- Artwork by Steve Miluch
We’re roughly one month into a six-month trial period during which e-mobility startups are incrementally adding electric scooters to city streets.
Four vendors have been permitted to operate during this pilot phase under strict legislative guidelines from the city designed with safety at top of mind. Among them is a requirement that all devices be de-activated from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Cleveland city councilman Kerry McCormack, who spoke to Scene about the scooters last week, admitted that he thought the cutoff times were too restrictive.
"That complaint is legit," McCormack said. "I think it should definitely be later — maybe 9 or 10 o'clock. That's a piece [of the legislation] that will definitely change."
McCormack said the current six-month pilot, while not his idea, turns out to have been a prudent legislative move. It will allow him and his council colleagues to amend the legislation based on rider feedback, which the city is actively soliciting.
Bird is the company that ignited the local scooter debate when it unloaded a fleet without warning last summer before the city booted them. It was also the first to deploy scooters in late August, this time with Cleveland's blessing. The companies Lime and Spin were soon to follow suit. The fourth permitted vendor, Veoride, has not yet secured a location for a local warehouse, according to its regional director. (The city's permit is contingent on a physical presence.) But Veoride is "finalizing operations" and intends to have scooters on streets in "a week or two."
The trial period will conclude at the end of February 2020, and during the current stretch, in addition to the nighttime riding ban, the max speed for all devices is 12 mph. Riders are technically only supposed to scoot on the street — not the sidewalk — and to do so while wearing a helmet. Per the legislation, vendors are required to provide helmets free of charge to those who ask. (Helmets have been available at local events promoting riders' safety, and vendors will mail you a helmet if you pay shipping costs.)
"The goal of legislation regulating this new industry is to ensure that there are rules and a process for shared mobility devices operating in the City of Cleveland," said Mayor Frank Jackson in a press release announcing the vendors in late August. "Sensible regulation aims to make this mode of transportation safer and more efficient for all sharing the road."
After the first few weeks, the comments that McCormack has received from constituents have been largely positive.
"It's been going really well, as a general theme," he said. "People like them a lot, and it's not just joy riding. People are using them for both leisure and day-to-day use."
The evening cutoff time has been by far the most common complaint, he said, but he has also heard comments about the speed limit. In other cities, the maximum speed is 15 mph, not 12. (In Washington, D.C., the speed limit is 10 mph.)
"It's interesting," McCormack said. "The intent of the lower speed limit was obviously safety purposes. But some people are saying that they aren't able to slow down in traffic as well, so we'll have to take a look at that."
McCormack said that his own riding experiences have been positive too — except for a lack of available devices after the airshow on Labor Day — but he said the most important thing the trial period has demonstrated is how urgently Cleveland needs a "complete streets" overhaul. This was a reference to a planning framework in which streets are designed for all users: pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, motorists, etc.
"This is obviously not something new to cyclists, but we just need better multi-modal infrastructure," McCormack said. "Cleveland has fallen way short, and it's time we move into the 21st century when it comes to shared mobility."
He said that alongside councilman Matt Zone, and with input from Bike Cleveland and Clevelanders for Public Transit, he plans to introduce amendments to the city's Complete and Green Streets ordinance.
"I have lost all faith that drivers are going to improve their behavior," he said, noting that despite one of the main scooter restrictions — that they be operated in the street — people overwhelmingly still ride on the sidewalk. (This is certainly true downtown, where the bulk of the devices are concentrated.) McCormack's assumption is that people simply don't feel safe riding in the street.
"Cars are getting bigger and faster, with more and more distractions. And so we need to invest in infrastructure that protects multimodal users. Paint doesn't work. Try riding down Detroit when a car flies by you. It's scary ... . Scooters are important because as our streets are opening up to a wider array of users, we're seeing that we need to fix them."
Despite these observations, the scooter rollout has transpired largely without incident. That is to say, Cleveland has managed to avoid disasters in two of the major areas that tend to produce headlines in other cities with expanding mobility options. One has to do with the sheer size of scooter fleets and the careless way devices are often parked, resulting in sidewalk obstacles that wreak special havoc on people with disabilities. The other has to do with injuries.
On both of those fronts, the experience in Cleveland has been a far cry from the most apocalyptic accounts in the press and on social media. The city has specifically encouraged riders to park scooters in designated striped zones, for one. And to conclude a ride in both the Bird and Lime mobile applications, riders must take a photo of their scooter to prove that it's parked responsibly (parallel to existing bike racks, for example).
Each of the four vendors has been permitted to maintain up to 400 devices, and the three companies currently operating have been building steadily toward that number. Spokespeople told Scene that they plan to adjust their fleet sizes based on demand.
In terms of injuries, Consumer Reports found earlier this year that roughly 1,500 people had been injured in scooter-related crashes since 2017. Doctors told them that emergency rooms were experiencing an uptick in concussions, nasal fractures and forearm fractures, alongside other reported injuries. Multiple experts expressed concern about the availability of helmets, "especially when considering the nature of the ride-share business model, which allows anyone with a smartphone to rent a scooter from wherever the last rider leaves it." While Cleveland has encouraged riders to wear helmets and asked vendors to provide them, Scene has personally seen only two riders wearing helmets while on scooters.
- Photo by Elvert Barnes-FlickrCC
But for whatever reason, there doesn't appear to have been any serious injuries as yet. All three major local hospitals told Scene that they're not seeing patients with scooter-related wounds. Spokespeople from both the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, having consulted their emergency rooms, reported a total of zero incidents. A MetroHealth spokeswoman said that there "hasn't been an influx." When asked if she could provide a specific number of incidents, and the severity of them, she said that if there were any, they haven't been serious enough to begin tracking.
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When Veoride launches, there will be four companies competing for your precious scooter dollars. The natural question for the scooter enthusiast becomes: Which one should I ride? (And does it matter?)
The functionality of all four scooter brands is more or less identical. They are all "unlocked" for $1 via smartphone app and are all designed with an accelerator wheel on the right side of the handlebar and a standard brake lever on the left. The apps themselves are very similar as well, complete with maps to identify the nearest devices and intuitive initial sign-up processes that require a credit card. The companies' business models are pretty much indistinguishable too. All of them told Scene that they'll have a local manager and "operations staff" in Cleveland.
If you want or need to scoot — especially if you're leisure-riding as a novelty — you'll no doubt just hop on the nearest device. But if you're downtown, where the scooters are plentiful, and you've got options, there are a few differences worth considering.
Bird is Cleveland's O.G. scooter company and is notable, at least right now, for its high cost. At 31 cents per minute after the $1 unlock fee, Bird is the most expensive local option. A 1.2-mile, 9-minute ride costs more than $4 after taxes. Bird asks riders to pre-load credits on a paid account before they ride and does offer discounts that increase with the size of the upfront payment. (Buying $20 worth of credits gets you $2 off. Buying $50 gets you $6.)
Bird has perhaps the sleekest machine, with a minimalist black-and-white design and a battery artfully integrated into the handlebar. The deck is slenderest among the three current vendors, so wide-soled riders take note.
Having been the earliest out of the gate, Bird might have the benefit of familiarity for those who don't wish to set up multiple accounts. After its first two weeks of operation, Bird told Scene that its most popular dropoff points were all on West 25th Street — Soho Chicken & Whiskey, Phnom Penh Restaurant and Mitchell's Ice Cream — with Euclid Avenue at East Fourth Street and Lakeside Avenue at East Ninth rounding out the top five.
Bird's senior manager of government partnerships, Sam Cooper, wrote in an email that Bird is also committed to transit equity. It offers a program called "Bird Access" which allows those enrolled in state or federal assistance programs to take unlimited trips of 30 minutes or less for only $5 per month. The availability of devices between East 30th and University Circle, however, is for now extremely limited.
On the other end of the cost spectrum is Lime. Its 15 cents per minute is roughly half the cost of Bird (at 31 cents per minute) and Spin (at 29 cents per minute) and early reports from riders indicate that affordability is a major factor for them. (Veoride claims, for the record, that it'll offer rates in the ballpark of 15 cents per minute as well, at least at the outset.)
Based on cost alone, Lime is by far the best option in town for recurring riders. On Bird or Spin, it'd be difficult to justify the higher cost for rides longer than a mile. It'd begin to approach the territory of an Uber or Lyft, for comparison. And, when paired with a public transit commute — scooters are often publicized as a "first mile, last mile" option — they significantly elevate the total cost of an otherwise affordable trip.
Lime appears to be unique among local vendors in that it doesn't charge riders up front. You pay as you go. Additionally, when you complete your ride, the Lime app asks if you'd like to "pause" or "end" your ride, so that you can, in theory, hop off for a cup of coffee, and then hop back on the same device.
Aesthetically, Lime isn't the sharpest on the street. A green console on the black vertical bar is a little clunky, and the wheels appear slightly smaller than the competition. Its overall effect is not of a singular machine but of an assemblage of parts. Its speedometer, however, does include a decimal point, which means that if you're really booking it, you can glimpse yourself getting up to max of 12.1 mph.
Ben LaRocco, Lime's Ohio manager, told Scene that it, too, was committed to transit equity. In addition to being the lowest-cost option, Lime offers what it calls the "Lime Access" program — sound familiar? — where anyone who qualifies for city, state or federal assistance can receive half off the cost of scooter rides. (For low-income riders who intend to use the devices regularly, Bird's "access" program would be a significantly better value.)
Spin is the Nissan Xterra of the local scooter armada. That is to say, it feels like the largest and sportiest ride. The foot deck is ever-so-slightly wider than its competitors and the tires feel ever-so-slightly more substantial. This means that you'll have the most confidence scooting over Cleveland's potholes and irregular construction zones in a bright orange Spin. Perhaps it was psychological (or a byproduct of fresh batteries), but the motor felt stronger too. That's consistent with our informal polling, in which riders told us that they liked Spin best for its powerful acceleration.
For those who care, Spin is the only company among the Cleveland quartet that is not backed with venture capital. It was acquired by the Ford Motor Company last year.
Will Burns, Spin's director of government partnerships, told Scene that Clevelanders should choose Spin, in part, because of the company's commitment to creating safer streets for riders through its "Safe, Liveable & Just Streets Program." Burns said that Spin was the first scooter company to devote resources toward the physical buildout of safer streets.
Spin is right now charging 29 cents per minute, up near Bird's rate, and Burns said the cost might change based on market demands. Riders should note that Spin scooters have discount codes and an automatic $1 rebate for inaugural rides, but you'll be asked to pre-load $10 onto your Spin account.
Veoride, when it arrives, will be unique in one key respect. Unlike its three competitors, Veoride scooters feature "swappable batteries," which Midwest regional manager Ben Thomas told Scene made the fleet's upkeep "greener and more efficient." Maintenance staff can charge batteries at the local warehouse without having to lug the scooters themselves back and forth, further reducing emissions.
Veoride was started by two Purdue University grads and has a thriving business at a number of college campuses, including Kent State. Thomas told Scene that while they enjoy campus settings, where they are generally the exclusive vendor, being in Cleveland with three other e-mobility startups is energizing.
"All these companies that are in Cleveland enjoy the competition," he said. "They don't shy away from it and we don't shy away from it either. We all want to be able to prove that our product is the best, that we can provide a reliable and affordable way to help fill in those transportation gaps in the community."