The era of unregulated electric scooters could be coming to an end in Detroit.
The proliferation of dockless scooters – available to rent through smartphones for a small fee based on time used – allows for easy, speedy cruising between short distances, but city officials say new regulations are needed to prevent them from cluttering sidewalks and inconveniencing pedestrians. One council member is working on a plan to license scooter companies while city officials consider changes to regulatory guidance and launch initiatives to rein in scooters, including an evening curfew and technology that deters riders from using the sidewalk.
“There’s a concern that e-scooters are littering the sidewalks, and let’s face it, if you’re handicapped, disabled, using a walker or wheelchair, sometimes the e-scooter just blocks the sidewalk and it’s hard for senior citizens in a wheelchair to move them,” said Peter Rhodes, a policy analyst for Detroit City Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway, who is drafting an ordinance.
- MDOT, Detroit get $25M toward revamped Michigan Avenue corridor in Corktown
- High gas costs exacerbate transit challenges in Detroit
- Ban cars on Belle Isle? DNR says it’s not going to happen.
Electric scooters are largely unregulated in Detroit. Companies do not need a license to drop off a fleet in the city, and city officials have few tools to enforce ordinances that prohibit risky driving and obstruction of public spaces. Guidelines issued by the Department of Public Works in 2018 outline some basic rules, but Detroit’s Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry said additional regulation is being considered as scooter companies keep expanding.
“Their popularity has exceeded our expectations, and just like any other business operating in the city, these businesses need structure,” Berry said in an email. “Key components of this structure will be working towards safety regulations that would ensure pedestrians, vehicles, bikes and scooters can coexist well within the right of way and ensure these mobility options are fair and equitably distributed around the City of Detroit, to be accessible to all our residents.”
Mayor Mike Duggan invited scooter companies to Detroit in 2018 after seeing them launch in other major cities. There were only two active companies when the city’s guidelines were released, but even then, memorandums from the City Council’s Legislative Policy Division declared the city was “inundated” with scooters. Nobody knows for sure how many electric scooters are in Detroit today.
The number of private mobility companies in Detroit grew to six since the city’s guidelines were created – Bird, Lime, Link, Boaz, Spin and CMax. Each is asked to deploy no more than 400 scooters, but the city does not keep an official count. City officials estimate 2,000 scooters are in Detroit during the summer based on numbers voluntarily provided by scooter companies.
“I believe there’s a proliferation of these e-scooters and I don’t even know how we’re regulating them,” Whitfield-Calloway said. “I would like to see them licensed and some fines issued if they are violating our ordinances, not to be punitive, but to make sure they are compliant with the ordinances. I don’t want to shut them down at all, but we have to put some kind of controls in place.”
One thing is clear: The vast majority of electric scooters are concentrated in the city’s Central Business District, which contains popular entertainment and nightlife destinations bounded by the Lodge Freeway, Interstate 75 and Interstate 375.
Most scooters never cross Mack Avenue and remain south of Midtown. Some companies use geofencing technology to prevent riders from going into Detroit neighborhoods. Link’s mobile app shows scooters can’t be used north of Grand Boulevard and Spin scooters are only available in a vertical slice of Detroit, extending from downtown to the Davison Freeway.
Tim Slusser, chief of mobility innovation for Detroit, said the city should employ better regulations to cap the number of scooters downtown and it should encourage their use in neighborhoods. Slusser said some cities have charged a fee for rides in heavy traffic areas to incentivize companies to put more scooters in less developed areas.
“From my perspective, I think we do need some sort of formal process,” Slusser said. “There’s a lot of operators in the downtown areas and not a whole lot of activity outside of downtown. Our personal preference is to try and create more opportunities for more Detroiters, and that means trying to move these scooters further out into the neighborhoods to create more options. It’d be great if somebody who lives deep in the neighborhoods had an option to take a scooter from a local community center to a nearby bus stop – that could take maybe a five minute ride versus a 25-minute walk.”
Scooters are considered “electric skateboards with handlebars” under the Michigan Vehicle Code, which was updated in 2018. State law requires that scooters yield to pedestrians. It prevents riders under 12 from using scooters on public streets, requires people under 19 to wear a helmet while riding and prohibits multiple people from riding one scooter at the same time. The law also allows local governments to set their own rules.
Detroit riders can face misdemeanor charges – a $500 fine or 90 days in jail – for parking scooters in prohibited areas like bike lanes, narrow sidewalks and at building entrances. Scooter companies can also face penalties if the city identifies “large numbers or particular patterns of such violations” associated with their scooters, according to the DPW guidance policy.
David Whitaker, director of the council’s Legislative Policy Division, said enforcement of existing ordinances related to public nuisances is challenging. Scooters are grab and go by design, and users often abandon them in high-traffic areas at the end of their ride. Unless they’re caught in the act, riders often evade penalties.
“(Electric scooters) can go anywhere, they can occupy a lot of different spaces that a four-wheel vehicle can’t,” Whitaker said. “Trying to regulate that, and making sure the operator is complying with the regulation, is very difficult.”
A memorandum released last week by LPD notes scooter guidelines are being modified by the city and that Detroit’s Law Department is working on an ordinance to regulate electric scooters at the request of Council President Mary Sheffield, who initially requested a review of the city’s policy in 2018.
Whitfield-Calloway, who represents District 2 on the city’s north side, told BridgeDetroit she plans to meet with Sheffield, who could not be reached for comment, to see how their plans align.
Whitfield-Calloway said under her proposal, companies would be required to obtain a license through the Buildings, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED) and could have their license pulled based on complaints from residents. Language for the ordinance is still being worked on, but the proposal could come before the City Council by the end of the year.
LeAaron Foley, a director of government and community relations for Lime in the midwest, said more regulation isn’t frowned upon. Lime embraces a clear set of rules for all companies to follow, Foley said, especially if it gives Detroit more authority to hold other companies accountable.
“We are thrilled about the city taking the steps necessary to create a permanent long-term micro mobility program for Detroit,” Foley said. “That’s the goal that we’re looking for. We hope that when the City Council returns after their August recess, they’ll take action on the (proposed) ordinance and we’ll have a program that has some good rules to increase safety and increase the competitiveness of the city.”
Zach Williams, director of policy for Link in the U.S. and Canada, said scooter companies have been consulted by city officials who are working on new regulations. Link welcomes “thoughtful management,” he said, to support their goals of providing options to get folks out of cars.
“The open permit system is more rare at this point,” Williams said. “I’m sure when Detroit started its program in 2018 that was much more common, but cities that have been open for a long time are now moving toward more confined regulatory landscapes. That’s pretty typical.
“The reality is that the vast majority of Detroit’s residents may get on a scooter once, may never get on a scooter, and so it’s really important that we don’t run afoul of those folks,” he added. “When programs start to impede the non-users, that’s when you see a lot of friction with the community and then these programs get shackles put on them, which, in turn, limits the ability to do things to do carbon offsets and that kind of stuff.”
Foley described Lime as a “legacy provider” that’s worked with Detroit since 2018. He said Lime wants all companies held to the same standard.
“There are a lot of operators in Detroit,” Foley said. “Some have high quality and some have not so high quality. The city should have the right to be able to choose which operators have done the best and have demonstrated a strong safety record and a strong record of respect for the city over the last few years.”
Lime entered into an agreement with Grand Rapids this year to be the only provider of electric scooters in the West Michigan city. The partnership prompted Lime to offer a 30% discount for trips in neighborhoods outside the city’s downtown.
Chicago started licensing scooter companies this year and expects to earn $4.4 million through permitting fees. The city is also requiring scooter operators to use technology that prevents use on sidewalks meant for pedestrians. Denver banned scooters on city sidewalks and secured licensing agreements with Bird and Lime which help the city track data that Detroit does not have access to.
“We don’t have any data and that’s my request,” Whitfield-Calloway said. “I want to know how we’re monitoring, if we are issuing any fines, how many and which companies.”
Rhodes said the proposed ordinance would offer licenses for free but charge a small fee for each scooter in Detroit.
Licenses would expire each year on March 31 and be subject to review by BSEED, which would be responsible for holding hearings to determine whether the business licenses should be renewed. Rhodes said BSEED could also decide to cut the number of scooters each company can deploy in Detroit.
“That would probably prompt every scooter company to do what they’re supposed to do,” Rhodes said. “Go retrieve the scooters, make sure they’re not blocking the sidewalk, educate their customers not to block the sidewalks, and we might even get some scooter parking areas that would eliminate this problem.”
‘It’s not ideal’
The expansion of scooters is also driving efforts to improve non-motorized transportation routes through Detroit. The city is using millions of dollars in federal COVID relief funds to build greenways and improve access for people who don’t wish to drive.
Ramses Dukes, chief of staff for Whitfield-Calloway, said revenue from regulatory fines could help the city invest in better bike lanes, designated scooter parking areas and other infrastructure to make scooters safer to use. However, Dukes said “the infrastructure should come before the expansion.”
Foley said Lime is encouraging Detroit to build out its bike lane network, as it’s the best way to keep scooters off the sidewalk, but Foley believes fees collected from scooter companies won’t create enough funding on its own.
“People tend to ride on sidewalks when they don’t feel safe in the street,” Foley said. “The city must be fully committed to funding its public works programs and capital improvements that include bike lanes. (Scooter companies) are all comfortable with paying our fair share in paying for access to the right of way, but it won’t be sufficient enough to build out a city’s infrastructure network.”
Keeping scooters off the sidewalk could become easier with new technology. Slusser said his office is working with scooter operators to pilot sensors that can determine when a scooter is on the street. Bird and Lime are reportedly developing cameras and machine learning to detect when users are riding on the sidewalk, which triggers an alarm or remotely slows down the scooter.
Foley said Lime will deploy scooters in Detroit next spring that alert riders every five seconds to get off the sidewalk or risk being fined by the company.
Williams said Link is launching similar “pedestrian defense” technology on its scooters in Chicago. But he said it’s important for city planners to acknowledge that road conditions could force riders off the streets in places where it’s unsafe for scooters to drive alongside cars.
“A one-size-fits-all approach is probably not appropriate, and aggressive sidewalk riding deterrence is best when used thoughtfully,” he said.
Scooter use is already restricted or subject to reduced speeds in several locations around the city – including the RiverWalk, Greektown and downtown parks – using geofencing technology that draws digital boundaries around no-go areas.
Foley said geofencing technology has prevented Lime scooters from ending up in the Detroit River, which has been a concern for city officials. A viral video in 2019 depicting people throwing Spin scooters into the river launched a Detroit Police Department investigation.
Geofencing has also restricted the use of some scooters in neighborhoods on Detroit’s eastside and westside. Williams said Link’s restrictions are generally due to labor constraints.
“Typically when we do shrink a service area, it’s almost always just because we need to make sure that we’re able to service the fleet effectively,” Williams said. “Detroit is a pretty huge city. You wind up running into problems when you see scooters that hit a parking spot and then sit there for three or four days; that tends to be the scooter that generates complaints.”
Foley said Lime supports designating parking areas to prevent scooting from littering city streets. Discarding scooters wherever the rider gets off will soon become “a thing of the past when it comes to downtowns,” he said.
Collisions between scooter riders and pedestrians is another problem Detroit officials have struggled to address. A summer curfew rolled out this year to prevent nighttime crashes in crowded areas.
The Detroit Police Department’s evening curfew renders electric scooters unusable between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights in Detroit’s Central Business District. Slusser said it hasn’t been decided whether the summer curfew will continue next year, or when it will end in 2022.
“I would say it’s everyone’s preference not to have it, but if it’s helping, certainly (continuing the curfew) is something that we would consider here in the city,” Slusser said.
Slusser said the city doesn’t have a way to track scooter crashes but believes the temporary summer curfew has been successful in reducing them. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated injuries for standup scooters nationwide increased from 32,708 in 2017 to 54,409 in 2019. Data isn’t available for more recent years.
“We had some anecdotal evidence from the community complaining about riders in areas that were difficult to see and we had some issues with crowd control in downtown areas,” Slusser said. “Those were some of the factors that led to making the decision to implement the curfew. As far as I know, we certainly have less complaints now.”
Scooter operators cooperated with the temporary curfew, remotely shutting down their fleets during the restricted hours. But the curfew is unpopular among the companies who spoke with BridgeDetroit.
“To put it bluntly, it’s not ideal,” Williams said.
Foley said the curfew has had a negative impact on riders who want to get around downtown without a car. He said Lime would like to see the curfew lifted.
“Scooters are part of the transportation network and as we enhance the transportation system you can’t just cut off parts of it because there have been incidents,” Foley said. “There are incidents on public buses, and that’s not a good reason to (shut down) a bus, because people rely on it.”
‘Accessible to all’
City officials who spoke with BridgeDetroit said a major goal is to ensure residents have multiple options to get around.
The Office of Mobility Innovation hosted an event this summer for Detroiters to test e-scooters in a safe environment. The city advertises discounts for low-income residents who qualify for state or federal assistance. Detroit also partnered with Henry Ford Health and other sponsors to launch MoGo, a nonprofit bikeshare group, in 2017.
“Mayor Duggan has been a proponent of scooters since the beginning,” Slusser said. “He’s always wanted to be very scooter-friendly, as long as it meant the public is safe. That’s going to continue to be our guiding principle, not just with scooters, but all of these new mobility options.”
The number of American cities with at least one bikeshare or electric scooter program rose 30% between 2020 and 2021, according to the North American Bikeshare and Scootershare Association. A new report released in August found riders who are white and riders making more than $100,000 are over-represented compared to the demographics of those cities.
Williams, the Link policy director, said internal data shows scooter users are becoming more diverse. Industry surveys from 2018 and 2019 found the majority of riders were white men in their 20s and 30s, but this is changing.
Most electric scooters travel an average distance of 1.3 miles and use them twice per day, according to the NABSA report.
Dukes said alternative modes of transportation must be accessible to all Detroiters, not just those who live and play downtown.
“This could be used for students, this could be used for folks who are wanting to navigate Palmer Park and Rouge Park, but I think (scooter companies) are focusing merely on downtown because of the demand,” Dukes said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t demand in other parts of the city as well.”