E-scooter pilot project to launch in Toronto, but major hurdles remain
Bird Canada plans to bring app-based scooter program to Distillery District in September
It's an alternative means of getting around that's loved by some and loathed by others — and it's coming to Toronto.
E-scooter sharing company Bird Canada says it is planning to launch a pilot project in the city in the coming weeks.
"Bird Canada is working to firm up the exact date to kick off a two-week pilot project for its Bird shared e-scooters in the Distillery District in early September," said Stewart Lyons, CEO of Bird Canada, in a statement.
Bird did not share any additional details about the project, such as the number of scooters, how people will access them, or the exact boundaries of where people will be able to ride.
The news comes as debate about the use of e-scooters rages across North America. Though ubiquitous in some American cities, it's still a fledgling mode of transportation in most of Canada.
E-scooter sharing systems work similarly to Bike Share Toronto. Users pick up a scooter, use an app to unlock them, and are then charged a fee for the time they use.
But there's one key difference: unlike bike-share bikes, the scooters aren't docked in any one place at the end of the ride — users can simply drop them anywhere. That has led to much consternation in some places when scooters are just strewn around cities.
Though some people swear by the little two-wheelers, they are hardly universally beloved. Chattanooga, Tennessee, banned them for six months back in July, while Nashville recently contemplated a ban to rein in the approximately 4,000 scooters on the city's streets — after a 26-year-old man was fatally struck by a car back in May while riding one under the influence of alcohol, as reported by The Tennessean.
Though Bird is dipping its toes into the Toronto market, the company faces a massive hurdle. According to the Ministry of Transportation (MTO), e-scooters are not permitted on roads in Ontario because they don't meet federal or provincial safety standards.
That means they can only legally be used in places where the province's Highway Traffic Act doesn't apply, like private property.
That's the loophole that would allow Bird's pilot project in Toronto to work, as the Distillery District is privately owned.
Province exploring options
The province is looking at reviewing its regulations, and held consultations with stakeholders about e-scooters back in May, said MTO spokesperson Bob Nichols in an email.
"MTO is aware that there are companies that offer environmentally-friendly e-scooters; however, safety is a top priority and the safe integration of new vehicle types with pedestrians and other vehicles is a key consideration before any new vehicle type will be allowed on Ontario roads," he said.
"Municipalities are currently able to set policies for the use of e-scooters on their sidewalks and pathways through municipal bylaws."
The city says it is watching the province for any changes to existing laws governing scooters, as well as results from a recent pilot project that was run with Lime scooters on select private roads and paths in Waterloo, Ont. The city has asked staffers to return to council with a proposed regulatory framework for scooters, cargo and e-assist cycles later this year.
The Waterloo project recently finished — and one of the reasons the company chose not to continue (aside from Lime wanting to focus on other projects in Montreal and in Calgary) is the current provincial legislation, said Rachel Martin, economic development coordinator with the City of Waterloo.
"That is the roadblock, and one of the factors into why they decided not to continue to operate an extension to the pilot project here," she said.
'It's a lot of fun to use'
Even though e-scooters are illegal on public property in Toronto, that isn't stopping some people from singing their praises.
At the offices for Jiffy, an app that helps people find contractors, employees often use a scooter to get around, said co-founder Paul Arlin.
"It's much easier than having to hop in and out of a car, find parking — it's actually usually even quicker," he said.
"It's a lot of fun to use. Part of the journey is how much fun it is."
Jiffy's offices represent peak start-up, with arcade machines, on tap komboucha and cold brew coffee, and an office dog named Denny. It seems like a natural fit for a group of people who use e-scooters to grab lunch or zip to a meeting.
Arlin said he has used e-scooters in different locales in the U.S. to great effect.
"It's a bit messy when they're just left, but if they're parked in certain zones … I think it's great, and I don't think there's much downside to it if there's appropriate parking locations," Arlin said.
But safety needs to be a focus too, said Richard Cao, CEO and founder of Roll Technologies, a new company that is based in Toronto and is about to launch an e-scooter pilot in Kelowna, B.C.
Cao says his company is trying to mitigate safety concerns by using a scooter design with bigger wheels, shock absorbers, a larger base, and speed limiting functions for new riders.
Other provinces are further ahead in the e-scooter conversation, he said — though that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"[Ontario] is definitely a little bit behind, but I think that's good thing, because we have to put more effort and more time into this evaluation," he said.
"We can't just say, 'Open the door, come and just operate.'"