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Apr 03rd
Scooter Invasion PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photos by Armando Colls   
February 2020

They came. They cluttered. But they have not conquered -- yet.

Out of nowhere, e-scooters rained down on Miami, thousands of them, inspiring delight, outrage, and an intense scrutiny that could doom them

CCover_0_Cover_Shothances are, you’ve seen them in Bayfront Park and elsewhere in downtown Miami, or Brickell, or Coconut Grove. Scooters.

Most look like the kick-scooters children often use. Some loosely resemble tricycles. However, these machines are propelled by lithium batteries and can travel up to 20 miles per hour. When stationary, they’re often found on public sidewalks.

They go by different names and descriptions. E-scooters. Dockless scooters. Shared motorized scooters. Personal transporters. Last-mile transportation. Tourist toys. Whatever they’re called, scooters have colonized cities across the globe. Although you can buy one yourself (Amazon lists them from $59 to $4000), usually e-scooters are controlled by startup companies that rent them by the minute to customers with smartphones and credit cards. It’s all part of the growing micromobility industry that includes short-term bike rentals.

Over the past couple of years, e-scooter companies have established themselves in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa, and Tallahassee. But within Miami-Dade County, e-scooters are primarily found in two places: Coral Gables and the City of Miami’s Commission District 2, a medley of neighborhoods that includes most or all of Coconut Grove, Brickell, the Central Business District, Park West, Bayfront Park, Maurice Ferré Park, Omni, Midtown Miami, Edgewater, Morningside, and the Bayside Historic District, plus segments of Wynwood.

The City of Coral Gables limits its public sidewalks to 300 e-scooters owned by two companies, Bird and Spin, but within District 2, nine companies are allowed to operate 3957 e-scooters, typically charging customers a one-dollar unlocking fee plus 15 cents per minute.

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Plenty of people hate them. Grant Stern, host of the Only in Miami radio talk show and an Edgewater resident, says he became acquainted with the devices while walking his dog and pushing his infant daughter in a stroller: a man riding a scooter nearly slammed into him. Since then, Stern says, he not only has to detour around idle scooters frequently left near his condo building’s entrance, but he must also be on the lookout for zooming riders.

“The e-scooters have turned our sidewalks into racetracks where pedestrians have to literally look over their shoulder to avoid high-speed blindside collisions,” Stern complains in an e-mail to the BT. “With minimal effort, a scooter operator can reach 15 m.p.h., unlike a cyclist whose speed is limited by their expenditure of energy to work out.”

Tom Falco, editor of the Coconut Grove Grapevine blog, says the e-scooters aren’t popular there: “Many residents feel that there are no rules, the riders ride haphazardly, and they speed in and out of traffic. They also ride on the sidewalks and leave the scooters anywhere when they’re done. This is the feedback I get from people in person and in writing.”

Falco adds, however, that he actually likes the e-scooters: “I feel they add life to the area.”

He’s not alone. Last year, more than 1.6 million people rode e-scooters in Commission District 2, says John Heffernan, deputy director of communications for the City of Miami.

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Among the frequent customers are tourists and visitors in search of an easy way to get around, and an amusement.

“It’s just fun and cheap,” explains Gage Gonzalez, a 21-year-old college student visiting from Tampa, as he unlocks a Lime scooter at Bayfront Park.

They’re also used by people who work or live in Miami -- like Christian Cipriani, a copywriter who lives in West Miami and works downtown. For Cipriani, a former BT contributing writer, renting scooters is a solution to the “last mile” problem that has vexed mass-transit advocates: how to get to and from transit hubs. In Cipriani’s case, scooters are an easy way of traveling from the Metrorail station at Government Center to his downtown office and downtown-area clients.

“In Miami, eight months out of the year, you walk two blocks and you show up in a puddle of sweat,” he explains. All he has to do is use his phone app to locate the nearest scooter, plug in his info, and hop on. “You don’t have to expend energy, and when you’re done, you leave it right there. They’re extremely convenient. Extremely cheap,” Cipriani says. “I’ve gone from downtown to Brickell and not shown up sweaty, and you don’t have to park.”

Indeed, several representatives of e-scooter companies tell the BT that they find the City of Miami, and the State of Florida, very desirable markets, thanks to tourists, horrendous traffic congestion, and warm weather.

“The growth we’ve already had here -- I can’t share the number, but this place is profitable,” says Uhriel Bedoya, general manager of Lime’s Florida operations. (Bedoya told the Sun-Sentinel in January that Lime, which operates in District 2, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Tampa, recorded “over 900,000 trips” and “over one million miles traveled” in Florida.)

Servando Esparza, senior manager of government partnerships for Bird, says his company is interested in operating in more City of Miami neighborhoods, as well as other municipalities, like Miami Beach and Aventura. They’re considering Key Biscayne as well, according to a Bird spokesperson. “I can see a lot of the neighboring cities creating a program that’s in line with the Miami program,” he says.

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That is, if the Miami program is extended. The District 2 e-scooter pilot program expires on Valentine’s Day. A draft request for proposals (RFP) from the city’s procurement department would limit the number of rental companies to three and reduce the total number of e-scooters to 833. Until the RFP is completed and approved by the Miami City Commission, some at city hall want to extend the program through May.

Ken Russell, District 2’s city commissioner, is a supporter of e-scooter laws, insisting that, if properly regulated, they can be an asset for places like District 2. Russell even traveled from city hall to Coral Bagels diner in Coconut Grove on a Spin scooter for a post-election interview with the BT last November. In a recent interview with the BT, he vows that the RFP will “tweak” e-scooter regulations and address safety concerns. Says Russell: “It will reward good behavior and penalize bad ideas.”

So far, the City of Miami has collected more than $1.1 million in fees from e-scooter companies. Those funds will be used to create more bike lanes, according to Russell.

Yet there’s a decent chance the e-scooter program will end before the RFP is issued. Part of that has to do with politics. Following the November election of Alex Diaz de la Portilla as District 1 commissioner, three out of five commissioners have been highly critical of city manager Emilio Gonzalez (who will resign on February 10), Mayor Francis Suarez, and Commissioner Russell. Two city commissioners, Diaz de la Portilla and Joe Carollo, ridiculed Russell at the January 23 city commission meeting.

But there are safety concerns, too. Three city commissioners -- Carollo, Manolo Reyes, and Keon Hardemon -- tell the BT they don’t want e-scooters in their districts. Commissioner Diaz de la Portilla says he might support the program in certain parts of District 1, but only if officials can satisfy his safety concerns. Otherwise, he’ll vote to end the pilot program and ban e-scooters throughout the city.

“Commissioner Russell, with all due respect, ‘Oh, we have the ‘last-mile’ solution! This is it!’ No, it’s not. No, it’s not!” Diaz de la Portilla says. “People can be hurt on them. You have to look and be thorough. You can’t be so flippant on these things, especially when it involves people potentially getting hurt.”

Reyes doesn’t see any reason to keep the pilot program alive. “I don’t know why Commissioner Russell is so in love with this thing,” he says. “A major accident could happen with this.”


A Cover_4recent Associated Press story reports that 40,000 people were injured in e-scooter accidents between 2014 and 2018 nationally. A Consumer Reports article, cited in the AP piece, states that eight people were killed in e-scooter accidents between the fall of 2017 and June 2019. One of those fatalities was 27-year-old Mathias Huff, who was hit by a car in Fort Lauderdale while riding a Lime scooter. Between May and December 2019, there were 68 scooter-related accidents in Fort Lauderdale, according to Miami New Times.

In the City of Miami, there were 28 scooter accidents with injuries in Miami’s District 2 from April to June 2019, during the pilot program’s startup. The city didn’t send more recent statistics by deadline; however, city spokesman Heffernan insists there have been no reported e-scooter fatalities.

Yet that the number of accidents has been “minuscule” compared to the 606,452 e-scooter trips taken between April and June of last year, city manager Gonzalez tells the BT. “The math is clearly on the side of the scooters,” he says. “Normally when you have so many scooters, people say, ‘Oh my god, these are accidents waiting to happen. People are going to get hit all the time.’ It is not happening. We’re talking handfuls of accidents.”

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Commissioner Joe Carollo doubts that assertion. On any given day, Carollo says, he’ll see “a tremendous” number of people on e-scooters, zig-zagging between sidewalks and streets and “not following the law.”

“That’s why many, many cities throughout our country and our world have outlawed them,” he says.

Miami’s pilot program does forbid anyone under 18 from riding e-scooters. Yet it’s fairly common to see children on them. During the Bayskate Miami event at Bayfront Park in December, entire families were riding scooters. Riding tandem is also against the law, but seeing two people riding a scooter -- sometimes an adult and child -- is not a rare sight downtown. Many e-scooters in District 2 do scan driver’s licenses, but the software doesn’t prevent someone else from riding the vehicle. Although helmets are encouraged, riders frequently don’t wear them. Plus, enforcement is up to employees of the Miami Parking Authority, not the Miami Police Department.

It isn’t just the potential for accidents, says Carollo; it’s how riders discard e-scooters after use. “Our main parks, like Bayfront and Ferré Park, they look like used scooter lots. We’ve got dozens of scooters thrown into the sidewalk. They’re just thrown all over the city!” he fumes.

In late January, as Super Bowl approached, city employees used decals to form “corrals” on public sidewalks. In a Facebook message, Commissioner Russell claimed that the nine companies will provide “incentives” for riders to leave them within the corrals.

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A January 8 draft of the e-scooter RFP requires riders to pass a “motorized scooter safety” test provided by sanctioned companies, push companies to encourage riders to use helmets, and provide a clear “geofencing” map for users. The RFP draft also asserts that the city retains the right to create designated e-scooter parking areas.

But Carollo isn’t sure anything can be done to discourage reckless e-scooter behavior, especially in Miami. “Maybe you could put something into people’s brains to reprogram them,” he says.

Speaking of programming, e-scooters are required to have software that makes them stop operating if they wander outside of District 2. Nevertheless, Diaz de la Portilla says he’s seen plenty of discarded e-scooters in his district’s Allapattah neighborhood, west of Wynwood. “They go another two or three blocks and they die,” he says. “There’s a lot of things they need to fix.”


TCover_7he micromobility business is a relatively new phenomenon, but motorized scooters are not.

In 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. filed a patent for an electric bicycle. A year later, British bicycle manufacturer Humber invented an electric tandem bike powered by lead acid batteries. The electric tandem bikes didn’t work out so well, so Humber transitioned into building gas-powered motorbikes, or motorcycles, in the early 20th century.

In 1915 a U.S. company based in Queens rolled out the Autoped, a gas-powered device whose riders stood upright. Although the self-propelled vehicle was popular, it was more expensive and less comfortable than the bicycle and, ultimately, not profitable. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the last Autoped was manufactured in 1921.

Other gas-powered scooter models, as well as electric bikes and electric motorcycles, came and went. In the late 1990s, the first electric sit-down scooters, now referred to as mopeds under Florida statute, were mass-produced. But it wasn’t until 2001 that advances in battery technology enabled inventor Dean Kamen to create the Segway, a lithium-ion powered vehicle that can travel up to 12 miles per hour.

By the late 2000s and early 2010s, light and fast electric scooters -- including models that could be folded and carried -- were being manufactured, sometimes for sale, but usually by micromobility companies so flush with investor cash that financial analysts labeled them unicorns.

Cover_8The first among U.S. e-scooter companies was Bird, a California-based startup founded in September 2017 by Travis VanderZanden, a former executive at Uber and Lyft. Within a year, Bird had raised $2 billion in venture capital and expanded to 120 cities in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Besides Miami’s District 2 and Coral Gables, Bird scooters can be rented in West Palm Beach.

Then there’s Lime, founded in January 2017 by two executives affiliated with Shanghai-based investment company Fosun International Limited. Lime was primarily a dockless bike-share company that also dabbled in self-driving automobiles until it transitioned to the e-scooter business in May 2018. Lime e-scooters are now found in cities in the United States, Europe, Israel, Australia, Singapore, and South Korea. In addition to District 2, Lime scooters can be rented in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and Orlando.

(What you won’t find are LimeBikes, which were once available in Miami, Key Biscayne, North Bay Village, Miami Shores, North Miami, and unincorporated Miami-Dade. Last month Lime ended its bike-share business.)

Spin, which was started in San Francisco by Singapore-Canadian entrepreneur Euwyn Poon in October 2016, also started as a dockless bikeshare company. In February 2018, Spin also transitioned to e-scooters. Nine months later, Ford Motor Company acquired Spin for $100 million. Spin e-scooters are now located in 62 cities across the nation, including Fort Pierce, Tampa, Tallahassee, and the University of Central Florida.

Cover_9Uber and Lyft, once primarily rideshare companies contracting self-employed drivers to pick up people, have also entered the e-scooter business. Uber’s entry came soon after it paid some $200 million to acquire an independent micromobility company called Jump in April 2018. Lyft, meanwhile, opted to starts its own e-scooter line, Lyft Scooters, in September 2016.

Jump scooters have since proliferated in 20 cities in North America (including Miami and Tampa), ten cities in Europe, and two in New Zealand. Lyft Scooters is currently limited to 13 U.S. cities, including Miami.

New e-scooter companies continue to enter the market. In March 2019, Jamaican track star Usain Bolt co-founded a scooter company based in Miami Beach named Bolt. Besides in District 2, the company has aspirations to operate in several other markets around the globe.

And then there’s Wheels, the e-scooter that is designed with a seat and resembles a bicycle. Founded in Los Angeles in January 2019 by brothers Jonathan and Joshua Viner, previously known for creating the dog-walking app Wag, Wheels has raised $400 million and is now active in seven American cities (including Miami) and Stockholm. In response to safety concerns, Wheels began including helmets with their scooters last month.

While popular with investors, e-scooters weren’t appreciated by many local governments. That’s because some companies tended to announce their presence by simply dumping the devices on public sidewalks with barely a warning to city officials.

That’s what happened in Santa Monica, one of the first cities to experience the phenomenon in the fall of 2017 and early 2018, when Bird and Lime placed hundreds of scooters on public sidewalks. While popular among some residents, many Santa Monicans despised them.

At first, Santa Monica responded by impounding truckloads of scooters and levying thousands of dollars in fines, mainly against Bird. Eventually, in September 2019, the city enacted a pilot program that permitted four e-scooter companies, including Bird and Lime, to operate. Nevertheless, at least in the early years, some e-scooter companies continued to place e-scooters in cities all over the world before they were licensed to do so. As a result, some cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have banned or are contemplating banning them. They’re illegal in Great Britain and are being increasingly regulated in France.

Lime and Bird didn’t ask the City of Miami for permission when they started leaving e-scooters on the sidewalks of Wynwood and Miami’s downtown area two years ago. In response, the Miami City Attorney’s Office sent out cease-and-desist letters in April 2018.

Since then, the Florida legislature has enacted laws legalizing micromobility e-scooters while still allowing municipalities to regulate or ban them. The latest version, passed in June 2019, allows e-scooters to operate on sidewalks, bike lanes, and streets, although municipalities can still pass regulations governing how and where they can operate.

Representatives of e-scooter companies interviewed by the BT emphasize their willingness to cooperate. Ashley Brown, Spin’s government partnerships manager for the East Coast, emphasized that unlike Lime and Bird, Spin didn’t operate in the City of Miami until it was officially licensed to do so. “We were not among the surprise guests,” insists Brown, whose company also aspires to expand beyond District 2.

Maria Buczkowski, senior public affairs manager at Spin, insists her company is ready to enact a series of measures, including the addition of parking hubs at partnering private properties. The Spin hubs, which also recharge Spin e-scooters, are already in Tampa, Chicago, Arlington, and Washington, D.C. And while riders aren’t required to end their rides at a Spin hub, they’re given “incentives” to do so. Buczkowski calls it a “hybrid” model.

But what if the City of Miami still decides to end the program?

“We hope that doesn’t happen,” Buczkowski says, adding, “We can work with the city to address any concerns they might have.”


Lately, the e-scooter sector is looking a lot less like a unicorn. Lime, Bird, Lyft, and Skip all downsized their staffs last year “as part of efforts to become profitable,” stated a January 10 Marketplace article. The cutbacks were particularly brutal at Lime, which, besides cutting out its LimeBike service, pulled out of 12 cities, including Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, and San Antonio. Lime also laid off around 100 employees, or 14 percent of its workforce. The Information, a technology news website, reported in October 2019 that Lime had lost about $300 million in the span of a year, soon after it tripled its fleet of e-scooters to 120,000.

Part of the reason for the e-scooter struggle may be its limited appeal. As the Los Angeles-based LAist reported in November 2019, based on user surveys, the largest share of e-scooter and e-bike riders in Santa Monica were males under age 34. “In fact, 34 percent of the riders surveyed reported income of more than $100,000. Roughly 27 percent earned between $50,000 and $100,000. About 17 percent reported making $30,000 or less,” the online article states. (The current Miami RFP draft also asks bidders to figure out ways to encourage low-income users and Spanish-speakers to ride e-scooters.)

But the real hindrance is the high cost of maintenance and replacement of e-scooters. In the case of Lime, such costs were higher than expected, The Information reported.

Adam Greenstein, sales director at Zagster, a fleet management company, explains that the lifespan of most e-scooters is limited, which reduces profit margins.

“When every vehicle only lasts a month or three months after you bring them on the street, ultimately that gets pretty expensive, and it also gets to be pretty harmful to the environment,” says Greenstein, whose company represents Lynx, another e-scooter firm that plans to bid its services to the City of Miami. Greenstein claims that Lynx e-scooters are built to last for more than a year.

In response to lifespan questions from the BT, a Lime spokeswoman insists that improvements have been made to their e-scooters, that “our most recent scooter model is designed to last closer to a year or longer,” and that functional parts of nonoperational scooters are “repurposed and reused.”

A Bird spokesperson didn’t reply to inquiries regarding the lifespan of its e-scooters, although a March 2019 Quartz article claims they last an average of 28.8 days in Louisville, Kentucky.

Maintenance and vandalism are issues that affect the bottom line of scooter companies, but theft is not. All shared e-scooters are equipped with GPS tracking systems, and the software renders them useless if taken without being “unlocked” first. “You don’t want to steal a scooter,” sums up Bedoya of Lime.

Also not an issue, Bedoya adds, are Lime’s operations in Florida. While acknowledging the cutbacks and departures in other cities, it’s increasing its presence in Florida, especially Miami. “Our path in the state is well-positioned toward profitability,” Bedoya says.

Which will likely be hampered, at least in Miami-Dade County, if Miami ends up killing it pilot program. José R. Gonzalez, the City of Miami Beach’s transportation director, says that, several months ago, a Miami Beach City Commission subcommittee briefly discussed the feasibility of having e-scooters in their city. Ultimately they decided to wait and see what the City of Miami does with its program. “We are keeping a close eye on that,” he says.

What if the Miami City Commission kills the pilot program? “If that were to happen, that would be unfortunate,” Bedoya says. “We would need to regroup. It would be premature at this point to say what our position would be, but even if that happens, we’re looking at the entire State of Florida.”

Esparza, Bird’s representative, indicates his company wouldn’t give up. “We would continue to let them know about the benefits of the program,” he says.

Javi Correoso, spokesman for Uber and Jump, says a cancellation of the pilot program would show that Miami’s elected officials are not serious about encouraging people to use cleaner modes of transportation. Data collected from Jump e-scooters indicate that “25 percent of rides start or end within 100 meters of a Metromover or Metrorail station.” Moreover, the data suggest that tourists aren’t the main users. “Eighty percent of the riders are locals,” Correoso insists.

Scooters aren’t the only form of “last mile” transit. In addition to bike rentals with docking systems like CitiBike and services like Uber and Lyft, a new rideshare arrived in Miami on December 30 in the form of 750 electric mopeds owned by Revel, a New York City company.

Unlike the e-scooters, Revel mopeds can’t travel on sidewalks. And because they have a top speed of 30 miles per hour, they can’t be used on expressways. However, they can be ridden on surface streets. They also can park in city-owned parking spaces not just in District 2 but throughout the City of Miami. “They’re built for two people, they each have a license plate on them, and they come with two helmets,” explains Jonas Mikolich, Revel’s general manager for the City of Miami.

On the safety front, Revel riders must be over 21 and have a valid driver’s license. They must be vetted before they can use a Revel, too. Cost: $1 to unlock, plus 29 cents per minute. There’s also a $5 membership fee, which covers the cost of screening.

“One in 12 people don’t pass that screening, and accountability is a very important piece of our business,” Mikolich says.

In fact, Revel prides itself in partnering with cities, Mikolich adds. In the case of Miami, Revel earned the right to use the city’s parking spaces after it won an RFP issued by the Miami Parking Authority.

In a Coconut Grove Grapevine blogpost last month, Tom Falco described watching a friend sign up for the Revel moped service. After filling out a form, taking a picture of himself, and submitting his driver’s license, he was sent a message that his application was being reviewed. “My friend ended up walking a block away and hopped on an orange Bolt scooter and zoomed off -- he’d already signed up for that and had been using their service,” Falco wrote.

The quick convenience of e-scooters is the reason Germaine Tirado, a 32-year-old video editor who lives in Brickell and works downtown, uses them. “If I’m around town and don’t have my bike because I’m going to a bar, or I don’t have my bike at night, I take a scooter,” Tirado explains to the BT.

You’ve ridden a scooter while intoxicated?

“Sometimes,” Tirado admits. “I have driven them drunk, I have. But I’m pretty skillful.”

 

 

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They came. They cluttered. But they have not conquered -- yet.

 

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