Four thousand electric scooters — 1,000 of them integrated into the downtown Divvy bike-sharing system — will hit the streets next month and take their place as a permanent part of Chicago’s transportation system.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration made it happen Thursday by authorizing three companies — Lime, Spin and Superpedestrian — to start renting 1,000 scooters apiece outside downtown.
Half those scooters must be offered in what the city’s calls “equity priority areas” on the South and West sides.
At the same time, City Hall gave Lyft, operator of the Divvy bike-sharing system, the exclusive right to add 1,000 scooters to its 230 docking stations in the greater downtown area “to manage the introduction of scooters in the pedestrian-rich downtown area.”
That will give Chicago what top mayoral aides billed as the “first docked system in the nation that can accommodate both bikes and scooters side-by-side.” Docking at Divvy stations will be “incentivized” by offering lower prices to those riders.
The 4,000 electric scooters are expected to hit the streets in early May, but will not be allowed on the Lakefront Trail, the 606, the Riverwalk or Navy Pier.
As required by a City Council ordinance approved last fall, all 4,000 scooters must be equipped with “sidewalk detection” technology to protect pedestrians by reducing sidewalk speeds.
All four licensees must also use “lock-to” scooters, designed to be locked to something — a tree or street sign, for example — between rentals. During pilot programs, some complained about scooters being left in the middle of sidewalks.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the council’s Transportation Committee, called the 4,000-scooter program a “work in progress.”
“Are there gonna be some growing pains? There sure are. But in relatively short order, they should be able to get it right,” Brookins said Thursday.
“Geo-fencing works. If it’s not put in the appropriate place, you will be charged more, to really ramp up the incentive for people to put them back in the appropriate place.”
No matter how many safeguards are put in place, complaints about sidewalk clutter and pedestrian safety are likely to continue, the chairman said.
“Even if they’re chained to light poles, people don’t want to see ’em. Even though a significant number of people have their own electronic scooters and can ride anywhere they want to, people will still complain,” Brookins said.
“There’s gonna always be a certain percentage of people who disagree with it. We’ve just got to figure that into the equation and try and make it the best that we can.”
Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said adding 1,000 scooters all at once might be a “shock to the system” to the already-congested greater downtown area.
“It might make more sense to phase it in more gradually and incrementally,” he said.
Geo-fencing also “needs to be tested in real-world conditions,” but downtown Chicago should not be the guinea pig, Hopkins said.
“We’re not back to pre-pandemic traffic levels. When there’s less pedestrian traffic, people on the wheeled devices think they can go faster. All it takes is one person walking out of a store holding packages and they’re struck and injured,” Hopkins said.
“There’s a lot of pedestrian-vehicle conflict. Now, there’s pedestrian-bike conflict. Pedestrian-scooter conflict. Pedestrians seem to be at the bottom of the transportation food chain. They’re the most vulnerable. The most likely to be injured by someone operating in an unsafe manner. And this adds to it.”
Despite jurisdictional issues with the police union, Hopkins urged the city to find a way to authorize a core of civilian employees to ticket scooter and bike riders “playing slalom down Michigan Avenue sidewalks.”
Brookins agreed ticketing is needed — and not just for sidewalk incursions.
“Bikes, scooters. The whole traffic situation is out of control — including car traffic. It’s ridiculous. We get complaints all over the city about numerous violations and then not enough people out there trying to enforce these ordinances,” Brookins said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot noted skyrocketing gasoline prices are the perfect backdrop for the scooter launch.
“As transportation costs go up, it is critical that we support micro-mobility solutions like shared bikes and scooters, which provide affordable way to travel in Chicago without needing a car,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release.
During a committee meeting last fall, LeAaron Foley, director of government and community relations for Lime Chicago, described the “geo-fencing” software embedded in electric scooters.
“We can reduce the speed from, say from 15 miles-per-hour to 10 miles-per-hour based off of the geo-fencing maps that we receive from CDOT and upload into our app. [We can] make sure that riders can no longer enter into those zones or that they must only go a certain speed while they’re in that zone,” Foley said that day.