Chris Ford for The Spinoff
In the debate about the safety of Lime e-scooters, one voice has been largely unheard – that of the disabled community, which has had serious concerns from the start, writes Chris Ford.
As a disability-rights and pedestrian-rights activist, I applaud both my own Dunedin City Council and the Auckland City Council for their decisions to temporarily remove Lime e-scooters from the streets. I say this because Lime has had a seriously detrimental impact on the disability community in the areas where it has launched so far.
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I must admit here that I'm a former scooter user myself. I used a four-wheeled electrically powered mobility scooter for transport for nearly 25 years. In my defence, there were few mobility scooters around when I started using mine, and scooters did have (and still do) some legal clearance to use footpaths. Now, I use a power chair for both indoor and outdoor mobility.
So why should a power chair user (and former mobility scooter user) be lecturing others about Lime scooters? I can almost hear the Lime fans now: "Oh look, there goes another member of the fun police – and he's a bloody hypocrite to boot!"
Unlike many e-scooter users, however, I use a power chair as a matter of necessity; the same was true when I used a mobility scooter in the past. Having said that, I do believe that carbon-free, alternative energy-powered vehicles like e-scooters are the way of the future; it's likely we will have even more of them using our transport networks within the next decade. In fact, disabled people (particularly those who don't or can't drive) have long led the way in using either carbon-free or low-emission transport modes such as buses, power wheelchairs and walking for decades now.
But technologies like Lime e-scooters have to be introduced into our transport networks in a safe, legal and constructive way. The safety of such technology must be tested and verified before being introduced, in the same way that cars have to meet certain standards before being placed on the road. There must be stringent standards put in place around their design and use. And there must be good, robust safety regulations ensuring that the needs and interests of all users of the transport network are respected.
The way in which Lime e-scooters launched in Aotearoa demonstrates that when a multinational company wants to get its way in this country, it usually will. Last week it came to light that former Labour Party president Mike Williams, now a lobbyist, introduced Lime executives to Transport Minister Phil Twyford and New Zealand Transport Agency officials late last year to help grease the wheels for Lime's relatively quick launch in this country.
After that, Lime set about meeting with key city council officials in the launch locations they had their eyes on in order to further their case. In Dunedin, many elected councillors didn't know that company executives had met with city officials to conclude a Memorandum of Understanding until just before the company's launch in the city. It looks to me like Lime were keen to bypass consulting with elected officials and, crucially, the wider public in order to get their way.
If Lime had been required to consult with the community, they would have found legitimate concerns being raised by the disability community. They would have found that, in particular, wheelchair users, blind and vision impaired people, people with mobility impairments and people with age-related disabilities (among others) had reasonable concerns about the arrival of Lime scooters on our streets.
These would have included the ability of largely non-disabled people to use Limes on pedestrian footpaths and at high speeds. Those with mobility impairments are particularly at risk here, as they tend to have stability issues and lack the ability to quickly jump out of the way of oncoming scooters. Furthermore, blind and vision impaired people would have asked whether they could reasonably know that Lime e-scooters were oncoming, given that these vehicles are fairly quiet. The disability community would have also questioned users' freedom to leave the scooters anywhere, especially on footpaths. As we know now, wheelchair users and mobility aid users (not to mention all other pedestrians) are forced to navigate around scooters abandoned in the middle of the footpath on a daily basis.
Moreover, there was growing evidence before Lime's New Zealand launch that many overseas cities had either banned Lime and other e-scooter companies from operating or, at the very least, had placed significant restrictions around their use. It seems that a number of US cities did so largely as the result of legal challenges from disability rights groups about the ability of disabled people and others to safely use footpaths.
But it looks like Lime's ability to successfully navigate our legal loopholes ended up trumping any consideration of the safety of pedestrians, of e-scooter users themselves, and of other users of the transport system, including motorists and cyclists.
Now the concerns of the disability community have been vindicated through nearly six months of actual experience. Disability community social media pages are full of people expressing anger and frustration about the Lime situation, including the need – as I've experienced myself – to dodge out of the way of a badly driven scooter.
Clearly, central government now needs to act on the e-scooter issue. I understand that the government is currently developing a strategy document on how we manage the challenges of new vehicular technology and its impact on our transport network, including on our pedestrian spaces. In the meantime, we need stop-gap legislation which includes speed limits on all vehicles with the ability to use footpaths (and I concede that this should include even power chairs and mobility scooters).
In the longer-term, government should also stipulate that any vehicle designed for pedestrian use (including e-scooters) should meet strict operating standards and be subjected to regular testing and safety checks by transport authorities, with the ability to recall any model should it be found unsafe. Above all, all operators should be legally required to undertake a reasonable period of public consultation (especially with key stakeholders including pedestrian groups, disabled people and local communities) prior to launching any new mode of high tech transport in New Zealand.
At the same time, councils and central government should invest in pedestrian-only, car-free spaces in cities and major towns where only foot traffic and other permitted users can go. We also need more regulated shared spaces that motor vehicles – indeed, all transport users (including e-scooters and bicycles) – can use, providing they stick to parallel lanes or spaces regulated either by speed and/or modal type.
Until better regulation and/or standards arrive, though, the ban on Lime e-scooters (and all other brands of e-scooter) should remain. This would give central government and local communities throughout the country the time to develop the legislative and infrastructural tools to help deal with the influx of new transport technologies in a more effective, planned way. After that, providing all the safety and other requirements I've outlined above were met, I'd be happy to welcome Lime and other e-scooter operators back.
I have to be honest: it's no fun to be the so-called fun police. But anyone who identifies as a disabled person and lives in a Lime-using area will almost certainly be expressing relief today that the calls for greater restraint have finally been heard. No doubt other members of the public who have had their own negative experiences with Lime e-scooters – either as users themselves, or as pedestrians who've had run-ins with them – will be expressing some relief too. Now, onto the fight for better regulation and standards that will benefit everyone, both e-scooter users and non-users alike.
Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer and researcher. He currently works for a disability non-governmental organisation and is co-convenor of the Dunedin Pedestrian Action Network alongside Dr Lynley Hood. The views expressed here are his own.