In the past year, dockless electric scooters have found a home in cities across the country. Adoption rates have been incredibly fast, with riders heralding them as a cheap and convenient way to navigate their city and curb car usage at the same time. But the scooters are controversial and, while beloved in some cities have been banned in others. In a city like New York, which has a booming public transit system with unfortunate gaps throughout its outer boroughs, scooters could become the solution to accessibility issues while simultaneously addressing congestion. But there are plenty of potential snags.
While dockless e-scooters clearly address a national pain point, they’re hotly contested by some city residents and officials. In many cases, e-scooter companies neglected to apply for permits, prompting San Francisco and other cities to order all scooter operations ceased until the appropriate permissions were granted. Meanwhile, residents are complaining about scooters discarded in the middle of sidewalks, and safety concerns like riders weaving in and out of traffic without helmets, and ignoring stop signs, red lights, and one-way street signs
The e-scooters haven’t yet made an appearance in America’s most populous city, but New York City officials are in discussions with company representatives. While they’ll need to navigate considerable regulatory and infrastructure challenges, a dockless e-scooter invasion is likely imminent. New York City is the third most traffic-congested city in the world and the second worst traffic-jammed city in the country. That congestion costs the city billions of dollars annually, not to mention environmental and quality-of-life concerns. Residents have a lot to gain by welcoming scooters, and in cities that have successfully adopted their use, they’ve proven a great way to connect the gaps in public transportation, zooming commuters from subway stops to their final destinations.
The trick will be in the deployment, something which the city is taking very seriously. As it stands now, most of NYC’s curbsides are dedicated to car parking, placing constraints on scooter parking and increasing the likelihood that they’ll wind up blocking pedestrian foot traffic on the sidewalk. But, if ample space can be allocated for scooter parking and the appropriate safety regulations are addressed, the new technology could be a boon to the city.
As it stands, New York state’s DMV classifies electric scooters as motor vehicles, meaning they must be registered, but since there’s no process in place to register e-scooters, they can’t legally be driven in the state. Electric-assisted bicycles have faced the same problem, but a state bill is changing that and could pave the way for e-scooters to follow suit. For the time being, however, it remains to be seen how e-scooters will be classified, or even whether they would be driven on sidewalks, in bike lanes, or on roads. Whatever the DMV decides will dictate the city’s next move, as it ponders the viability of the scooters and necessary safety requirements.
Cities face these challenges with every new mode of transportation. Biking was less feasible prior to the widespread designation of bike lanes. Uber and Lyft also upset the status quo. It’s taken years, but NYC is still struggling to properly regulate ride-sharing companies, most recently temporarily suspending them from adding new ride-hail cars until it can research ride-sharing effects on congestion and driver wages.
But if anyone is up to the task of successfully regulating dockless e-scooters, it’s New York City’s Department of Transportation, which is one of the largest and most sophisticated transportation governance bodies in the world. And the Senate has already introduced a bill that would make e-scooters legal throughout the state. Plus, the scooter company Bird recently held a demonstration in Brooklyn, generating community interest and enthusiasm for the new technology.
Much of New York are working together to make e-scooters a reality, making it less a question of if they will surface, but rather when it will happen — and how.