City Politics

$1 to Ride

How e-scooters have changed Atlanta and what’s in store
Graphic by SAM BASKIN

In May of 2018, Bird scooters began appearing in Atlanta. They popped up on sidewalks, street corners, and even around Georgia Tech’s campus. People could walk up to one of the hundreds of scooters around the city, scan a QR code, and then ride to their destination. As Bird began gaining traction,  other scooter companies emerged in the city.

As scooters continued to increase in popularity, there were also growing complaints from Atlanta locals. Citizens took to social media to complain about improper scooter parking and irresponsible riders. The Instagram account @atlantabeltlinehatesyou gained over 7,000 followers, with its posts frequently criticizing the implementation of e-scooters in Atlanta. However, the account  also frequently advocates for the expansion of infrastructure for bikes and scooters. 

The city adopted legislation that regulates sharable mobility devices in Atlanta, aiming to make e-scooters in the city safer and more organized. It created a $12,000 permit fee that allows companies to operate up to 500 devices in the city. Every additional scooter after that first 500 costs $50 each to operate. It also codified specific rules about parking and riding e-scooters, such as making riding on the sidewalk illegal.

In April 2019, the Scoot Smart campaign was released. It aims to increase public awareness about proper scooter usage, in an attempt to improve road etiquette. The campaign focuses on responsible parking and riding. Graphics painted on sidewalks around the city read “Never Ride on Sidewalks” and “Park Here.”

The BeltLine has been strongly promoting trail etiquette, with parking and riding signage placed along the Eastside Trail. Additionally, in June, a geofenced reduced speed zone was created on the BeltLine, reducing scooter speeds during rush hour on the trail. Any scooters within the zone have their speed capped at 8 mph. 

Over the course of three months in summer 2019, four people were hit and killed by cars while riding scooters in the road. The first death occurred in the early morning on May 20, 2019, when Eric Amis Jr. was struck by a car on West Lake Avenue. Then, on July 17, 2019 William Alexander died after being struck by a bus on West Peachtree Street in midtown around 10 PM. After this death, the city government began to act. Council-member Amir Farokhi stated, “In addition to a time of mourning, it’s also a call to act. We need to invest more in complete streets — streets that accommodate cyclists, scooters, and pedestrians as much as they do cars. It’s in our power to ensure these sorts of tragedies are absent from our city.”

Additionally, councilmember Andre Dickens stated, “We must constantly evaluate and improve upon the usage and regulation of shareable vehicles to ensure that we limit the frequency and reduce the severity of [incidents] like we saw Wednesday evening.”

As a result of this death, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a moratorium on e-scooters, meaning the city would not give new permits for scooters. In the press release for the legislation, Mayor Bottoms said, “Given the serious effects these devices have on our infrastructure, public safety, and quality of life, the city cannot allow this rapidly growing industry to move faster than our ability to regulate it.”

On July 27, Amber Ford was struck by a car on 14th St at about 10 PM, marking the third scooter death. The fourth and final death of the summer was on August 6, when Quienterry McGriff was struck by a car in East Point at approximately 6 AM. This final incident was closely followed by the mayor enacting a nighttime ban of scooters between the hours of 9 PM and 4 AM, which went into effect on August 8. 

In the mayor’s press release, Commissioner of City Planning, Tim Keene said, “As a major city, we believe there is potential in engineering the smart integration of this popular mode of transportation. The devices go a long way in providing last-mile connectivity and convenience to residents, students, businesses and visitors. But it is vital that we pause and assess how we move forward in a responsible way, with public safety always being the top priority.”

Transit advocates in Atlanta argued that the deaths were a result of the city’s poor bike and LIT (Lite Individual Transportation) infrastructure, and advocated for city-wide improvements. At a city council meeting in August, Rebecca Serna, Executive Director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, stated “I’m asking you to use barricades to create safe spaces for people outside of cars. And you can do that, the city has the staff with the ability and expertise to identify those most dangerous streets, because we know that 8% of streets in the city account for 88% of traffic fatalities of all kinds.”

Serna and several others also advocated for a city-wide 25 mph speed limit. At the same city council meeting, Hayley Hamilton of PEDS Atlanta said, “We’re here to support reducing the speed limit to 25 on all roads where pedestrians and bicyclists are allowed. Data shows that slowing down the speed of cars from 35 to 25 results in a 61% drop in chances of a pedestrian being killed by a car. But we also know that lowering speeds is not just good for pedestrians. A decrease in speed by just 1 mph can reduce the risk of road crashes by 3%. And so, we really encourage the city to consider reducing the speed limits and reconfiguring our roads to make our streets safer for all modes of transportation.”

In September, the mayor announced a $5 million plan to improve bike infrastructure over the next two years. The plan adds safety features to 20 miles of streets, and triples the amount of protected bike lanes. One of the top priorities of the Bottoms administration has been building a safer and more equitable mobility network. Bottoms said, “The way that people are getting around Atlanta is changing as the city grows quickly, and this plan will help keep pace with new demands across our transportation network.”

The plan’s first project was a temporary bike lane on 10th street during the month of October. The pop-up lane was painted by volunteers, and protected with temporary orange and white traffic barriers. Dan Hourigan, the director of transportation and sustainability at Midtown Alliance, stated “We’ve traditionally designed bike lanes that are very high quality with lots of physical protection, meaning not just a plastic bollard, but a raised curb. I think the mayor’s action plan suggested that we’re not gonna go for grade A facilities everywhere, because we need to get stuff out and get stuff built sooner than later. So they’re shifting their focus more towards quick wins.”

Timeline of important events related to e-scooters in Atlanta

Although the temporary 10th street bike lane extension was rolled out quickly, it still showed the importance of new bike and scooter infrastructure. Bike and scooter rides increased 58 percent, and 92 percent of westbound bikes used the new lane. 83 percent  of scooter riders said they felt safer in the lane. After signal changes were made, there was little change to car travel times. 

Around the country, many cities such as New York City, West Hollywood, and Winston-Salem banned the operation of rentable e-scooters. Even some metro-Atlanta cities such as Alpharetta, Marietta, Norcross and Woodstock have imposed bans. The City of Atlanta imposing only regulations and not a full ban shows that the city is committed to adapting e-scooters into the city’s infrastructure. However, many scooter companies are pulling out of Atlanta, with only Bird, Boaz, and Jump remaining. When asked if e-scooters are here to stay, Hourigan was unsure, but guessed that they would change over time in design to be safer. 

Overall, opinions on using LIT in Atlanta seem to be changing. Dan Hourigan states, “Being on the street as a scooter rider gives them an understanding of the challenges that come with being a pedestrian, scooter rider, bike rider, whatever, from the safety perspective that they may not have thought about.”

However, areas that could benefit most from last mile transportation solutions are often neglected. The city has imposed regulations that require scooter companies to distribute a portion of their fleet in four equity zones around the city. However, increasing the amount of scooters without also increasing the amount of LIT infrastructure could be a dangerous combination. 

Scooters in Atlanta seem to have an uncertain future. What is certain is that they have impacted the city on many levels. The city government revealed that it is committed to improving infrastructure, Atlanta residents have started to see that a bikeable (and scooter-able) Atlanta is in reach, and according to data from the Atlanta Department of City Planning, scooter rides are likely leading to a decrease in car rides in the city. The number of e-scooter and e-bike sales in the US have significantly increased since the emergence of sharable e-scooter companies. Even if those companies die out, many Americans have started to get around cities in new ways. Dan Hourigan states, “I think if all the scooters have done is provide more focus about the importance of how we allocate public right of way, then that’s a huge benefit.” E-scooters have pushed Atlanta towards becoming a city that is not forced to rely on cars.

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