How Montreal is preparing for the 'scooter-pocalypse'
Can e-scooters prevail in Montreal, a city of grumpy commuters and potholes?
Montrealers are particularly good at hating every mode of transportation other than the one they're using at the time. The addition of e-scooters to the transportation mix this Saturday will be an interesting test.
Will the city embrace e-scooters — shared, battery-powered, app-activated vehicles that have no need for docking stations? Will they despise them? Ignore them? Or will the vehicles disrupt the tense but stable romance currently enjoyed by pedestrians, cyclists and motorists in some other way?
The sudden appearance of e-scooters in a city is a phenomenon McGill University geography Prof. Grant McKenzie half-jokingly refers to as the "scooter-pocalypse." McKenzie says Montrealers tend to like new technology and green policies, but he suspects the early days of the e-scooter era won't be easy.
"Montreal still hasn't sorted out the — I don't know what the right term is — negativity? Or the sort of combativeness between drivers and cyclists," McKenzie said. "Introducing a new service like scooter-share just causes a bit more problems in the mix."
The city and the province have been preparing for the introduction of electric scooters for some time. Montreal introduced bylaws earlier this year with very specific rules for e-scooter users and operators, and the province recently made some interim changes to road rules that permit a pilot phase for scooters on the streets.
There's a chance e-scooters could appear on downtown streets this Saturday, but both the city and officials at an e-scooter operator were noncommittal about a start date.
A global trend
E-scooters can already be found in upwards of 50 U.S. cities and dozens of cities in Europe. Citylab, a website about ideas and issues in modern cities, declared 2018 the year of the scooter. Venture capitalists have valued two of the leading companies, Lime and Bird, in the billions — and there are signs the companies are a solid investment: last year in the United States, e-scooters overtook shared bikes as the most popular form of shared transportation.
But will they be popular in Montreal? This is a city where cyclists loathe distracted motorists and daydreaming pedestrians; pedestrians believe motorists and cyclists are homicidal and crazy; and motorists are convinced that cyclists and pedestrians are law-breaking criminals deliberately trying to slow them down.
"I'm hoping that the scooter users are going to be the ones who break that mould and don't hate every other mode of transportation," said Mat Lobraico, the new market launcher for the U.S.-based e-scooter operator Lime.
"This is a city that almost looks like it's built for scooters. The people here are first adopters of technology. They're excited about green technology."
Very simply, e-scooters might be able to take some of the strain off Montreal's crowded Metro system and crowded roads, according to Ahmed El-Geneidy, a professor of urban planning at McGill.
"If you get some people out of their cars to use these scooters for small trips, that's a positive thing," he said.
El-Geneidy talks about "first mile, last mile," an urban-planning buzz term that accounts for those final distances between a public transit stop and your destination, whether it's home, work, shopping or something else. E-scooters can make these distances more efficient, making it easier for someone to get somewhere without driving, or maybe even without taking public transit.
Another consideration is sweat, and specifically the sweat generated when pushing the pedals on a bicycle.
"When you cycle to work you need to take a shower," said Geneviève Boisjoly, a professor of transportation engineering at Montréal Polytechnique. "But with the e-scooters, that's an advantage in the morning — you can use it without needing to take a shower."
In Montreal, two obvious hindrances are the city's long winters and its roads, where potholes often grow to scooter-swallowing proportions.
Just like Bixis, Montreal's shared bicycles, e-scooters will most likely disappear over the winter.
As for potholes, Lime's Lobraico counsels avoidance.
"The scooters are built to withstand a pothole hit, but I wouldn't go riding straight into a pothole with one," he said.
More broadly, the introduction of e-scooters to new cities has not always gone well.
In some cities, the sudden arrival of hundreds or even thousands of e-scooters, sometimes strewn across sidewalks, parks or people's lawns, led to various resistance movements, with disgruntled anti-scooterites throwing them into lakes, starting class action lawsuits or setting them on fire.
McKenzie, the McGill geography prof, got interested in scooters at his previous academic gig in the Washington, D.C. area. There, in 2018, he said, "scooters basically came out of the blue," with thousands appearing in the city almost overnight.
McKenzie's "scooter-pocalypse" term is his way of describing the "mass chaos of these new services showing up, people not knowing how to use them, not understanding them," and city governments not doing enough to help familiarize their populations.
Even freestyle scooter riders — sporting cousins of skateboarders who do tricks on durable, professional grade versions of a metal push-scooter — are wary of the arrival of e-scooters in Montreal.
Lloyd Bureau and Cody Lacroix essentially live and breathe scooters. They founded the Montreal-based freestyle scooter company Trynyty, host freestyle competitions and are on their scooters as often as they're on foot.
Their concerns with e-scooters are, basically, everyone else. They fear random people riding e-scooters erratically around the city, indiscriminately dumping them in the middle of sidewalks, and tarnishing the image of scooter riders in general.
"The average Joe may not be in full control," said Bureau. "That's where freestyle scooter riders could be a little bit worried that we're being put in the same pot."
"Obviously the reputation of scooters is something we're trying to build," Lacroix said.
The introduction of a new transportation mode will inevitably complicate things for users of existing modes, said El-Geneidy, the urban planning professor.
"There will be a disruption. That's clear," he said. "We'll find cyclists fighting with them when they go into the bike lanes."
Still, El-Geneidy doesn't buy into the idea that Montreal's motorist-cyclist-pedestrian hate triangle is insurmountable — or that e-scooters will make it worse.
"Humans are humans anywhere," he said. He argues that local commuting behaviours are forms of culture that can and do change.
Polytechnique's Boisjoly also sees the good in people — even grumpy Montrealers trying to get from A to B.
"We often talk about conflicts between users, about people not being necessarily respectful of other users," Boisjoly said. But research consistently shows that the conflicts are almost always "a question of infrastructure," she said, because "you need to take some space to give space."
If a city doesn't properly design its spaces and its laws to encourage multiple modes of transportation, conflict will result, Boisjoly said.
"That's really important to think about. If we want different users to coexist in a good manner, we need to provide infrastructure that provides space for all different users."
For its part, the City of Montreal studied the experiences of other cities, and its new bylaws are clearly intended to avoid the chaos of e-scooters being parked all over the place.
Montreal will be one of the only cities in the world to require that e-scooters be parked in designated areas, a spokesperson said in an email to CBC, but no changes to infrastructure are planned at this stage.
The city also worked with Quebec to ensure that modified provincial road regulations will keep e-scooters from being driven on sidewalks and will limit their maximum speed.
How e-scooters will work out in the long run is anyone's guess, but McKenzie figures their integration into Montreal's transportation dance will be an emotional process similar to a breakup, starting with shock, then despair, then anger.
Eventually, he said, Montrealers will reach "a slow adoption of the technology, realizing that it's here to stay ... and no matter what happens in terms of these getting destroyed or stolen, they'll be around for a while."
Or, as the freestyle scooter rider Lacroix puts it, "there's no way everyone's going to be absolutely stoked when they see these things cruising around at first.
"Like anything, changes take time, and people are going to have to adapt to it."