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Why I long for the days when footpaths were safe and Lime scooter-free


Lime electric scooters in Wellington. Photo/Peter Griffin.

Before e-scooters, footpaths used to be a safe space for those a little wobbly on their feet.

A couple of months after Lime scooters arrived on the footpaths of Auckland, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, commonly known as MS. I’m not sure I should have put that down in print, but people are candid these days about life-changing health diagnoses, and actor Selma Blair, who has MS, made a public stand for the disorder when she took her stick to the Academy Awards this year.

MS is an idiosyncratic condition that plays out in different ways for different people. For me, so far, it has made my walking slow, unsteady and, as the neurologist put it, I have “difficulty initiating movement”, which can be problematic at pedestrian crossings. I’d like to think I’ve always been empathetic to the vulnerable and elderly, but I didn’t know what it felt like to walk in their shoes until recently, still in my early 50s.

I guess this puts me in the category of the disabled, not always obviously, but enough to add my pissed-off voice to that cascade of complaints from people (who can’t move as nimbly as they once could, are more disabled than me or have different types of disabilities, and even the perfectly abled) being frightened off the footpaths by fast-moving motorised scooters whizzing silently and unexpectedly past them, often a few centimetres away.

People evolved to walk at a pace of around 5kmh, but in many parts of New Zealand they are now obliged to share the footpath with scooters that can travel 27kmh. You don’t need to do the maths to figure out that in any collision, the pedestrian is going to come off worse. From where I’m subjectively and unsteadily standing, it seems utterly bonkers to allow so many of them, so suddenly, travelling at such speed, to populate the footpaths. Yes, I’m biased. I’m disabled.

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Walking is a complex interconnection of cognitive processes and sensory inputs, of messages being passed from brain to foot and back again, but when you have MS, the messages don’t always get through. A few months ago, I could put one foot in front of the other without thinking about it, but now this is no longer the case, I would encourage readers who can walk not to take that ability for granted. “Why walk when you can scoot?” is the message from those in the e-scooter business. But why scoot when you can walk?

There was a week or so recently, when Lime scooters were taken off the footpaths because of a faulty braking mechanism with the machines, and after ACC received 655 injury claims related to e-scooters across the country in three months, totalling a payout of $228,364, mostly to e-scooter riders.

For a week or so, it was like being back in the good old days, circa early 2018, when unprotected pedestrians could walk the footpaths without being afraid they’d be knocked off their feet. But Lime resolved the braking problem and the scooters were back. Soon after, Wave scooters were added to what used to be foot traffic.

I can see the appeal of the e-scooter: you download an app, scan a scooter’s barcode and zip or glide off to wherever you want to go, leaving the scooter there for the next rider. They’re a fun, cheap people-mover, a battery-powered skateboard with handlebars, that allows you to go to where you want to go while feeling the wind in your hair.

And their arrival has been buttressed by a fashionable ideological argument: that they’re clean, green and ostensibly get people out of their cars. “Kiwis have embraced the clean and green transport option in Auckland, Christchurch, Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt and Dunedin, saving New Zealand well over 1,000,000 tonnes of CO2,” went a recent press release from Lime, the self-proclaimed “industry leader” in the “micro-mobile rideshare space”.

Lime’s director of government affairs, Mitchell Price, was quoted: “More and more people are seeing the benefits of leaving the car at home and taking alternative forms of transport.”

Maybe, but show me the evidence. I haven’t noticed any reduction in traffic on the roads or motorways of Auckland. I also suspect e-scooters are mostly used by those who don’t have to travel very far, who could catch the bus or beat the feet, who don’t actually need to use a car anyway. 

A pedestrian lobby association and visually impaired people  demonstrate against e-scooters outside Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport in Berlin last December. Photo/Getty.

E-scooters have been released on footpaths in cities around the world by a handful of private (mostly American) businesses, leaving transport authorities and local and central governments grappling to find ways to accommodate them and their sudden popularity.

The legislation governing their use here is unclear, and it seems, a moving beast. As has been detailed by Lynley Hood, co-convener of the Dunedin Pedestrian Action Network, the whole process of legalising e-scooters on footpaths has been “rushed through in a reckless and ignorant manner”.

According to NZTA, e-scooters are now allowed on footpaths but riders “must operate the device in a careful and considerate manner” and “at a speed that does not put other footpath users at risk”, and “must give way to both pedestrians and drivers of mobility devices”. Must they? Who’s going to stop them if they don’t? And what can pedestrians do about those who aren’t operating their “device in a careful and considerate manner”. Call the cops? Then what?

Some scooter riders might share with care, but judging by the streams of letters to the papers and my own anecdotal evidence, gathered from conversations around the water cooler, many e-scooter riders don’t. Given enough rope, some people will behave badly.

To be fair, it’s not as if pedestrians don’t behave badly, like those who come barrelling towards you or stop suddenly in front of you because they’re reading something on their mobile phone. 

And, as I’ve only recently become aware, pedestrians can be notorious tailgaters. Having someone nipping at your heels when you can’t quite feel your feet is extremely unnerving – with the awareness that if you stop to regain your balance, the tailgater will rear-end you and you’ll fall flat on your face. Still, better to be rear-ended by a pedestrian travelling at roughly the same pace as you than a person on a scooter travelling four or five times that speed.

One market research company has predicted the electric scooter market will grow from a $US14 billion global market in 2014 to $US37 billion in 2024. God save me.

Of course e-scooters have their place – only not on the footpath. But while there is plenty of money to be made in the e-scooter business, there isn’t money to be made in developing the infrastructure to accommodate them. 

Until that infrastructure is developed, I’d urge pedestrians to preserve their right to walk, safely, on urban city footpaths. Footpaths, after all, were built for pedestrians after the arrival of the motor car pushed them off the roads. That’s why they’re called footpaths.

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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