Electric scooter companies have introduced thousands of scooters to cities without getting government permission, sparking nationwide controversy. Baltimore approved a six-month pilot program with two such companies, Bird and Lime, in August.
The contract for the pilot program allows both Bird and Lime to maintain a fleet of up to 2,000 scooters and another 1,000 bikes in the City. The announcement followed the failure of the Baltimore Bike Share program, which was launched in 2016 and cancelled this past summer at a total cost of around $3.2 million. The new contract with the scooter companies comes at no cost to the City.
Junior Brandt Matthews uses the scooters regularly to commute to his job at the JHU-MICA Film Centre on North Avenue.
Matthews noticed that the scooters are often concentrated in Baltimore’s “white L,” a series of more affluent neighborhoods approximately extending along North Charles Street from Roland Park to Federal Hill, and then east into Fell’s Point and Canton. Still, he said, the system has potential.
“Transportation can be anywhere, as opposed to a bus route or even a bike share with docks, so actually utilizing that to help underprivileged communities would be huge, assuming it’s actually being used properly,” he said.
Under the contracts Bird and Lime share with the City, at least 250 scooters from each fleet are required to be redistributed each day throughout certain low-income neighborhoods.
Both Bird and Lime were founded in 2017 and have since introduced fleets in almost 90 cities in the United States. Some cities have resisted embracing the dockless systems. Bird scooters are a frequent target of vandalism in San Francisco, and the city took some legislative measures to regulate their role in the city. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, however, embraced the scooters as the “wave of the future” during a press conference in August.
When Bird first brought 60 bikes to Baltimore in July, they did not seek any approval from City officials. Instead of shutting the program down, however, Pugh’s office negotiated a contract to receive $15,000 from both Bird and Lime for the six-month pilot, with an additional dollar a day for each dockless scooter or bike deployed.
Jeremy LaMaster, a research program manager at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that the scooters were a luxury and called for investments in other parts of the City’s transportation infrastructure.
“I don’t envision it necessarily as a fix to the public transportation system,” LaMaster said.
LaMaster said that if the scooter-sharing system sought to address inequalities in the City and make transportation more accessible in underprivileged areas, it needed to be implemented with feedback from those communities.
“I would want to make sure it’s something that different communities are wanting,” he said.
Brian Seel, a Baltimore resident who reported on the failure of the Baltimore Bike Share for The Baltimore Fishbowl, said that overall the dockless model made equal access to the scooters throughout the City easier.
According to Seel, while they sometimes cluster around the Inner Harbor, they are often spread more evenly throughout the City. However, he also raised concerns about the technology required to access the scooters.
“Lime and Bird are much more reliant on having a cellphone,” he said. “If you’re dropping them off in communities with a certain income threshold, they also might not have access to the technology to even use the scooters. There’s a lot of people in Baltimore City that don’t have that.”
Sophomore Beckie Cohen said she saw no reason why the scooters wouldn’t be spread around the City to be available to everyone. She also noted that they can be useful to Hopkins students who live further from campus.
“It’s so easy to just pick one up near where they live and scoot to campus, which is so much faster than anything else,” Cohen said. “A Blue Jay Shuttle can’t do that. It’s basically going to replace people having bicycles.”
Matthews added that it could be difficult to locate an available Bird.
“A lot of the time I’ve got to walk a little bit,” he said. “Also, if a Bird is kind of far from me, I’ll have to decide if I’m going to try to walk there and get it before someone else. Someone else could be right next to the scooter, and I can’t reserve the scooter and then walk to it, so that’s kind of annoying.”
Seel commended the response from the City.
He said that the City Council and Department of Transportation (DOT), which did not respond to The News-Letter’s request for comment, are taking steps in the right direction in solving many of Baltimore’s transportation problems.
“I know it’s very popular to trash the Mayor and DOT, but I’m actually kind of impressed with how they’ve handled this,” Seel said.
He argued that the City took good initiative with the Bird and Lime programs that were made available.
“Baltimore basically said, ‘Alright, we realize that we have an issue with our bike share system. We realize that this scooter system is probably a good thing. Let’s lean into the problem. Let’s try to deal with this,’” he said.
Seel said that there are too many cars in Baltimore and not enough room to make the roads bigger to accommodate the traffic. In addition, he said that he’s had difficulty transferring between bus routes, criticizing the City for failing to invest in public transportation.
He acknowledged that the scooters are, for the time being, a novelty but added they could grow to ease some of the City’s problems if they were to become more reliable once the program expands.
“[The scooters] can act as that first mile, last mile — if you’re trying to catch one of those colored lines, you can use one of these to get up there, and you can use one to get to your destination as opposed to needing two or three buses to get to where you need to go,” Seel said.
Still, Seel acknowledged that the dockless model makes it more difficult to find scooters. With bike docks, he explained, he could be certain that there would be bikes available for use at a reliable location, making them more practical for a commuter.
Junior John Moore agreed that searching for scooters was an issue.
“I started my search and found two that weren’t on the map but were right in front of my apartment building. One was like, ‘I have low battery,’ and the next one said that it had no cellular service,” Moore said. “I did actually find one that was on the map. It’s like Pokémon Go but for scooters.”
Jeremy LaMaster also noticed an issue with the scooters’ battery life. He said that a five-minute ride consumed almost 30 percent of one scooter’s power.
Bird and Lime pay residents to gather the scooters in the evenings and charge them overnight. However, many users have noticed that later in the day many scooters will go offline after running out of charge.
Sophomore Amy Lu, who described herself as “addicted to Bird,” also said that users should be able to reserve a scooter before walking to it, adding that she wouldn’t depend on the scooters for her commute and risk being late.
“They’re not reliable enough for that because they’re not in the same place at the same time regularly, so I wouldn’t rely on it,” she said.
Lu said that problems arise if people rely entirely on Bird for transportation.
“If I do want to Bird somewhere, it’s hard to find one near me sometimes, and that’s just really annoying,” she said.
She also suggested having designated drop-off areas for the scooters. Seel said that this could be one way to repurpose the spaces previously used as docks for the Baltimore Bike Share.
Cohen fell off of a Lime scooter near the Baltimore Museum of Art and injured her knee, which she said raised concerns with having the scooters on campus. She and others pointed out that using the scooters shows how inaccessible Homewood Campus is for people who use wheelchairs.
Use of electric scooters on campus is prohibited by University policy. According to James Bukowski, an environmental health officer at the School of Medicine’s Department of Health, Safety and Environment, the University has no plan to update or re-evaluate this policy.
He added that University officials informed Bird of this policy when the company reached out to Hopkins in July.
According to Cohen, her friends have joked that scooters were banned because of her fall. She added that there are benefits and drawbacks to this policy.
“I do feel bad for the people who live far away who I know are using it all the time to get around, and the people who just want to go far distances around campus, but I also feel like every time they say they’re going on one they’re increasing their risk of getting hurt,” she said.
Cohen said that the University might reassess the policy when they realize how popular the scooters are.
Junior Brandt Matthews also called for more students to use the scooters, saying that they could help students explore.
“It’s a good way for Hopkins students to get out into the community a little more,” Matthews said. “I definitely don’t think a lot of Hopkins kids use them, though. Maybe some do, but when you look at the number of scooters around here, it’s not that many. I think Hopkins should encourage Bird usage.”
Neither Bird nor Lime responded for comment before press time.