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Tampa embraces e-scooters, even if we keep throwing them in the river

Three years into a pilot program that’s put 1,800 rentable scooters on the streets, Tampa is about to take it citywide while dealing with people dumping them on sidewalks - and in the river.
Two riders get ready to go on rented e-scooters in Tampa. The city is giving the getting-around option a thumbs-up even as they deal with the problems of scooters dumped on sidewalks and tossed into the Hillsborough River.
Two riders get ready to go on rented e-scooters in Tampa. The city is giving the getting-around option a thumbs-up even as they deal with the problems of scooters dumped on sidewalks and tossed into the Hillsborough River. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 1|Updated Apr. 1

TAMPA — For Omar Garcia, a developer who works downtown, jumping on an electric scooter has become part of the workday routine.

He’ll grab one to go to the courthouse or get to the bank. If he fancies lunch at a spot farther than is walkable, “I can get a scooter for that,” said Garcia, 54, a partner at Urban Core Holdings. “Convenience,” he said.

Julie Moroney will use one when she goes to dinner with her husband. He has his own e-scooter, so when they go out downtown, she’ll rent one for herself “and we’ll both take off,” said the Plant High School English teacher.

Her take on Tampa’s e-scooter program?

“If we can just find a way for people to be reasonable with them, not blocking the sidewalk, not throwing them into the river,” said Moroney, 60. “I think it’s a great thing for our community.”

And yes, she did say throwing them into the river.

Since 2019, the city’s pilot e-scooter program has made 1,800 rentable, eco-friendly scooters part of the urban landscape in downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods of Hyde Park, Ybor City, West River and Tampa Heights.

In Tampa, the scooters have traveled 3 million miles and logged 2½ million trips at an average of 1.2 miles per journey — a number, city officials say, shows that people are using them for actual transportation and not just fun on weekends.

“The pilot’s been a major success,” said Brandie Miklus, the city’s infrastructure and mobility program coordinator. Sister city St. Petersburg is enjoying its own scooter boom, with officials recently voting to add scooters and extend hours in its own pilot program.

Next up, Tampa’s e-scooters will spread to neighborhoods that want them throughout the city, adding 1,500 seated Razor scooters for those who prefer to ride sitting down and 45 adaptive scooters and e-bikes for riders with disabilities. The program is expected to be citywide by year’s end.

But Tampa’s trek into the world of e-scooters has not been without speed bumps. A persistent complaint: Scooters left blocking sidewalks, dumped on roadsides and littering parks instead of properly parked in designated corrals.

Scooters dumped where they're not supposed to be have been a headache for the city.
Scooters dumped where they're not supposed to be have been a headache for the city. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Then there’s that Tampa-specific problem of scores of scooters getting tossed into the Hillsborough River along the 2.6-mile Riverwalk.

“We really had to wrap our heads around it,” said Debbie Evenson, executive director of Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful. Volunteer divers pulled 67 sodden, muck-covered scooters out of the water in a November cleanup and 62 more in February. “It’s mind-boggling,” she said. “Why?”

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“We believe it’s a combination of drunks, jerks and buffoons who are responsible,” said city spokesperson Adam Smith.

E-scooters in the Hillsborough River near downtown, seen recently from the Fortune Taylor Bridge.
E-scooters in the Hillsborough River near downtown, seen recently from the Fortune Taylor Bridge. [ SUE CARLTON/Times ]

A 2018 report estimated the life of a shared electric scooter in Louisville, Ky., was just shy of a month — although Lime, one of three companies operating in Tampa, disputed that in an emailed response to the Tampa Bay Times. “We expect our e-scooters to last years, not months,” said operations manager Jad Hayek.

Here’s how the pilot program worked: Companies including Lime, Bird and Spin each paid the city a $20,000 fee plus $1 a day per scooter. For the citywide program, the three companies each will pay $5,000 a year and 30 cents per trip.

For Tampa, there’s been a learning curve. Early on, pedestrians seemed startled by the influx of scooters zipping past at up to 15 miles per hour. Ditto car drivers unused to sharing the road with them. In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a law allowing scooters to ride in streets and bike lanes across the state.

“And scooter operators, the users, are still feeling their way to where they’re comfortable to ride,” said Christine Acosta, a local micro-mobility advocate and safety consultant. “All cities have had to learn.”

Riders use an app and a credit card and are supposed to be 16 with a driver’s license or permit. It’s one person per scooter — though it’s not unprecedented to spot younger drivers or two and even three riders.

A U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report last year found injuries to people using e-scooters, e-bikes and hoverboards jumped 70 percent over the previous four years as they gained popularity. A 2020 University of South Florida report on Tampa’s program found that “hospital visits increased significantly after the program started,” although it also said most scooter accidents led to either no injuries or to minor ones. The report noted that preliminary data showed “very little helmet usage” by those injured. Helmet wearing is encouraged, but not required.

In July, a rider was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in Ybor City. In January, a man on an e-scooter in St. Petersburg died after he fell and was hit by an oncoming vehicle at 3:30 a.m. Local lawsuits have blamed malfunctioning scooters and a broken sidewalk for crashes.

“Injured in an e-scooter accident?” asks a webpage for Robert Sparks Attorneys in Tampa.

An unidentified person rides an e-scooter near the Tampa Riverwalk.
An unidentified person rides an e-scooter near the Tampa Riverwalk. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

One of the biggest complaints about Tampa’s popular program has been that “the scooters are just parked all over the place,” said Karen Kress, director of transportation and planning for the Tampa Downtown Partnership — a situation officials and vendors say they’re addressing.

Riders soon will be required to lock the vehicles in designated hubs, said Miklus, with potential consequences for those who don’t, such as an out-of-hub fine for the user to pay. “We think this will be smart — it will reduce vandalism,” she said.

E-scooters properly parked in a marked corral in downtown Tampa.
E-scooters properly parked in a marked corral in downtown Tampa. [ Courtesy of Lime ]

In extreme cases, “for riders that break the rules repeatedly, we have the option of issuing fines and banning rule breakers from our platform,” said Hayek from Lime.

Joyriders in downtown parking garages have been thwarted by the same geofencing that’s intended to keep the rented scooters from being functional in forbidden zones including the Riverwalk, the Bayshore Boulevard sidewalk and Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.

“Those are some of the lessons learned and growing pains,” said Kress. “Overall in my opinion, the pros far outweigh the cons.”

In St. Petersburg, officials recently sounded pleased with their own 15-month shared scooter pilot program, which boasts high parking compliance and is thought to be a model for cities nationwide. In fact, the city council voted to renew agreements with e-scooter companies Razor and Veo for three years and to increase the number of scooters and extend operating hours. As of February, the city had 975 authorized scooters of both the standing and seated variety.

Apparently the penchant for putting them in the water is not exclusive to Tampa. In March, a 20-year-old man was charged with criminal mischief in St. Petersburg after police say that just after midnight, he and his friends dumped eight e-scooters into Tampa Bay.

With Tampa’s new scooters and the planned addition of rentable e-bikes across the city, Miklus said, “I can’t believe this, but we’re going to have 8,500 micro-mobility vehicles” on the streets.

Scooters have gone “from toys to transportation,” said Acosta. “They’re making that transition in every city where they are.”

Tampa will soon have 8,500 "micromobility" options - scooters and e-bikes - on city streets.
Tampa will soon have 8,500 "micromobility" options - scooters and e-bikes - on city streets. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
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