Electric scooters will return to Chicago streets on Tuesday, but the rollout will be limited to the “greater downtown area” because of a recent challenge that created a speed bump for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to provide “affordable ways to travel in Chicago without needing a car.”
Divvy scooters, which can be docked at 230 retrofitted Divvy stations, will be allowed between Armitage Avenue and Pershing Road and from the lakefront to Damen Avenue. They will not be allowed on sidewalks, the Lakefront Trail, Riverwalk, The 606 or Navy Pier.
However, thousands of scooters were scheduled to be released throughout the rest of the city, but those plans were put on hold after two companies that were denied licenses filed an appeal to the city. The mayor’s office did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Three companies — Lime, Spin and Superpedestrian — had already been selected to operate up to 1,000 scooters each in neighborhoods outside the “greater downtown area.”
The latest scooter rules of the road
The Lyft-operated Divvy scooters were the only fleet given the green light to start downtown — which is allowed under their existing contract for bikes.
But that doesn’t mean Divvy will always have a monopoly on the city center. After two months of operation, the other companies can seek permission to deploy downtown. The city has said the companies will need to meet “performance targets” to do so, but did not specify what those targets are.
While downtown riding is on the table for the first time, cruising on sidewalks is a no-go. All scooters, which can operate from 5 a.m. to midnight, must be equipped with “sidewalk riding detection technology.”
“There’ll be an audible warning to the rider when they are on the sidewalk that they need to exit the sidewalk and resume the trip in the street,” said Lee Foley, Lime’s director of government and community relations for the Midwest.
During Chicago’s previous two stints as a scooter city, there were plenty of photos on social media of rides gone wrong. One account, Chicagofails, made a point of sharing pictures of scooters blocking sidewalks, stuffed in garbage cans or hanging in trees.
While e-scooters were initially heralded for the flexibility of being able to leave them anywhere a trip may end, the resulting clutter led to the city requiring riders to lock scooters to something stationary during the 2020 pilot. The same requirement stands for the permanent program.
The companies are required to deploy scooters with cable-locking technology, so riders can secure scooters to a bike rack, light pole or street sign.
“You don’t want the scooters just scattered about, you want to maintain order and you want to maintain a well-managed parking system,” Foley said.
Tamara Conway, Lyft’s general manager of Divvy, said their built-in station system is what allows them to launch downtown on day one and immediately “offer orderly parking.” They also hope it will help establish habits.
“Stations help build consistent rider usage. It’s like muscle memory, once you know where they are you use them over and over again,” she said.
Why bring scooters back?
It’s not all tales of scooter chaos, of course, Chicagoans have previously embraced the chance to cruise on two wheels. During the 2020 four-month pilot, the city estimates 540,035 scooter trips were taken. In the pre-pandemic four-month pilot of 2019, 821,615 rides were taken, according to the city.
“We’ve learned that an effectively managed e-scooter program can provide an affordable, convenient and environmentally friendly way for Chicagoans to get around,” transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said in a statement.
The initial pilot program drew criticism for concentrating scooters in wealthier and mostly white areas of the city like the West Loop and along Milwaukee Avenue. Beginning this year, companies are required to deploy 50% of scooters to “equity priority areas,” which consists of neighborhoods on the South and West sides.
The scooters will all cost $1 to unlock, then companies can set a per-minute cost, but they are required to provide “affordable access” for low-income residents, as well as offering ways to pay without a credit card and ways to unlock a device without a smartphone.
City officials and scooter companies alike make the case that the devices provide solutions for areas that otherwise lack transportation.
“Shared e-scooters will provide mobility benefits throughout Chicago — with an emphasis on serving areas that will benefit from new transportation options,” Biagi said in the statement.
Scooters are also frequently touted as a solution for the “first/last mile” to get Chicagoans to and from a train station or bus stop. A 2019 DePaul study suggested that riders did use the scooters in that way — with trips peaking between 7-9 a.m. and 5-7 p.m.
Lime’s Foley said their focus is on providing day-to-day solutions (like not being drenched in sweat if you walk to a train station in the summertime) for Chicagoans and being able to offer consistent service that people can plan for.
“Our goal is to fill that gap for people. As soon as they walk out of their home, they’re within a few steps of a scooter,” he said. “They are able to unlock that device and take it to the train station, take it to your local supermarket or take it to the bus stop.”
The city told the companies that it hopes the citywide scooter program will be able to launch by summer.
“We want to launch as soon as possible, good weather is on the horizon,” Foley said. “In a city where scooters thrive in warmer weather, June is a bit too late for us.”
Six companies applied for licenses and were scored based on 24 criteria addressing reputation, safety, access, operations and relevant experience. Helbiz, Bird and Veo were not granted licenses. A Veo spokeswoman told WBEZ that “Veo did not appeal, but we’re following the process closely.”
Bird and Helbiz did not return WBEZ’s request for comment by time of publication.
A representative from Superpedestrian said the change will not significantly affect their launch plans. Since they are new to Chicago — unlike some other companies that participated in the city’s 2019 and 2020 pilot programs — they had planned to roll out more slowly, rather than beginning right away on May 10.
“We were hoping to be on the ground before Memorial Day,” said Zach Williams, Superpedestrian’s policy manager for the Midwest. “But we’ll have to see what the city has planned for us.”
Correction: The scooter licenses do not need to be approved by the City Council.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.