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Are scooters smart transit option or public menace? | Editorial

OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times Spin scooters are ready for deployment at a local Spin scooter distribution warehouse located in east Tampa on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Spin scooters are ready for deployment at a local Spin scooter distribution warehouse located in east Tampa on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.
Published Aug. 12, 2019

Electric scooters are popular in growing cities because they offer a convenient way to navigate downtowns and complete short trips — the so-called "first-mile/last mile" connections that ease the need for a car. But scooters also can be public menaces, with riders zipping along recklessly and abandoning the vehicles on roadways, sidewalks and private property. Tampa needs to get a grip on these operations, and St. Petersburg needs an orderly approach as it looks to welcome scooters later this year.

Tampa's mixed record with its scooter pilot project was on display again recently, when city council members addressed their concerns. Since the program launched in May, city staff recorded 230,000 trips, according to Jean Duncan, the city's director of transportation and stormwater. Over that period, she said, 97 complaints have been filed with the city, not counting those made directly to council members. A third of the complaints were lodged by a single person. "I think it's going very well," Duncan said after the discussion.

Going very well? Frustrated Tampa residents might not be throwing scooters off bridges, as has happened in other cities. But there still are widespread problems. Residents have complained of scooter drivers riding drunk, of children driving illegally, of scooters being driven in banned areas and of drivers nearly mowing down pedestrians. The companies have cracked down on scooters in no-ride zones and promised to better address abandoned vehicles. But these growing pains cannot become accepted as tolerable behavior or a standard business practice.

Council members are rightly still supportive of the experiment, which ends in April. But city officials need to hold the four scooter companies more accountable. They need to better educate riders on safety, traffic regulations and operating etiquette. Tampa police already have plenty to do, but they should crack down on reckless drivers who put themselves and the public at risk.

Personal responsibility also plays a part. Riders should be aware of traffic regulations and follow the requirement that they yield to pedestrians. St. Petersburg's proposed one-year experiment would put 750 to 1,500 scooters on the streets by late fall or early winter. If approved, St. Petersburg — unlike Tampa — would ban scooters from sidewalks. Parents must realize that these motorized vehicles, which travel at up to 15 mph, are not children's toys; operators in Tampa must be at least 16 years old and have a valid driver's license or permit. Some riders in Tampa appear far younger.

Scooters are, for many, an ideal "first-mile, last-mile" solution — providing a shared vehicle and a quick, cheap commuting option for short distances. They could be a critical link between bus and rail lines in Florida's humid weather, and a tool for reducing downtown congestion and the region's carbon footprint. Riders in Tampa like the experience, and the scooters add to the city's lively image. But this is still an experiment, and it's time to better marry fun and convenience with public safety.

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