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Are scooters too dangerous for LA’s streets?

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In Los Angeles, riders must share lanes with cars—or face a $197 fine

A woman in a white and yellow striped jumpsuit and  a gray backpack rides a black and white electric scooter on a sidewalk past a gray building. Four scooters are parked on the street in front of her.
From September 1, 2017 to August 31, 2018, almost 250 people visited two Westside emergency rooms with scooter-related injuries, according to a UCLA study.
AFP/Getty Images

At the intersection of Beverly and Fairfax, a man approaches a Lime scooter and quickly unlocks the device with his phone.

After checking the brakes, he pushes the throttle forward, jumping gingerly off a curb and into the crosswalk. On the other side of the street he accelerates onto the sidewalk, riding right over a stenciled message: “No e-scooter riding on sidewalk—it’s the law.”

These yellow-painted warnings were installed last month by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, at the behest of City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who last week announced the creation of a new task force to enforce laws barring users from riding scooters on sidewalks.

A year ago, as Los Angeles officials ironed out a set of rules regulating the electric scooters companies had begun to deploy in city streets, Koretz called for an outright ban on the devices.

Just over 12 months later, the city’s regulations are in full effect, and Koretz tells Curbed he’s “even more certain” that the scooters have no place in Los Angeles.

“I just don’t think there’s a safe place to ride,” he says.

A yellow stencil in the shape of a circle with a line through it. Wrapped around the circle is the message: “No e-scooter riding on sidewalk—it’s the law.”
New stencils in the fifth council district warn scooter riders to use the streets—not sidewalks.
Elijah Chiland

Though many riders continue to use scooters on sidewalks, under local laws, those who don’t ride in the street are subject to a $197 ticket. Once in the roadway, scooter riders often must share lanes with cars, creating new hazards for users.

“I’d rather have the rider put at risk because they’re the ones taking the scooters voluntarily, rather than the innocent pedestrians that are not volunteering to take a scooter knowing how unsafe they may be,” Koretz says.

But just how dangerous are scooters?

In a study released earlier this year, UCLA researchers found that from September 1, 2017 to August 31, 2018, almost 250 people visited two Westside emergency rooms with scooter-related injuries. Of these, nearly 92 percent were riders and just over 8 percent were non-riders struck by a scooter.

Two patients—both riders—were injured severely enough to be admitted to intensive care. Since the study’s completion, two electric scooter users in the Los Angeles area (including one using a privately owned device) have been killed in traffic collisions.

In the first eight months of 2019, emergency responders reported 167 scooter injuries in the city of Los Angeles, according to data provided by the Los Angeles Fire Department. Of those injured, 118 were transported to the hospital and 49 were treated on site.

To put those numbers into context: During the same time period, emergency responders reported 1,096 bicycle-related injuries. Of those treated, 680 were transported to the hospital for further care.

That discrepancy may simply be a reflection of the fact that scooters are still hard to find in many Los Angeles neighborhoods.

“As much as they’ve disrupted the space, there’s probably fewer overall scooter riders,” says Eli Akira Kaufman, director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. “The issue is no one really knows how many bicyclists are out there.”

Personal injury attorney Catherine Lerer tells Curbed that, regardless of the sheer number of incidents, the injuries her clients have sustained riding scooters are “much worse” than those stemming from bicycle crashes.

“Scooters don’t behave like bicycles,” she says. “The air-filled wheels of a bike have more give... even road paint can cause an e-scooter rider to wipe out.”

Lerer says she’s spoken to at least 300 scooter injury victims since the devices began popping up on the sidewalks of Los Angeles and other cities. In October, her firm filed a class-action lawsuit against scooter companies Bird and Lime, alleging that some of these injuries—gruesomely detailed on the firm’s website—were the result of “gross negligence” on the part of the companies.

A spokesperson from Bird says the company requires riders to complete in-app safety training before riding and that its newest scooters were “built with safety in mind” and “certified to the highest level of U.S. and international safety standards.”

Lerer says the “vast majority” of scooter injuries she’s seen have been sustained in “single-vehicle accidents,” rather than collisions with cars or pedestrians. That’s backed up by data in the UCLA report indicating that 80 percent of injuries occurred when riders simply fell off their scooters.

She says scooters are inherently dangerous, but riders could benefit from infrastructure that insulates scooters from pedestrians and motor vehicle traffic.

“If you’re putting riders on the street next to cars, they need some form of protection,” Lerer says.

Nationwide, at least 10 deaths reported in the media have been linked to scooter crashes since 2017. Of those, eight were instances in which riders were struck by an automobile. In Los Angeles, most of the 240 deaths that occurred on city streets in 2018 were the result of car crashes.

“I think there’s been an over-focus on scooter safety and continued silence on how dangerous our roadways are for people walking or biking—because of cars—not scooters,” says Jessica Meaney, director of Investing in Place, an organization that advocates for safer streets.

Meaney argues that city leaders seeking to protect scooter riders should focus on making space for them on city roadways.

State laws require electric scooter users to ride in bike lanes on streets with speed limits over 25 miles per hour. But many of LA’s major traffic corridors don’t have bike lanes, and even fewer have protected lanes insulated from auto traffic.

Kaufman’s organization has lobbied for years to change that. He says there are “more similarities than differences” between the needs of scooter riders and cyclists.

“Those needs are safe, equitable streets,” he says.

Koretz agrees that less auto-centric infrastructure could benefit scooter users. But he says political realities make it difficult to change the nature of the city’s streets.

“We already built everything for cars,” he says. “It’s very hard for us to reverse. If you tried to put in a bike lane on Beverly Boulevard, for instance, there just isn’t the width for it. And if you had to put in a road diet to make room for the bike lanes, you would back up traffic so badly that people would want to have our heads on a rail.”

Meaney says if local leaders are serious about reducing residents’ dependence on cars—a goal outlined in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Green New Deal—they’ll find ways to make scooters work.

“People should be allowed to make a choice between the transportation options that work for them on that day, for that trip,” she says. “City Hall should not be making that decision for them.”