Tripped up: Mixed reviews for Charlottesville’s scooter experiment

Electric scooters: handy transit alternative or public nuisance? Photo: Eze Amos Electric scooters: handy transit alternative or public nuisance? Photo: Eze Amos

They appeared overnight the first Monday in December of 2018, long-necked robots on wheels, lurking in neat rows of three or four on street corners all over town.

Within a few days, the motorized scooters, which don’t have designated docking stations, were everywhere, and wherever.

Now, about five months in to the City of Charlottesville’s electric scooter pilot program with two different companies (Lime and Bird), opinions about the zippy modes of transportation are mixed.

For some, the scooters provide a little perplexing levity. Poet Raven Mack says that they’re always popping up at the bottom of a hill near his Hogwaller home. “[There’s] a steady supply of two to 12 that ebbs and flows, some of which have laid knocked over in the bushes for weeks at a time,” he says. “My children and I joke that they just live there, and breed, and the [kid scooters] run off to have their own lives somewhere else in town.”

The Instagram account @wheresmyscooter is devoted to locally-shot pictures of scooters “where they don’t belong”: discarded on train tracks, broken into pieces on dimly lit sidewalks, stuffed in trash cans.

But others have found the Birds and Limes a handy new means of transport. Ross Schiller, a teacher who also works at a restaurant on the Downtown Mall, recently forgot his glasses in his car before working a restaurant shift. He used a scooter to get to his car—which he has to park pretty far from the mall—and back to the restaurant in just a few minutes, without breaking a sweat or missing a moment of his serving shift.

Once you download the Lime or Bird app, you can use it to locate a nearby scooter. Scan the QR code to “unlock” it for $1, and ride for 15 cents a minute. When you’ve arrived at your destination, use the app to “lock” the scooter and leave it for the next rider.

At night, the scooters are collected and recharged, then put back out in the morning.

A few miles scooter ride costs a few dollars, so it’s cheaper than taking a Lyft or an Uber, and it’s faster than walking. There’s little to no wait time, not to mention more flexibility, so scooting can be more convenient than taking a bus.

While it’s unclear how many people are using the scooters (Lime says it won’t have numbers until the scooters have been in town for a year, and Bird didn’t respond to a request for info), it seems that almost everyone has an opinion.

“I find them a great alternative to public transportation, especially when you don’t want to or can’t drive,” says Ike Anderson, membership coordinator and dance instructor at the Music Resource Center, who says he rides Lime scooters often.

But the account administrator of @wheresmyscooter, who asked to remain anonymous, is opposed to the scooters for a number of reasons, namely that “they allow those with more disposable income to have access to yet another transit service that is inherently exclusionary.”

“We should all be supporting more robust publicly funded transit that serves working-class people and for those without access to transit of their own,” the administrator says. And indeed, scooter usage begins with a smart phone which, let’s face it, is still a luxury item.

Alan Goffinski, director of The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, says he understands folks’ concerns about the scooters but welcomes any alternative to a car. “To those who are concerned with them littering the landscape, I say, ‘What about cars’? We devote half the land in any given city to parking space,” he says.

Others are alarmed by personal safety issues, such as people riding scooters on the sidewalks and the Downtown Mall (which isn’t actually allowed), texting while scooting, scooting without a helmet, or scooting while drunk. And increasingly, people are voicing concern over scooters obstructing sidewalks for those who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids to get around.

Docking stations or designated scooter parking areas might help, and a city-wide survey, which collected a couple thousand responses and closed May 1, may suggest more solutions. The pilot program ends July 31, so city councilors must decide before then whether the scooters stay or get the boot. But for now, the jury’s still out.


Scooter tutor

The city has a web page dedicated to scooter regulations and safety suggestions, but we’re left wondering if riders are actually aware of the rules. Here are the basics:

  • Scooters must be ridden on streets, not on sidewalks or trails (or the Downtown Mall), and riders have to abide by the same laws as motor vehicle drivers in terms of posted traffic regulations, signs, and signals.
  • When parking your scooter, do not block travel lanes, driveways, fire hydrants, walkways, sidewalk curb ramps, pedestrian call buttons, bus stops, or entrances to buildings (including ramp and walkway railings and ADA door push buttons).
  • For crying out loud, don’t text and scoot, or drink and scoot. And wear a helmet—that’s a must if you’re under 14, and a should for everyone else.