The pandemic has turned Fort Lauderdale into a virtual scooter ghost town, prompting some to wonder if and when the wildly popular zip and zoom machines will ever return.
One day they were there and the next they weren’t. At least that’s how it seemed to downtown resident James Bartholomew.
“It was obvious when they were pulled away,” he said. “They were on corners and then they weren’t. I was quarantined [due to the lockdown] and when I got back into the world, there were no scooters.”
Bird, Lime and other e-scooter companies voluntarily took their fleets off the streets over early concerns that surface transmissions of the coronavirus could lead to a surge in cases.
But in recent months, the electric vehicles have made a comeback in urban centers around the world.
Scooters have been back on the streets of Miami since October, but Fort Lauderdale’s scooter rental program remains on hold indefinitely.
Now is not the time to bring back scooters as COVID-19 cases surge regionwide, city officials say.
“I’d really like to see scooters come back, but I think it’s too soon,” Commissioner Ben Sorensen said. “We’re having a record number of cases of COVID. When we’re trying to socially distance, scooters can just add another variable. I really hope the scooters get back on the streets and back in action after we move through COVID and see numbers decrease.”
Scooters will be back on Fort Lauderdale streets sometime next year, Mayor Dean Trantalis predicts.
“It depends on the status of the pandemic,” he said. “We want to wipe out this disease. We do not want to see it ever come back again.”
In the meantime, fans don’t understand the holdup.
Bartholomew, 35, says scooters are the best way to get around a crowded urban center.
“A lot of people really like these things,” he said. “We have people using them to get to work. It’s an easy and efficient way to get around.”
But those who loathe the scooters are hoping they stay away for good.
That includes Rita Green, a retired executive recruiter who lives in a downtown condo along the historic brick-paved Riverwalk.
“I’d rather they stay gone,” she said. “I hate them so much. I have a Corgi named Jett Blu. Those scooters ruined our lives. We could not walk safely on the sidewalk, especially along the Riverwalk. Scooter riders would take over the sidewalk and just expect pedestrians to move out of their way. It was not safe.”
Banned on the beach
The scooters sparked controversy soon after they came to town in November 2018. At one point, up to 2,000 rental scooters were on the streets when four companies were operating.
Critics complained about reckless riders spooking pedestrians and sidewalks left cluttered by scooters dumped here and there after the ride ended.
In February — right before the pandemic hit and after hearing months of complaints — Fort Lauderdale banned scooters in pedestrian-heavy areas: the beach, the Riverwalk and the busiest blocks along Las Olas Boulevard.
The ban applied not just to rental scooters but to those that were privately owned as well.
When the scooters do return, those bans will remain in place. Until then, people with their own scooters are free to ride in those banned areas, city officials say.
Ian Lubetkin, an IT consultant who lives downtown, misses the scooter rentals but has two of his own.
“I use them to go downtown, Publix, the beach, to places close by where parking and traffic can be difficult,” he said.
Lubetkin, 33, can’t believe the city banned scooters from the barrier island and parts of Las Olas.
“I think that was a mistake,” he said. “Bicycles are allowed in those places. And with the increase in density, there needs to be better solutions for micromobility. You can walk on Las Olas faster than you can drive most of the time.”
Lubetkin says he rides on the street as long as it’s not backed up with traffic.
“I don’t think a cop is going to ticket me for riding on the road,” he said. “But we don’t have the best drivers in Florida.”
Fort Lauderdale requires riders to use the bike lane. If there is no bike lane, they should use the sidewalk not the street. At the height of the program, riders were often seen booking along Las Olas and other streets — another gripe of critics.
When the program returns, riders will need to stay in the bike lane or on the sidewalk and stay out of the streets, Trantalis said. Under new city rules, scooter rental speeds will be capped at 12 mph.
Riders can expect one other pandemic-related safety rule, the mayor said.
Keeping them clean
Chances are high that Fort Lauderdale would require the rental companies to sanitize the scooters after each use.
Under Miami’s new rules, each scooter must come equipped with disinfectant.
“If we can avoid the spread by limiting contacts between people, we will work with the scooter companies to figure out how best to protect the public,” Trantalis said. “We’re not saying no to scooters.”
That was good news to Lime officials.
Lime operates in 120 cities across 30 countries, but the company paused service in all but two cities in South Korea at the height of the pandemic, a company spokesman said.
The company has since returned to just about every market but Fort Lauderdale.
“Scooters are one of the safer options compared to a crowded bus or subway car or Uber ride,” the Lime spokesman said. “On scooters you are naturally social distanced and you are not in an enclosed space. That’s why so many cities opened up street space to scooters: Denver, Oakland, New York City, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston, Paris, London. It’s a long list.”
Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that surface transmission is not considered to be the primary way COVID-19 spreads, but rather close contact from person to person.
To help cut down on the spread, Lime says it has enhanced its cleaning methods and increased the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting its scooters.
Lime cleans all parts of the scooter that are touched by people and requires mechanics and operators in the field to wear gloves and wash their hands regularly.
“We’re eager to return to Fort Lauderdale to provide affordable and sustainable transportation options to those who need them most,” said Lisette Garcia, Southeast government relations director for the San Francisco-based transportation company. “We hope city leaders will join nearly every city around the world in recognizing that scooters are one of the safest publicly accessible transportation options during COVID.”
Bird has been in conversations with Fort Lauderdale to get scooters back on the ground in recent months, said a spokesperson for the Santa Monica-based company.
“People need a safe way to get around while maintaining appropriate social distance to take essential trips to their jobs as front line workers, or to deliver food and groceries,” the spokesperson said.
Matter of time
Dan Lindblade, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, says he’s looking forward to seeing scooters zooming around downtown again.
“The folks who didn’t want them are absolutely thrilled they aren’t here right now,” he said. “But it’s just a matter of time before they come back. Some merchants on Las Olas don’t like them because they clutter the area. But from a mobility standpoint, we are in total support of scooters.”
Vice Mayor Steve Glassman says he’d like to see the program back on track, even though it might mean the complaints start up again.
“There’s definitely a part of our community glad they are gone,” he said.
But his younger constituents have been anxious for their return.
“I’ve heard more from people who want them back than people who are happy they aren’t here,” Glassman said. “They don’t have to park a car. It’s a quick and easy way to get from point A to point B.”
Siri Terjesen, a business professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, sees a future for e-scooters in the post-pandemic world.
“For the scooter companies, it’s not a surprise that they’d want to come back on the streets,” she said, noting the need to turn a profit.
City officials tend to see scooters as a way to thin traffic on crowded roads while meeting demand from tourists and a workforce intent on finding an easy way to commute, she said.
Then there’s the “getting back to normal” factor.
“I think people are really excited to return to normal,” Terjesen said. “And one aspect of that is taking an electric scooter. Once a city legalizes scooter rentals, it’s very hard to take away that freedom later.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4554 or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan