Ottawa’s e-scooter project exposes enforcement gaps

The end of Ottawa’s second year of piloting electric-scooter technology can’t come soon enough for many.

Streets and sidewalks in the city’s core are littered with wayward wheels — a total of 1,200 e-scooters from three providers: Neuron, Lime and Bird. Abandoned e-scooters are, all too frequently, left by users to block shop entrances, sidewalks and crosswalks.

There’s no doubt that the e-scooters are popular. In the first year of the pilot project, more than 72,720 riders took more than 238,000 rides on 600 e-scooters provided by three vendors. And, I admit, e-scooters are a fun, relatively affordable option that’s proven more reliable, sadly, than our multi-billion-dollar light rail system.

But this pilot project has brought to light some major flaws and created real challenges, chief among them for people with mobility issues and accessibility needs.

When the city set up the pilot in spring 2020, I voiced my reservations and stressed the need for certain rules to ensure that fun for some didn’t make life more difficult for others. Since then, we’ve heard countless concerns that users — in varying states of sobriety — are riding scooters in places they shouldn’t, in ways they shouldn’t, and leaving them where they shouldn’t.

Several people have reported injuries related to the pilot e-scooters, and many more are likely going unreported. One injury is too many, when it could be avoided.

Councillors’ offices, including mine, and the city’s 3-1-1 call centre have relayed thousands of formal complaints about parking and other issues. That’s on top of the anecdotal, informal complaints we hear almost daily.

Worse still, the pilot has laid bare a major gap in enforcement. Essentially, because of outdated provincial laws, police don’t have an efficient mechanism by which to enforce the rules of the road during the pilot project.

Meanwhile, regardless of whether there would ever be enough bylaw officers to enforce parking rules in real time, the city’s bylaw department is not mandated to enforce the program. That is the real issue: it’s the city’s traffic services section that is in charge of enforcement, and it does not have a real-time response team.

So the companies involved in the pilot are basically left to self-govern. To its credit, Bird has proven most responsive of the three in dealing with residents’ concerns in real time, through rider fines and scooter removal.

Where do we go from here? If the city is going to allow e-scooters to move from pilot programs to becoming permanent parts of our transportation mix, we need to address certain key things. I believe this is possible.

Perhaps the “Peter Parker Principle” should be applied: With great power comes great responsibility. And the city must be a central part of this program.

To make this work, city departments need the tools and resources to track complaints and respond quickly. That may mean seizing abandoned scooters and fining companies — as we do with grocery carts, for instance.

It may mean requiring companies to disclose more ride data and to invest in various safety measures and better GPS tracking system mapping (e.g. lane direction and sidewalks).

It should mean expanding bylaw officers’ powers to cover scooter-parking enforcement.

It should also mean more rider awareness resources so users can follow the rules of the road.

Ottawa is often tagged — unfairly, in my view — as a city fun forgets. E-scooters are fun. But it’s not fun when someone gets hurt. It’s not fun when a newly reopened store or restaurant has its entrance blocked. It’s certainly not fun when someone who uses a wheelchair can’t get down a sidewalk or through an intersection.

E-scooters are a disruptive technology but allowing them isn’t a licence to disrupt non-users’ daily lives. Fun comes with certain responsibilities, especially for policymakers.

If the city can’t assure that e-scooters are responsibly managed in future, including in the ways I’ve outlined above, I believe it’s time we kicked them to the proverbial curb for good.

Technology brought these challenges; it must also set the course to resolve them.

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