Editorial: City should slow down on proposed scooter program

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

The idea of a new electric scooter program in downtown Lawrence feels a bit like an eighth-grade mohawk. You remember those junior high days where you felt obligated to wear a particular type of clothing or sport a certain kind of hairstyle or listen to a special brand of music to be cool.

Maybe cities also go through that awkward stage of trying to be cool.

It seems like elements of that thinking are in play as the city considers allowing electric scooters in the downtown area. The scooters are a popular trend in many larger cities that are getting good buzz about being hip and friendly to a new type of urban culture.

There is nothing wrong with Lawrence wanting to be a part of that crowd. You can make an argument that Lawrence’s vision perhaps should be to become the most urban community in Kansas. It is a lifestyle many people are looking for.

But just as we should before taking the electric razor to our scalp, we should be practical for a moment. Downtown Lawrence leaders have raised some valid concerns about an electric scooter program, particularly one that would allow the devices on Massachusetts Street.

Massachusetts Street sidewalks don’t seem well-suited for the scooters, and it would seem a bit disingenuous if commissioners allowed them. The city spends a lot of time talking about being pedestrian friendly. It is hard to see much that is friendly about mixing pedestrians with devices that can whiz by at 15 mph. Add that to the fact that downtown’s sidewalks already are pretty narrow in some places because of sidewalk dining, sandwich boards and other such objects, and the idea becomes even more unappealing. It is pretty easy to envision collisions with pedestrians and scooter handles going through storefront windows.

City commissioners should be clearer than they have been that the scooters would not be allowed on Massachusetts Street sidewalks. Companies interested in bringing scooters to Lawrence should know that early on. It should be a fairly easy decision for commissioners. Skateboards already are banned on Massachusetts Street sidewalks. To allow scooters but not boards would be borderline discriminatory. To allow one and not the other would create legitimate questions of whether the city is concerned about safety or simply is picking and choosing which types of cultures it wants on its sidewalks.

Whether to allow scooters on city streets is another question. The community is fine with bicycles on streets, so perhaps scooters are not that different. Maybe there are some visibility differences, but they may not be insurmountable. Still, it would be wise to pause and consider what the city is trying to accomplish.

If the scooters mainly are about entertainment and “creating an experience,” then keep them off the streets. If they are meant to be another means of transportation in the community, then let’s consider it. However, such consideration should include the question of what unmet need are we looking for scooters to fill. As a reminder, the city has implemented a bike program. Does that bike program not fill the same needs as a scooter program?

None of this is to say the city should dismiss the scooter program out of hand. It could be particularly interesting if the city used this as an opportunity to study ways to better connect the KU campus and downtown. The city has spent considerable money in the past years to build an enhanced sidewalk between the campus and South Park. Figuring out a system that could better use that path could be very productive.

Maybe that is the place for scooter experimentation. We could think of it like that classic eighth-grade compromise: a mullet instead of a mohawk.


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