Why an image problem is slowing e-scooter rollout in Canada

Canada has been slow to adopt the trend of allowing app-activated, dockless electric scooter rentals on its streets. But some cities are now gradually buying in — with deliberate caution.

A small Toronto neighbourhood is the latest to pilot the trendy, controversial transit gadgets

A man speeds along a downtown street atop a Lime e-scooter in Los Angeles. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Those who rent e-scooters have big plans for Canada. But at least one company is acknowledging that "if we create a mess" in cities, any expansion will prove challenging.

Canada has been slow to adopt the trend of allowing app-activated, dockless electric scooter rentals on its streets, bucking what's been playing out on city sidewalks across the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world.

Two of the main players in the industry, Bird and Lime, are already active in about 30 countries between them.

Now Canadian cities are gradually buying in.

Through a proposed pilot project, Ontario is reviewing its ban on e-scooters on public streets. And that added caution is deliberate.

Stewart Lyons, CEO of Bird Canada, is seen at the launch of the company's e-scooter trial in Toronto's Distillery District. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Bird — which currently operates in Calgary, Edmonton and now a small pocket of Toronto — says it is aware of the industry's image problem.

"We want to be across the country," Bird Canada CEO Stewart Lyons said during an interview in Toronto's Distillery District, where Bird launched a trial project this week.

"It's just not going to go very well if we create some of these issues that you've seen early on."

Nuisance of scooter dumping

The issues he is referring to — namely public nuisance and safety concerns — have clung to the industry and formed a reputation that's been hard to shake.

E-scooter companies market themselves as providing a fun, convenient and  environmentally friendly alternative to cars and public transit for rides under five kilometres. The motorized devices typically reach speeds of up to 25 km/h.

But in many cities where e-scooter companies operate, the devices have been dumped on sidewalks and street corners, causing an annoyance, if not a hazard, for pedestrians. It created the image of an industry content with quick and disorderly expansion, rather than calculated integration into existing transit plans.

Lyons acknowledged that addressing the "clutter issue" is now a priority whenever Bird moves into a new city. The solution, he says, is a combination of clear local regulations restricting where scooters may be left, educating the public about where they may be stationed, and the company's staff moving improperly parked scooters.

Circ-brand e-scooters lay on the ground at the entrance to a pedestrian area in Frankfurt, Germany. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

When Montreal allowed Lime to put its e-scooters on its streets in August, the city thought it had developed best practices ahead of time. To avoid dumping, it gave e-scooters designated parking spots and warned of fines for users leaving behind their rides haphazardly. 

But as soon as the scooters became available, Montrealers complained of the devices littering the city's sidewalks. One was even spotted at the bottom of a local canal.

Just a week after launch, the city's mayor acknowledged she was "not satisfied" with the rollout. 

Not quite 'scooter-pocalypse'

Still, "it hasn't really turned out to be the scooter-pocalypse we imagined," said Grant McKenzie, a geography professor at McGill University who specializes in spatial data science.

Montreal studied what worked — and what didn't — in U.S. jurisdictions, McKenzie said, ultimately restricting the number of scooters permitted. For now, Montreal only allows Lime to operate on its streets, renting out as many as 430 scooters. (Lime also operates in Edmonton and Calgary.)

By comparison, Washington, D.C. has handed permits to seven companies, for a total of up to 4,635 scooters available for rent within city limits.

People ride e-scooters in Washington, D.C. The city has agreements with seven different dockless e-scooter rental companies. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

Risk of injury

A Washington emergency room doctor recently said she was taken aback by the number of serious injuries related to e-scooter use.

"It's unusual to go a day without seeing a single patient who has some kind of injury," Dr. Kate Douglass, at George Washington University Hospital, told Radio-Canada.

Given the newness of e-scooter rentals, very little data is available on the exact number and causes of the injuries. But it seems they're hardly uncommon in Canada.

Rules for safe riding are listed on a sticker on a Bird e-scooter in Toronto. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

In Calgary, which has allowed e-scooters on its streets since July, nearly 350 emergency room visits have been blamed on e-scooter injuries, said Dr. Eddy Lang, head of the emergency medicine department at the University of Calgary.

"This is quite worrisome," he said.

A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Austin, Texas, found that for every 100,000 e-scooter trips, 20 riders were injured. Almost half of them sustained a head injury. Of the injured riders, one in 190 were wearing a helmet, the study found. 

A Rutgers University analysis of e-scooter injuries documented by the Consumer Product Safety Commission's national electronic injury surveillance system found the number of facial and head injuries had tripled between 2008 and 2018, climbing from 2,325 to 6,957. Two-thirds of the injured riders treated were not wearing helmets.

Lang said the riders he treats generally aren't wearing helmets but that the most common injuries he sees are to elbows and wrists, with riders falling forward from a standing position.

And riding on a street with vehicle traffic is "really quite a risky proposition," Lang said.

Scooter providers generally advise users to ride on bicycle paths. In some areas, they're explicitly told not to ride on sidewalks.

Two people are seen riding Lime e-scooters on the river pathway system in Calgary. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Observers hope the pilot projects popping up in Canadian cities will allow researchers to better understand exactly where riders use the scooters and how to do so safely.

McGill's McKenzie recently received a government grant to look into how Canadians use e-scooters and self-serve electric bicycles and how they mesh with existing public transit. "We still have to look at this data and see how Montrealers and other Canadians are actually using these systems," he said.

For now, he said the patchwork of regulations as scooters slowly roll out "causes a lot of confusion."


Thomas Daigle

Senior Reporter

Thomas is a CBC News reporter based in Toronto. In recent years, he has covered some of the biggest stories in the world, from the 2015 Paris attacks to the Tokyo Olympics and the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. He reported from the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, the Freedom Convoy protest in Ottawa and the Pope's visit to Canada aimed at reconciliation with Indigenous people.

With files from CBC's Melanie Glanz