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Electronic scooters in Santa Fe? Not so fast

April 14, 2019

Santa Fe should not rush to allow rented electric scooters in public rights of way. Even though California rental company Bird has reached out — it wants to bring scooters here — the city needs to make sure the business is right for Santa Fe.

Smartly, Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth wants the City Manager Erik Litzenberg to examine how rented e-scooters could work, giving him up to a year to weigh the pros and cons. A pilot program would have to be put in place, too, before the full-on assault of scooters would be allowed. The public would be asked for opinions, if Romero-Worth’s proposal is adopted by the City Council. It was heard at the Public Works Committee last week and is winding its way through city committees. That’s a good thing.

With the scooters, would-be riders swipe their credit cards and rent the devices for short jaunts. They drop the scooters off at the next stop, where another rider picks them up, and so on. As we have seen in cities across the United States, the rental e-scooters can be easy rides from point A to point B, but they also can block sidewalks, litter rights of way when riders don’t put them up properly and endanger both riders and pedestrians.

By taking time to study the best way to bring scooters in, Santa Fe can make sure that the rides enhance our city.

With narrow streets that barely have room for large trucks, much less the combination of cars, trucks, bikes and scooters, as well as congested sidewalks, scooters might be troublesome in Santa Fe, as cool as they are. Heck, Santa Fe has a difficult time accommodating bicyclists and skateboarders, much less electric scooters zipping down streets or dodging pedestrians on sidewalks. (To that point, scooters do not belong on sidewalks. In fact, another way to make Santa Fe safer is for officers to warn and ticket cyclists and skateboarders on sidewalks.)

But a discussion over e-scooters is the opportunity for a broader discussion about transportation — that process of getting people around town in a safe and sustainable manner. One pitch by the Bird folks, in fact, is that their vehicles are environmentally friendly, which they say fits Santa Fe’s efforts at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the number of car trips.

Trouble is, the evidence that scooters replace car trips is not in; often, scooters are used by people who otherwise might walk, which is not an environmental plus.

What we do like about scooters is that they give inexpensive mobility to people who need to get around but who might not be able to afford a car. They also are good for teenagers too young to drive but who still need to, say, scoot along to Warehouse 21. There should be a place for scooters in Santa Fe.

However, we have a hard time seeing how city streets are safe for them — downtown, the roads are narrow and congested; on major thoroughfares, the traffic speeds along too fast. Where would scooters work? And do we have space to drop them off without blocking sidewalks or streets? Should helmets be required? All such issues need to be studied first.

And while we are talking, Santa Fe needs to look at its streets to find ways to make travel safer for nonmotorized vehicles. If, for example, the city could establish more protected bike trails, there could be paths that would accommodate bikers, scooter riders and skateboarders. Maybe even the occasional roller skater.

Companies that want to bring rental businesses to town might be willing to pitch in for infrastructure that makes their enterprises possible. There’s nothing wrong with seeking concessions from people who want to make money in Santa Fe. They can help pay so that their products can be used safely. Think of ways to reconfigure roads so that they are narrower, with room for larger bike lanes and better sidewalks. Eliminate parking lots to make streets broader, if necessary, while making lanes for car travel narrower and adding protected bike lanes. Then, roads are arteries of transportation, but not just for cars and trucks.

Scooters offer opportunity for Santa Fe. But only if they can be brought in safely and if their introduction helps us kick car trips — by making the roads safer for all sorts of transportation choices. Those are big ifs, which is why this long look at the feasibility of scooters makes sense for Santa Fe.