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Are Connecticut’s Streets Safe Enough for e-Scooters?

Several cities across the state are considering pilot scooter programs. Ensuring the safe use of micromobile vehicles requires analysis of driver behaviors, road infrastructure and local regulation.

(TNS) — Electric scooters in the United States were nowhere, and then they were everywhere all at once.

Backed by venture capital money, dockless electric scooter share programs began popping up in city after city throughout 2017 and 2018, introducing a new form of transportation to urban life.

Now as e-scooters make their way from the country's largest metropolitan centers to the cities and towns of Connecticut and more towns move to allow e-scooters on their streets — and more reports of injury or death while using one are making the news — lawmakers and residents are asking: How do we make it safe?

It turns out that safety in micromobility is complicated and made up of dozens of individual factors — like driver behavior, road infrastructure and local regulation.

"Safety is a multi-dimensional issue, but it's really incumbent upon us to manage the factors and the variables that we can control," said Paul Steely White, public affairs director at the e-scooter company Superpedestrian.

E-scooter adoption is still in its early phases in Connecticut. Though some people across the state may own electric scooters, a small group of cities and towns have launched share programs through several different companies. Hartford, Bridgeport, Fairfield and Ansonia all currently run scooter shares. Other towns like New Milford have experimented with e-scooter initiatives in the past.

And even more e-scooter users could be on the way, depending on municipal policy making. Stamford — the state's second-largest and fastest-growing city — could undo a 17-year-old ban on scooters that city officials say is not enforced — a ban that does not prevent the city from debating welcoming in e-scooter shares.

During preliminary conversations about Stamford's potential embrace of micromobility, safety emerged as one of the top concerns among city Representatives in terms of the scooter riders, road users and vulnerable populations.

Hartford was one of the state's earliest adopters of micromobility, initially in contract with the transportation company Lime. But that partnership was phased out two years ago, and Hartford connected with Superpedestrian, with its fleet of 50, as its second provider.

Though scooter share companies cannot control everything that happens on the road, they've increasingly moved to limit what they can. Companies can limit the areas within a city where their e-scooters are operable, a practice called geofencing. Similarly, speed ceilings can help reduce how fast a user goes.

Steely White said Superpedestrian does both in Hartford and focuses on maintenance. Individual operators cannot ensure that a city has protected bike lanes — which can drastically cut down on the number of injuries among bikers and scooter users — but operators can "keep the fleet tidy" and "educate riders on the rules of the road," he said.

Geofencing and speed ceilings are among the features that led Fairfield, one of the state's newest e-scooter adopters, to launch a one-year pilot program with the company Bird. City Community and Economic Development Director Mark Barnhart said the e-scooters can only operate south of Interstate 95 between the train station and the beach.

The scooters can also only drive at a maximum of 15 miles per hour, but even that comes with a caveat: The scooters must go slower in the downtown district where there are more cars and more pedestrians.

"We just wanted to give folks a little bit more time to react to the obstacles, especially as people might not be familiar with the operation of those e-scooters," he said.

The program has been in place for just over a month, but Barnhart said he believes uptake thus far has been strong. Internal data indicates that more than 4,000 e-scooter rides have happened in Fairfield among about 1,100 unique riders. Strong ridership also means there have been some "growing pains," especially when it comes to safety, he said.

Most residents' complaints center around "people that are riding recklessly" and "improperly parked scooters," which can block the sidewalk for other pedestrians. In terms of the people driving recklessly, Barnhart said he hopes to "get the bad apples out of the system" through Bird's own tracking system.

"We are able to track the last person" who uses the scooter, he said. "We can identify that individual, issue a warning — and then the subsequent, they can't rent a scooter anymore, so they'll be booted off the platform."

Though electric scooters and scooter shares have been popular for about five years, the data on them is still scarce, mainly because the line between privately owned scooters and dockless, shared scooters can be blurry.

However, one thing is clear enough: Their presence is steadily growing. Data from the federal Department of Transportation Statistics show that, as of 2021, scooter share systems served 110 cities across the country, up from 64 in 2018.

During that same era, the number of reported scooter injuries also increased significantly. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that scooter-related accidents were linked to about 7,700 emergency room visits in 2017. By 2020, the number jumped to 25,400.

In Bridgeport recently, at least two scooter-related accidents resulted in major injuries. A child riding an electric scooter on a sidewalk sustained serious injuries after losing control and slamming into a metal pole. A month later, a pickup truck hit two teenagers riding on a motorized scooter, killing one boy and injuring the other.

Eric Jackson, the executive director of the Connecticut Transportation Institute at the University of Connecticut, which oversees the state's Crash Data Repository, said it's difficult to get an idea of how many accidents involve scooters statewide because there's no category capturing data specifically on the vehicles.

The crashes, he said, seem like an "abnormality as of now, just due to increased risk-taking behavior post COVID.

"I think these might just be a symptom of the bad driver behavior we are seeing all over the place now and less on scooter or moped use," Jackson said.

Many scooter users and micromobility advocates see bad driver behavior as one root of the problem rather than unruly riders. Though electric scooters may be getting into crashes, few in the sustainable transportation community said they see them as a primary threat.

"People walking are not causing pedestrian deaths and crashes," Gannon Long, a Hartford resident and activist, said. "People biking are not causing pedestrian bike deaths and crashes. People who are driving cars are the ones who are crashing into pedestrians and killing them."

(c)2022 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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