BOISE — Since 2018, electronic scooters have become increasingly popular in cities across the country. To some, they are an innovative alternative to cars. To others, however, they represent a dangerous trend in transportation technology that threatens Americans with disabilities.
In 2019, disability advocates filed lawsuits in San Diego and Minneapolis over the cities’ electronic scooters. Both lawsuits allege that the cities have not done enough to manage the deluge of electric scooters on their streets, creating potentially dangerous situations for people with disabilities and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Jeremy Maxand and Mel Leviton with the city of Boise’s ADA parking committee have had firsthand experiences in Boise with the issue of electronic scooters downtown, both as advocates and as wheelchair users themselves. The two, who also work with the State Independent Living Council for Idaho, are now working toward raising awareness.
“We live in a society where we have managed to create such wonderful, accessible sidewalks,” Maxand said. “And then all of a sudden we had this technology show up that was like ‘we’re going to take this incredible social achievement and turn it completely on its head.’”
Electronic scooters came to Boise in October 2018, as part of a national push toward “micromobility” solutions for transportation issues. The first half of 2018, scooter companies Lime and Bird, which both operate in Boise, combined brought in $385 million nationally. In the first four months in Boise, 152,364 scooter rides were logged. Overall, the scooters’ implementation in the city was met with little complaint from the general public. However, as Maxand said, the presence of the scooters on sidewalks downtown have created a nightmare for Boiseans with disabilities.
“The scooters, literally overnight, created hundreds of barriers on sidewalks and curbs and ramps,” Maxand said. “And it’s been put on our shoulders.”
BLOCKED PATHS, SPOOKED GUIDE DOGS
Sidewalk accessibility is the main issue disability advocates are fighting for when it comes to the scooters. The scooters, by design, are meant to be left on sidewalks for easy access; something that non-disabled residents can easily navigate around. However, if you are using a wheelchair, navigation isn’t so easy.
But the problem is bigger than even the sidewalks. Leviton tells a story about an accessible parking spot near Boise City Hall she likes to use that, several times recently, has been made completely unusable due to the scooters. She has a ramp that comes out from her van that allows her to exit the vehicle onto the sidewalk. But, in the lined spot next to the parking space, scooter companies like to “stage” the scooters, meaning they’ll be lined up successively. Thus, the ramp can’t reach the sidewalk. Again, Leviton points out, something that most people wouldn’t think twice about seeing has created an insurmountable barrier for those with disabilities.
In addition, Maxand pointed out that the scooters also pose a risk for visually impaired Boise residents — not only as a tripping hazard, but the scooters have not been around long enough for guide dogs to become accustomed to them.
“I work with a woman who uses a guide dog, and when a scooter comes at her, the dog has no choice but to go into defense mode," Maxand said. "To them, all of a sudden a vehicle is coming at them. Their instinct is to get down, get over. So the scooters are disruptive, not just for us, but for anyone. Somebody driving past you at 20 mph on a scooter that is relatively silent is very unnerving.”
The scooters have come under fire recently, even from residents without mobility issues. In July, two women were seriously injured in Boise after falling into a construction hole while riding a scooter. They've filed notice of tort claims against the city of Boise and the Ada County Highway District seeking upward of $50,000 each for their injuries. In October, a 16-year-old was killed when the scooter he was riding was hit by a truck on 15th and Main streets in Boise. And early in 2020, a man was seriously injured on a scooter on Eighth and Myrtle streets.
“The scooters were a decision that had huge and knowable ramifications for all kinds of people trying to get around downtown safely,” Maxand said.
The only defense that residents have, Leviton points out, is to file a complaint. But that’s easier said than done.
“I can take the picture (of the scooter blocking the way), and I know who to send it to,” she said. “But the average person does not. And we’re trying to get people to publicize it more — who to call, where to call, how to report the problem.”
Currently, to file a complaint to the city of Boise, there is not a direct path to follow to the form. You have to go to the city’s website; then to the department page; then to The Department of Finance and Administration page; then the only way to get to the complaint form from there is to use the search bar function and search a keyword like “scooter” or “complaint” and you will see a link that says “file a complaint.”
You can also file a complaint with the companies themselves. Lime has a relatively simple form on its site; go to the "Help Center" section, then select "User Manual" and then scroll to to bottom of the page, where you will see a section labeled "Reporting and Complaints." For Bird, the site directs you to take your complaints to city law enforcement.
Another problem is that it is not quite clear who should police the scooters in the first place.
“The scooters block the public right of way, which ACHD is in charge of,” Maxand said. “Except for downtown, where the city of Boise administration has their hands in the cookie jar. So it’s hard.”
However, ACHD spokeswoman Nicole DuBois said the scooters are completely in the purview of the city of Boise, which entered into the agreement with the scooter companies. The extent that ACHD is involved, she said, is its workers will occasionally move the scooters out of the way of any construction site they see. It is ACHD’s job to fix broken sidewalks, not handle obstructions.
“We aren’t a policing agency,” she said. “We couldn’t be. It’d be an impossible task.”
In a statement to the Idaho Press, Lana Graybeal, the communications manager for Boise Mayor Lauren McLean's office, said ensuring accessible sidewalk and right-of-way access is a top priority for the city.
As an example of this, she pointed to the set of ordinances Boise City Council passed in July 2019. The ordinances are designed to more strictly regulate the scooters, including making it a misdemeanor to deface public property with a scooter and simplifying the complaint process.
Before the ordinance, if a scooter was causing accessibility issues, it was reported, and the company had four hours to come move it. If the company did not pick it up within four hours, the city picked up the scooter, and the company had to pay $100 to retrieve it. Under the new ordinance, the city said it would immediately fix the issue and charge the company.
Last year, Lime invested millions in its Respect the Ride campaign, designed to educate riders on driving and parking safety measures. The company also pledged to donate and distribute 250,000 helmets worldwide as part of the program.
However to Maxand, the scooters are part of the larger issue of pedestrian safety. The way he sees it, sidewalks aren’t designed to be driven on by scooters or bikes. In downtown Boise, there are benches, newspaper boxes, bike racks and plants, all things relatively easy to navigate around on foot. But when on a scooter, going around 15 mph, it becomes much more dangerous. So the solution could lie in making more sidewalks downtown pedestrian-only and moving the scooters and bikes to the roads. In fact, to him, all the downtown transportation and traffic decisions should be built with pedestrians as a priority, not an afterthought.
All this isn’t to say the city hasn’t done anything to help the issues, the two add. ACHD has both Leviton and Maxand on its Americans with Disabilities Act Advisory Committee, which provides input to the county on transportation issues related to accessibility. They point out that the bus system has taken steps to make itself more accessible, including making more ADA compliant bus stops and partnering with the rideshare company Lyft. Their joint program, called The Last Mile, is designed to connect Treasure Valley residents with their nearest bus stops, the idea being that the distance between homes and bus stops (even if it is as little as one mile) is enough to deter people from using public transportation.
And they both say that, as a whole, citizens can be pretty good at policing themselves. It’s not uncommon for them to see people moving the scooters out of the way of streets or moving them to the side of the walkway.
“Because of that,” Leviton said, "it seems to me that some sort of education campaign would be really beneficial. Just for people to understand that, 'Hey, it’s OK if you move them. It’s all right.’ Just get them to be aware of what’s happening around them.”
“We’re not just here to complain,” Maxand clarified. “It’s just frustrating that we see all these opportunities for really innovative, really cool uses of technology in Boise. And it’s like, I’d love to work on that, but instead I have to spend my time dealing with the scooters."
“There’s just a lot of innovative technology that’s being developed in transportation,” he said. “But we’re being left behind. Because it isn’t accessible.”