two pilot programs with electric scooters demonstrated, as he put it, “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

“I realize this is the way of the future and that we’re doing more to get cars off [the streets] and give our residents alternatives. But we have to balance the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” Lopez said.

Lopez said he has “more than enough to do” in his ward without having to serve as “the scooter police.”

Brookins acknowledged there will be a “learning curve” and “growing pains” with the two-year program. But, he argued that his ordinance empowers Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi to “rein in these things.”

“If we’re gonna talk the talk, we need to walk the walk. Our environment is slowly dying. ... We’re stepping in the right direction for our city and our environment,” the chairman said.

Lyft scooters parked at a West Loop corner.
Lyft scooters parked at a West Loop corner during an earlier pilot program. At the time, the scooters were not required to be locked to anything when not in use, leading to complaints about sidewalk clutter.
Sun-Times file

The ordinance approved Thursday authorizes the transportation department to issue up to three licenses to scooter-sharing concessionaires, with each company free to deploy 2,000 scooters per day, from 5 a.m. to midnight.

The city will receive $1-a-day for every scooter — roughly $4.4 million for 12,500 scooters — along with the nine percent lease tax.

Under the ordinance, those companies would use “lock-to” scooters, designed to be locked to something — a tree or a street sign, for example — between rentals, instead of just left in the middle of a sidewalk.

The two-year clock is likely to begin this spring. The Lakefront Trail would be off limits. But electric scooters would be allowed for the first time in the downtown area and along the 606 Trail.

The scooter inventory could more than double — from 6,000 to 12,500 — but only after a “demonstrated demand” from riders, according CDOT’s Managing Deputy Kevin O’Malley.

The requirement that scooters be “locked to” a tree, pole or bike rack was tested during Chicago’s second e-scooter pilot and has already resulted in a “drastic reduction” in missing scooters and sidewalk clutter, according to LeAaron Foley, director of government and community relations for Lime Chicago, which participated in both pilots.

Bird’s Vaughn Roland said his company is testing technology to create “virtual corrals” for electric scooters.

During a committee meeting earlier this week, Foley and Roland described the “geo-fencing” software embedded in electric scooters.

“We can reduce the speed from, say from 15 miles-per-hour to 10 miles-per-hour based off of the geo-fencing maps that we receive from CDOT and upload into our app. [We can] make sure that riders can no longer enter into those zones or that they must only go a certain speed while they’re in that zone,” Foley said.

Roland added: “They slow down to a halt once they enter that zone that we’ve mapped out with our teams. All of our vehicles are equipped with brains that have the GPS and some other forms for sensors and technology that allows them to recognize where they are, slow down and come to a stop if you are, indeed, within that zone.”

West Side Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) was so enamored with the geo-fencing technology, he asked if it could someday be put to even better use.

“I have in my community sometimes folks that may ride the wrong way. Is there a possibility to slow ’em down when they’re riding the wrong way so they’re not dipping in and out of traffic … when they’re going down a one-way street the opposite way?” Scott said.

Scott was told that technology is not available, but that the companies would be “pounding in the messaging” about safe riding.