The Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy this summer decided to override long-standing laws against motorized vehicles on recreational paths and sidewalks. In doing so, they’ve opened New Jersey communities to the nationwide surge in electric scooters, which already has provoked a backlash in many places.
The scooters, which have just two wheels and a T-handle to assist with balance and control, are like battery-powered versions of the Razr scooters popular with kids. The new law stipulates that they can’t be capable of going faster than 19 mph.
In cities in Southern California and Oregon, people annoyed with scooters left just anywhere or the behavior of their riders have destroyed many of them. They’re still banned in New York City, but Washington, D.C., where they have proliferated, is proposing to ban them overnight, reduce their speed and start a complaint line. Virginia Beach has banned them from its beachfront district.
Power scooters promise some benefits while posing some risks and problems. Counties and municipalities will be challenged to find the best balance for them, especially at the crowded and chaotic Jersey Shore in summer.
No question they can be fun and time-saving, especially for younger riders already familiar with balancing on scooters and skateboards. They also might reduce car emissions and congestion, a benefit touted by Murphy.
They also can be dangerous, to their riders and to pedestrians they encounter. Consumer Reports recently found that at least eight people have died while using a rented electric scooter just since the fall of 2017, and another 1,500 were injured, some paralyzed. Scooter riders almost never wear helmets and state law doesn’t require them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly half of electric scooter injuries involve head trauma.
Incidents in which people were hit were a key reason that Atlantic City banned electric versions of scooters, bikes and skateboards from its Boardwalk earlier this summer.
Asbury Park started a pilot program this month, allowing a company to put out up to 250 scooters for rent in the city. They’re not allowed on sidewalks or its Boardwalk, and company software and a complaint system help enforce that and a minimum age of 18.
Complaints of scooters going too fast already have prompted the city to reduce the 15 mph maximum speed it set to just 12 mph. The city told the Asbury Park Press that the scooters are used for 750 rides a day on weekends.
Under the new state law, scooters traveling up to 19 mph can be ridden on sidewalks unless a municipality or county prohibits it. Local officials should look at their street conditions and decide what they can safely accommodate.
Several major cities across the U.S. temporarily banned the scooters until the technology and rules were in place to minimize the problems they cause. The scooter rental industry is new and rapidly evolving, which might lead to better control and oversight.
The benefits of electric scooters may turn out to be less than what is being promoted by companies and politicians. A new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that the total carbon emissions for scooters — including manufacturing, shipping, recharging and trucking them around at night — are greater per passenger than a bus with high ridership.
Scooter riding would only be an environmental benefit if it replaces driving cars and trucks, not people walking or bicycling. If people use scooters instead of walking or bicycling, that would not only increase emissions but also reduce their health and well-being. And people who currently use recreational paths for walking or biking may be discouraged by faster operators of scooters, bikes and skateboards with motors.
Patterns of use for personal electric vehicles and their effects on quality of life will take years to become evident. Like many other examples of modern technology, the widespread use is coming first and meaningful analysis of whether it’s a good idea will have to come later.