STEVE SPELLMAN: Electric scooter wars — maybe everybody can win

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Columnist Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on 89.5 FM KOPN at 5 p.m. every Tuesday.

As local transportation options in Columbia expand and contract, opinions vary.

All of a sudden, motorized Bird scooters showed up in various corners of town — downtown, at local parks, outside Schnucks, all over campus.

Public officials are bent out of shape that an online app company places the electric scooters wherever they strategically decide people might want to start a journey.

Officials say the company didn’t notify them it was “coming” to town and didn’t get a business license from the city. The devices are not docked in preapproved stations but left instead wherever a rider sets a scooter down after a jaunt.

Officials say these scooters interfere with foot traffic, are a hazard to pedestrians and block doorways, which inhibits the disabled.

But people need to travel places. They want to travel places. If people want to do so with a nonpolluting, electric-motored device, I think that is great. It is amazing that an organization provides people in our community with electric scooters that can be accessed for a couple of bucks at a moment’s notice for a journey via a mobile app.

The company did not ask permission, but neither did it ask for a public subsidy to create jobs for people to charge up the scooters and relocate them for the next potential rider. We should embrace this innovative service.

If public officials are caught off guard, maybe we should instead lament the lack of vision by not proactively passing laws and regulations for such commercial interactions.

It’s not like Columbia is the first place in the world to encounter a Bird-type scooter rental service.

When Uber became available here a few years ago, it was already operating in many cities and negotiating with Kansas City and St. Louis. Lacking a legal framework from our state capital, however, cities were left to come up with ad hoc restrictions, sometimes yielding to the local taxi lobby. State legislation finally arrived after the fact.

San Francisco, Milwaukee, Kansas City and other cities have dealt with electric scooters for several months now — learning about both the benefits to users and the occasional rider who races recklessly down the sidewalks. Terrorizing pedestrians is not cool.

In fact, I was taking an afternoon stroll last week along Broadway near Ninth Street when I witnessed a Bird scooter blaze down the sidewalk past me where a shopkeeper was busy sweeping the sidewalk in front of his establishment.

The flustered worker looked around then over at me, with my surely raised eyebrows, and remarked: “Those damn things! If I would have seen him coming, I would have stuck this broom right up his ... !”

Apparently, the dude on the scooter didn’t know or care about being a considerate citizen or about the posted prohibition about riding bikes on the sidewalk.

City parks leaders are using the advent of scooters as a teachable moment to let folks know you can’t ride motorized vehicles on local trails. As a frequent trail user, I can attest that fast conventional bikes and electric-assist bikes are already a growing issue. More personal electric transportation devices are bound to show up on traditional hike and bike paths.

Few may realize it, but the trail has a posted speed limit of 15 mph, which is frequently violated. The city ordinance against riding a bike on downtown sidewalks is posted on the pavement in numerous downtown spots. Still, people continue to ride bikes on the sidewalks downtown out of ignorance or arrogance ... or both.

It’s not likely that I or you, dear reader, would dream of blasting by an unsuspecting person on the sidewalk. Maybe our mothers taught us proper manners. Maybe institutions have taught us civil behavior. Or maybe the threat of a fine or jail time is a motivation.

Our state government needs forward-looking laws that provide a framework for regulating or taxing future innovations. Localities need to know what they can and can’t do to tweak local ordinances related to ride-sharing, scooter-sharing, house-sharing or the next sharing application coming down the pike. Drone policy, for instance, is also lagging.

This surely seems more productive than a lot of the business the General Assembly wastes its time on.

Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on 89.5 KOPN at 5 p.m. every Tuesday.

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