While personal e-scooters have been seen on Ontario roads for years now, as of January 2020, e-scooters are now explicitly permitted under provincial law (up to 24 km/hour), under a new pilot project. Now it’s up to Ontario municipalities to decide if and how they want to allow the operation of e-scooter micromobility companies on their streets.
Thanks to their providing relatively low-cost, low-carbon, local transportation, e-scooter rentals are ballooning in other North American cities. McKinsey estimates the American micromobility market could be worth $300 billion by 2030. It’s no surprise the City of Toronto’s lobbyist registrar has recorded a lot of activity in the past year from hopeful e-scooter companies vying to reach the local market.
It seems likely that we’ll be seeing e-scooter rentals available sooner rather than later. But how can Toronto implement guiding policies wisely, and avoid the soaring injuries and scourge of “scooter litter” that have vexed cities in the US since scooters were introduced? And given the challenges of navigating e-scooters on real city streets, not to mention mixing with other modes in contested road space, can e-scooters live up to their promise of easy-breezy, go-anywhere transportation?
Scooty Mobility Inc. is a new company in incubation at Ryerson’s DMZ. Scooty’s aim is to provide urban Ontarians with more choice in their personal transit options, by introducing e-scooters to Ontario streets in close collaboration with municipalities. We chatted with Scooty’s Founder Shoaib Ahmed (Co-Founder of the Ryerson Leadership Lab) and Transportation Advisor Moaz Ahmad, to ask these questions, and discover why they believe e-scooters are an essential part of the GTHA’s transportation mix.
Tell us a little about Scooty.
Shoaib: Scooty is an e-scooter service that we would like to bring to the province of Ontario. And we’re working on various models for how to execute that, through various partnerships and in communities that are interested in working with us to get this off the ground. Our motto is “safety, partnerships and courtesy.”
What are the main advantages of travelling by e-scooter?
Shoaib: We’ve talked to people about whether they’d choose a bicycle or a scooter [for certain trips] and the answers have been mixed. Those who’ve chosen the scooter say, “I don’t want to sweat,” or, “I don’t want to be tired when I arrive at my meetings or classes.” Also, from a financial standpoint, I’m not spending money on gas, on insurance, or adding wear and tear to my vehicle.
Moaz: One of the nice things about the scooter, and micromobility in general, is the consistency it gives you [in terms of timing of trips]. …. If you’re driving, there’s so much inconsistency because you don’t know what traffic is like, what congestion there is…and you don’t know what the parking situation is going to be at your destination. People will say, “I’m going to take five minutes to drive there,” but then you’re going to add 10 minutes to find parking, make sure your car is locked and all of that…when people are driving they don’t often factor that time in. For the time you’ve spent finding parking, you could have made that trip by scooter.
In many cities, scooter trips are short. Is this how scooters will be used here?
Shoaib: Since last summer, on my scooter I’ve done close to 300 kilometres on short trips.
I live in Mississauga. If I’m running errands, or if I’m picking up groceries, going to pick up my mail, or visiting someone, within my five kilometre radius of where I live, I ride the scooter now. I don’t take the car. I don’t wait for the bus. I just jump on the scooter. There’s a Loblaws close to my house–I take my backpack with me, and I just store stuff from the grocery store, and I come back home. Sometimes I’ll pick up packages from the Canada Post depot; I’ll throw those in my bag and come back to the house.
And in terms of my commute, I used to take my car from my house to my GO station. Since I bought my scooter last year, I haven’t taken a car to the GO Station.
You seem to be proposing Scooty as a first/last mile solution.
Shoaib: Yes, absolutely. And each city has their first and last mile challenges, so we take a consultative approach to find out where those are. For example, 62% of GO transit users arrive at GO stations by personal cars, and parking is at or near capacity at 85% of GO stations.* We say to a city, “here’s what we think are your first and last mile pain points. Let us qualify that. Help us to calibrate the answer. Tell us what your issues are, what your concerns are.”
Moaz: For a lot of scooter companies, the market would be just downtown Toronto [for profitability reasons]. But if we look at the overall regional economics, and ask, “how do we get fewer people driving,” which has environmental, financial and social benefits…how do we encourage that? So we’re saying, why not Toronto, Hamilton, Mississauga, Brampton, York Region and all communities connected to transit?
Some cities had such a negative experience with e-scooters that they ended up banning them, at least temporarily, like San Francisco and Denver. What can we learn from other municipalities when it comes to effective implementation?
Shoaib: Scooty holds Safety as our most important core value. For starters, Scooty strongly advocates for the municipalities to not allow scooters on sidewalks. Sidewalks are for pedestrians, they’re not for scooters or for people on bicycles. And now, Ontario’s regulations require that there needs to be a red light on the back of the scooter and a white light on the front of the scooter. And a bell.
The early business models for scooters created problems for cities, because the scooters came before the cities had time to plan and prepare. So it’s more of a “surprise, we’re here, deal with it” kind of thing.
We’re telling cities, “don’t just give company X, Y or Z 1,000 scooters, just to have them dump them on the city. It’s got to be a gradual increase.” People in cars have to get used to having people on scooters on the road. So if right away you dump thousands of scooters on the streets, you’re going to [upset people], and people are going to get hurt.
Moaz: And [a non-gradual approach would] preclude any plans to fit in with transit, or work with BIAs and say, “how do we get people to come to your area, and not have to think about parking?,” for example. Because active transport users spend more time and money locally, supporting local businesses.
A lot of cities are figuring out how [scooters] fit in with their policies, or if they have to write new policies or make changes to existing policies. And they don’t necessarily have all the information they need about the industry developments and best practices, so we’ve been sharing our research. …. [We’re talking to cities about] Smart Cities, and how we can share [data from our scooters], so that they might use it in planning and maintenance.
You mentioned you’re talking with multiple potential partners.
Shoaib: From the start, we’ve been thinking about how to let other [government agencies, departments] use this product, and not focus on average consumers only.
Moaz: One of the partnerships that we’re looking into is to talk to police agencies–OPP, Peel Region and Toronto police–to talk about how e-scooters will be part of the mobility mix; how they should be ridden and not ridden; where it’s appropriate to store them. There are some cities in the US where they’ve put police on e-scooters, and they’re actually paying for the service through a surcharge on the users’ fees. And because police are part of that mix [of riders], it’s encouraging better behaviour from people riding scooters. It’s also cheaper than the personal transporters and the bikes that police are using right now.
With decarbonization a massive priority, what’s your vision for how scooters fit in?
Moaz: We talked about e-scooters for short trips…this leads us to the environmental benefit. Cars that are driven “cold”–i.e. starting with a cold engine, for short trips of two to five kilometres–are producing the most greenhouse gases per kilometre of a trip. It’s not very efficient. Looking for parking spaces, circling around the block, is also part of the equation. If you could take that trip and displace it with a scooter, just think of what that could do for the city, what that could do for the environment.
Replacing car trips is how scooters are going to make the biggest difference. In Calgary, when they did their pilot, they had 750,000 trips on e-scooters, and 168,000 trips on bikes. And what they found was those trips, they replaced about 250,000 were car trips. If you can imagine–that was on a three month basis–what we could do in Toronto over a year or six months…we could replace a million trips!
What’s next for Scooty?
Shoaib: We’re ready to go when cities are ready–and we’re currently working on securing a pilot. The first steps in becoming operational are to decide on geofencing, and we would also have to understand how a city would like people to park the scooters. Is it going to be curbside drop-off, or will there be designated spots…that’s a decision to make as well.
Moaz: The next stage of the conversation we’re having is going to be exciting. Because if this takes off as we think it’s going to, we’re going to hear people saying, “why are we making space for cars…why aren’t we taking our roads and making them more efficient?” … Since about eight scooters can be docked in a fixed dock + charging station that would fit inside a standard car parking space, developers and landowners can start asking the question, “what can we do with this space that we currently dedicate to parking?” …. That’s when we start talking about the big picture, which is unpacking [our assumptions about cars] and remaking our city.
* According to the 2016 GO Rail Station Access plan
Scooty’s mission is “to provide micro mobility services as a means of alternate transportation for urban travellers that is convenient, affordable, fun and emission free.” This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.