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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Why electric scooter companies are getting serious about safety

Lime has joined rival Bird in establishing a safety advisory board tasked with helping the e-scooter industry shape local regulations—and shake its risky reputation.

Lime, the micromobility company that’s flooded the streets of more than 100 cities around the world with fleets of green-and-white electric scooters, launched a Public Policy and Safety Advisory Board last week. The group, which convened for the first time at a safety summit in San Francisco, is tasked with determining what research and policy initiatives to pursue, what regulations to advocate for, and how to generally smooth the company’s sometimes-bumpy relationships with cities, riders, and riders-to-be.

Lime’s announcement reflects a growing acknowledgement within the e-scooter rental industry that safety concerns present a major barrier to mass adoption. Shared e-scooter and bicycle trips in the U.S. more than doubled last year to reach 84 million, but companies face fresh regulatory pushback amid reports of vehicle malfunctions, incidents of rider misbehavior, and the industry’s often-chaotic roll-out. Several high-profile safety studies have emerged: Consumer Reports recorded 1,500 scooter-related injuries in the U.S. in 2018. Researchers in Santa Monica found that scooter injuries landed people in the hospital about 50 more times than bike accidents in the same year-long period. And a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that for every 100,000 trips taken in an Austin scooter pilot, 20 individuals were injured.

The biggest risk factors, the CDC found, were lack of helmet use, infrastructure issues like potholes and lack of protected lanes, and user inexperience and behavior—implicating cities, companies, and riders themselves.

Micromobility fans note that e-scooter injuries represent a microscopic fraction of the human toll inflicted by cars and trucks: More than 40,000 people are killed on America’s roads annually in traffic violence, and more than 4 million are seriously injured. Since their 2017 rollout, rented e-scooters were reportedly involved in eight fatalities. More broadly, emissions from gas-powered vehicles has been linked to thousands of pollution-related deaths. Zero-emission electric scooters, advocates argue, represent a planet-friendly way to bridge urban mobility gaps and wean Americans from their private automobile habit.  

“We want to be leaders in the micromobility policy space, not just players.”

“There’s been a dramatic shift in cities away from the car culture that dominated them, but that shift comes with slight apprehension about new models of transportation,” said David Spielfogel, Lime’s chief policy officer. The question, he says, is “how do we make micromobility a comfortable and normal part of urban transportation?”

In part to address those anxieties, the maturing e-scooter industry is making a fresh effort to emphasize safety. Lime, for example, says it has given out about 250,000 free helmets to riders, upgraded the scooters to better handle urban conditions, and invested more than $3 million in rider education. Rival company Bird has similarly given out thousands of helmets, and it, too, highlights its rider education efforts. It just launched a s.h.a.r.e Safe Streets tour, during which it will visit 100 cities and give riders virtual reality and in-person safety trainings.

But the role of Lime’s new safety advisory board—a group that so far includes former Consumer Product Safety Commission chair Inez Tenenbaum, former Seattle police chief Kathleen O’Toole, Obama-era environment and energy official Carol Browner, and transportation researcher Charles Brown—is more about policy than hardware. Lime expects to appoint more representatives, including those from Europe, where the company plans to host another safety summit later this year. “We want to be leaders in the micromobility policy space, not just players,” said Spielfogel.

For that title, they’re competing with Bird, which launched its own Global Safety Advisory Board almost a year ago. The board’s mission is to “create, advise, and implement global programs, campaigns, and products to improve the safety of those riding Birds and other e-scooters,” according to an August statement from the company. David Strickland, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was its founding chair, but he’s since stepped down from his position to serve on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

At the same time, Bird also launched a “Save Our Sidewalks” initiative, pledging to give $1 per scooter per day to a handful of cities to help them build protected bike lanes. But in January, Streetsblogreported that the initiative appeared to have been quietly abandoned. (Some cities, like Baltimore and Kansas City, did collect the fees, Streetsblog found.) Bird confirmed to CityLab that it had discontinued the program because many cities were unable to accept the funds.

So what specific “deliverables” can riders expect from Lime’s safety push? Company representatives were light on details in these early days, but mentioned expanding pilot initiatives like the First Ride Academy, where first-time riders are given hour-long training sessions in cities around the world. But the four members of the new safety advisory board tell CityLab that their years of diverse expertise will help Lime pursue scooter safety in its most expansive sense—not simply by cutting down on injuries, but by using the new transportation mode to make communities healthier.

Scooters’ potential for reducing carbon emissions, says Browner, is arguably their most important safety feature. “We’re going to rethink our communities because of climate change, and we’re going to have to adapt, and we’re going to have to rebuild,” she said. “We want our communities to be safe, we want them to be healthy, we want our air to be clean. It all fits together.”

Educating riders on the risks and the rewards matters, too, says Brown, who spent 12 years advising U.S. cities on transportation planning before becoming a senior transportation researcher at Rutgers. He’ll help shape Lime’s research agenda. “My hope is that we’d start with a clean slate in terms of what research data is important, so we can comprehensively look at what the issues are, as opposed to just going with the current narrative that exists,” he said. So far, that narrative has been one of “fear-mongering,” he added. “That is due to a lack of overall education—not only among users, but also the people who write the narratives about what’s happening.”

Other research questions for the company will center on how to increase transportation equity, Brown says. One thing that Spielfogel says Lime is less interested in is producing in-house research papers—which are often received with skepticism from the public. Bird’s Global Safety Advisory Board published its first comprehensive safety report in April, highlighting the fact that e-scooters and bicycles pose similar risks; and noting that bike-friendly cities were also ones that reported fewer e-scooter injuries.

O’Toole’s safety vision reflects her law enforcement background: She thinks e-scooters could help get cops out of their air-conditioned cars and interacting with the community. “Decades ago, I was one of the first to advocate for more bicycle officers, and not only did it provide a wonderful means of mobility but it helped break down barriers,” she said.

To achieve these ideals, companies need to maintain amicable relationships with their host cities. Most recently, Nashville Mayor David Briley tried to ban e-scooters entirely, but was stopped by the city council. (One city council candidate is now running on an anti-scooter platform.) San Francisco has strictly limited the number of companies that can operate on its streets. Texas is considering issuing a statewide moratorium. Though New York State came closer to legalizing scooters last month, Manhattan’s scooter prohibition endures.

Tenenbaum says her role will be to advise the company on how to help shape local regulations, since the federal government has taken a back seat on this front so far. (Though the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been collecting injury data on scooters, it can’t put forth regulatory guidelines—the commission’s statute from Congress allows it to regulate only products for sale, and e-scooters are generally rented, not purchased.) “I’d advise the company to be proactive, to work with other companies involved in the manufacture of micro-mobile vehicles, and to also focus on educating the consumer,” she said.

As with so many products, the dangers of using e-scooters can be managed, Tenenbaum insists, and must be balanced against the potential for low-cost, last-mile, low-emission travel. “At the CPSC … you have to look at the utility of the product in determining whether it poses a substantial risk,” she said. “Knives is the example: We need knives to cut things. You have to look at things in a broader context, and not just be reactionary.”

By Sarah Holder


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