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Dockless Scooters Posing New Challenge to Road Races

18 Sep, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When a legally blind runner in Texas tripped over an electric scooter in the road and wound up with injuries, it sent a strong message to event owners everywhere: do something about the problem.

Unfortunately, few have. As the app-based dockless shareable scooters (and in many cases, bicycles) have gained popularity in cities nationwide, event owners are grappling with ways to keep the vehicles off roads being used for running events and out of the way of athletes.

While larger events, such as marathons, have closed courses, smaller events, such as fun runs, 5Ks and 10Ks, share the streets with traffic – and that includes scooters.

One of the problems, say those who have concerns, is the fact that users of the app-based vehicles tend to leave them parked along the street where they present a tripping hazard – exactly the scenario in Texas. And while some cities have laws saying scooters can’t be ridden on the sidewalk, it’s not often that police will enforce them.

Scooters require no training to ride and do not require helmets, two facts that have led to an alarming number of injuries among those who use them. USA TODAY quoted a Rutgers University study that showed the number of incidents climbed from 2,325 in 2008 to 6,957 in 2018. A staggering 66% of those treated were not wearing helmets.

But the scooters are cheap to ride – about $1 to $2 per ride, with additional fees based on the length—as in time—of the trip. (Some cities and some companies have rates that vary). And for cities that lack mass transit infrastructure, they provide an expedient way of getting around – without carbon fuel emissions.

But, say officials, that’s not enough to keep the public safe, and some venues and cities are trying to crack down on the problem. Austin is on the leading edge, having recently announced they will use geofencing to limit scooter use in parks. Scooter users attempting to ride on non-paved trails will enter GPS-controlled zones that will automatically slow the riders down. (There will also be an alert to riders that they've entered an unauthorized use area.)

The parks department says the goal is to "discourage illegal scooter use on parkland while still allowing park patrons access to facilities" and that the change is due to "growing concern over safety and inappropriate use" on parkland. The department is also in the midst of a pilot program looking at scooter and electric bicycle usage on city trails, which began in January. Before January, scooters were banned on all city parkland.

This isn't the first time geofencing has been used to regulate scooter usage. In March, the University of Texas implemented the technology to limit scooter speeds to 8 mph in specific areas of the campus, and more recently, Austin’s Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake outlawed electric scooter use. (The fact that the 10-mile path gets more than 2.6 million visits every year means it is likely there will be pushback to this ruling).

Race owners are continuing to get pushback as they try to institute regulations. However, when events share the street with traffic, it is impossible to keep app-based vehicles away – particularly when users think they are simply urging their friends on or being social.

And some events are welcoming scooters – though they don’t specify whether ‘scooter’ means the app-based variety or the collapsible kind that children often ride.

Expect this issue to receive more attention in the future, particularly as the dockless transit expands; currently, a rentable pogo stick is being tested in San Francisco.

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