To some of their harshest critics, electric scooters are nuisance death machines that send scores of people to the hospital and pile up in parks when people aren't using them. They have a nasty reputation to shake, and the scorn directed at them could delay the launch of a scooter sharing system in Rochester.
In May, City Council members approved an agreement with Zagster, the company that runs Rochester's popular bike share program, to establish and run a similar system for e-scooters, electric motor-powered versions of the two-wheeled planks with handlebars that many of us had as kids.
But the whole arrangement depends on a change to state law, which currently doesn't allow for electric scooter use — or electric-assist bike use, for that matter — on streets or sidewalks. The state Assembly and Senate passed legislation that would make the needed fixes, but Governor Andrew Cuomo hasn't yet signed it. And nobody's sure if he will.
The lawmakers aren't sure which way Cuomo is leaning, says Assembly member Harry Bronson, one of the legislation's cosponsors. Representatives from the e-scooter industry have said they're willing to work through changes if the governor has concerns or objections, Bronson says.
In June, Crain's New York Business reported on remarks the governor made about e-scooters and electric-assist bikes. The article quotes Cuomo as saying the legislation is "going to, I think, need more review and discussion."
Among the concerns he specified, according to Crain's: riders using e-bikes on sidewalks and whether the legislation should require users to wear a helmet.
Still, Rochester will likely see electric scooters on its streets at some point in the near future; whether it's within the year or sometime over the next few years is the question. City Council member Mitch Gruber, who chairs the Parks and Public Works Committee, says the scooters are "part of a larger conversation about transportation, and it's not going away." While City leaders wait on the state, Gruber has put together a group to think through what sort of laws Rochester needs for the changing mobility landscape, which includes electric bikes and scooters as well as traditional bicycles. The group includes local transportation advocates, representatives from Healthi Kids and the Center for Disability Rights, and city officials.
"In my opinion, as a fairly new Council member, this is an opportunity to re-engage the communication around complete streets and around sharing the road safely," Gruber says.
The group started off with some proposed changes to city law submitted to Council by Mayor Lovely Warren; Council put the legislation on hold in June. Under those additions, e-scooters and electric-assist bikes would be treated the same way city laws current treat bicycles. For example, riders would be required to use scooters and bicycles — traditional as well as electric — in bike lanes when available and safe, says a memo from the mayor.
The legislation also proposes some other needed transportation law fixes, including a direct ban on vehicles parking in bike lanes, Gruber says. If Cuomo doesn't sign the e-scooter bill in the next month or so, Gruber says he'll likely introduce the ban on parking in bike lanes and some other bike-oriented tweaks to the law on their own so that they can get on the books.
Electric scooters can be divisive. They have a lot of fans and supporters, who say that the machines provide simple, low-cost transportation that's particularly well-suited for short, zippy trips around cities.
Scooter naysayers aren't wrong in their criticisms, either. People have been hurt and even killed using the scooters, either through their own inexperience and carelessness or by actions of drivers. Some cities have horror stories of e-scooters piling up in parks and public thoroughfares.
Gruber says that Rochester is taking an important step to avoid the nuisance of abandoned scooters accumulating in public spaces. It's only allowing in one operator, Zagster, and has capped the number of scooters it can bring in, he says. Zagster has been good about responding when problems develop with its Pace bike share program, including bikes left in places they shouldn't be, he says.
In many communities, one of the biggest debates has been around whether e-scooters and electric bikes have a place on sidewalks or whether they belong exclusively in the street. Many of the cities, though not all of them, legally require that users ride the scooters on streets. But users still ride them on the sidewalks and in the larger cities that's created conflict, and quite a few collisions between scooter users and pedestrians.
E-scooters and electric-assist bikes are fairly speedy, especially for sidewalk traffic. The pending state law would allow e-scooters as long as they have a top speed of less than 20 mph and electric-assist bikes as long as the motor cuts out at 20 miles an hour. It's very possible to pedal a bike, without the assistance of any motor, at more than 20 mph. And the law would require users to ride both e-scooters and electric-assist bikes on the road, unless local law allows otherwise.
That's where city laws would come into play. The rules proposed by Mayor Warren would allow for electric scooter and electric bike use on city sidewalks outside of the "central traffic district," an area roughly delineated by the I-490, the Inner Loop. and North and South Union Street. But there's a big exception: When there's a bike lane, cycle track, or some other designated bicycle pathway, bike and scooter users would be required to ride in them.
"Their point is obviously to get scooters and bikes off sidewalks as much as possible, but they realize folks are uncomfortable riding in streets without dedicated infrastructure," says Jesse Peers, cycling coordinator for Reconnect Rochester, an advocacy group that champions walking, biking, transit, and other forms of transportation beyond the personal automobile. Reconnect Rochester representatives and staff, including Peers, have been part of the committee Gruber assembled.
Ultimately, Rochester's e-scooter discussions reflect broader conversations happening in and around cities across the US. The question at the root of it all is how to "safely and efficiently work other modes of transportation," such as e-scooters, electric-assist bikes, and traditional bikes, into roadways that for decades have been used by motor vehicles almost exclusively, says Arian Horbovetz, a member of the committee and the author of the Urban Phoenix, an urbanism-focused blog.
Pedestrian safety is important to consider in developing new "micro-mobility" systems like bike and scooter shares, he says. But the discussions need to acknowledge that cars are the overarching safety threat, not just to pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter riders, but to other drivers as well. And that's why it's good for the city to have these discussions before new mobility options like e-scooters become a presence on Rochester's streets, not after, he says.
"We want to make sure we get this right, or as right as we can, before they get rolled out," Horbovetz says.