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Second round of Chicago’s electric scooter pilot delayed until late summer

Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said she needs to give the handful of companies expected to be involved in the second pilot time to sort out their shaky finances after heavy losses tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lyft scooters parked at a West Loop corner.
Lyft scooters parked at a West Loop corner during the first pilot program.
Sun-Times file

Chicago’s love-hate relationship with electric scooters will resume, but not until the end of the summer because of financial concerns tied to the coronavirus, a top mayoral aide said earlier this month.

Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi acknowledged transportation options are needed now, more than ever, as the Chicago economy prepares to partially reopen and mass transit struggles to reassure commuters it’s safe to return to buses and trains.

But Biagi said she cannot wave a “magic wand” and deliver Round Two of Chicago’s grand experiment with electric scooters. The handful of companies expected to be involved in the second pilot still must sort out their shaky finances.

“We … need to give time for the scooter companies to get ready” given the challenges their industry is facing right now, she said.

“You’re looking at some of your big micro-mobility companies, and some of your small ones are really looking at their financing. ... So there’s some potential capacity questions on that end,” Biagi said.

“We want to make sure that we’ve asked all of the hard questions to make sure that it’s viable on the company side as well as making sure we’re setting up the pilot in the right way.”

Whenever the city is ready to launch the second pilot, Biagi said she expects to include “two or three” companies, compared to 10 in the original pilot. She also plans to require scooters to be parked in docks, corrals or locked public racks.

“We’re definitely very serious about sidewalk clutter, particularly because it impacts people with disabilities and other folks. No one wants to step over a bunch of scooters on the sidewalk. So, lockable technology — definitely,” she said.

In addition to a “lock-to” requirement, the Active Transportation Alliance has urged the city to offer discounts to low-income riders; expand priority zones; make all trips pay-as-you-go; and offer incentives for trips to and from mass transit.

The alliance has also urged the Lightfoot administration to keep scooters out of downtown and away from the lakefront trail and 606, and devote a chunk of scooter revenue to improving the “walking and biking infrastructure” in “high-crash corridors” on the South and West sides.

Biagi made no promises on those fronts but did argue that scooters are not just a transportation novelty; they’re a vital cog in Chicago’s fast-changing transportation system.

“This is where I always say, ‘It’s not about the scooter.’ It’s too easy to look at a scooter like it’s just kind of a fun toy and maybe not a serious part of the transportation network. But it is,” she said.

“It’s actually really important that we continue to look at how we can create other options for moving around the city. If you don’t want to bike and it’s too far to walk, a scooter might be just the right fit. It allows us to get more people plugged into the transportation network.”

Last year, Chicago rolled out electric scooters during a four-month pilot program that raised safety, parking and equity concerns.

Ten companies were each granted 250 scooters to operate within a 50-square mile test area bounded by Halsted Street and the Chicago River on the east, Irving Park Road on the north, Harlem Avenue and the city limits on the west, and the Chicago River on the south.

During that time, people who live, work and play in Chicago took 821,615 trips. A follow-up study showed scooters were used most frequently during the evening rush period on weekdays and between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on weekends.

Nearly 80 percent of rides started or ended in the eastern half of the pilot area, where plenty of other transportation options exist. Though scooter ridership was concentrated in the West Loop and along the Blue Line, it wasn’t at all clear that scooters were used to reduce car trips or “supplement” mass transit.

In fact, “very low” percentages of survey respondents said they rode CTA buses and trains more often because of scooters. And 34 percent said they used scooters to get to and from public transit.