Scooters, ready for action. Photo courtesy of Spin.

Urbanism

The Scooters Are Back. This Could Be Awesome.

Let's welcome back Big Scooter to Dallas.

Don’t call it a comeback. Not yet. But electric rental scootersbanned from the streets of Dallas last fall after two wild years that saw them both hailed as an important mobility option in a city freeing itself from a car-centric past and decried as a menace to law-abiding citizens everywherecould be returning sooner rather than later.

“We’ve heard a lot from community groups and locals who want scooters back in Dallas,” says Alex April, the head of government partnerships for Spin, a Ford Motor Co. subsidiary that pitched its scooter service at City Hall last week. “Spin wants this to be done in a responsible manner to make sure this program is successful long-term.”

I couldn’t get anybody from the city’s transportation department on the phone, and as of Friday morning hadn’t heard back from spokespeople for Lime and Bird, operators whose names should be familiar to those who recall Dallas’ last scooter heyday. However, Councilman David Blewett told Channel 4 that next month the city will ask scooter companies to make their respective cases for a return to Dallas. He predicted scooters would be back “in a safe and efficient manner” at some point this year.

“There is no way this goes well,” sneered The Dallas Morning News’ editorial board.

Well, not with that attitude it won’t.

We bend over backwards in this city to accommodate cars with minimum parking requirements, one-way roads wide enough to land an airliner, and disappearing bus islands. Dallas is a city of drivers because our infrastructure and public policy make driving much easier than taking transit, walking, biking, or scooting. When scooters have run into a wall here, it’s been when they come up against limits we’ve imposed. Imagine if we made more of an effort to make riding an electric scooter as natural as driving an SUV.

Scooter users rode on sidewalks here because there was often nowhere else for them to go without risking being run over. Scooters cluttered downtown and blocked walkways because our sidewalks are too narrow, where they exist at all, and the rest of our public space is dominated by streets or parking lots reserved for cars. If people got hurt riding a scooter, it’s because our reliance on cars and our deteriorating streets make getting around Dallas much too dangerous for everyone.

Around the time that Dallas temporarily suspended all scooter operations here last year, there were additional concerns from scooter skeptics that they were being abused by joy-riders and drunks, or used to commit crimes. There’s some truth to that, but by the same logic why haven’t we banned cars to cut back on street racing and drunken driving?

That’s not to say the scooter companies are blameless. Operators regularly failed to comply with city regulations, like a curfew intended to curb late-night joy-riding in Deep Ellum and downtown. They were sometimes slow to share ridership data that could inform city planning decisions. They flooded the streets with their product when the free-market free-for-all was on, and bailed when the time came to pay a reasonable operating fee to the city. And people can be jerks. The companies should know this, and should have to promptly pick up the scooters that are tossed around like litter or thrown down as sidewalk obstructions.

April, the Spin representative I spoke to this morning, says all the right things about modeling better scooter operator behavior. “We’re working with local community groups to make sure scooters turn into a real form of transportation and not just a toy,” she says.

Some of that is surely thanks to the backing of the Ford Motor Co. Spin, in the cities where it already operates, can afford salaried employees to deploy, pick up, and recharge its dockless scooters. There are company-owned vehicles to transport the scooters, a warehouse to store them in. Most other operators rely on gig workers to pick up and recharge their scooters—bad for workers who don’t get a guaranteed living wage or benefits, and bad for everyone else. Spin’s system lets the company respond more quickly to reported issues, like a jumble of scooters, April says.

Spin’s scooters also come with some nifty technology that makes each scooter sound an alarm whenever it’s being ridden on the sidewalk, or parked in an unauthorized area. This is due to cameras that can detect what surface it’s on. It’s in many ways a better method of guiding or correcting rider behavior than GPS geotagging, although Spin also keeps an eye on where scooters are being left to make sure they’re in the right place. Rider education is also part of the package, April says, and pre- (and hopefully post-) pandemic Spin has handed out free helmets at rider safety events.

Spin already operates in cities including Portland and San Francisco, where the company seems to have enjoyed a better relationship with local government than we’ve seen so far between operators and city officials in Dallas. “We’re happy to share data with cities,” she says. “If we see folks are trying to move from street to sidewalk in one place, we can work with the city to say, ‘OK, maybe this is where we can bring a bike lane so that people will feel safe.’”

April acknowledges that the existing infrastructure in Dallas may be a bigger barrier to scooters than in a bike lane utopia like Portland. But Spin could potentially help fund some bike lane projects here, she says. “We want to work hand in hand with cities to make sure we’re bringing sustainable transportation and first-mile, last-mile options.”

This could have come straight off a press release promising something like “new mobility solutions for a brighter future.” And at this point there’s not much telling for sure whether Spin would live up to its side of the bargain. But it’s encouraging to hear nevertheless. What would be even more encouraging is to hear city officials say something similar: people will safely ride scooters if we make it safe to ride scooters. And it wouldn’t hurt if the paper’s editorial board was a little less “old man yells at cloud” about the whole scooter thing, while we’re at it. Roving gangs of scooter hellions aren’t coming to pull you out of your truck.

That DMN editorial closes with what is meant to be an ironic observation, that a Spin press event last week to demo its scooters “was held at a plaza near City Hall, just behind a sign that declared it a misdemeanor to operate skateboards, bicycles and other small wheeled vehicles in the area.”

What’s really the problem with that scene? The scooters, or the sign that threatens to punish people for riding them?

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