After two fatalities over the course of 10 days, as well as rising accidents among users, the e-scooter-sharing company Revel announced that they will suspend service in New York City until further notice. In neither of the incidents was a licensed motor vehicle involved. Both incidents appear to have resulted from inexperienced riders failing to follow basic traffic rules and concepts of safety. While Revel says, they are “reviewing and strengthening (their) rider accountability and safety measures and communicating with city officials…”, we say that the incidents highlight the failure of Vision Zero as promoted in New York City, irresponsible advocacy of alternative forms of transportation without regard for the safety of the riders and the public, and the failure of our elected leaders and agencies to require a safe operation.
Revel operates an app-based electronic scooter rental service in New York City and in several other cities around the country. Technically, under New York State law, the devices are “Class B Limited Use Motorcycles.” Because it is limited in speed to 30 mph, it does not require a motorcycle license (which entails a separate DMV exam and road test), just an ordinary driver’s license. The Revel scooters, which seat two, are parked in several neighborhoods around the City. To unlock and ride, one downloads the app to a phone, inputs their driver’s license and credit card info, checks off the box confirming having read the 35-page rental agreement, watches a short video and he’s off. On top of a small membership fee, there’s a 35 cent/mile charge. The scooter can be left in any of the neighborhoods across Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan where the scooters operate. Other app-based alternative transportation services use the same business model, notably Citibike, Jump, Lime, and Beryl (some of which have closed), and there’s still talk about permitting rental stand-on e-scooters as well.
NYS Law requires that the operators of “Class B Limited Use Motorcycles” wear helmets, follow traffic rules, and stay to the right side of the road or in the shoulder. While Revel’s contract and training video talk about following local traffic rules, personal responsibility, and wearing the helmet included in the rental, way too many operators ignore these basic guidelines. Just weeks before the deaths, Revel suspended the privileges of over 1000 riders for violations of safety rules: revel-suspended-1000-riders-in-a-month-issues-email-warning-to-customers (Brooklyn Paper) . So why the disconnect?
Surely Revel could have done a better job making sure riders knew the local laws and had a little more training before letting them unlock their scooters. But the failure is not solely Revel’s. Complicit in this situation are the elected officials who allowed the flood of these micro-mobility devices without mandating proper training, education, and enforcement, and “transportation advocates” who continually push their anti-car rhetoric over-responsible behavior. Big money is being spent pushing these devices. Last year, the micro-mobility industry spent around $150,000 a month just on lobbying the NYS legislature in Albany to get a bill passed legalizing e-bikes and scooters. The companies include the sellers of these devices as well as the investors in app-based transportation services, like Lyft, which operates Citibike, and Uber, both of which operate e-scooter sharing services across the country: e-scooter-companies-spending-big-top-prize-new-york-city (Democrat and Chronicle). With a high-powered media campaign claiming that this was all about legalizing e-scooters and e-bikes so that underpaid restaurant delivery people would not get their unlicensed scooters confiscated, they shoved through an industry-written cookie-cutter bill which specifically shielded these devices from being labeled as “motor vehicles”. If the device is not a “motor vehicle”, it is exempt from the requirements of having a licensed operator, registration, insurance, and being required to follow many of the rules of the road. After legalizing these devices in Albany, the New York City Council quickly followed suit. What we have now are new categories of e-bikes, many of the types that delivery people use, that have sped up to 30mph, just like the Revel scooters, that do not require licenses or registrations. In every NYC neighborhood now, unregistered e-scooters are being driven all over by operators that have no licenses, wear no helmets, and disregard many traffic laws.
So, a Revel user rides off in an environment where the line of what is and what is not a motor vehicle and what is subject to traffic laws is blurred. To make matters worse NYC’s Vision Zero program myopically focuses on operators of motor vehicles. This plus the aggressive social media campaign of anti-car “advocates” cements the perception that all safety responsibility rests with car and truck drivers, not the scooter rider. There is almost never any discussion of personal responsibility for riders of bicycles, scooters, or other alternative forms of transportation. That Revel promotional video says, “Whenever you’re on two wheels you’re less visible to cars and trucks. This is one of the main reasons you have to drive defensively, remember to follow all traffic laws. no bike lanes, sidewalks, parks, or highways.”. We almost never hear such language coming from the Vision Zero program. In fact, on social media outlets run by so-called transportation “advocates”, anyone who talks about personal responsibility is shot down for “victim-blaming”. Even after Revel suspended its service, “advocates” tried to shift the focus away from the two recent e-scooter deaths to the number of deaths involving cars and trucks. ny-oped-let-revels-ride-again-soon. But such talk is disingenuous … it falsely lulls users of micro-mobility devices like Revel scooters and e-bikes into thinking that safety is everyone else’s burden. The reality is that, per mile driven, motor vehicles driven by actually licensed drivers are far safer. With 2 deaths already this year, Revel’s fatality rate per 100,000,000 miles driven is more than 7 times the NYS fatality rate for cars and trucks (based on the number of daily miles driven according to Revel and US DOT data) Something must be done.
So, how do we fix this problem to ensure New Yorkers have a wide range of safe micro-transit options?
- Let’s start promoting the need to follow traffic rules, being courteous to other road users, and taking personal responsibility. This is important for riders’ own safety and for the public at large. This applies to all road users: Cars, trucks, AND those on micro-mobility devices.
- Better training is needed for all. An ordinary NYS driver’s license renews every eight (8) years. Surely some sort of mandatory training video should be required before renewal that covers safe driving around people using micro-mobility devices and for those who would operate such devices themselves.
- Any user of a micro-mobility device should certify that they took an NYS approved safety class, commensurate with the vehicle type and speed, even if the device does not require a license. Our Citibike annual memberships just renewed automatically. Wouldn’t it have been smart to require that we watched a safety video before it renewed?
- Motorized bikes and scooters, must be registered with clearly visible license plates. This is important for making sure the operators of these devices follow traffic and parking rules, and for general security purposes. If there are no identifying numbers on them if micro-mobility devices are involved in a crime or in an accident, how can ownership be traced?
- Licenses: There should be a specific moped certification on an ordinary driver’s license and such licenses should be required for the so-called throttle bikes popular with the delivery services. The recent law distinguishes between throttle e-bikes, where an electric motor is used to exclusively propel the device and a pedal-assist e-bike, where the motor only provides a boost when the rider is pedaling. If it got a motor and no pedaling is needed, call it a motor vehicle, require a license, and make sure the riders follow the rules of the road.
- All alternative micro-mobility devices must be required to have and use lights on, front and rear at all times and they must have some kind of sound on them so pedestrians and other road users can see and hear them coming. They must have and use directional lights or the operators must give hand signals to signal their intentions when turning.
- We need more and better public service announcements including segments on personal responsibility, EXPLAINING traffic rules, and the reasons for them (like why it’s not a good idea to ride on the sidewalk or in a crosswalk). Order and predictability are the pillars of traffic safety. Engage the insurance companies in this process. Their answer to roadway safety should not be simply to raise premiums.
- Enforce traffic laws. Clearly part of the chaos on our roads is the lack of enforcement. (For those who don’t want police to fulfill this role, let traffic agents do it or, perhaps, community-based block captains or patrols). If there is a bike lane, riding outside the bike lane must be handled as a violation.
- If e-bikes or scooters are used for commercial purposes; the company or companies the riders are working for must be clearly identified, the devices registered, and carry insurance. If a rider is delivering food via a bike or scooter, the company that engaged him has a responsibility for his safety and for the public.
- Wearing headphones that cover both ears while using micro-mobility devices should be banned, just like they are in cars and trucks. It’s best to have all senses available to be wary of roadway dangers.
We can reign in the roadway chaos and improve safety for all if we work together, respect each other, better explain the rules, and drive or ride responsibly.