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People ride e-scooters during a pilot program that ran earlier this year in Waterloo, Ont.

Glenn Lowson

It’s shaping up to be a very happy new year for e-scooter jockeys in Ontario. The first day of 2020 kicks off a five-year pilot project to test the viability in Ontario of electric kick-scooters, also known as e-scooters – not the sit-down Vespa-style ones, but the stand-up variety.

We’re in for in for a wild, potentially dangerous and undeniably fun ride, but don’t think that these overhyped scooters are a cure for our traffic ailments.

Feelings tend to run hot on any question that asks drivers to share the road, be it bike lanes, e-bikes or streetcars. Depending on where you stand on e-scooters – which, in some cases, may be not at all, if you’re among those who would prefer they simply didn’t exist – these little electric devices are an obvious road hazard or an ingenious solution to climate change.

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For a vehicle often pitched as a salve for congested cities, research suggests that e-scooters don’t replace trips by car. In Germany, people tended to use them in inner cities – areas already well-served by public transit – for short trips otherwise made by walking or biking, according to a 2019 study by Civity, a management consulting firm. The company analyzed data from multiple shared e-scooter providers in Germany, which have been operating en masse since summer 2019.

“From our point of view, there are neither major advantages nor a serious danger for public transport – at most the tourist Segway rental companies may be disrupted,” the authors of the Civity study found. In other words, e-scooters might just be a novelty.

In Hamburg, the same study found that e-scooter use peaked on weekends and later in the day, indicating they’re being ridden mostly for recreational and tourism purposes, not commuting. In Berlin, usage was highest in tourist areas.

So much for easing rush-hour traffic.

For those with a disability, having e-scooters strewn across sidewalks – as seen in many cities when the devices first launched – presents a more serious concern.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance, a non-partisan advocacy group, called on the Ford government to withdraw the pilot program, or ban shared e-scooter programs and require users to be licensed and insured.

In Los Angeles, Calgary and Austin, Texas, e-scooter riders have so far proved to be more of a danger to themselves than to others.

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Over a three-month period, 190 people were injured in e-scooter crashes in Austin, according to a 2019 study conducted by the city. Nearly half had head injuries and just over a third had bone fractures. Among the 190, two people – a cyclist and a pedestrian – were injured when an e-scooter collided with them.

In Munich, 400 hundred people were arrested for riding e-scooters while drunk during the first few months after the shared devices became available.

There are other issues too, which shared-scooter providers and cities are already trying to solve. In Montreal, users can be fined for leaving a scooter strewn on roads or sidewalks, although enforcement is difficult.

Providers like Lime and Bird are working to improve the longevity of shared e-scooters, from as little as 28 days to around two years. That would greatly reduce their carbon footprint, which was found to be smaller than cars but larger than a bus or bicycle.

The thing is, e-scooters are fun. They’re electric skateboards for people who lack balance and like brakes; they’re surfboards for people who don’t live near any heavy waves. Sure, they’re kind of dorky, but once all the Bay Street bros get on them, that will probably change.

Or, e-scooters might simply go the way of the unicycle, the Segway or the hoverboard, and that would be just fine, too.

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The thing to remember through all the hype is that even if, by some miracle, e-scooters are implemented flawlessly, they are unlikely to fix the urban mobility problem. The media coverage has been disproportionate to the scope of their current and future impact. At best, e-scooters could be a small part of our transportation network. At worst, they could be a genuine hazard, and there’s no guarantee they’ll make commuting any faster.

Whether they actually end up on a road near you in Ontario is still up to individual municipalities, which can decide when and where to allow them, if at all. A spokesperson for the city of Toronto said staff is currently looking into it and will report back to the relevant committee in the first quarter of 2020.

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