TAMPA — Scooters are harder to come by these days, but the shared rentals are still available amidst coronavirus concerns.
At least for now.
Four companies — Bird, Lime, Jump and Spin — launched in Tampa almost a year ago. Together, they provided more than a million trips since May 24.
The plan was to wrap up the pilot program later this month and decide if and how to make the shared transportation option downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods permanent. But then came coronavirus.
As the virus spread and case counts rose nationwide, the two largest global operators, Lime and Bird, drastically reduced their fleets. Both companies stopped operating in Tampa last month, said Tampa’s mobility department director Vik Bhide. Jump and Spin are still here, but are putting fewer scooters out on the streets.
Ridership is dropping. December, January and February saw an average of about 83,000 trips per month. In March, that number sank to about 52,000. Bhide expects it to decline further in April.
Bhide said the city has extended its pilot program another 12 months to allow time for the pandemic to pass and things to return to normal, or close to it.
“Tampa has been a success story for many of the providers. Our average trip length is over a mile,” Bhide said, which supports the idea that scooters are used for commutes and not just entertainment.
Bhide said scooters also provide a social-distancing option for healthcare and other essential workers who need to get to work but don’t have a car.
“There’s got to be some options, outside of a personal vehicle,” Bhide said. “Scooter and bike share became a part of those logical options.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the city is still planning on moving forward with its scooter pilot program, which was supposed to launch this spring. Kriseman said there are still some steps to meet before they hit the streets, including reaching an agreement with scooter companies.
But in Hillsborough County, some leaders brought up concerns Monday over whether the companies should continue to operate here at all, even on a more limited scale.
School board chairwoman Melissa Snively told fellow Hillsborough leaders that e-scooters and bike shares appear to be a conduit for infections and other cities had banned them.
“If there are people that are not properly wiping down those mobility devices, then they could be potentially spreading,” Snively said Monday.
Miami-Dade County temporarily banned rentable e-scooters and other means of common-use transportation including mopeds and bicycles on March 18, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Orange County followed.
In fact, Tampa is the only Florida city that scooter company Spin is still operating in, said Nabil Syed, Spin regional general manger in the South.
“Tampa has stood out,” Syed said. “The city has been supportive of our efforts and we’ve been able to adjust operations to make it work for both of us ... and also very specifically serve the needs of the community in a time like this.”
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Syed said Spin has seen an increase in rides starting and stopping at what he calls essential locations like grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals.
The scooter provider, which is part of Ford Motor Company, started offering free 30-minute rentals and helmets to healthcare workers in Tampa last week as part of its Everyday Heroes program. The goal was to make sure essential workers have access to transportation options that allow social distancing.
“We are so grateful to Spin for stepping up and supporting our community by providing free rides for all healthcare workers,” Tampa City Council chairman Luis Viera said in a statement last week. “We are looking to do everything we can to support these individuals right now, and safe and affordable transportation to and from work is an absolute must.”
More than 70 healthcare workers, including doctors, nurses, lab technicians, clinic administrators and janitorial staff have registered for the program.
But Snively and Hillsborough commission chairman Les Miller aren’t convinced it’s a good idea to let the companies continue to operate. Their main concern: sanitation.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Monday that the rental companies have been cleaning scooters three times a day, but Miller doesn’t buy it.
“It’s impossible,” Miller told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday. “They sit out in the open for two or three days. Nobody is sanitizing them two or three times a day when we’re letting them sit out there for days without picking them up.”
Miller said he sees scooters laying in the same spot for days in East Tampa, along 22nd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and up in North Tampa.
Syed said Spin scooters are cleaned every time they are picked up and deployed. But because ridership is down, the batteries are lasting longer, allowing the scooters to stay out in the community for days.
When that happens, Syed said team members go around neighborhoods daily and sanitize scooters wherever they are.
Still, Spin encourages riders who open the rental app to consider caution and personal responsibility. It is a good idea to wear gloves, wipe down handle bars and wash hands before and after riding, Syed said.
Castor told county and city officials Monday that scooters and bike share are an important transportation tool for many city residents, not just those downtown.
“They’re actually distributed throughout the city and they’re used as modes of transportation in the lower-income neighborhoods as well,” Castor said.
County Attorney Christine Beck said she would research the issue and report back to the group at its Thursday meeting.
Times staff writers Charlie Frago and Josh Solomon contributed to this report.
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