The pair of electric-powered scooters provided by the companies Bird and Lime, sitting incongruously in the center of Philadelphia’s baroque City Council chambers, sent a clear message: the e-scooter lobby has rolled into Pennsylvania in force.
“I had an opportunity through my good friend John Hawkins to ride one of these dockless mobile scooters,” Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said, opening a hearing on the topic by name-checking a local lobbyist who has been working with Bird to gain traction in the city. “I think this can also be an alternative to us driving our cars downtown.”
They are one step closer with the introduction of state legislation by Rep. Stephen Kinsey, a Democrat representing part of Northwest Philadelphia, and Rep. Greg Rothman, a Cumberland County Republican who did not respond immediately to inquiries as to whether he expected to see scooters in his district, which winds through Harrisburg’s suburbs.
“Pennsylvania is quickly falling behind other places that have already embraced this next generation of transportation,” they wrote in a memo seeking co-sponsors this week.
Advocates said they hoped the bill could pass into law by June and urged the city to prepare a plan that could allow scooters — two-wheeled, electrically powered devices that top out at speeds around 20 mph — to hit the streets by summer.
Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district covers the river wards from Port Richmond to South Philadelphia, said a pilot launch restricted to his district might be feasible even in advance of state legislation. As in dozens of other cities around the country, it would function in the form of a shared fleet that riders can rent via a smartphone app for a few dollars per ride.
That would require support from the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Services , which indicated that due to safety concerns, the city is disinclined to take quick action.
“They don’t seem interested, but we can keep pushing that issue," Squilla said. “If the state does legalize scooters, it will put a little more pressure on the city.”
As of last spring, OTIS had been working toward developing a permitting process that would welcome dockless shared bicycles and e-scooters into the city. But after reviewing state law, under which the scooters are not legal for use on public roadways or sidewalks, the agency hit the brakes.
Christopher Puchalsky, director of strategic initiatives at OTIS, said further research had raised so many concerns that he was recommending the city not act for at least one year.
“What data exists points to a popular and novel form of transportation that has shown relatively high risk of crashes,” he said.
A Consumer Reports analysis found more than 1,500 serious scooter-related injuries, he noted. A separate study, by University of California, Los Angeles researchers, found 249 emergency-room visits at just two hospitals in Los Angeles by scooter riders or people who were hit by or tripped over scooters. Puchalsky added that there have been four fatalities on scooters in the past year, whereas only two people have died in nine years of bike sharing around the country.
Advocates hope that more scooters on the road will mean fewer cars. But Cheryl Bettigole, director of the city Department of Public Health’s Division of Disease and Injury Prevention, said there’s no data to show that scooter trips tend to replace car trips. She said the injury rate — according to a Portland study, 50 times higher than the injury rate per mile for bike share or for motorcycles — is enough reason to proceed with caution.
Nonetheless, cycling advocates, environmental groups, and others urged speedy action on the scooters as a means to improve equitable access to transportation, reduce traffic congestion, drive revenue to infrastructure improvements, and create jobs managing scooter fleets. Paul White, a Bird representative, said that worries about injuries were overplayed, and that most injuries are minor. As for those four fatalities, he said three of them occurred at 3 a.m.
Megan Ryerson, a professor of transportation engineering and urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, said scooters can make all users of the road safer, by increasing drivers’ awareness and boosting demand for better infrastructure like protected bike lanes.
“When we give Philadelphians access to safe and affordable alternatives for transportation, they will use them,” she said.
Though the city administration is cautious, Johnson said scooter fans likely won’t have to wait long.