As visitors and workers in the Washington, D.C., area slowly return from the Covid-19 home-stay restrictions, they may be hit with a worry about a different kind of distancing: Keeping themselves safe on byways more heavily trafficked by bicycles and scooters, notably rental models whose mechanical soundness is under increasing question.
It is difficult to predict precisely how a new normal will settle over what had become for many a difficult and sometimes distressing trip to and from the office, or for throngs of tourists, visits to sites scattered across the metropolitan area.
But transportation experts know that health precautions may force a lightening of the load on public transit, whether trains, buses, or the subway. More people may crush into the District of Columbia in cars, worsening the commuting nightmares. That also may push workers and travelers into heavier reliance on bikes and scooters — a practice that District officials had sought to foster before the coronavirus struck. They had started to thin the number of startups renting e-scooters with apps and credit cards, promising to supervise the enterprises’ activities more closely and to crackdown on the businesses’ related hazards.
These included worsening traffic in some areas, reckless users, customers’ failing to don safety gear (helmets), and, of course, the willy-nilly return of rentals. Pedestrians and businesses had gotten angry and frustrated that scooters, especially, were too often abandoned and strewn in the middle of busy sidewalks, just like many teen-aged boys drop their on clothes, wherever, on their bedroom floors.
While officials once envisioned as many as 20,000 scooters flooding the District for daily short-trips, Covid-19 may curtail those ambitious plans. That’s because startups that once had sizable fleets in the area — Bird (600), Bolt (600), Jump (600), Lime (675), Lyft (720), Razor (600), Skip (720) and Spin (720) — all saw their businesses dive during the Covid-19 stay-at-home time. As the Wall Street Journal reported:
“[U]se of … scooters has plummeted during the coronavirus lockdown. Over a week-long period in mid-April for instance, app usage for Bird and a handful of other scooter startups dropped to roughly 12 million use sessions, compared to 33 million over the same period a year ago, according to app data firm Apptopia Inc. Bird laid off roughly 30% of its workforce in March and Lime laid off roughly 13% of its workforce in April.”
Lime and Bird — which showed flagrant disrespect to its staff in a mass-firing via Zoom, the video chat service — were not alone in their financial struggles, the Washington Post reported, quoting David Spielfogel, chief of policy at Lime scooters, and others:
“Uber [has] … also laid off hundreds of employees combined, affecting [its] scooter and bike-share operations. In early May, Uber offloaded Jump, its bike and scooter business, to Lime as part of a $170 million investment. The deal ensures Lime has ‘the resources to not just weather covid, but to have the runway to reach full company profitability, which we expect to do in 2021,’ Spielfogel said. And by absorbing Jump into its operations, Lime’s fleet will grow significantly. However, it remains to be seen whether that’s a benefit to the company when Jump was losing $60 million a quarter.”
(Uber, by the way, is under fire for trashing thousands of its e-bikes, destroying them rather than trying to give them away. The company says it has no choice because of branding and intellectual property concerns addressed in its deal with Lime).
During the pandemic-related slowdown of the scooter business, Bird was hit with a lawsuit in Los Angeles that focused attention anew on safety issues with its products, the Wall Street Journal reported. Forty-one claimants asserted that “the Santa Monica-based company failed to properly maintain scooter parts including brakes, wheels, and throttles,” causing them harms, the newspaper reported, adding:
“[B]rake failure, sudden accelerations, faulty throttle buttons and wheels resulted in injuries such as fractures, broken bones, and concussions in states including California, Colorado, and Virginia. Plaintiffs described being thrown off the scooters or jumping off to avoid cars when brakes or other features failed. The suit also names scooter manufacturers Xiaomi USA Inc. and Segway Inc. as defendants.”
Journal reporter Marc Vartebedian also has other concerning information about scooter safety, writing:
“As Bird and other scooter startups have expanded across the world, they have set up sprawling networks of repair warehouses and spare parts supply chains to fix broken scooters and return them to the streets. The suit … alleges that Bird’s scooters are unsafe and ‘contain manufacturing and/or design defects and do not include adequate warnings and use instructions. Defendants are aware that the products will be used without an inspection for these defects and that these defects are not apparent.’ Bird, Lime, Xiaomi, and Segway are facing another lawsuit filed in 2018 that alleges scooters dumped onto streets threatened public safety and had mechanical problems. The lawsuit comes on the heels of a wrongful termination suit filed against Bird last year alleging it fired a worker after he raised safety complaints regarding Bird’s handling of damaged scooters. The case is still pending.”
Consumer Reports, emergency room doctors in Los Angeles, and officials in Austin, Tex., as well as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all have delivered unhappy research on scooters. The most recent Texas study found problems with users getting hurt while riding for the first time, drinking, speeding, and failing to wear protective gear, especially helmets. As the experts wrote:
“This study was limited to investigating only those injured e-scooter riders and non-riders who sought care at a hospital emergency department or had care provided by emergency medical services. These riders are believed to experience more severe injuries compared with injured e-scooter riders whose injuries did not require care from a hospital emergency department or EMS. Almost half of the injured riders in this study sustained an injury to the head. Of these injured riders with a head injury, 15% reported or had evidence suggestive of a traumatic brain injury.
“These injuries may have been preventable. Only one of 190 injured scooter riders was wearing a helmet. Studies have shown that bicycle riders reduce the risk of head and brain injuries by wearing a helmet. Helmet use might also reduce the risk of head and brain injuries in the event of an e-scooter crash. Perceptions may be that most e-scooter riders are injured because of collisions with motorized vehicles. The findings of this study do not support that perception. While more than half of the interviewed riders were injured while riding a scooter in the street, few (10%) riders sustained injuries by colliding with a motor vehicle. Nevertheless, continuing education for motorized vehicle drivers and e-scooter riders is needed to prevent collisions.”
As for cyclists, they are more likely to own and be familiar with their bikes, which they do need to keep in good order. If the District sidewalks return to being jammed, the law requires them to behave responsibly with strollers there, as a cycling group has posted:
“When you ride, it’s your responsibility to obey the law and keep yourself and the people around you safe … Yield to people walking. Like bicyclists, pedestrians are vulnerable on and around our roads. It’s not their responsibility to stay out of your way. It is up to you to negotiate space in a way that is comfortable and safe for people walking.”
Safety agencies and groups, including the National Safety Council and the National Transportation Safety Board, have warned about increased hazards for pedestrians, bicyclists, and scooter riders — caused by themselves, each other, and, of course, cars, motorcycles, and trucks.
Hit-and-run crash deaths are soaring across the country with walkers and bicyclists victimized in almost 70% of the street wrecks, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has reported. Biking’s toll of injuries and other harms already was on the increase, without hit-and-runs factored in.
In my practice, I see not only the significant injuries that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also the havoc that can be wreaked on them and their lives by auto, truck, or motorcycle wrecks and the damages that can be done to individuals and their loved ones by dangerous and defective products.
With good seasonal weather and the threat of Covid-19 infection seemingly higher in closed, confined spaces, many of us will want to be in the sunny, open air, meaning scooters and especially bikes will have even greater appeal than ever. Bikes have become a hot commodity, maybe not as scarce as disinfectant wipes or toilet paper, still, in many places. Research has pointed to the wellness benefits that bike riding and walking can offer. It also may be more convenient and less problematic than doubters may think.
Urban planners and policy makers are determining now how to readjust all kinds of ways that we live and work to deal with the novel coronavirus’ harms. That may include rethinking our streets and sidewalks — not only to accommodate less vehicle traffic and risk, but also to increase access for pedestrians, bikers, scooter riders, and, yes, potential users of more open space, such as stores and restaurants.
It may confuse motorists for a bit. But the long-standing speed limit in the District has just been decreased on residential streets to 20 mph from 25 mph, in a move that Mayor Muriel Bowser argues will improve the safety for all, especially with speeding having become a collateral harm of the Covid-19 shutdowns and motorists potential over-eager return to traffic.
The Washington Post reported:
“In 2019, 12 pedestrians and two bicyclists were killed in traffic crashes, down from 15 pedestrians and three bicyclists in 2018, according to D.C. police data. Bowser also announced a ‘slow streets’ initiative through which some neighborhood roads will be restricted to local traffic only and have a posted 15 mph speed limit. The District Department of Transportation is identifying locations, she said. While those roads will not be closed to other traffic, Bowser said, the city will place barriers and signage about the restrictions so that drivers know they should not cut through.”
We’ve got work to do, keeping safety as a top priority. Head’s up, out there, as you make your way around.