TAMPA — Tampa Bay so far has dodged one of the biggest crazes to sweep the nation in the past year. But it won't be long before electric scooters are here, too, zipping people across town and potentially changing how they think about transportation.
Electric, dockless scooters invaded dozens of cities in 2018 — sometimes overnight and with little-to-no warning.
They quickly elicited strong reactions. Some praised the sharable scooters as the perfect option for trips that are too far to comfortably walk, but too short to merit driving. Others deemed them a fad, a nuisance at best and a safety threat at worst.
But while other cities have spent much of 2018 determining if and how to allow scooters into their downtowns, much of Florida has stayed out of the mix. That's because many local governments interpreted current Florida law as prohibiting companies like Lime and Bird from entering their markets unless an ordinance exists.
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Fort Lauderdale is the only Florida city to fully embrace scooters so far. A pilot program is underway in Coral Gables and Miami is planning one.
Tampa Bay could see its first electric scooters in April when Tampa launches its pilot program. The city will dispatch as many as 1,800 scooters in a 12-square-mile area around downtown and south of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Hillsborough County is researching a potential pilot, but staff has not released any details. Meanwhile, St. Petersburg is waiting to see what statewide regulations might pass this year, though Mayor Rick Kriseman has spoken positively about the impact scooters could have.
"In terms of providing our citizens and visitors more options, it’s something we should embrace," St. Petersburg Transportation Director Evan Mory said. "But the practical concerns about how they mix with all the other modes and what decisions the state will make becomes a little challenging."
While politicians debate when and how to bring scooters to the Sunshine State, much can be learned from what other municipalities have done.
"It all happened so fast," said Chris Spencer, with the Greensboro, N.C., Department of Transportation. "If you can get out in front of it, that’s definitely the way to go."
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The concept of sharable, electric scooters that people can rent using their smart phone debuted in many cities last year.
Bird and Lime, along with smaller businesses, spread rapidly through places like San Francisco, Washington D.C., Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., Austin, Seattle, Nashville, Indianapolis, Atlanta and Cincinnati.
The companies all use the same concept: provide dockless scooters that travel 8-15 mph — no faster than the average speed of a bicycle — and allow people to rent them using a smartphone app. The scooters are immobile until then and will cut power if the user tries to ride them out of their operating zones.
Perhaps the biggest appeal — and drawback — is that people can pick them up and deposit them wherever they choose. This makes riding to work or a restaurant more convenient than a shared bike that has to be returned to a designated rack. Simply ride the scooter to your location and park it on the sidewalk out front.
But along with that convenience comes a problem: People have been reckless about where they park. Some refuse to use the kickstand and drop the scooters when they’re done, blocking sidewalks, disability access ramps and parking garage entrances.
But by many measures, the concept has proven to be a success.
Bird and Lime are valued at more than $1 billion each. Lime now operates on five continents. The company, which also includes bike and car shares, topped more than 26 million trips worldwide. About 20 million of those rides occurred between July and December 2018.
Greensboro, a city of about 280,000 people, logged about 40,000 rides on Lime and Bird scooters in just a few months.
Other cities measured numbers of Lime riders — more than 85,000 in Atlanta in the second half of 2018, for example. Austin counted 275,000 riders last year and Los Angeles 435,000.
The company says the average age of its scooter users is 32.
Google Maps now includes scooters as an option when using the app to plan a trip. Want to go from one side of a city to the other? Google might suggest you take a bus for the first few miles, then pick up a scooter for the last stretch between the transit station and a nearby restaurant or work place.
"It's putting a focus on the quality of streets for people … and how we need facilities designed for bikes and scooters and people and less for fast-moving cars," Atlanta planning commissioner Tim Keane said. "It's a very positive phenomenon."
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It's not all quick trips and easy rides, though.
Scooters drew sharp criticism almost immediately, with riders zipping into traffic, nearly toppling pedestrians, parking haphazardly, blocking sidewalks and right of ways.
Injuries have ranged from skinned knees to broken wrists, and often require hospital visits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is launching a study to investigate scooter-related crashes and how they could be prevented.
The craze has also inspired vandalism. The internet is full of pictures and videos of people taking out their anger on scooters, snapping them in half, lighting them on fire, throwing them off of buildings.
On Bird Graveyard, an Instagram account, nearly 78,000 followers scroll through 259 posts depicting broken and burning scooters. One video shows a scooter crowd surfacing through a mosh pit at a metal concert before its implied demise.
But Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who filed legislation to open the state up to scooters, said new transportation modes always face criticism.
"The public hated the automobile when it first came out, too," Brandes said. "They cursed airplanes upon their early adoption. Cities had huge concerns with Uber and Lyft. But ultimately we come to realize they play an important role in mobility and we accept that."
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Cities are learning from each other as they compose guidelines for the new transportation trend.
After the companies crashed onto main streets without warning, many local governments put temporary bans in place while they drafted regulations. A permit structure seems the most popular approach to instilling some order, though fees and restrictions vary wildly between jurisdictions.
In Greensboro, for example, each company must pay $500 to operate locally, and dish out an extra $50 per scooter it deploys. Atlanta requires $12,000 for a company to operate its first 500 scooters, and $50 for every one after that.
For Tampa's proposed pilot, the city is asking companies to pay $20,000 to deploy up to 600 scooters. Each of those scooters is charged $1 a day, or $365 for the year.
While no data is yet available on the subject, transportation experts speculate that scooters could lead to higher transit use.
Because bus and train stops are often spaced relatively far apart, transit has struggled with the "first-mile, last-mile problem" of how to get people from their stop to their destination efficiently and affordably.
"They're not just for fun, they're actually functional," Lime Florida spokeswoman Vivian Myrtetus said. "People are getting out of their cars and using (scooters) for an actual mode of transportation. It's not just a toy."
A woman picks up a scooter near her rail stop and rides it to a work meeting a dozen blocks away for about $5. Friends take transit to a concert or sporting event, knowing they can use scooters to jump around town afterward.
Uses like that open transit systems to "choice riders" — people who have cars but decide to use public transportation instead.
"It gives the transit a broader reach for a lot of people," Keane said. "It's really expanding transit areas and has huge potential there."
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But state legislation or a local ordinance first needs to pass before any of this — good, bad and unknown — can happen in Tampa Bay.
Currently, scooters can operate in the Sunshine State only where a city or county passes an ordinance. An even then, they are allowed only on sidewalks, not in streets or bike paths.
Brandes and State Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, have filed bills to open up the state to scooters.
"We want to clarify that these devices are allowed to be used on bike paths, sidewalks and anywhere typically where a bike can be ridden," Brandes said.
Regulation would be "exclusively controlled by state and federal law," under the legislation. Cities and counties could pass their own ordinances, but they could not be in conflict with state law and could not be more restrictive than the local rules for bicycles.
That means a city like St. Petersburg could not ban scooters from operating on its busy sidewalks unless it also extended that rule to bikes.
Scooter riders also would have the same rights as cyclists under the proposed law. No driver's license would be required, though the companies would have to maintain commercial liability insurance.
People would have to park their scooters in a way "that does not upend the normal movement of pedestrian traffic."
In addition, the law would extend to similar shared modes of transportation that could arise in the future.
"We're trying to be broad in the definitions because this is a very quickly evolving landscape," Brandes said. "It's a simple, straightforward regulatory structure that is easy for cities to understand."
Senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.