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Ottawa has embraced e-scooters with new restrictions and technology. Is it time for Toronto to give them a try?
April 26, 2022

For some, they’re fast, convenient and fun to ride. Others see these vogue electric vehicles as a threat to public safety.

Over the past decade, e-scooters have proliferated across urban centres, but not without controversy, and not in Toronto.

However, as new technology and stricter regulations are rolled out in e-scooter programs in Ottawa and Brampton to address safety concerns, is it time for Toronto to reconsider allowing them on city streets?

In 2019, Ontario introduced a five-year e-scooter program, which would permit municipalities to pass bylaws allowing e-scooters -- two-wheeled, standup scooters propelled by a small electric motor -- to operate on local roads. Ottawa and Windsor joined other Canadian cities, including Calgary and Edmonton, in unveiling an e-scooter pilot project.

But in Toronto, councillors voted to opt out of the province’s program in 2021 and upheld the city’s ban on the controversial vehicles, following a bitter debate that pitted disability and accessibility advocates against e-scooter companies -- the latter group sending more than 1,200 lobbying communications to politicians and bureaucrats at Toronto city hall in 2020.

City staff cited numerous safety and accessibility concerns, including unsafe riding on sidewalks and improperly parked e-scooters becoming tripping hazards.

Though a 2021 survey by Nanos found 70 per cent of Torontonians supported a shared e-scooter pilot program, which would allow residents to rent a vehicle for a fee for use within city limits (much like the city’s Bike Share System), city councillors ultimately followed staff recommendations and unanimously opposed the pilot program.

The case was seemingly closed.

But the debate surrounding the legalization of e-scooters on GTA streets was reopened earlier this year when Brampton city councillors approved a proposal for a two-year pilot program that would see between 250 to 500 e-scooters on city streets.

And in March, Ottawa’s city council approved the third year of its popular shared e-scooter pilot. In 2021, residents could rent one of 1,200 scooters through three e-scooter vendors. The two-wheeled vehicles, which are dockless, can be operated on city roads and are meant to be parked upright on “sidewalk furniture zones, the area closest to the curb in line with trees, benches and bike racks and out of the way of pedestrian travel.”

“A lot of people really do love these scooters and we get emails all the time,” said Ottawa Councillor Tim Tierney, a champion of the program and the chair of Ottawa city council’s transportation committee.

He says the program has reduced emissions in the city and boosted business at local establishments by making it easier for residents to make short trips throughout the city.

Both Brampton and Ottawa introduced measures to address the safety concerns, particularly those from the disabled community. In Brampton, e-scooters are banned from sidewalks and vehicles are equipped with geofencing technology, which will reduce vehicle speeds to 15 km/h when riders are in marked parks, high-pedestrian areas and paths.

Ottawa went further, mandating geofencing technology on e-scooters that would halt vehicles if they were driven on sidewalks. Companies will also only have a 15-minute window to rectify misparked vehicles, lest the scooters are impounded and operators slapped with a $75 fine.

E-scooter vendors that do not comply with city regulations are given the boot, Tierney told the Star, noting the city’s strict regulations have helped Ottawa avoid the chaos other cities faced when rolling out similar e-scooter programs.

In cities such as Salt Lake City and San Francisco, the new technology was largely unregulated and seemingly appeared unannounced. What followed -- e-scooters strewn on sidewalks and reckless riders ramming into pedestrians -- led some to label the vehicles as the new “two-wheeled terrors.”

“I’ve seen those pictures (of e-scooters littering sidewalks),” said Tierney. “Our Hunger Games-style with companies works … and people are starting to realize it’s not as menacing as previously thought.”

So, could a similar program work in Toronto?

Transit experts such as Matti Siemiatycki, a professor at the University of Toronto, aren’t convinced. Though Canadian cities have generally been “much more cautious and deliberate” in the rollout of e-scooter programs, Siemiatycki says the technology is still new and there are still some unanswered questions.

“With geofencing, as with every technological step, there are still questions about how well it is going to work. Do they slow down in places where it might be dangerous? It’s supposed to be sensitive to where it shuts off the engine or slows down the vehicle, but it still remains to be proven out that it works in practice,” he said.

“And picking up misparked e-scooters within 15 minutes doesn’t really help if someone trips over it after five minutes.”

Minette Samaroo, president of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians’ chapter in Toronto, says she wishes e-scooters and the new geofencing technology were tested on a small scale, in a more enclosed environment -- not in a large city such as Ottawa or Toronto.

“This technology was not available (in Ottawa) three months ago. All of a sudden, it’s available now. How do we know how safe it is?” she said.

“It’s like a prototype that’s been tested out and using the people of Ottawa. They deserve better.”