First E-scooters in Awesome Ottawa

E-scooter in Ottawa
Lonely e-scooter on a Saturday morning near the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa

Edit: report issues to 311@ottawa.ca attn project manager e-scooters

Last week e-scooters were introduced in Ottawa. Surprisingly, city council moved fast on it. I had expected it not to happen before spring 2021, especially in these unprecedented times. Let’s have a look.

Lyon, France

E-scooters are battery powered kick scooters. I saw them for the first time in action in the summer of 2019 in Lyon, France and I really liked the small footprint, the lack of emissions, the lack of noise. It looked quite elegant, watching them rolling along the Rhone’s pathways. I did notice though the many scooters littering the sidewalk, even blocking cross walks, staircases etc. When I looked into it more, I started to see the e-scooters in a somewhat more nuanced light.

Dott E-scooters in Lyon, France
E-scooters in Lyon, France in 2019

Carpet bombing

Many cities have struggled with the e-scooters. Initially introduced in several US and European cities, they just appeared overnight. While you are bound to the bylaw to cut a tree, build a garden shed or park your car somewhere, for some reason, shared e-scooter companies got away with carpet bombing a city with e-scooters without asking.

This didn’t go over well and eventually countries, provinces and cities developed policies and bylaws, forcing the shared e-scooter companies to become a bit more subtle in their strategies.

Ontario set up a framework for a pilot for e-scooters to operate on Ontario’s roads. The municipalities can add a number of additional rules. Some rules are set by Transport Canada (the technical requirements) which Ontario incorporated in their framework.

Personal e-scooters vs shared e-scooters

There are basically two ways to use a scooter: as an owner, or through a shared e-scooter system operated by a company. It is important to understand that people can own their own e-scooter and go where they want within the rules set by the city and the province. You could see e-scooter owners on the shoulder of Prince of Wales or in your neighbourhood in Barrhaven for example, but not on Highway 7.

I have seen a number of them on the Experimental Farm (federal land, not sure if it is allowed), the NCC pathways (not allowed), Major Hill Park (not allowed), but also on Holland Ave (allowed). Bike lanes and MUPs along Albert (west of downtown), the Laurier bike lane, Trillium pathway and O’Connor bike lane are all city owned, as are all residential streets obviously.

Then there are the shared e-scooter systems. Usually, there is a defined geographical area where they operate. You can imagine that in a city like Ottawa, an operator doesn’t really feel like driving to Fitzroy Harbour to pick up one e-scooter from a (solar) farm.

The city can also request the shared e-scooter operator to set limits. It could ask for example to geofence off an area for the e-scooters, such as Sparks Street. If the e-scooters go outside that geofenced area, the e-scooters -in theory- will throttle down to a modest 5 km/h. I learned from Waterloo that this is not always working. Geofencing obviously doesn’t work for owners of private scooters.

E-scooter companies

Lime scooters in Ottawa
Lime scooters on Laurier

There are many e-scooter companies, backed by large sums of venture capital, who hope to cash in on the e-scooters. They usually come in aggressively trying to establish their name before others. Some names are Lyme, Lift, Bird and Jump (Uber) and Toronto based Roll; in Lyon I saw at least 6 if not 7 different brands. A city can limit the number of operators and the number of scooters.

The shared e-scooter operators have to make sure the e-scooters are not all ending up in one place. All shared e-scooters have a GPS system on board so staff can track where the e-scooters are and redistribute them if needed. They can likely also pull data about remaining battery life etc. because eventually, the batteries have to be charged again. They also track where you picked one up and where you left it behind and how long you used it.

Bird scooter in Ottawa
A Bird e-scooter near Bank

Environment and e-scooters

It takes less space than a car, and it doesn’t pollute, but the e-scooters’s life is short and the lithium batteries are not exactly environmently friendly either. E-scooter companies are working hard to extend the life of an e-scooter though; Bird claims a life span of 1.5 years now. I have not read convincing articles on recycling e-scooters.

Distance covered by e-scooters

Several cities that introduced e-scooters have shared some data. The average distance covered in Calgary is around 1.5 km, which compares to a 15-20 minute walk. That would be from the Heart & Crown in the Byward market to Elgin and Somerset. Calgary research showed that 55% of the e-scooter users would have walked, and only just under 20% would have taken their car instead.

In Portland, 19% would have driven their personal car and 15% would have used a taxi, Uber or Lyft. So unfortunately, it appears that the e-scooter mostly replaces transit and active transportation, not the car. As an example, taking an e-scooter from Bayview Station to Ottawa U would be around 20 minutes, costing you around 10 dollars. A bus ticket is $3.60 (but less fun than an e-scooter)

Collisions

The shared e-scooter companies in Calgary claim that e-scooter collisions are lower than bike collisions but I have my doubts on how they interpret the numbers. Shared e-scooters are bound to a small area with low posted speeds, while cycling happens in the entire city.

Cyclists also bike on roads (or shoulders) of 80 km/h roads (read 90-100 km/h) and are supposed to mix in traffic if needed or wanted. E-scooters can only operate on 50 km/h roads (or lower), or in bike lanes. There are also many more people cycling than e-scootering, so put some fat question marks behind the operators safety claims. I am not saying they are unsafe, but I don’t think they are comparing apples with apples.

Riding an e-scooter

If you have never cycled in your life, you can -unlike e-scooters- not just hop on a bike and ride away at 20 km/h. You have to learn to balance, estimate your distance when you brake, how to make an emergency stop etc. This takes some time. It is more than just pushing a button.

This is very different for an e-scooter. Everyone over 16 years old can basically just jump on an e-scooter and speed away into traffic at 20 km/h.

No helmets are provided, so you have to bring your own if you want to increase your safety.

Wheels on e-scooters

Cycling wheels and tires are a lot larger and more forgiving when going through potholes. The front forks of many bikes are designed to absorb some of the shock, even when you don’t have shocks on your front fork. This is not the case with the tiny wheels of an e-scooter. Calgary saw 477 hospital e-scooter reported injuries in the first eight weeks lat year. It is wise to take it easy first and get adjusted to a very different way of moving around. I tried an e-scooter myself and made sure I know how to brake in an emergency situation. When you take motorbike lessons (I did) there is a lot of emphasis on learning how to brake. It has to become second nature.

Covid on your e-scooters

The e-scooters at shared service providers are not being cleaned after each use but only nightly. That service is impossible anyway with scooters all over the place. Unless you carry a cloth and disinfectant yourself, you are touching surfaces touched by others. When Covid Christian leaves the e-scooter at the curb and Healthy Helen takes over 10 minutes later, Helen might become the next Covid source and everyone wonders how she got it. (how’s that for fear mongering). Fortunately, there appears some new research that Covid doesn’t spread through surfaces much.

Other cities

Waterloo, ON did a modest test and was fairly happy with it. However, Lime pulled out while they were waiting for Ontario legislation and moved to Montreal. The city of Montreal after one summer was not pleased with the results and didn’t continue the project. From what I read, 80% of the e-scooters was not parked in the designated areas and Montreal was fed up with that. For the record, there are no designated areas to park in Ottawa, that is why you see them just sitting randomly on curbs and sidewalks. Calgary continues the project this year again and is fairly happy with the system. Edmonton too, has e-scooters on the road for the second year.

Where to ride e-scooters

Bird e-scooter map
E-scooter area for Bird (image: City of Ottawa)

The shared e-scooter systems can operate in certain areas only and the areas are not exactly the same, surprisingly. The e-scooters allow you to get to the LRT stations at UOttawa, Rideau, Parliament, Lyon, Pimisi and Bayview. Do some homework and look on the maps what goes where. Roll for example, could get you to Lees.

Roll e-scooter map
E-scooter area for Roll (image: City of Ottawa)

The reason why you can’t ride on NCC pathways is that they are designated for active transportation. You probably wonder why e-bikes are allowed? Only e-bikes that use pedal assist are allowed to use the NCC pathways. If you don’t pedal yourself, the motor won’t kick in. E-bikes with pedals that don’t serve any purpose are not allowed either on the NCC pathway. The Trillium pathway, parallel to Preston, allows e-scooters as it is city property. You can also use Queen Elizabeth Driveway. Although it is NCC, it is not a pathway.

Lime e-scooter map
E-scooter area for Lime (image: City of Ottawa)

But bike share failed

This is true. But I think that is partly because there were not enough stations. To make it a success, bike stations have to be omnipresent and Ottawa didn’t have enough. You also have to have a high density of dwellings i.e. many potential users. The red and white Bixi bikes were mostly parked at tourist attractions but to make it successful, locals have to be able to use it too. That wasn’t much the case in Ottawa. This is why e-scooters are omnipresent: it will encourage people to use it.

Where is this going?

That is everyone’s guess, hence the pilot. It is not cheap: Bird’s rates are $1.15 to unlock the scooter and another 35 cents for every minute. A 10 minute ride would set you back $4.65 Taxes on top adds up to $5.25

What currently could work against the success of shared e-scooters is likely a lack of tourism and a lack of commutes to work, due to Covid, plus a lack of safe routes (Portland riders liked on-road bike lanes most). I suspect that the e-scooter providers just want to get a foot in the door, test the market and establish their name this year.

Call for safer routes

On the positive side, Bird’s own research shows that the most asked improvements by users are protected bike lanes, smoother pavement and wider bike lanes. That would help many other road users too.

Asterix in Helvetia  In the lake!
When one of the party goers in Asterix in Helvetia drops his piece of bread in the cheese fondue for the third time, the crowd cheers he’ll have to be thrown in the lake: Dans le Lac!”. (image: Asterix in Helvetia).

The first scooter was already spotted in the canal just north of the Corktown bridge a day after the introduction. There will be collisions, there will be drunk guys and gals crashing into people or objects. There will be people tripping over e-scooters, there will be people tossing them in trees and water. Expect two people on an e-scooter (cheaper). All this happens in other jurisdictions and I don’t think we are different. But most rides will be without problems.

Can I go for longer rides?

If you want to try out an e-scooter and go further, you are better off renting one at Escape Bicycle Tours on Sparks. The cost per hour is much lower and they provide a thorough cleaning of the scooters (and helmets) when they are returned. You are also not bound by geofencing, but you clearly still have to stick to the bylaws. (Disclaimer, I work for Escape as a bicycle tour guide).

If you want to go a step further, you could buy one at the fantastic Scooteretti store in the Byward Market. While you are there, drool over the many awesome types of e-bikes they have too. Or go online and order one from E-scooterOttawa.

Some quick things to remember

  • you can only use them on roads with a posted speed of 50 km/h or less
  • you have to be 16 or older to use an e-scooter; over 18 you don’t need to wear a helmet (but you probably should)
  • park along the curb
  • you are not allowed to use sidewalks

Some sources:

Waterloo pilot: https://www.therecord.com/news/waterloo-region/2019/08/07/end-of-the-road-for-lime-pilot-in-waterloo.html

Portland pilot: ttps://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/700917

Calgary pilot: https://pub-calgary.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=117292

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