Electric scooters roll into Manhattan




That electric scooter is illegal — but might not be for long. Photo: Andrew Karpinski.

Two blocks from Times Square at the corner of 42nd Street and 9th Avenue, Mehmet Zenginler cuts through rush hour traffic, without a helmet, on an illegal vehicle — an electric scooter. Over the next 50 minutes seven more riders zip through the intersection in the bike lane, standing upright on their scooters. They pass two policemen standing outside their cruiser, and though New York City law currently bans scooters, the officers do not stop them.

Zenginler, a VP of sales at Adweek, purchased his $200 scooter on Amazon and uses it for his daily work commute. He said he feels safe riding (the scooter can travel 15 mph) and thinks more scooters would benefit city commuters by offering a new, convenient transportation option.

“The streets are already chaotic,” he said. “I’m confident [more scooters] would affect traffic, but like everything else people won’t notice it after a few months.”

New York is the last major city in the United States to allow motorized scooters on its streets. According to company websites, prominent providers Bird and Lime serve riders in over 30 cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington D.C. But the scooters are at the top of the New York DMV’s list of banned vehicles, and the ban was strongly reinforced by City Council members in 2004.

In August, City Council members Rafael Espinal and Ydanis Rodriguez announced they will introduce legislation to lift the ban (originally meant to ban Segways, Espinal says) which would invite companies to set up in the city. Espinal’s office said they have been in conversation with scooter companies and the New York Department of Transportation, and are starting to receive support from other council members. Lifting the legislation will require a majority vote.

“Transportation is the critical issue in the city right now and our public transportation network is struggling to keep up with population growth,” Council Member Corey Johnson of Midtown’s District 3 said in a statement. “I think scooters can help so I am open to them in the city as long as very real concerns about safety and shared spaces are addressed from the start.”

Neither the DOT or council members are ready to comment on where scooters will be allowed, a common source of controversy in other cities. In San Francisco and Denver bans were placed on scooters because customers were riding and parking on sidewalks, disrupting traffic and inconveniencing pedestrians.

Espinal said he is aware of these problems, but is encouraged by Bird’s ‘Save our Sidewalks’ program, a pledge to pick up scooters on sidewalks and scale back the number of scooters on city streets. “These commitments show that e-scooter companies are engaging in a good-faith effort to serve all New Yorkers,” said Erika Tannor, a press representative.

But some New Yorkers are concerned about how scooters will fit into the flow of traffic, particularly in busy neighborhoods like Midtown.

“The problem with traffic in Midtown right now is that no one follows the rules,” said Khaled Chowdhury, who drives for Uber and has driven in the city for 18 years. “Bicycles do whatever they want and the police don’t enforce it.”

Jhony Albayero, a daily Citi Bike commuter, said scooters in the bike lanes have not been a problem for him yet. “I’m not sure we could handle [more scooters] but potentially if bikes lanes are widened or more bike lanes are added,” he said.

But Chowdhury noted that more bike lanes make his job harder. “You can only [widen bike lanes] if the streets are also widened,” he said. He added that scooters could work in Manhattan only if clear rules are established. Otherwise the police will be overwhelmed.

Mackenzie Long, from Bird’s media team, confirmed that the company does not yet have a start date for Manhattan, and would not comment on where scooters might be ridden. “Safety is a top priority,” she said. “We are having productive conversations with the city and hope to create a framework that works for everyone.”

Council members hope to introduce legislation in late September. If passed, the decision will go to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who can sign or veto.