Ottawa’s transportation committee unanimously approved a plan to renew and expand the city’s e-scooter pilot program in 2021 on Wednesday, despite safety concerns from local advocates for physically and visually impaired residents.
The expanded pilot, which still requires sign-off from the full city council, would see e-scooters return to Ottawa streets from April 1 until Nov. 30.
The expanded program will see up to 1,500 e-scooters in a wider geographic area in 2021, up from 600 last year. The city also plans to explore a potential “satellite program” with 300 scooters in an Ottawa suburb.
Dockless e-scooters were first given the green light to roll out in late June 2020 through a new bylaw governing their use in Ottawa, enabled by a five-year pilot program from the provincial government.
The scooters, which were scattered through a confined downtown space and could be picked up for short rides by anyone with an app on their phones, proved a popular experiment.
Nearly 73,000 unique riders used scooters in Ottawa last year, taking a combined 238,000 trips in the first season of the pilot.
But the pilot has faced criticism from some residents and disability advocates, namely for improperly parked scooters and users riding on sidewalks. The e-scooters are to be parked in furniture zones off sidewalks and ridden only on the street, in bike lanes or on select active-transportation pathways.
Roughly 4,500 residents, a mix of riders and non-riders, responded to a survey giving feedback on the first year of the e-scooter pilot.
Of those respondents, 69 per cent reported encountering a misparked scooter. Some opted to move the vehicle themselves, while others reported it to the three operators — Bird, Lime and Roll — to move the scooter, which they are mandated to do within an hour of the report.
Staff said in the report that operators were “largely” able to meet these requests.
But Phillip Turcotte, chair of the city’s accessibility advisory committee, said he was “especially disappointed” that staff’s report did not address the “repeated concerns” raised by the group in consultations.
He pointed to the need for e-scooters to emit a constant noise to better alert visually impaired pedestrians about potential hazards and the need for a centralized complaint centre to be accountable for the time it takes for misparked scooters to be removed.
Turcotte said approving another year of the e-scooter pilot program will move Ottawa further away from the provincially mandated goal of making the nation’s capital fully accessible by 2025.
Kathleen Forestell from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind also told the committee that the impact of mismanaged e-scooters was not fully felt in the summer of 2020, when many visually impaired residents were staying home more often amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
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She said that while the state of e-scooters in Ottawa could always improve with future revisions to the pilot, their presence will always be a danger to the visually impaired.
A lack of education around e-scooter rules was identified as an issue in the staff report, with 38 per cent of survey respondents indicating they learned about e-scooter use — rightly or wrongly — from other riders.
Representatives from the e-scooter operators, who attended Wednesday’s meeting to advocate in favour of the expanded pilot, said they would be working on awareness campaigns and other initiatives to improve compliance if the program were reapproved in 2021.
Because staff also plan on implementing a competitive procurement process for operators in this year’s e-scooter season, some representatives were reluctant to share details about new technologies they planned to install.
But Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, himself an admitted fan of e-scooters, said he had heard about technology from one of the operators that gave him confidence that issues like sidewalk riding could be mitigated in future seasons.
Leiper pointed to the environmental and safety benefits of removing cars from the road as motivation to re-up the pilot program for another year.
“There’s a ton of benefits if we can get this right,” he said.
Ottawa e-scooter stats
Compared to Ottawa’s pilot for a dockless bikeshare program in 2017 and 2018, e-scooter demand “far exceeds” the pickup of the similar model for bikes, according to a staff report presented on Wednesday.
Comparing the 500 bikes available from July to October with the 600 e-scooters available over a similar period, seasonal bike trips peaked at 18,886 in 2018.
Most trips were over distances of almost two kilometres and lasted an average of 15 minutes. Peak usage was on weekends and in the hours of 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Respondents to the city’s survey at the end of the e-scooter season showed 76 per cent of people hopped on scooters for fun or leisure, while 51 per cent used the scooters just to try them out and a close 49 per cent rode scooters to social events.
In terms of demographics, 30 per cent of rider respondents to the city’s survey said they were aged 16 to 24, 54 per cent were aged 25 to 44 and 14 per cent were aged 45 years or older.
The city did not have gender data available on e-scooter ridership, though some delegates attending the committee meeting noted anecdotally that they rarely saw women using the scooters.
One of the city’s main goals with piloting the scooters was to reduce the number of cars on the road in the downtown core. Just under half of survey respondents said their e-scooter use reduced the amount of time they drove a vehicle, with 33 per cent saying it reduced their overall car trips, including ride-hailing services.
Getting to work and school were not popular reasons listed for using e-scooters in the survey, though remote work amid the COVID-19 pandemic was well in place when the program began and the summer school break lasted over the majority of the pilot.
The city was also hoping e-scooter usage would promote local shopping. Some 48 per cent of trips started in a Business Improvement Area, while 45 per cent ended in a BIA. Thirty-six per cent of people who reported visiting a business on their trips said they spent between $21 and $50.
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