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Opinion: Banning Scooters is Not a Safety Strategy

Image source: Derrick Pollack/Creative Commons

Earlier this month in St. Louis, a shooter in an unidentified vehicle opened fire on a downtown crowd, injuring a 13- and a 14-year-old girl before fleeing the scene. City leaders condemned the violence, and immediately instituted a neighborhood-wide ban on an entire mode of transportation that residents believed was at least partially responsible for attracting such senseless violence to their community and facilitating the perpetrator's quick getaway.

The shooter used a private car, but the vehicles that were banned were shared electric scooters.

If this chain of events seems confusing, it helps to know that this wasn't the first time officials in the Gateway City restricted micromobility access for its residents, even if it was perhaps the most dubiously justified.

Just weeks before, St. Louis instituted a 7 p.m. curfew on scooter fleets in two downtown neighborhoods following the annual Annie Malone May Day celebration, the second-largest African American parade in the country and an important local tradition honoring the philanthropic and personal legacy of one of America's first Black woman millionaires. The St. Louis Post Dispatch said the event drew "flocks of young people" — most of whom were Black themselves — who "disrupt[ed] the general safety of the area with rentable electric scooters and illegal activity." Fox2 said residents believe that scooters are "a magnet for attracting large groups of kids," despite the fact that scooter companies generally require users to verify their age via an ID scan prior to riding — and because youth have been involved in recent gun violence, it was posited, the scooters had to go.

“We do not have the resources to monitor where we can keep young people from engaging in dangerous behaviors, so those will be shut off until further notice,” Dan Isom, St. Louis public safety director, told Fox2.

What those specific "dangerous behaviors" were, though — and what precisely scooters actually had to do with them — were not specified. Isom also did not announce any plans for restricting the mobility of young people on any other modes, nor was he quoted on any plans to restrict their access to firearms. Representatives for Bird, one of the largest scooter outfits operating in the region, confirmed that no injuries related to their vehicles were reported at the Annie Malone Day parade; further, only 0.0013 percent of Bird rides in the St. Louis have ever resulted in an injury requiring medical treatment, which makes it one of the single safest metros in which the company operates.

The city of St. Louis, despite three separate requests for comment, did not confirm whether any violent incidents had been associated with scooters on the day of the parade, either.

Scooters, it seems, are becoming something of a scapegoat for a range of city safety problems — and not just in St. Louis.

Around the same time the Gateway to the West implemented its new policy, officials in Detroit announced that scooter companies would be required to automatically shut down their fleets from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; since March, riders Memphis have also found themselves left without a ride after 10 p.m. on the weekends, when would-be drunk weekend drivers, one would hope, would be most in need of safer ways to get around. In Cincinnati, meanwhile, micromobility outfits have been required to cease operations between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. since at least April, and city leaders have reportedly considered banning the mode altogether.

In all of those cases, local leaders have cited legitimate resident complaints about bad scooter behaviors, like sidewalk riding, or improperly parking vehicles in places where they obstruct pedestrian and wheelchair traffic. And in all of those cases, cities have failed to explain why they vaulted straight past solutions to those problems that would maintain access to the green mode — like better scooter parking policy or building pop-up micromobility lanes — and went straight for the nuclear option.

It's not terribly hard to guess at why cities are restricting micromobility access in response to far broader safety challenges. Hamstrung by state and federal governments that struggle to deliver real solutions to massive structural problems like gun violence and traffic violence, local leaders have a long history of resorting to broken windows policing strategies that aggressively criminalize or restrict behaviors some residents perceive as related to major crimes, but that often have nothing whatsoever to do with those crimes' root causes.

Helmet laws, bike bell mandates, and the entire concept of "jaywalking" itself are all examples of ways that cities have paid lip service to the idea of reducing car crash deaths among vulnerable road users, without actually confronting any of the major structural factors driving that crisis, like deadly road design, deadly vehicles, and an utter lack of mobility alternatives. Unsurprisingly, that approach continues to fail abysmally, while simultaneously providing police with a pretext to harass, brutalize, and kill — burdens which overwhelmingly fall on people of color and the unhoused.

Restrictions on shared scooters, of course, are mostly enforced with technology, rather than by human officers — though in St. Louis, notably, a massive influx of police patrols still followed the downtown ban. (Several local media outlets have even announced that the micromobility restrictions are "helping" suppress downtown crime rates, rather than the growing threat of arrest, harassment and police violence in those neighborhoods.) But that doesn't mean that residents don't struggle in other ways when an entire mode of transportation is abruptly disabled with the push of a tech company's button, even if scooters themselves aren't being pulled out of their hands by a literal cop.

In many transit-poor cities like St. Louis, for instance, micromobility fills a particularly critical last-mile gap in what can be an otherwise punishing commute for people who don't drive, particularly among night-shift workers who struggle with limited after-dark service, or even those who would just like to venture out of their homes after night falls. Following her own city's scooter curfew aimed at discouraging drivers from striking riders after dark, Atlanta-based writer Maya Kroth wrote about how scooters had offered her a "sense of protection" from the threat of street harassment, stalking, robbery, assault and rape, and that without it, she and other gender-marginalized people were struggling.

"E-scooters are not the answer to all (or even most) of Atlanta’s transit and safety woes ... But banning scooters at night does little to improve public safety," Kroth wrote. "In fact, for women like me who relied on them to help make the last mile of our journey a little safer, it only makes things worse."

Then there's the simple fact that removing scooters from car-dependent roads often forces many residents into cars, compounding the danger for vulnerable road users who remain. Studies have shown that as much as 45 percent of micromobility journeys would have otherwise been taken in a private automobile — and while a reckless rider on a lightweight scooter poses a potential danger to pedestrians, that threat is orders of magnitudes smaller than a reckless driver behind the wheel of even a modest sedan, particularly when the scooter-riders and walkers each have their own lane. The nighttime and weekend hours when scooters are also most likely to be banned are, of course, also the exact same hours when fatal car crashes are most likely to occur.

Much like other cities, St. Louis has yet to produce any real analysis of the total safety impacts of its scooter restrictions, much less a meaningful one that accounts for the damage done by increased carbon emissions, increased traffic violence, increased street harassment, and increased police violence in areas where zero-emissions mobility alternatives have been abruptly replaced by armed officer surveillance. Nor has it weighed those impacts against the equity risks of depriving huge swaths of the city with a mobility option upon which they rely, particularly at a moment when gas prices are at historic highs, transit service is at historic lows, and historic heat waves are hampering even the simple act of walking.

Until local leaders can do both those things, the policy is nothing more than a harmful distraction for the far harder work that needs to be done to make cities truly safe — without leaving anyone stranded.

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