1. Transportation

Scooters have arrived on Tampa sidewalks, and there are 'growing pains'

TAMPA — Electric scooters descended on the city Saturday, with people taking several thousand trips during Memorial Day weekend.

But problems have already arisen. People were spotted riding the scooters in banned areas, such as the Tampa Riverwalk, or parking them haphazardly and blocking sidewalks and entryways, Tampa Transportation Director Jean Duncan said.

"We're hoping maybe it's a little bit of growing pains in the first couple days and we'll see better compliance on the part of the operators as well as the users that we wanted to see from the beginning," Duncan said. "This looks good on paper, but is it going to work in reality?"

The latest transportation fad is solidly in place in several cities, but Tampa has taken its time launching the one-year pilot program, which allows up to 2,400 scooters to operate around town.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Will scooters help or hurt the way we get around in Tampa Bay? We're about to find out

As of Tuesday, only two companies — Spin and Bird — currently have scooters out on the streets for people to ride. Competitors Lime and Jump, the other two companies approved for the pilot, should be running here soon, Duncan said.

The scooters can travel up to 15 mph and are meant to help people get to destinations that are too far to comfortably walk, but not far enough to warrant a car trip. Riders rent the scooters through an app on their smart phone.

Spin reported 2,500 trips on its scooters over the weekend. A Bird spokesman said the company does not share ridership numbers.

While people can take trips all over the city, there are a few no-ride zones, including the Riverwalk, Bayshore Boulevard and East Seventh Street in Ybor City. The city contacted both Spin and Bird with complaints that people were riding scooters in banned areas. Bird said its app prohibits people from riding there and will slow the vehicle gradually to a full stop when a rider enters one of those zones.

"Several riders then think the battery is dead and park it nearby," Bird representative Servando Esparza wrote in an email to the city. "Most will follow the in-app notifications to move outside the riding zone to continue riding."

Spin shared a similar experience, but made a couple additional tweaks to discourage people from riding in those zones and leaving the scooter behind. Spin representative Dan Fleischbein changed the settings so the company's scooters slow down to 10 mph at Curtis Hixon Park and 3 mph in no-ride zones. He also made the Riverwalk a no-park zone.

"It is 3 mph, so it's not rideable, but forces people to remove them from the Riverwalk," Flesichbein wrote in an email. "This appears to solve the problem. We are constantly tweaking and adjusting to create a safe, enjoyable experience for riders and non-riders alike."

Currently, people can ride scooters only on the sidewalk. That will change if Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a bill sponsored by State Sen. Jeff Brandes and State Rep. Jackie Toledo. The legislation from the Tampa Bay Republicans allows scooters on streets and bike paths, but leaves the decisions up to local governments.

"We thought it was important to get everyone on board early on and make sure that cities have maximum flexibility," Brandes said.

Duncan said the city's attorneys are meeting this week to see how, if at all, the new law would affect the contract Tampa signed with the four scooter companies.

In order to try to crack down on the haphazard parking that plagues many cities, Tampa requires scooters to be placed in pre-determined corrals every day. People can then ride the scooter to whatever location they choose and park it anywhere that isn't blocking walkways and traffic.

Duncan said the city had permitted 17 corrals as of Tuesday afternoon, but is approving more each day. That means people can expect to see the number of scooters and the variety of locations grow over the next couple weeks.

Collin Sherwin, 41, took a Bird scooter Tuesday from his home near Hyde Park to his office downtown. The 2.3 mile trip cost him $6.11 — only a dollar or so less than an Uber.

Sherwin said his trips in other cities, like Austin and San Diego, were cheaper. The scooters cost $1 to start, but then vary on how much they charge per minute. Sherwin said he's paid around 15 cents a minute previously, but the cost Tuesday came to around 29 cents a minute, according to his receipt.

Even though a scooter doesn't save him much money and takes twice as long as an Uber (16 minutes opposed to 8), Sherwin said he still would prefer to scooter to work, if the weather was good.

Sherwin, who gave up his car in 2017, said it's more fun and theoretically a cheaper option than taking a rideshare. But the main reason he prefers his bike or a scooter rental is that he feels more connected to his neighborhood with those than he does in a car.

"When I'm on my bike, I see the signs for a cool happy hour or an upcoming event you might miss," Sherwin said. "The advantage with the scooter is I'm not sweating when I get to work. If I take my bike, there's a chance I'm gross all day."

Brock Bjorn, 33, hasn't had the chance to ride a scooter yet, but said he spotted two near-accidents heading toward Davis Islands. The first involved two people who looked like they were trying to beat the crosswalk signal but were too late, and another was a driver making a right turn while not paying attention, Bjorn said.

Sherwin had a near miss while on his way into work, when a car came close to him while both were making a right turn.

Bjorn said he'd be hesitant to ride in a busier area like downtown or South Howard, but would be interested in checking them out while in his neighborhood on Davis Islands.

"All progress has it's early issues," Bjorn said. "I don't really see any long-term concern aside from them being left in public walkways."