E-scooter safety upgrades still not enough, say accessibility advocates

Ottawa's three e-scooter companies say safety is their top priority and vow to make changes ahead of next season, but some people who advocate for better accessibility say the changes they're proposing don't go far enough.

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1 year ago
Duration 0:58
Kate Riccomini, who is visually impaired, says her first interaction with an e-scooter was finding one improperly parked in the middle of the sidewalk, causing her to trip. She says the e-scooter pilot project shouldn’t come at the expense of pedestrian safety.

Kate Riccomini's introduction to Ottawa's e-scooter pilot project came when she tripped over one.

Riccomini is partly blind. While she has some sight, her eyes are light-sensitive and she uses a cane to pinpoint anything that might block her way while she's out for a walk.

She and other members of the city's accessibility community are worried not enough is being done to keep pedestrians safe from tripping over improperly parked e-scooters or from being hit by riders.

The city's second e-scooter pilot project season ends Tuesday. 

In advance of a potential third season, the city's three companies — Bird Canada, Lime and Neuron — say safety is their top priority. They've been in talks with Ottawa's accessibility community and e-scooter stakeholder groups about ways to make them safer, both for those with visual and mobility impairments and the general public.

Each company says they're testing or implementing various features expected to roll out in at least part, if not all, of their Ottawa fleets next season.

They include having scooters emit a distinctive noise to let people know they're approaching and improving "geofencing" technology — which uses GPS data to tell where the e-scooter is and can slow it down if it's somewhere it shouldn't be — to better detect when someone's riding on the sidewalk or parking in a restricted zone.

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1 year ago
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Austin Spademan, associate general manager with Bird Canada, says the company has taken a hard line against users who mispark e-scooters and is slowly rolling out technology that will stop a rider from using the scooter on a sidewalk.

Not enough

"All of the sounds that we've been shown fall short," said Riccomini, noting they're either too quiet for Ottawa's busy streets or too similar to the sounds emitted at city crosswalks.

Her biggest concern, however, is that each company uses a different sound, meaning anyone with a visual impairment would have to identify three different sounds to distinguish them from regular traffic noise.

Wayne Antle also says the new sounds and the geofencing technology aren't enough to tackle the single biggest problem — the "frequent and widespread violation of [the] rules" by riders.

The behaviour includes e-scooter users blocking the sidewalk or "whizzing" past pedestrians, said Antle, who heads up the Ottawa-Gatineau chapter of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.

"It continues to be a real concern for our community, and I think it's a safety risk for all pedestrians really," he said.

"Unless there's a technological solution to address the issues ... I don't think that these e-scooters should be allowed to operate in the city."

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E-scooter pilot project leaves visually impaired residents wary of sidewalk collisions

1 year ago
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Wayne Antle, who leads the Ottawa-Gatineau chapter of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, says the e-scooter pilot project has left much to be desired so far, with riders zooming silently along sidewalks and leaving the scooters improperly parked.

Both Antle and Riccomini believe the ultimate responsibility to keep people safe lies with the City of Ottawa, which allows the program.

"Someone like myself cannot get out of the way of an oncoming e-scooter ... nor should I be required to," Riccomini said. 

"I applaud the city for exploring options, you know, for trying things out. But in the end, fun and convenience cannot come at the expense of vulnerable road users like myself, like seniors, like people with disabilities. We can't be an afterthought."

Sidewalk riding among top complaints

Between May 28 and Oct. 27, the City of Ottawa received 130 calls to 311 and 394 email inquiries about e-scooters.

During that time, there were more than 470,300 individual trips totalling more than 878,000 kilometres, the city said.

In an email to CBC, Heidi Cousineau, the city's program manager for neighbourhood traffic calming, said the majority of inquiries relate to improperly parked e-scooters and sidewalk riding.

E-scooter users must follow a number of regulations that include not going faster than 20 km/h, only using them between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., and wearing a helmet if they're younger than 18.

An e-scooter rider travels along the road in downtown Ottawa in July 2020, the first year of the city's e-scooter pilot project. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Between July and September, Ottawa police handed out 14 tickets and 10 warnings to riders for things like riding on a sidewalk or another area where e-scooters aren't allowed, having two people on one scooter and failing to keep a safe distance from pedestrians and other road users.

That last one resulted in a single warning.

"That seems low. I would have expected more," Riccomini said. "It makes me wonder how many officers were around to [conduct enforcement], how lenient they were being."

City staff are set to review this year's pilot project — including questions, complaints and feedback from stakeholder groups — before presenting a report to the transportation committee and council in February.