Electric Scooters a Blessing and a Curse

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In 1965, when I visited Tel Aviv for the first time, it sported the newly completed Shalom Tower. The majestic skyscraper stood 34 floors high and was said to be the tallest building in Israel and the Middle East — a distinction the tower maintained until 1996 when the Azrieli complex was completed. Notably, during the last 10 years, Tel Aviv has been transformed. Today, there are dozens of skyscrapers, with more being built all the time. 

Tel Aviv went from a small city, the financial capital of Israel; to one of the world’s major technology development hubs — with over 2,000 startups and other high-tech companies residing within its municipality. In the past five years, the amount of commercial real estate in Tel Aviv has doubled, as tower-after-tower has shot up.

But there has been one problem, moving around a rapidly growing city becomes ever more difficult. In 1973, the Israeli government approved the building of a subway in Tel Aviv. Work began immediately, but was soon halted. Since then, four alternative proposals have been submitted to construct a subway, none of which ever went anywhere. Instead, work on a light rail project began five years ago — From which, all denizens of Tel Aviv have seen to date is large-scale disruption of traffic.

With nearly no mass transit solution, other than a decent bus system, (one challenged by the increasingly crowded streets), Tel Avivians began to improvise. There have always been a fair number of bicycles in the city (which is mostly flat). About five years ago, many Tel Avivians began to purchase electric bikes, as well as more exotic forms of transport, (including various electric skateboards). Three years ago, personal electric scooters began to appear as well.  None of these new forms of transport received much publicity.

All that changed in August 2018, when the scooter-sharing service, “Bird,” arrived in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was one of the first two outside the United States chosen by Bird. According to Bird Israel CEO, Yaniv Rivlin, Tel Aviv had several important characteristics, including the negative distinction of being ranked the 4th most congested city in the world. According to Rivlin, Tel Aviv is the perfect last mile city — meaning, you can get anywhere in town by Scooter. Moreover, Tel Aviv is a city of Millennials (over 40% of TLV residents are under 40). 

In typical Silicon Valley fashion (i.e., first, do and ask questions later), Bird began to operate in Tel Aviv without asking anyone’s permission. Rivlin noted: “On the first day, we put out 50 Birds [scooters]. There was immediate demand, so we put out more Birds”. Bird quickly recruited an army of chargers, to collect the scooters every evening and recharge them. Bird was quickly followed by three additional companies — Lime, Wind, and Leo. Users were thrilled, pedestrians and the city, less so.  

When the scooters initially arrived, I was a little too nervous to rent one. I even rode together with my son the first time. But after that first outing, I was hooked. It transformed my mobility. I live in central Tel Aviv and often have to go to the Jaffa Port, (a trip that either took 75 minutes on foot, or cost $14 for a cab ride, which would take between 20 — 40 minutes, depending on traffic). Suddenly, I was able to get to Jaffa in 20 minutes, consistently, at a cost of a little under $5.

There was, however, a predicament, users were leaving shared scooters EVERYWHERE — blocking sidewalks, entrances to buildings, wherever they fancied. In addition, pedestrians complained that they were regularly being hit by speeding scooters. 

The city had a dilemma. On one hand, the shared scooters caused a certain amount of chaos, on the other hand, as Deputy Mayor for Transportation Meital Lahavi said: “The arrival of the shared scooters corresponded with two of the city’s goals— First, to eliminate ownership of means of private transportation. Accordingly, the city had been supporting in several [vehicle sharing] initiatives. Second, where ever possible, to move the city away from four-wheel vehicles toward two-wheel ones.” 

Nevertheless, despite all the definitive benefits scooters provide, the city still had to identify strategies to contend with the chaos they generate. So, the city instructed companies operating shared scooters that they would have to meet several conditions going forward. According to Lahavi, the scooter companies were required to: “serve all parts of the city, give the city data so it could plan better, and institute safety programs.” Lahavi went on, one month later, it would be no longer acceptable to park scooters randomly on the side of sidewalks, scooter parking would only be permitted in designated parking areas. Three scooter companies agreed to the city’s terms: Bird, Lime, and Wind. And the city’s plan worked!  Thanks to the technology incorporated into the scooters, companies were able to force users to park almost exclusively in authorized zones.

Users continue to love using shared scooters, as Dan, a high-tech worker from Herzliya (originally from New Jersey) affirmed: “I find the scooters incredibly convenient. I own my own scooter, but when I am going places where it’s not convenient to leave my scooter, I rent a shared scooter. It’s the best way to get around the city.”

The relative success of the shared scooters in Tel Aviv has not been cost-free. As more and more people began to ride, more and more reports of injuries caused by electric vehicles (they did not break out scooters, electric bikes, and other electric vehicles) emerged from the city’s Ichilov Hospital. So much so, that “The Marker” (a respected economic newspaper) ran a daily count of casualties caused by these vehicles. As Dr. Yigal Yachini, a senior internist at Ichilov Hospital asserted: “It took me a while to convince my grown children never to ride the scooters. They are dangerous.” Yachini went on to say that the number of injuries seems to keep growing.

The city has responded to the outcry over injuries by working with the police to enforce the law requiring people on electric vehicles to wear helmets. Furthermore, TLV has now become the first city in the world to demand scooter-share companies provide helmets for all riders. That regulation is scheduled to go into effect June 15, 2020. However, the scooter companies have yet to find a way to implement the requirement.

Today, there are close to 8,000 shared scooters in Tel Aviv, which according to the city, average 24,000 rides per day. The problem of injuries is real, but most of the more serious ones occur when scooters and other electric vehicles ride in the street with cars and trucks. The city’s attempt to enforce the laws against riding on sidewalks — except where there are delineated bikes lanes — has forced many riders into the streets and traffic. 

The city has many bike paths, but was no doubt caught by surprise by the rapid growth of the scooter enterprise. Now they are playing catch up, allocating NIS 30 million this year to build new bike lanes. Sadly, until enough new lanes can be earmarked to separate two-wheel vehicles from the four-wheels, the accident toll will continue to grow. It seems scooters are here in Tel Aviv to stay, but they will only continue to succeed with the proper private-public partnerships.

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