o-electricscooters

Since their arrival in Omaha in 2019, electric scooters have quickly spread across the Cornhusker State almost as fast as a particular illness that I promised not to talk about in our latest podcast.

A year later, in September 2020, dockless scooters began popping up in Lincoln, and this summer, they expanded outstate to Columbus and Kearney.

Some have claimed that scooters are the future of transportation, driven in part by a pandemic that has made people uneasy about traditional, shared public transportation. Given their recent popularity, it sure seems that the shiny new scooters littered across Lincoln sidewalks may be the future, but they shouldn’t necessarily be adopted permanently just because they’re new.

Lincoln’s Bird and Spin electric scooters are currently part of a pilot program that was scheduled to last for one year, but the program was recently extended to the end of 2021 so that policymakers could examine how scooters would be used during a more typical school year with in-person classes.

In my opinion, electric scooters are the second most annoying downtown transportation method second only to pedal pubs, but personal annoyance alone isn’t reason enough to dismiss the scooters as the future of urban public transportation.

Thankfully, the city of Lincoln has documented the pilot program extensively and has released a report in April about the scooters, and a close reading doesn’t paint the rosiest picture.

Scooters were first brought to Lincoln as a way to solve the last mile problem of public transportation. People are often willing to walk up to a quarter mile to get to a public transit station, but beyond that, it can sometimes become impractical.

Electric scooters supposedly solve that issue by making it easier to get around downtown without having to walk long distances, but the cost is too high to justify its benefits over the alternative.

The scooters cost $1 to unlock and then an additional cost per minute. It cost a 10/11 NOW reporter $6.66 for a 10-minute ride. I’m not saying scooters are the devil, but the cost does raise some questions.

Given that the average scooter ride is 13 minutes and 15 seconds, according to the mid-year report, riders are likely paying an average of $8. The average length of electric scooter rides in Lincoln was 1.12 miles, which means that scooters were traveling at an average of just over five miles per hour. Walkers average a speed of three to four miles per hour, which begs the question: Is an extra mile per hour of speed for a 13-minute trip worth a Chipotle burrito?

Lincoln’s electric scooters have a top speed of 15 miles per hour, but the hazards of pedestrian traffic and frequent stop lights seem to slow down that potential.

Pedestrian traffic shouldn’t be a hazard at all since it is technically illegal to ride an electric scooter on a downtown sidewalk — in fact, doing so after the initial scooter introduction phase could result in a $500 fine or up to six months in jail.

However, given the number of scooter riders that use the sidewalks, there is no way that everyone could even fit in jail, especially given the state of Nebraska’s prison system. 

Besides, while scooters may pose a threat for pedestrians on the sidewalk, placing them on downtown streets among semi trucks and city buses while they scoot along at an average of 5 mph seems like a disaster waiting to happen. 

Scooters are allowed on 9th and 10th streets, the multi-lane, one-way remnants of I-180, but they are not allowed on the sidewalks alongside them. I previously wrote about my concerns on this stretch of road as a bike rider, and I imagine scooters are in an even more precarious situation.

It’s no wonder most scooter riders are found on the sidewalk, not the roadway. In fact, 33% of riders didn’t even know sidewalk riding was illegal, the report found.

Riders are also supposed to wear helmets, though that recommendation has gone largely unfollowed as well — who wants to carry a scooter helmet throughout downtown all day for a one-mile scooter ride?

And then, there’s the issue that really gets the public riled up: scooter parking. A full 41% of public comments about the scooter launch dealt with this topic, according to the report.

The aesthetic nightmare of the scooters strewn across sidewalks, creating hazards for pedestrians and cluttering up the otherwise nice walkways, is what initially drew my ire, and while I have gotten used to their presence, downtown Lincoln looks much better without them.

There are designated scooter parking areas, but again, most scooter riders (57%) had no idea they even existed.

Of course, the decision to keep the scooters will likely come down to money, and the city of Lincoln does receive some money from per-ride fees. However, through the first six months, the city has only received $4,975.05 in revenue, a microscopic amount for a city that brings in upwards of $200 million each year.

While I have been critical of the influx of scooters in downtown Lincoln, I commend the city for taking a chance on a new form of public transportation through the use of a closely-monitored pilot program instead of going all-in immediately.

Perhaps the scooters will revolutionize transportation for college students now that fully in-person classes have returned to campus, but the data I have seen so far doesn’t suggest that.

So when it comes time to determine the future of scooters in the Star City, I encourage the city council to decline them. With the bike share program, city buses and downtown trolley, Lincoln has plenty of options to keep people off their feet.

Brian Beach is a junior journalism major. Reach him at brianbeach@dailynebraskan.com.